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The Pegasus Cycle.

Book 1 : - Breath of the World.

Ranma 1/2 an all it's characters are property of Rumiko Takahashi.

The Concept for this story is my own, with some influences by other authors.

The Wheel of Time and all it's characters are property of Robert Jordan and Orbit Publications.

C&C Welcome, but please try and be constructive. strider_richards@hotmail.com

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Steepened in the darkness,

Lives a being of the Light.

And when the Dragon rears his head,

The Winged Horse shall Fight

Upon the rocky mountain-tops,

To Gaze across the sea.

Awaiting for the Dragon,

The Winged Horse runs Free.

Wild and Free he lives to fight,

With Chaos in his mane.

In the Dragon's darkest hour,

The Stone-Heart shall he tame.

- Prophecy of the Pegasus,

Lost page of the Karaetheon Cycle.

Chapter 2: To Roam

Ranma sighed loudly as he raked his fingers through his hair.

Just wonderful. He thought angrily. First time I show up to kick some ass and what happens? I get hit by water that's what. Stupid curse... His mental rants continued for several minutes until he realised it was basically futile to continue. Stupid Oyaji. He cursed one last time before sighing a second time and fishing the rabbit he had caught out of the fire. Blowing on the freshly cooked meat for a minute or two he took a tentative bite.

"ARGH!" He cried as the hot meat burnt his tongue. He juggled the hot morsel for a while in an attempt not to burn his hands before quickly setting up two small piles of stones and balancing the spitted coney between the two to cool down. He sighed again.

I'm gonna have t' stop doin' that. All this sighin' just don't sit right with me. He thought. Settling back to rest his head on his newly acquired backpack, which he had ordered a day before and had picked up earlier that morning, Ranma stared up at the stars and did something that he wasn't particularly used to doing. He was thinking.

It's a Martial Artist's duty to protect the weak, but around here they got all these armies. So what should I do? I helped out that lot o' troops yesterday 'cause they would've been slaughtered to the last man if I hadn't, but I could see that they hadn't been expecting such a big group of scumbags as there were there. I doubt it's going to happen very often. I'm not really needed here. After all, they survived without anyone like me around to help them didn't they? From what I heard in each of those towns and villages that I passed through, these kingdoms are like outposts to stop the Dark One and his scum from invading. Kinda. So...what about south? The armies can't stop everything can they? He sat up and retrieved his evening meal, chewing thoughtfully with each bite. Those who knew him would have been astounded at the slow rate of his eating, although he would have explained it as simply 'enjoying the fruits of the wild,' or in much simpler terms 'it's the only food I'm gonna get, so I want to enjoy it. Y'know?'

After finally finishing his meagre meal, Ranma came to a decision.

Seein' as I ain't gonna do much good here, aside from kicking up one helluva fuss if I use my skills, I might as well go south. Lessee... south is... He pulled out a map he had acquired in the last town he had visited and looked at it carefully. So I should be about here... so that means Andor is to the south after the black hills. Might as well go there first I guess. Might check out Cairhein after that. With his decision made, Ranma smiled slightly and pulled out his brand-new dark-blue cloak. I think it suits me. He thought as he threw a few more logs he had gathered into the fire and rolled the warm material (he had a feeling that it was an odd type of wool, but he couldn't be sure) into a bundle and stuck it underneath his head. Shifting his body until he was comfortable, Ranma closed his eyes and went to sleep, his unconscious mind manipulating his ki to keep him warm throughout the night.

Ranma yawned and stretched as he woke up, feeling all the minute kinks in his back from the hard ground.

"Nothing like being on the road." He muttered sarcastically to himself. "Ugh…I’m gonna be feeling that for a while…just great." He groaned as he finished off the leftovers from the previous night’s meal. After tidying up his equipment, Ranma hefted his pack and looked at the low sun in the early morning sky with a slight smile. "Could get used to this…" He murmured, then winced as a particularly stubborn kink refused to go away even after his repeated massages. He took a deep breath before gathering his bearings and setting off once more to the south and Caemlyn, determined to make good time.

If I use the Power all the time I’ll get too reliant on it. And then where will I be if I can’t use it? Lookin’ like a total idiot would be my guess, not to mention in a whole lot of trouble. He snorted softly as he remembered the other times he had looked like a fool.

Man am I glad to be away from all of that. I really hope I don’t see them again… He sighed as the familiar mental image of a short haired girl appeared in the air before his eyes.

No…she hates me…I know she wasn’t lying, and even if she was, I’d only make her life miserable if I stayed there. He smirked as a thought occurred to him. Heh, guess Oyaji will finally have to deal with something himself instead of running away. I wonder what mom’ll do to him when she finds out? Hope she don’t kill the fat fool. Even he doesn’t deserve something like that. Ranma frowned as his thoughts turned slightly regretful. Well there’s nothin’ I can do about it now. I can’t go back ever, so I’m stuck in this world and I ain’t gonna whine about it. Nodding to himself in affirmation of his thoughts, Ranma struck out at a faster ground-eating pace, fuelled by his vast reserves of ki as his legs pounded out a steady staccato rhythm that ate away at the miles between himself and his destination.

After two and a half hours Ranma called a halt to his journey and set about hinting for something to eat. Twenty minutes later he had gathered a fairly large supply of berries and nuts and quickly wrapped them up in a small leather pouch that he had acquired. He grinned slightly as he spotted what looked like a pheasant rooting about in the bushes.

"Lunch." He whispered softly as he crept silently forward, careful to stay downwind from the creature. He crowed in triumph as his hands flashed out and quickly snapped its neck. He held it up in front of himself and nodded appreciatively.

"HEY!" Came an outraged female cry from behind him. Inwardly he cursed.

Just my luck. He thought sourly. Sighing he turned and faced the figure that emerged from the bushes to his right, an angry expression on her face.

"What?" He asked innocently. The girl, who looked to be no older than 18 or so, glared at him as if trying to burn a hole through his skull.

"Don’t give me that! That pheasant is mine!" She shouted. Ranma looked at said bird, carefully looking it all over.

"I don’t see your name on it!" He sniped back, pointedly looking at her outstretched hand with sarcasm. The girl’s face twisted into a deeper scowl, making her (in Ranma’s private opinion) quite cute. Of course she would have been very cute were it not for the rather large bow she then pointed at Ranma’s head. Crossing his eyes to focus on the arrowhead just in front of his nose, Ranma leaned back slightly.

"Nani?" He queried, looking past it to the young woman as he quickly assessed her threat level.

Curly blonde hair fell to shoulder length around a heart-shaped face with large innocent-looking blue eyes set just above a rather cute nose and full pouty lips, which were currently twisted into a dangerous scowl. She wore a white blouse beneath a forest green hunting jacket that was tucked into a matching pair of breeches. At her hip a small quiver of arrows hung next to a large ornate hunting knife inlaid with gold and ivory, hinting at possibly a rich background. Either that or she had stolen it from someone.

Ranma flashed his best roguish grin at her in response to her implied threat.

"Are you pointing that thing at me?" He asked, his grin settling back into a more familiar condescending smirk. The girl’s cheek twitched slightly as a growl rose from her throat, making Ranma’s smirk grow slightly wider.

"You bet I am. And I’ll be doing more than pointing it if you don’t give that to me!" She threatened. Ranma quirked an eyebrow in amusement. Then he moved. The girl had barely enough time to yelp as she found her hands empty and the bow twirling around the fingers of Ranma’s right hand.

"You were saying?" He asked, his annoying smirk powered up to full force. The girl decided a change of tactics was in order.

"Please? I haven’t eaten for days!" She pleaded, making her lower lip tremble slightly as her eyes widened dramatically. Ranma began to sweat, his smirk turning into a sickly smile.

"Please?" She repeated, batting her eyes for effect. Ranma swallowed slightly and tugged at the neck of his armour.

"Ah…well y’see this is my lunch as well and err… " He swallowed and tried to moisten his dry mouth. Finally he sighed and spoke again. "Look…I ain’t gonna give this to ya. I caught it, so it’s mine. But you can have some of it if you want." He finished. The girl’s pleading expression abruptly returned to an annoyed frown.

"Oh very well." She muttered. Ranma thought he heard the rumble of thunder somewhere in the distance and tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the nagging feeling that he had just made a rather large mistake.

Fifteen minutes later the pair sat on opposite sides of the small fire that Ranma had set up, using only a tiny spark of ki to ignite the flames on the slightly moist wood before he quickly plucked the feathers off of the bird and set them in a tidy pile to the side to be disposed of later. The girl stared at him as his hands blurred, her surprised gaze turning to one of fear after a few moments.

"Y-you can c-channel?" She stammered her eyes wide with fear. Ranma looked up from his task with a querying expression before he realised what she was talking about. His eyes widened slightly as he remembered what was done to men who were found to be able to channel.

"Wha? Oh! No! No! I can’t do that." He lied. Finding that, to his relief, it actually sounded believable. The girl looked doubtful. "Really! It’s just speed training that I went through with my old man." He explained. After that the girl looked slightly mollified, if rather wary of him. Ranma sighed and rolled his eyes to the heavens dramatically. He had a feeling this was going to be a continuous theme throughout his stay.

"So…" the girl started out, "what is your name?" She asked. Ranma looked up and smiled slightly.

"Ranma. Ranma Saotome. Heir to the Saotome school of Anything-Goes Martial Arts." He stated. The girl blinked in non-comprehension.

"Martial Arts? What type of art is that?" She asked. Ranma grunted at the lack of knowledge in hand-to-hand techniques. Even though he had a sword, he still preferred his unarmed style.

"Martial Arts is unarmed fighting styles. There are quite a few that I know of, but you wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I listed them all. So, now you know who I am, who are you?" he casually flicked the innards of the bird onto a leaf he had taken from a nearby tree to use for later. The girl looked slightly green at his casual attitude, but shrugged it off quickly.

"My name? My name is err… Kara! Kara Fenning!" She answered, a fake smile plastered on her face.

Geez…this girl is a worse liar than I am! Ranma thought as he looked at her carefully. She had broken out into a nervous sweat and was beginning to fidget under his scrutiny before he finally decided to let it pass.

Hey, if she doesn’t want me to know who she really is it don’t matter to me! He thought simply.

"So Kara, where are you headed?" He asked as he spitted the bird and sprinkled on a few herbs he had gathered, knowledge imparted from his training trip with Torlan. Placing it over the fire on the small set-up he had put together he looked at her for an answer.

"Where am I going? Um…what about you? Where are you going?" She evaded lamely. Ranma rolled his eyes.

"I’m going to Caemlyn." He answered simply. "And you didn’t answer my question."

"What a coincidence! I’m going there as well!" She said, a nervous smile on her lips. Ranma scowled at her.

"Gee…isn’t that funny?" He said sarcastically. "Maybe we’ll see each other when we get there." He finished. Kara looked faintly panicked.

"Well…why don’t we travel together?" She asked, a pleading look in her eyes. Ranma pursed his lips.

"Got a horse?" He asked. Kara nodded with a smile.

"Yes, not too far away." She replied. Ranma nodded and checked the meat.

"Go get it. You’ll need it to keep up with me." The blonde looked slightly confused for a moment.

"But…" she started, "I don’t see a horse anywhere around here!" She exclaimed. Ranma turned a flat look her way.

"Remember what I did a few minutes ago with my hands?" Seeing her nod, he pressed onward. "Imagine how fast I can run then. And for how long." He added. Kara merely looked slightly fearful at the implications, but nodded anyway and took off at a run to find her horse and other supplies.

A few minutes later she was back in time to receive a third of the pheasant and approximately half of the nuts and berries Ranma had gathered. Settling down to munch on his food, Ranma noticed that Kara was daintily nibbling on the meat. He rolled his eyes in exasperation and continued to munch on his own portion. As soon as he was finished, he began to pack up his equipment into his backpack ready for travel. Tying the flap down to protect the contents he peered over his shoulder to gauge Kara’s progress. He gave a low growl when he noticed she wasn’t even half finished and crossed over to her.

"Are you gonna sit there all day mincing about with that or are you actually gonna eat it?" He asked. "If you don’t hurry up I’m going. With or without you." He stated firmly. Kara’s eyes widened slightly and she began to hastily eat the pheasant, this time not caring if the juices were smeared on her hands and face. Within a few minutes she was finished and popping the berries that she had been given into her mouth, giving a soft sigh of contentment. Ranma smirked at her and handed over a small piece of cloth.

"Here. Wipe the juice off with that. Then we’re going." The blonde nodded and quickly cleaned herself off, looking mildly disgusted at the rather grimy state of the cloth she had been handed.

After handing the cloth back to Ranma, she quickly climbed atop her horse, a black stallion, and looked down at him.

"So how are you going to keep up anyway?" She asked, looking puzzled. Ranma gave a condescending smirk as he looked up at her.

"I said you’d have to keep up with me. This horse any good?" He added as an afterthought. Kara nodded, a proud smile adorning her face.

"The best!" She exclaimed. Ranma nodded to himself and looked about to get his bearings.

"OK then. Let’s go!" He hefted his pack to get comfortable and took of in a southerly direction. Kara gaped at his retreating figure for a moment before putting her heels to the stallion’s flanks and spurring him forward to catch up with the jogging martial artist. The fact he was jogging at nearly 25 mph wasn’t lost on her, nor was the fact that he didn’t seem winded at all, rather he was breathing normally. Kara looked down at her most prized possession and wondered whether he was up to such a colossal run. Somehow she didn’t think so.

"Ranma!" She called out as she drew level to the jogging teen.

"Hmm? What is it?" he asked, turning his head to the left so he could look at her.

"If you keep up this pace Silver won’t be able to keep up for long! He’s almost running flat out!" She cried. Ranma looked annoyed at the statement, but reluctantly nodded and reduced his speed so that the stallion only had to trot to keep up. Although the going was slower, the pace still ate up the miles at a rapid pace.

At midday, Ranma called a halt and dug in his pack for a few minutes. Soon he came up with a few strips of dried and salted beef he had obtained the day before.

"Hey! If you had that before, why’d you have to take my pheasant?" Kara asked angrily. Ranma merely handed her a strip and settled down against a rock to chew on his own strip, careful to avoid too much contact with the frozen water.

"Because this stuff ain’t good for you all the time. You need proper food to go with it, otherwise you get sick." He answered evenly between chews.

"Oh." Kara muttered lamely as she tethered Silver to a stake she had taken from the saddlebags. The black stallion snorted and began to paw at the snow-covered ground in an attempt to get at any remaining grass.

After another half an hour the pair started off again at the same pace, Ranma to the right jogging easily through the snow and Kara mounted on Silver to the left as they trotted steadily southwards.

The journey continued in this manner for several hours, Ranma calling a halt every three hours to give Silver a chance to rest and recuperate from the exhaustive run, although he insisted that he had no real need to do so himself.

As dusk started to fall, Ranma called a halt and left to gather firewood, leaving Kara to dismount and take care of whatever she deemed necessary. Quickly she cleared a rough circle in the shallow snow and located some stones to make a small fire-pit so that Ranma wouldn’t have to do so when he got back. After completing her simple task she got up and began to groom Silver, carefully wiping the foamy sweat off of his flanks and combing the knots out of his mane.

"He’s a good horse." Came a voice from her left. With a startled cry, Kara leapt away and drew her dagger in a swift movement, only to be faced with the maddening smirk that proclaimed Ranma’s presence.

"Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to scare ya." He apologised, patting the stallion on the back good-naturedly. Silver snorted softly and nudged Ranma with the side of his head. Ranma laughed softly as he was knocked slightly off balance by the action but stroked the horse on the nose anyway, much to the black stallion’s delight. Kara merely stared in surprise at the scene.

"He’s never done that before. He normally doesn’t like strangers!" She said as she approached. Ranma shrugged off handily and gave a lopsided grin.

"Hey, I can’t help it if I’m irresistible!" He stated honestly. Kara’s eye twitched slightly as she turned and patted Silver affectionately on the nose. "Hey I mean I’m handsome and good at martial arts! What more could you ask for?" He continued blithely. Kara grit her teeth slightly.

"How about some humility?" She muttered. Ranma grinned at her cockily.

"Nah. Don’t need that. I know I’m the best, so why should I act all humble ‘n’ stuff?" He asked, a quizzical expression on his face. Kara merely rolled her eyes and returned to grooming Silver in an attempt to ignore the pig-tailed boy. Ranma grinned and went over to the prepared fire-pit and placed some of the wood he had gathered in a pyramid arrangement. Checking to see that Kara wasn’t looking, Ranma fired off a tiny bolt of ki into the centre of the pile, instantly drying most of the wood and lighting the innermost twigs and branches enough to light the whole fire.

"How do you do that?" Kara asked as she approached and sat on a blanket that she rolled up to make a temporary seat. Ranma looked up at the blonde teenager curiously, hoping that she hadn’t seen him utilise his ki.

"Do what?" He replied.

"Start a fire when all the wood should be sopping wet. This wood doesn’t even look like it’s damp!" She exclaimed, gesturing to the fire between them for emphasis. Ranma shrugged.

"Just look in the right places I guess. It’s a talent." He explained. Kara looked somewhat doubtful, but nodded and looked into the fire absently. Ranma popped a few joints and stood up.

"Well, I’m going to get us some food. Keep an eye out. So you’d better have that bow of yours handy. You never know what could happen." Kara nodded and got up to unsling the bow from Silver’s saddlebags as Ranma walked out of the clearing into the trees before sitting down again and staring into the fire, absently twirling an arrow between her fingers.

Ranma spread his senses out to try and locate anything that was worthy of hunting for food, but to his disappointment and hunger, he only found a pair of pigeons roosting in a nearby tree. Sighing internally at the frugal meal at best that they would provide, Ranma crept forward in perfect silence until he stood at the base of the tree that the pigeons were roosting in. With merely a swish of moving air, he leapt up to the branch the two birds were perched upon and grasped them by the necks. Quickly killing the two birds he moved back to the campsite to prepare dinner, grumbling about the cold and the meagre food supply.

Upon entering the clearing Ranma received a rather surprising greeting shaped in the form of a snowball to the face. Dropping the pigeons in shock, Ranma flailed her arms in surprise as the melting water triggered her curse and obscured her vision. Wiping the water from her eyes the redhead glared at Kara.

"What’d ya do that for!?" She shouted angrily. Kara’s smile abruptly fled at the sight of the pig-tailed girl, and with a cry of horror she scrambled backwards, tripping on the bundle of blankets behind her and landing heavily on her rump as she scrambled to get away. Ranma frowned in confusion as she pondered over her companion’s strange behaviour. Suddenly she remembered the reason.

"Aw crud!" She muttered as she strode over to the horrified girl.

"Get away from me! Get away whatever you are!" Kara shrieked as she swung the bow she held at Ranma’s head, who caught it in one hand. Ranma sighed as Kara tried to retreat again, shrieking half-hearted threats as she managed to get to her feet and race to the opposite side of Silver. Ranma looked at the stallion, who returned the look with one that said ‘don’t look at me, I’m just a horse.’

Ranma took a deep breath and stopped trying to get closer to Kara as it seemed to make her even more frightened.

"Look calm down will ya?" Ranma cried, a cute frown creasing her brow. Kara stopped shouting and settled for a frightened look directed at the cursed martial artist. Scrubbing a hand through her slightly wet red bangs, Ranma tried to explain. "Look, I’m still Ranma OK? It’s just a stupid curse I got. Every time I get hit with cold water, or in this case snow, I turn into a girl OK? So just stop acting like I’m some sorta trolloc or somethin’. Geez!" she cried, throwing her hands up in exasperation. Kara’s frightened look turned into a wary one.

"Curse?" She asked. Ranma nodded and proceeded to pull a small pan out of her backpack and fill it with some snow. Casting about for some sticks she managed to locate the ones she desired and jammed them into the ground. Placing the pot on a pole of metal by the handle that she balanced atop the v-shaped heads of the sticks, Ranma sat down and gestured opposite. Kara remained stationary. Muttering under her breath, Ranma stood up again and glared at the older blonde, who flinched slightly.

"Look. If I wanted to I could’ve done anything I wanted to ya all right? I didn’t, so stop being so flamin’ scared and sit down so I can explain!" She growled before sitting down again and waiting for the water to boil. After Kara inched her way around Silver and to the other side of the fire, Ranma decided to explain.

"Y’see, when I was younger, my pop took me on a training trip around the country where I used to live so that I could be the best martial artist of my generation. He took me to loads of different places and got me taught by loads of different people. Then when I was 16 we went to a place called Jusyenko, the ‘pools of sorrow,’ and never was any place more deserving of that name. There are about 100 pools littering the valley you see, each one with a bamboo pole stickin’ out of it. Didn’t look so bad I thought to myself, must’ve been used for balance practice or somethin’. So me an’ pops jump onto these poles above the springs and after a bit o’ sparring I managed to whack ‘im one into one of the pools. Now the guide that was there was babbling away something that I wasn’t really listening to, when all of a sudden this huge great panda jumps out of the spring where my old man fell into. Then I hear the guide say that anything that falls into the springs takes on the body of whatever last drowned there. Pop fell in the spring of drowned panda. I was so surprised that I didn’t see pops until it was too late, and then I found myself falling into a spring. When I finally clambered back out again, the guide was saying something about me falling into the spring of drowned girl. Then I looked down an’ saw these," the redhead gestured to her chest where the armour moulded snugly to a pair of pert breasts. "At that point I freaked and beat the hell out of the stupid panda, and when I calmed down the guide told us that the curses could be reversed temporarily with hot water, but that cold water would activate them again." Ranma peered into the pot to see the water steam slightly and putting a finger in, tested the heat. Nodding once, she removed it and dumped half onto her head, reversing the curse and changing back into his original form.

He looked over at Kara with a slightly sad expression on his face.

"Now do you believe me?" He asked. Kara nodded, a faintly stunned expression on her face before she snapped back to reality.

"So…" she started, but trailed off as Ranma retrieved the pigeons and began to pluck them, his arms blurring just below the elbow as a small pile of feathers accumulated to the side. When he was finished he looked at her expectantly.

"So what?" He asked as he cocked his head inquisitively. Kara smothered a smile at how unbelievably cute it made him look.

"Umm… so why did your father take you to such a place?" she asked. Ranma snorted as he began to gut the two birds and toss the entrails onto a small pile next to the feathers.

"Jusyenko was in China, but the old man couldn’t read a word of Chinese. Pretty dumb if you ask me. And he’s done much stupider things, believe me." He finished venomously. Placing the liver, kidneys and heart in the water along with the pigeons he ground up a few leaves from a small pouch at his waist and dropped them in the water to add some flavouring. At the same time he added a few dry vegetables into the mix to make a haphazard stew to share between them.

"So…what other kinds of things has he done?" Kara ventured, unsure of how to proceed. Ranma looked at her with a slight smile.

"That is a long story." He said. Kara rolled her eyes.

"Are we going anywhere at the moment?" She asked. Ranma gave his usual grin and nodded.

"All right. When I was five…"

For the next three hours Ranma told of all the insane training ideas his father came up with. Including the neko-ken, which horrified Kara that such a thing could be done to a child, all of the fiancee problems that his father had created by bartering him away for food. All the enemies that he had accumulated over his fairly short lifetime, all of which added up until he could take no more and fled. Ranma of course left out the important facts, such as the fact he was not from the same dimension, he could channel or the fact that he had single-handedly levelled a town. Admittedly it wasn’t his fault, seeing as half the town was on fire from the trollocs setting everything alight, but he felt that saying such things would not endear him to the blonde huntress, or at least that was what he judged her to be from her clothing. Even though he held the private opinion she wasn’t who she said she was, he didn’t push it.

"Ranma…your father is a fool. He’s as bad as a fade!" Kara exclaimed after Ranma had finally ended his tale. Ranma chuckled softly to himself.

"Nah, he wasn’t that bad. Stupid and greedy sure, but myrdraals are a heck of a lot worse, believe me." He answered as he tested the stew. Deciding that it was ready, he rummaged in his pack for a moment and brought out two bowls. He gave his spare to Kara, and took his usual for himself as he dipped it into the pot and scooped out a bowl-full. Sitting back on his haunches he stripped the pigeon carcass of meat and put it next to the pile of feathers. Having done that he began to drink down the stew quickly, small rivulets running from the corners of his mouth down to his chin. Finally draining the bowl, Ranma grinned to himself and patted his stomach as he let out a loud burp.

"Ahh…that’s the stuff." He murmured to himself. Seeing Kara staring at him, he returned her gaze.

"What?" He asked as he tilted his head to the side slightly. Kara blinked in surprise at the question and looked down at her bowl.

"I’m supposed to do that?" She asked in a small voice, looking slightly disturbed. Ranma nodded.

"Sure. You are a huntress aren’t you? Surely you’ve done it before. Right?" He finished with a grin. Kara looked at him with a deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression for a moment before nodding.

"Of course!" She answered haughtily and proceeded to make an attempt to copy Ranma’s actions. Ranma grinned to himself as some stew went up her nose when she tipped her head too far back.

"Are you sure you’ve done this before?" He asked her as he wiped his chin with a spare piece of cloth from his backpack, grinning all the while. She glared at him, wiped her mouth and face and finished off the rest of her bowl, managing to successfully stop the stew from flooding her nose this time.

"Of course I have! It’s just…I’m not used to using someone else’s bowl when I eat! I left mine behind at the inn I was staying at!" She explained with a dangerous scowl on her pretty face, as if daring him to disagree. For once, Ranma kept his mouth shut and merely nodded in response.

"Get some sleep, I’ll keep first watch." He said simply. "I’ll wake you in five hours." He said as he looked up at the moon to gauge the time. Kara nodded and found a relatively dry patch of ground that had been freed by the fire’s warmth to roll out her bedroll and snuggle into it, draping her cloak over the blanket she used. Within five minutes she was asleep. Ranma breathed a sigh of relief that she had believed him. For some reason he always seemed to meet women who thought his curse was perverted. Kara merely seemed to think of it as he did, a curse. Though he hated the fact that she pitied him for it, it was a refreshing change.

He stood up and walked over to Silver, who had been quietly searching for something to eat among the snow-covered grass. He held out a dried apple to the horse, who gratefully accepted it and patted him on the head. "You get some rest too. Here," he picked out the stake in the soil and moved closer to the fire, "just to keep you warmer." He murmured into the beast’s ear. Silver neighed softly and nuzzled the pig-tailed boy in thanks. Ranma grinned and waggled a finger.

"Don’t thank me yet. Remember, you have to do lots of running tomorrow, and we can’t have you falling down from not getting enough rest now can we?" With that he walked over to a rock and sat down, staring out into the darkness so that he could utilise night vision to spot any incoming enemies. Silver briefly gave him the evil eye before he knelt down to sleep.

That is one smart horse. Ranma thought to himself in amusement as he settled himself in for a long night. He certainly wasn’t going to put his safety in the hands of a girl who had obviously not been out on her own before. Ranma guessed that because there were a rather suspicious number of dresses packed away into Silver’s saddlebags. Finally Ranma decided to ignore that particular fact and concentrate on his duty.

 

The next day Kara was given the rude awakening of a boot to the leg, courtesy of Ranma’s foot.

"Hey wake up sleepyhead." He said as he gave her another kick. After a moment Kara rolled over and gave him a lidded glare.

"Go ‘way." She mumbled and started to turn over again. Ranma scowled and reached down, pulling both her cloak and blanket in one swift movement.

"Move or I dump snow on your head." He commanded firmly. "We want to get moving, so hurry up. Here." He placed a small bowl of the leftover stew from the night before in front of the grumbling blonde and walked away. His gear had already been packed, along with most of Kara’s as well, so that all that was left to do was saddle Silver up and pack away Kara’s blanket. He quickly did so and watched as the older girl ate the food, all the while glaring at him above the rim of the bowl. He turned towards Silver with a puzzled expression on his face.

"What did I do?" He asked. Silver snorted and tossed his head in response. Seeing no help forthcoming, Ranma shrugged and returned to waiting for Kara to finish. When she had done so, he rinsed the bowl out with snow and placed it back into his backpack before turning to her.

"Ready?" He asked. Kara sighed and nodded as she saddled Silver before climbing up, noting that for some reason the saddle seemed much lighter than normal. As the familiar feeling of the saddle rested on his back, Silver turned a grateful look Ranma’s way, who merely grinned in response and held a finger up to his lips. Having been up all night had given Ranma plenty of time to practice his ki and One Power exercises whilst Kara slept, and he had stumbled upon the idea of making Silver’s run easier my lightening the heavy saddle that he would have to wear. He was quite pleased with himself at his success.

"All right let’s go." Kara sighed wearily. Ranma chuckled to himself, as he had a feeling that Kara was feeling even more tired than he was. So they set out again on their journey to Caemlyn, winding around hills and passing through small towns along the way. For three weeks they continued on with the same routine as the first day, halting every few hours to eat and let Silver rest before heading off again.

Ranma questioned Kara several times about her past, but she seemed reluctant to go into details, merely saying that she was a huntsman’s daughter and that she had spent the majority of her time around courtly ladies. When asked why she merely shrugged and said that she was lucky. Ranma decided to let the matter drop after she answered the same way for the fifth time.

By the fourth week they had entered the Braem Wood just north of Caemlyn, and their simple supplies were exhausted by nearly two days, Ranma not having counted on having an extra person and a hungry horse along for the ride. Due to the lack of food, the atmosphere between the companions had become strained and both parties irritable, even though they had both been getting along before the supplies grew short.

"Can we stop now?" Kara asked as her stomach rumbled.

"No." Ranma replied curtly, his lips pressed to a thin line as his stomach gurgled loudly.

"Why not?" Kara asked sharply, glaring daggers at Ranma’s back. Although Ranma had ran at the beginning of the journey, he now chose to walk due to the knowledge that running would only make Silver even more hungry. The snow that had covered the ground to the north was now nothing more than a light frost, sometimes not even that, but the chill air still remained, making abandoning some of the heavier clothing dangerous. Ranma had insisted on throwing away some of Kara’s dresses the day before, saying that they were unnecessary and would cause Silver more work. Kara agreed, but reluctantly and her temper had steadily began to escape her grasp.

"Well? Why not!? Will you answer me damn you!" She shouted. Ranma whirled about and glared at the blonde.

"SHUT UP!" He roared. "What is it? That time of the month or something? Geez! Show some discipline will ya? Just shut up and get a move on. We can’t stop because if we do it will take longer to get there and take longer to get decent food! Which do you want more? A rest or food? Well?" he asked an edge to his voice. Kara, whose face had steadily reddened throughout his tirade, sagged slightly and mumbled ‘food’ softly. Ranma nodded and gave a small smile.

"Don’t worry about it. We should have food soon. Only a couple of days to go and we’ll be there. I’ll see what I can catch tonight OK?" Kara nodded and urged Silver forward. Ranma sighed as his stomach made itself known again and followed at a trot, on the lookout for anything that could be used to make a decent meal later on.

By the evening Ranma had managed to catch three rabbits, which he skinned and spitted above the fire they had made. Leaving Kara to watch them to make sure they did not burn, he walked off a little ways to continue his daily practice of Anything-Goes. Finally nearly twenty minutes later he ceased his flowing movements and took a tentative sniff of himself. His nose wrinkled at the pungent odour.

"First thing I do is bathe." He muttered as he trotted into the clearing and nodded to Kara. She nodded back and handed him a well-done rabbit, which he devoured hungrily, careful not to burn himself and to savour the taste before it was gone, knowing it would be a while before he could eat again.

"Thanks." He murmured as he tossed the bones to the side. Kara nodded in response as she licked her fingers. She looked at the remaining rabbit over the fire and looked back at Ranma. He gave her a weak smile and waved for her to take it. He’d managed to survive on less before he knew, so he could do it again. It did not mean he had to like it though.

"You get first watch though." He said gruffly as he scrubbed his hands over his face in an attempt to dispel the weariness. Kara sighed and nodded. For the past week and a half Ranma had begun to ‘share’ the watch duty with her, finally trusting her enough to actually go to sleep. The blonde huntress didn’t know whether to be pleased or angry at this fact. At least he was less irritable after he’d slept well. She scowled at him for a moment as his remark from earlier on in the day came back to her. She had been sorely tempted to reply with ‘you would know!’ to his comment about that time of the month. He certainly wouldn’t have been very happy then. She’d learned not to question his masculinity after he’d ranted at her for nearly half an hour about some guy named Pantuso Taro. Kara just didn’t want to know. Unfortunately she now did.

How in the Light can someone be named after…those? She thought to herself. Remembering something else Ranma had mentioned, about an old pervert who liked to grope women she had a pretty good idea.

As she sat staring into the forest later on that evening, Kara pondered the little enigma that was named Ranma Saotome. There were certainly holes in his story, she could tell. After all, she’d never heard of a country called China before, and she was sure that Ranma hadn’t meant to name it either. He’d also mentioned multiple fiancees, a fact she most certainly agreed with him upon the fact that he was better off without them, but he had never mentioned his feelings for the girls. She couldn’t help but wonder why that was. Her train of thought continued on until the early hours of the morning, when she arose to awaken Ranma. She’d also learned that he slept like a rock, and nothing short of dumping cold water on him would wake him up. He was always a little irritable after that. At least until he dried off. Why he slept in that armour she had no idea. Kara’d heard you were supposed to take it off sometimes, but Ranma never seemed to be without it or his sword.

Dumping a small pouch of water that she had put aside for this specific use on Ranma’s head, she watched the transformation again.

It never ceased to amaze her that he could change from an admittedly handsome, muscular young boy to a buxom, petite redheaded girl. She’d asked if he was completely female after the change once and had had a ringing in her ears for nearly two hours afterwards.

"What’d ya do that for!?" Ranma shouted as she sprang up and pushed sopping wet bangs out of her eyes. Kara grinned and merely snuggled into her own bedroll in answer, leaving Ranma to fume for a minute before calming down and drying off enough so that she could stand watch. Hot water always had to wait until it was time to get up and have some breakfast. Ranma occupied herself with some ki exercises as she moved about the nearby forest collecting berries, a small glowing ball bobbing next to her to light her way and make identifying plants easier. Finally gathering enough for a light breakfast, Ranma returned to the clearing and sat in the branches of a large tree to finish her watch.

Four hours later Ranma hopped down and kicked Kara awake whom, as usual, grumbled loudly about the indignity of being awoken in such a manner. She shut up when Ranma asked it she would prefer to awaken sopping wet.

After a quick breakfast of roots and berries the pair set of again, hoping to reach Caemlyn soon.

The day after brought an exit to the Braem Forest, with Caemlyn on the horizon. Ranma and Kara were understandably pleased, so they decided to camp for the night and reach Caemlyn the next day.

As it was decided for Ranma to take the first watch, he sat against the trunk of a large oak and stared at the sky, once more pondering several issues that had bothered him since Torlan had mentioned them several weeks ago…

"It’s said Aes Sedai can sense any girl who can channel lad."

Ranma frowned silently and pursed his lips. Tomorrow they would be in the capital city of Andor, and if Aes Sedai were going to be anywhere, it would be there. He needed to come up with a way to mask his channelling ability and fast. And there no way he was going to stay a girl so it didn’t look suspicious. The curse may not be activating every five minutes anymore, much to his never-ending thanks, but it still annoyed the hell out of him. And so, trying to come up with a way to mask the One Power, he began to meditate, keeping his senses carefully extended to sense anyone coming within 100 meters of the camp.

Okay…I need to find a way to hide. Hiding… the Umi-sen-ken! Okay…the Goshin-Dai-Ryu-Sei-Fu helps you to become invisible, and the aura cloak stops your opponent from sensing your position. So I need to wrap my ki around the Power like some sorta shield that no one can see through… so how the heck do I do that? He growled softly to himself in frustration as he tried to reason out a technique. C’mon! I did it before! I have to do this now! Hmm…some sorta net. Has to be really small. The smaller it is, the more powerful it’s gonna be…I know! If I invert my battle aura and try to mould it into a net…maybe that’ll work? Might as well try. Having decided on a course of action, Ranma took a deep breath and concentrated. He felt his battle aura blaze about his body and hurriedly sought to conceal it. After all, in the middle of the night a glowing person is likely to be thought of as more than a little weird. After a few precious seconds, he felt his battle aura dissipate slightly, a signal that he was ready to begin. With a slight frown of concentration on his face, Ranma began attempting to compress his aura as he continued the attempt it became obvious that the smaller he forced it to go, the harder it got to compress it further. After a few minutes of futile struggle, Ranma came to the conclusion that that was as small as it would go, so he began an attempt to invert his aura. Soon beads of sweat began to form on his forehead from the effort. He felt the threads of saidar and saidin just behind the compressed form of his battle aura and pushed harder to wrap it around them. He’d already tried to single out saidar, and that hadn’t worked, so he was reluctantly trying to hide both behind his large ki reserve. In his mind he could see what looked like a small bright blue baseball floating in front of the two threads of saidin and saidar, and he tried to flatten the ball into a wall. Ranma winced as the mental backlash from his attempt began to give him a headache.

Sighing he tried a different attempt and visualised the baseball opening up like a pak-man he had seen on a poster once and swallowing the two threads. The pig-tailed boy’s eyes bulged in surprise as both threads disappeared. He licked his lips slightly to moisten them, then tried to sense the two threads. After a minute and no sign he began to get agitated and began to fidget where he sat, but continued his search doggedly. Five minutes later he was starting to get frantic. Sweat trickled down his face as he nervously licked his lips and continued to concentrate in his search. Finally he managed to sense something and chased after the sensation until he found what he was looking for…

Well…almost. He thought as he mentally looked at the floating sphere. It was as large as his head and a transparent sky blue, but he could clearly see both threads within it. He breathed a loud sigh of relief and reached out with his mind to grasp both halves of the source…and ran into a mental brick wall. Ranma blinked in surprise.

"The hell?" he muttered softly before he closed his eyes and concentrated again. Locating the mental image of the sphere quickly, Ranma probed at it in an attempt to find a weakness but found none that he could exploit.

"How embarrassing." He muttered. "I’ve shielded myself. Oh joy." He cracked his eyes open and glanced at the sky to judge the time. "About three hours." He murmured before he went back to his mental quandary. Chewing his lip for a moment, Ranma held out his hand and attempted to make his practice sphere. Immediately it popped into existence and hovered for a moment before Ranma allowed it to wink out.

"Okay…so I can still use my ki, but not the Power. That’s somethin’ I guess… not a lot, but something." He said to himself. "So, now to un-shield myself!" Closing his eyes once again, Ranma confronted the sphere.

OK…so how did I do this again? Oh yeah… I thought about pak-man. He thought wryly. So if I think about it again… ah-ha! Gotcha! Ranma grinned as he felt the ki shield open up and allow him access to the One Power, it’s simultaneous raging fire and tranquil waters intertwining and surging through his veins. He’d never felt so alive!

Reluctantly letting the Power go, Ranma sat back against the tree feeling utterly exhausted and wishing he could sleep for a week.

Like that’s gonna happen. He thought as he stretched. After popping a few of his joints Ranma sighed and settled back for the remaining two and a half hours of his watch.

The next morning Ranma awoke to the familiar feeling of being wet and cold. She sat up and glared at Kara, who sat a fair distance away and simply grinned at him.

"Kawaiikune…" Ranma muttered darkly and stomped off into the trees so that she could dry off without arousing Kara’s suspicion. Kara frowned, a slight pout on her lips as she watched him, now a her, walk off into the woods. It was fun to wake him up like that she had to admit, after all, there wasn’t any other way to wake him up was there? But if he didn’t wake up like normal it took all the fun out of it. She sighed and stood up to pack her things as a now dry Ranma stomped out of the woods and sent a glare in her direction. Kara sighed again and saddled Silver up as Ranma packed her backpack. Just before they left, Ranma heated up a small amount of water and dumped it on herself, triggering the transformation. Loosening his belt, Ranma packed everything else away and pulled on his backpack. When he finished he looked at Kara on Silver and nodded.

"Let’s go." He said with determination. Kara couldn’t be sure, but she could have sworn she saw Ranma glow blue for a moment. The blonde shook her head quickly to dispel the illusion her sleep-deprived mind had conjured up and looked at Ranma again. There was no glow this time, so she shook her head at her foolishness and concentrated on finally getting to Caemlyn. To her left, Ranma swallowed and started breathing again as he focused his ki. That had been too close…

As they joined onto the road into Caemlyn they were jostled and bumped by the river of people headed toward the gates. Hundreds upon hundreds of people crowding to get in alongside carts, horses and wagons. All vying for space and attention from the Queen’s guards at the gate. Ranma grinned up at Kara, who stared with wide-eyed awe at what she deemed to be a huge city. To someone like Ranma however it was merely medium sized compared to somewhere like the massive sprawl known collectively as Tokyo. She looked down at him and he laughed gaily.

"First big city?" He asked, the cocky grin once more plastered across his handsome face. Kara merely nodded silently and returned to her ogling of the city. Ranma chuckled as he took Silver’s reins from Kara’s limp hands and shouldered his way through the crowd, man and animal alike parting before him like a shoal of fish before a shark. Ranma had a lot of experience in foreign cities, act like you know what you’re doing and people will let you. It was literally that simple. The pig-tailed martial artist slowed down as he approached the gates, hearing the guards crying out not to push, if he carried on doing so he was more likely to draw attention to himself and Kara behind him. So he slowed down and entered the city, he veritable pike disguised as a goldfish.

Once he was out of sight of the gates he began to make his way forward again, this time with casual glances backward to Kara, who sat in her saddle staring at the sights like a star-struck teenager. Ranma sniggered at her wide-eyed innocence and continued forward until he spotted a decent looking man rather than the usual scraggly man in travel worn garments.

"’Scuse me, could you tell me the name of a decent inn?" he asked as politely as he could manage. He didn’t think asking for a hotel would get a very intelligent response.

The man, dressed in rich robes that more than likely made him out to be a rich trader, looked at Ranma with a pleased expression on his face.

"It’s nice to see boys of your generation showing such respect for your elders!" He exclaimed in a rich tenor voice. Ranma’s smile took on a slightly strained cast, but the man seemed not to notice. "A decent inn you say? Well, The Queen’s Blessing is the place that I was staying at. A tad expensive, but a very pleasant place!" He said, beaming another smile at Ranma, who smiled a genuine smile of gratitude back. "Let’s see now… go that way for a bit and then take a left. It should be easy to spot, you can’t miss it!" He said. Ranma sketched a quick bow and thanked the man before leading Kara and Silver in the direction the merchant had indicated.

As Ranma walked he caught snippets of people’s conversations, some talking about a false Dragon being defeated, which brought a rather relieved reaction from Kara (which Ranma determined to ask about later), and several fights between large groups of men, some wearing white bands or feathers, some wearing red. Some men even had their sword hilts wrapped in the colours. Ranma began to detect a current of hostility running throughout the city, which set the hackles on his neck standing on end. He watched with concealed interest as yet another fight broke out between a group of men. He noted that never were the red bands on the same side as the white bands, and determined that they seemed to be opposing gangs of a sort. Ranma shifted slightly as the throng of people got particularly thick. He felt a hand grab the scabbard of his sword and in a lightning fast movement backhanded the furtive-looking man who had attempted to steal it across the face. Ranma glared at the man until he scampered away. Narrowing his eyes, he scanned the crowd and saw that men who had their scabbards and hilts wrapped in cloth of red or white could quite easily be concealing expensive blades that some would seek to steal if they but knew of their existence. That was enough for Ranma, who marched over to a nearby store that was selling strips of cloth and looked at what was on offer. He smiled as he picked up some of the red, along with the white cord that he noted went along with it, and fished in his armour for the small pocket that housed his wallet. Quickly he paid for it and stepped into a nearby alley as he examined the cloth, leaving Kara to sit atop Silver impatiently. He had always liked red anyhow.

Sticking his head out of the alley he observed several men and the way they wrapped their scabbards and hilts until he saw the best method. Fixing the pattern needed into his head, Ranma ducked back into the alley and unslung the ornate scabbard and blade from his shoulders. He gazed at the item for a moment, thinking back to a good friend, before he began wrapping the cloth and cord in a precise pattern that would cover a large area. Finishing with the scabbard, he started on the hilt of the blade, quickly covering the engraved Pegasus from view. Kara looked intrigued at the sword, for she had never seen it out of its sheath before, but said nothing and waited, looking about impatiently at all the new sights until he emerged again and took up the reigns.

"What was that about?" She asked, having missed the attempted theft due to her acting like a country bumpkin and gawking at all the buildings. Ranma glanced back at her for a moment.

"Some moron tried to steal my sword earlier ‘cause it looked valuable. I decided if I cover it up then no one will try again." He replied. Kara nodded knowingly and ‘ah’ed in reply.

After another ten minutes of moving carefully through the crowd, Ranma glanced to a street on the left and turned off quickly before they were swept away in the tide of humanity.

He moved forward purposefully until he spotted the inn that he was looking for, the sign outside of a man kneeling before a woman with red-gold hair and a crown, her hand resting on his bowed head proclaiming the inn to be the Queen’s Blessing. Signalling for Kara to dismount he told her to take Silver around the back and then rejoin him inside. She nodded and left quickly, tugging the nervous Silver behind her. Ranma took another deep breath and grimaced as his stomach gurgled loudly.

"Stupid stomach." He muttered angrily and pushed open the door to a large common room panelled with dark wood. Two large fireplaces warmed the room, and there were only a few people dotted around the place at various tables. Looking about Ranma decided to sit at one of the tables in the corner until Kara arrived, and as he walked in the two serving maids smiled brightly at him, their eyes moving up and down his muscular frame. He suppressed a groan and walked over to the table until he spotted whom he deemed to be the innkeeper. Instantly he changed directions and approached the fat man who wore a starched white apron and combed back grey hair. Licking his lips he tried to remember the best way to act when asking for something. Two years of dealing with Nabiki had given him at least some business sense.

Polite. Gotta be polite. And sound smart…boy Nabiki’d laugh her ass off if she heard that… he thought wryly.

"Excuse me, are you the innkeeper?" Ranma asked in the most polite tone he could manage. The man looked at him, his eye moving up and down the pig-tailed martial artist quickly. Ranma had the distinct impression he was being assessed.

"Yes, that’s me. What can I do for you young man?" he replied with a smile. Ranma smiled when the man did not call him ‘boy,’ it made him feel more mature.

"I would like to rent two rooms." Ranma said as he placed his hands on his hips. Belatedly he realised that the posture was vaguely threatening and quickly changed to his usual relaxed stance, inwardly cursing his slip. The man looked at him for a moment with sharp eyes, his smile never wavering.

"You can pay young man?" He asked. Ranma smiled again and brought out his wallet, quickly showing the innkeeper some of the gold coinage inside. At this sight the innkeeper’s pleasant smile widened into a friendlier one. "Well now, I think that there’s definitely two rooms for you. What’s your name then young man?" he asked. Ranma smiled at him.

"Ranma. Ranma Saotome." He answered. The innkeeper nodded.

"Well, I’m Basel Gill, but most people call me Master Gill, all right?"

"Sure thing Master Gill." Ranma said pleasantly. His stomach chose that moment to rumble loudly. Master Gill grinned and signalled one of the serving girls over and sent her to get something to eat for the hungry martial-artist.

"Well now, you look the right sort, but tell me, why do you need two rooms?" the fat innkeeper asked. At that point Kara entered the common room, a slightly peevish expression on her face.

"Oh! The nerve of some men!" she growled as she stopped next to Ranma. "Can you believe that a man tried to proposition me?" she asked. Ranma looked at her in confusion.

"Huh? What are you talking about Kara? Oh nevermind. Kara, this is the innkeeper, Master Gill. He’s gonna let us have two rooms and some food." He explained. Kara’s eyes lit up.

"Food? Where?" She asked, her pink tongue darting out and licking her lips hungrily. Ranma sniggered for a moment before her glare silenced him.

"Master Gill, this is my friend Kara Fenning." Ranma said, pointing to the pretty blonde. She gave a short bow and smiled brightly at him. Master Gill grinned in reply and winked at Ranma covertly. Ranma’s eyes widened after a moment and he waved his hands in the air.

"No! No! You’ve got it all wrong! She’s just a friend! I swear!" He yelled, a slightly panicked look in his eyes. Master Gill chuckled at his reaction and headed off to the kitchen to order another meal prepared for Kara.

The two friends moved over to the corner table that Ranma had chosen earlier and sat down to wait for their meals, Kara inspecting the common room thoroughly whilst Ranma relaxed in his seat. A short while later, Master Gill returned with two plates with a few slices of beef some potatoes and some greens all covered with gravy. Ranma eyed the knife and fork for a moment before shaking his head and digging in his pack. Kara happily dug into the rather sparse meal as if it were a feast, the happy smile on her face an indication of her emotional status. Quickly finding what he was searching for, Ranma sat up and brandished his self-made chopsticks and began to eat, oblivious to other people’s stares.

"Ranma, what are you doing?" Kara asked. Ranma looked up from stuffing his face, a small smear of gravy trickling down his chin.

"Nani?" He queried. Kara pointed to the chopsticks. "Oh these! Where I come from we use these to eat with, just like you use those." He gestured to the knife and fork Kara held in her hands. The blonde nodded dubiously and returned to eating quietly. Soon Ranma had finished and sat back, a contented smile on his face. The meal may not have been as good as Kasumi’s, but it was certainly better than the food he had prepared on their journey.

Suddenly Ranma sat up straighter and turned his head toward the door, just as it opened to admit two young men. The taller of the two with slightly shaggy red hair and grey eyes and the other a scrawny-looking youth with black hair who had a sullen posture. For some reason he could not identify Ranma found his interest peaked, doubly so when they spoke to the innkeeper and were rapidly hustled into the back. Excusing himself, Ranma stood up and utilised the Goshin-Dai-Ryu-Sei-Fu to creep forward. He had already made sure than no one was looking his way. Just before the kitchen door shut, Ranma squeezed himself through and slipped silently out the back into the stableyard, carefully regulating his breathing as Master Gill talked with the two older boys.

"…case lad?" Basel Gill asked the taller of the two.

"Thom’s flute." He answered as he opened the case to show a remarkable gold and silver flute inside. Ranma raised an appreciative eye as the youth closed it again.

"Aye, I recognise it. I saw him play it often enough, and there’s not likely two like that outside a royal court." As he heard this, Ranma’s interest flared into overdrive and he padded closer so that he could see everything. When he was a few feet away he hovered for a minute, his danger sense prickling on the back of his neck. He swung his head about until he faced the sunken-eyed youth, when his danger sense abruptly flared. The young man whipped his head up and eyed the yard speculatively for a minute, leaving Ranma to wonder just what it was that had made his danger sense go off.

The boy gave a slight jerk as the taller of the two placed a hand on his shoulder.

"It’s all right, Mat. He’s a friend." He said in a soothing manner. Master Gill said something that Ranma didn’t catch, his eyes inspecting the two youths before him. The taller one had a sword dangling at his hip, looking not out of place as such, just not fully integrated into the boy’s posture. Ranma guessed he hadn’t used t for very long, but the sword gave him a familiar feeling that he couldn’t quite place. The scrawny boy, Mat the other said his name was, had a hand in his coat, clutching something. Whatever it was, it made Ranma’s danger sense spike sharply, so the pig-tailed boy decided to be cautious around the second youth.

However, it was the innkeeper’s next comment that made his eyebrow raise inquisitively.

"You’ve had trouble with Aes Sedai, I take it?" Master Gill queried. At that point the two youths gave opposing answers, making Ranma break into a grin. The Gill chuckled for a moment, before a slightly nervous look entered his eyes.

"Now…ah…I’m not making any accusations, mind, but…ah…I take it neither of you can…ah…what I’m, getting at is…ah…what exactly is the nature of your trouble with Tar Valon, if you don’t mind me asking?" Ranma had a very good idea of what the fat man was going on about, as did the others by the way they paled slightly, a remarkable feat for the one called Mat, whose previous countenance was rather pasty.

Hastily the taller of the two shook his head.

"No, no, nothing like that. I swear. There was even an Aes Sedai helping us. Moiraine was…" At this point he halted his rapid chatter, looking like he had said too much. By now Ranma was hopping silently from foot to foot, his interest soaring through the roof.

What’s so special about this guy that an Aes Sedai would help him then? I gotta know this…Ranma thought to himself eagerly, a Cheshire cat grin adorning his handsome features. The way the boy moved also pointed out that he had been somewhat trained in the handling of his weapon, but it seemed as if the training had been abruptly cut short. Ranma quickly put it out of his mind as they three began to talk again.

"…ad to hear it. Not that I’ve got much love for Aes Sedai, but better than…that other thing." Master Gill said. Ranma suppressed a snort of disdain, though he could see why people were worried about that sort of thing. He doubted he would like it if someone he knew with enough power to level a town went mad either.

"…don’t suppose you can pay? No, I didn’t think so. There’s enough of anything, and what there is costs the earth, so I’ll give you beds – not the best, but warm and dry – and something to eat, and I cannot promise more, however much I’d like." The taller youth thanked him and cast a quizzical glance at his companion who continued to cast about the stableyard in search of something.

Ranma felt faintly nervous, but ignored the feeling and concentrated on listening instead.

"Well, Thom’s an good friend. An old friend. Hot-headed and liable to say the worse possible thing to the one person he shouldn’t, but a good friend all the same." Master Gill said.

Sounds like someone I know. Ranma thought dryly, a small smirk on his lips.

"If he doesn’t show up…well, we’ll figure something out then. Best you don’t talk any more about Aes Sedai helping you. I’m a good Queen’s man, but there are too many in Caemlyn right now who’d take it wrong, and I don’t mean just the Whitecloaks." Master Gill continued. The one called Mat gave a rude snort.

"For all I care, the ravens can take every Aes Sedai straight to Shayol Ghul!" He growled. Ranma blinked in surprise. He knew that some people didn’t like Aes Sedai, he himself felt nervous at the prospect of meeting one, though for different reasons than most, but he never thought people hated them. It sounded like these Whitecloaks and other people simply didn’t like them. Ranma frowned. He was all set for not liking someone for good reasons, but to just hate someone for what they were grated him in some unseen way. He glared at the dark-haired boy, who shivered slightly and looked about the yard again. Ranma suppressed the urge to snigger.

"Watch your tongue," Master Gill snapped. "I said I don’t love them; I didn’t say I’m a fool thinks they’re behind everything that’s wrong. The Queen supports Elaida, and the guards stand for the Queen. The Light send that things don’t go so bad that changes. Anyway, lately some Guards have forgotten themselves enough to be a little rough with folks they overhear speaking out against Aes Sedai. Not on duty, thank the Light, but it’s happened, just the same. I don’t need off-duty Guards breaking up my common room just to teach you a lesson. And I don’t need Whitecloaks egging somebody on to paint the Dragon’s Fang on my door, so if you want any help out of me, jest keep thoughts about Aes Sedai to yourself, good or bad."

Ranma silently digested this information, and frowned slightly. He had a feeling that he and the Whitecloaks weren’t going to get along very well. He brightened slightly.

That don’t mean I can’t have fun with them though, he thought with an evil grin. Having decided that he had heard enough, he silently snuck away and slipped into an open window, careful not to disturb the sleeping patron inside. Quickly he jogged down the stairs and entered the common room, returning to his place next to Kara.

"Where have you been the Light blind you!" She hissed angrily. He flashed her a roguish grin and held a finger to his lips.

"Finding out some stuff. Do you know who these Whitecloak geezers are?" he asked softly. Kara blinked at the abrupt change of subject and nodded slowly.

"Of course. Everyone knows about the ‘Children of the Light.’" She snorted. After a careful look in his direction she rolled her eyes. "Except for you of course." She muttered. Ranma just grinned inanely and sat back against the corner. Sighing she looked about for a moment, then turned to him.

"The Children of the Light, most people call them the Whitecloaks though, are a group of people from Amadicia who hunt down darkfriends. However, they seem to think that Aes Sedai are also darkfriends and as such they constantly stir up trouble all over the place. Most of them are bullies who think they are better than other people are and can do what they want. I think the whole lot of them are just pathetic." She finished angrily and slouched in her seat. Ranma nodded in agreement, they did sound rather like Kuno to be exact. Ranma hoped that they were as stupid.

Ranma perked up as he noticed the two youths re-enter the common room as they trailed after Master Gill, who took them over to a nearby table and sat them down. He quickly bustled off to fetch them some food, as far as Ranma could tell they were in the same state as he had been himself, hungry as hell. A few minutes later and the innkeeper returned with the same fare that he had served to Ranma and Kara and set it down before the pair. Ranma saw the redheaded one shake his head, a rueful smile on his face as he began to tuck in to the sparse meal. Ranma turned to Kara and smiled softly.

"Why don’t you get some rest OK? Take our stuff up to the rooms. Master Gill should be able to show you there OK?" He asked. Kara nodded gratefully and stood up, walking rapidly over to the innkeeper. From the corner of his eye, Ranma saw the redhead and his friend, Mat, tracking Kara’s progress across the room with their eyes. Snorting softly in disdain, Ranma rolled his eyes and sat back to wait and see if anything interesting occurred. With his martial arts training his hearing was greatly above that of other people, so when Basel Gill returned from showing Kara to her room and dropping Ranma’s own key at his table he was able to hear the conversation the innkeeper started up with the two older boys.

"Now, why don’t you tell me of this trouble of yours? If I’m going to help, it’d be best to know what I’m getting into." Ranma listened intently as the redhead related his story, though Ranma had a feeling he left parts out, that some men were after himself and Mat, and a few of their other friends too. They appeared when you least expected it and were very dangerous. Ranma started slightly when the boy said that the Aes Sedai named Moiraine had said some of them were darkfriends, and determined to keep an eye on the pair. They had been separated from their friends while trying to reach a place called Whitebridge, and the man, Thom had been killed saving them in Whitebridge.

"We just kept on till we reached Caemlyn," the youth explained. "That was the plan, originally. Caemlyn, and then Tar Valon." Ranma pondered for a few minutes. If these two were attempting to reach Tar Valon and darkfriends were after them, then that would mean that these two were important somehow. Looking at them again, Ranma felt that he knew why, but couldn’t quite make the connection in his mind. He shrugged it off and decided that it may be in his best interest to help the two. After all, anything to spite the Dark One had to be pretty worthwhile didn’t it? He grinned to himself as the prospect of becoming the proverbial thorn in the Dark One’s foot began to take on an alarming degree of appeal. Calming himself once more, Ranma returned to listening to the trio’s conversation.

"This friend of yours from up north, now – if she comes to Caemlyn, I’ll hear. There are people keep their eyes on comings and goings like that around here, and word spreads." Master Gill was saying softly, though not so quiet as to make Ranma’s task difficult. He continued to listen as they listed what could be done or who could be drafted to help, but they came up short, something to do with the man named Thom's past, not to mention the darkfriends. Fairly soon the cook from the kitchen motioned to Master Gill, who stood up with a few wry comments about being married before leaving to find out what she wanted, leaving the two older boys to eat. Ranma noted that the darker-haired boy seemed to be bitter about something from the way he disdainfully condemned his friend’s efforts to get him to eat.

"Tar Valon!" He barked, giving out a low, bitter laugh. "All this time it’s been Caemlyn. Moiraine would be waiting for us in Caemlyn. We’d find Perrin and Egwene in Caemlyn. Well, here we are, and nothing’s right. No Moiraine, no Perrin, no anybody. Now it’s everything will be all right if we just get to Tar Valon." He said bitterly. Ranma frowned as he realised that an argument was more than likely with the way that the pair were now bickering slightly, though the bickering was more on the desperate level than friendly banter. Heaving a sigh, Ranma stood up and crossed to the door, quickly asking one of the serving girls, a pretty brunette, to lead him to his room. Giggling slightly she bobbed her head and lead him upstairs until they stopped in front of a room.

"Thanks." He said. "Any idea which room my friend is in?" He asked, casting a look up and down the hallway. The girl pouted slightly and pointed to the door across the hall from Ranma’s. He thanked her and flashed her another smile, making her blush, before opening his door and entering. He dumped his backpack behind the door and looked at the bed. Sighing, he peered out the window and frowned with disgust.

"Ugh. Noon. No time for rest now." He gave a yawn and shook his head as he opened his backpack and unpacked a few items he deemed he might need. Stepping out of his room he asked one of the other serving maids nearby where the bath was. With a sultry smile she led him down the hall and gestured to one of the rooms.

"In here sir. Do you need any help?" She murmured, her eyes roving up and down his well-defined physique. Blushing faintly Ranma shook his head and dashed inside, leaning up against the door wearily.

"Women." He muttered, then quickly undressed. It seemed that water had already been drawn, so Ranma pulled up a stool and quickly washed himself with some cold water, activating the curse. Scrubbing quickly, Ranma rinsed herself off again then dove into the tub, reversing the curse and sinking back with a satisfied sound. He sat for ten minutes until he finally thought he had relaxed enough and rose, grabbing a nearby towel and drying himself off with the help of his ki. Donning his armour once again, he peered out the door and gracefully darted down the hall to his room. On a whim, he opened Kara’s door and peered inside, noting her still form snoring lightly on the bed, her golden locks spread out in a halo around her head. he chuckled softly at the sight and exited again, quickly crossing the hall, he opened his room and dumped most of his bathing accessories into his backpack. Popping his joints, Ranma left his room and looked down the hallway to see the tall redhead descend from the attic and continue downstairs. Intrigued, Ranma followed silently as the youth entered the common room again. Pretending to be nonchalant, and failing miserably, Ranma studied a painting hung on the wall. After a moment he saw a guard walk in from the street and pass an eye over the room’s occupants. When he looked at the redheaded youth, the boy looked at the table nervously. His eyes landed on Ranma a moment later. The pig-tailed martial artist matched the stare of the guardsman glare for glare, a cocky smile on his lips until the man snorted and left. Ranma grinned to himself and looked about to find the gaze of the young man upon him. Shrugging to himself, Ranma walked over and stuck his hand out.

"Hi. My name’s Ranma. Ranma Saotome." He said simply, a friendly smile on his face. The older boy looked surprised, but clasped hands after a moment.

"Rand al’Thor." He replied. Looking about, Ranma grimaced slightly at the more crowded atmosphere. More people had arrived during his bath, and now there was very little room to sit.

"Wanna go somewhere more private to chat? It’s a little crowded in here." He asked. Rand eyed him warily for a moment before nodding slowly. Ranma grinned at him before calling over a serving girl. "There anywhere we can go to talk privately? It’s crowded in here." He said. The girl gave a coy smile and nodded, pointing at a door.

"There’s the library. Through there, to the right, at the end of the hall. Might be empty, this hour." She said with a smile. Ranma grinned and thanked her as he strode forward, looking over his shoulder at Rand.

"You coming?" He asked, the grin still raging full force. He liked this guy, although older he didn’t seem all that sure of himself, which put Ranma on even ground as far as he was concerned. With a tentative smile Rand nodded and followed the pig-tailed boy. Just before he got to the door, he turned back to the girl.

"Oh, if you see Master Gill, would you tell him Rand al'Thor would like to speak with him for a minute?"

"Sure I’ll tell him. Cook want’s to speak with him too!" She giggled. Rand smiled back, wishing he had Perrin’s luck with women before he entered the door and walked up to the waiting pig-tailed youth. Ranma grinned at him and continued down the hall to the indicated door.

"So…" Rand started, feeling slightly nervous. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he knew this boy who had returned a guard’s stare strength for strength. "Where are you from?" he asked as Ranma pulled open the door. The pig-tailed boy looked over his shoulder and gave a faintly sad smile.

"Arafel." He said simply and entered the library. Rand blinked in surprise.

"The borderlands? Wow. Aren’t you a bit young to be this far south though?" He asked curiously as he entered, his entire attention upon Ranma. Said youth looked faintly irritated.

"Hey, I got more combat experience in my left toe than you do in your whole body." He retorted with a cocky smirk. Rand found himself grinning in response.

"Oh yeah? I bet you haven’t been through half of what I have!" he exclaimed, for some odd reason he couldn’t quite fathom he puffed his chest out in a show of macho bravado, even though he wished he’d never experienced half of what he’d been through. Ranma’s smirk widened as he puffed his own chest out, his armour flexing to show his muscles.

"Oh yeah? Try me!" He exclaimed in challenge, a gigantic grin on his face. It felt good to talk with another guy like this, he had to admit he sometimes missed Ryoga. Much to his surprise, Rand found himself recounting everything from the beginning, not the half-tale he had told Master Gill, but the entire truth. For some reason he felt he could trust this posturing pig-tailed boy. He began with Winternight, about trollocs breaking down the door and the fade on Quarry Road. He felt slightly horrified as he continued on, recounting Shadar Logoth and loosing his friends in the night. Whitebridge and the fade that was there, Thom dying so they could escape. The fade in Baerlon, darkfriends later, Howal Gode, the half-man outside the Goose and Crown. He started to recount some of his dreams, but the hackles on his neck arose and he trailed off.

"See? Much more than you!" He said after he had recovered. To his surprise, Ranma looked faintly amused.

"You think that’s bad? I’ll tell you about something!" he exclaimed as he gestured to a chair on a table as he sat down himself. Rand sat, staring at the martial artist in confusion. Then Ranma began.

Being taken from his mother for a martial arts training trip when he was 5, the neko-ken, various times his father made him steal under the guise of training, being sold off for no more than a bowl of rice, a fish and two pickles. Later on china, then Jusyenko, Joketsuzoku village and the amazons. The flights back to Japan, then the Tendo dojo. The reluctant fiancee, the accident in the furo. Problems at school with a moron named Kuno. Having pictures sold without his consent, being attacked by one he thought of as a friend, a promise used against him. An abusive fiancee, amazons again, potions and tricks, an old friend – another fiancee, a perverted ancient master, trials and tribulations. Kidnappings, enemies, lying to his mother because of a promise, trips back in time, secret techniques, challenges, and more enemies. Defeating a demi-god with his bare hands. Having your heart torn into pieces, the subsequent flight, travelling to another dimension, monsters, and the blight. The sickness, the town, a friend made, a training trip. The return to the town and its destruction at the hands of the Dark One’s minions. Vengeance gained, a duty to the people, a journey and another friend made.

Nearly an hour later, Ranma ground to a halt and looked at Rand, who sat with a stunned expression on his face.

At least he doesn’t know I wield the power as well. Ranma thought to himself. He just thinks it’s ki. I hope. He added. After a few moments of silence, Rand seemed to come back to himself and stared at Ranma.

"For some reason I think I believe you." He said softly. "And you’re right, you’ve been through much more than me. Light! And I thought I had things rough." He said, looking at Ranma in admiration. Ranma grinned in response.

"Gotta take the rough with the smooth." Ranma said philosophically.

"I’m inclined to agree." A new voice rumbled, making both boys jump out of their seats and whirl about to face the newcomer. Rand’s face showed shock and surprise as his eyes continued up and up until they found the newcomer’s head, just beneath the 10-ft ceiling. A nose almost as broad as the face to be nearly snout-like, long eyebrows that hung down, framing pale saucer-like eyes. He scrabbled for his sword until a hand on the shoulder halted him. Turning around he saw Ranma staring at the creature, avid interest in his eyes and his posture as relaxed as it had been while he spoke.

"Don’t worry Rand. That’s not a trolloc. I should know." He said simply. He glided forward until he had to crane his neck to see the face of their visitor and grinned as he stuck his hand out. "Names Ranma. Ranma Saotome." He said. A hand as large as Rand’s head reached out and grasped Ranma’s hand gently, shaking it twice as the giant bowed formally.

"Loial, son of Arent, son of Halan. Your name sings in my ears Ranma Saotome." He said. Ranma blinked a little then, being Japanese at heart, he bowed in return.

"Your name sings in my ears Loial, son of Arent, son of Halan." He replied as he stood up straight. Rand looked faintly lost for a while until Loial turned to him.

"Ah…my name is Rand al'Thor. Your name sings in my ears Loial, son of Arent, son of Halan." He quickly sketched a formal bow, feeling clumsy and uncouth next to Ranma’s smooth motions. He felt slightly relieved when Loial beamed a smile and bowed to him.

"Your name sings in my ears Rand al’Thor." He intoned as he stood up. The giant looked at the both of them as they stood before him. "Quite a story." He murmured to himself. "Yes, quite a story indeed. You humans are very hasty." Ranma grinned in response, while Rand still felt slightly bewildered at how easily the pig-tailed boy took things in stride.

"Hasty? Yeah. Guess I am. Can’t sit still for five minutes!" Ranma joked. The giant smiled at this and nodded his head.

"Yes. I read the books, but of course I did not believe it! You humans are very excitable. My first day in Caemlyn and there was such an uproar! Children crying and women screaming! Men shouting out ‘Trolloc!’ and waving knives and clubs at me chased me halfway across the city! I’m afraid I was starting to get upset! There’s no telling what would have happened if a party of the Queen’s guards had not come along!" he rumbled in a deep bass voice.

"Whoa! Lucky you!" Ranma exclaimed, a grin plastered across his face. Rand still looked stunned, though it was mainly at Ranma’s adaptability than anything else.

"But the Guardsmen seemed almost as afraid of me as the others! I’ve been here for four days so far, and I haven’t even put my nose out of this inn! Even good Master Gill asked me not to use the common room, not that he hasn’t been a good host of course." Loial added, his ears twitching. "There was a bit of trouble that first night, all the humans wanting to leave at once! And all the shouting and screaming! Some people could have been hurt." Loial’s ears continued to twitch and Rand stared at them in fascination.

"I certainly did not come out of the stedding for this!"

"You’re an Ogier!" Rand exclaimed. Loial nodded and Ranma looked on in confusion.

"A what?" He asked. Rand looked at him strangely for a minute before he remembered Ranma’s story.

"Oh right. Umm… Ogier are kind of like builders. They built Caemlyn, at least the old city, and the palace. A few other places too." He explained. Ranma nodded and looked at Loial.

"You ain’t gonna tell anyone about this are you?" he asked, looking slightly nervous. "I ain’t even told Kara the whole truth yet." Rand shook his head to the negative, and gave a small smile to the pig-tailed martial artist.

"Ta’veren," Loial said to himself. The pair looked at him in confusion for a moment. "You are both Ta'veren." He explained. The blank looks persisted. "Elder Haman says I never listened, but sometimes I did." The Ogier said as he rubbed behind a pointed ear with a blunt finger. "You know how the Pattern is woven, of course?" he asked, looking at Rand. The boy in question shrugged.

"I’ve never really thought about it," he said slowly. "It just is." He replied.

"Um, yes, well. Not exactly. You see, the Wheel of Time weaves the Pattern of the Ages, and the threads it uses are lives. It is not fixed, the Pattern, not always. If a man tries to change the direction of his life and the Pattern has room for it, the Wheel just weaves on and takes it in. There is always room for small changes, but sometimes the Pattern simply won’t accept a big change, no matter how hard you try. You understand?" Rand nodded.

"I could live on the farm or in Emond’s Field, and that would be a small change. If I wanted to be a king though…" He laughed, and Loial gave a grin that nearly split his face in two. His teeth were white, and as broad as chisels.

"Yes that’s it. But sometimes the change chooses you, or the Wheel chooses it for you. And sometimes the Wheel bends a life-thread, or several threads, in such a way that all the surrounding threads are forced to swirl around it, and those force other threads, and those still others, and on and on. That first bending to make the Web, that is Ta'veren, and there is nothing you can do to change it, not until the pattern itself changes. The Web – ta’maral’ailen, it’s called – can last for weeks, or for years. It can take in a town, or even the whole Pattern. Artur Hawkwing was Ta'veren. So was Lews Therin Kinslayer, for that matter, I suppose." He let out a booming chuckle, but was interrupted from speaking further by Ranma speaking out.

"What are you guys talking about? Pattern? Web? Wheels? Are we in a Home Ec. Class or something?" He asked, a look of utter confusion on his face. Rand was about to reply when Ranma suddenly arched his back and jerked onto his toes, a strangled cry escaping his mouth. He collapsed to the floor, writhing in seeming pain for a few minutes as Rand and Loial sought to hold him down.

To Ranma, the pain seemed to last an eternity as more knowledge was crammed forcibly into his skull, this time accompanied by musical girlish laughter and a flicker of silver on the edge of his vision. Finally the pain stopped and his muscles regained control over their actions.

Feeling two pairs of hands on his arms and legs, Ranma sat up, wincing as a sudden pounding erupted in his skull.

"Urgh…not again," he muttered as he squeezed his eyes shut. After a moment the throbbing subsided somewhat and he opened his eyes. "It’s OK. It’s happened before. Someone out there loves cramming stuff into my head with as much pain as possible." A concerned Loial, who looked him over carefully, pulled him gently to his feet.

"Are you all right?" he asked softly. Giving him a grateful look for not making too much noise, Ranma nodded.

"Yeah. Nothin’ an aspirin won’t fix." He replied, feeling the back of his head where it connected solidly with the floorboards. "Anyway, whoever it was jus’ gave me a load of info on all this Wheel and Pattern stuff. I know what you’re talkin’ about now." Rand nodded acceptance as he turned to Loial again.

"I don’t see what all of that has to do with me though. I’m a shepherd, not Artur Hawkwing, and neither is Perrin or Mat. It’s just…ridiculous."

"I didn’t say you were. But I could almost feel the Pattern swirl just listening you tell your tales, and I have no talent there. You are both Ta’veren all right. You, and maybe your friends too," he murmured as he looked at Rand. He rubbed his nose thoughtfully for a while, then nodded, as he seemed to come to a decision. "I wish to travel with you." He said finally. Ranma and Rand looked at each other and blinked simultaneously.

"Which one of us?" they asked, eerily in unison. Loial grinned.

"Both of you!" he stated simply. After another synchronised blink, they both opened their mouths again.

"But we’re not travelling together!" they said, once more perfectly in time. Ranma gave Rand an odd look for a moment, returned with just as much suspicion on Rand’s part. Loial chuckled at the sight, another broad grin on his face that exposed his large teeth.

"Oh I have a feeling that will change," he said, a mock serious expression on his face before it dissolved into another grin. After a moment, Ranma shrugged.

"Whatever. It’s not as if you can tell the future anyway. What happens, happens. That’s what I say." He said and plopped himself into a comfortable-looking chair.

"Hey! I was going to sit there!" Rand growled. Ranma stuck his tongue out and snuggled deeper in response, making Rand growl angrily. The smirk plastered on his face betrayed his humour though, and he chuckled as he sat in another seat.

"Humans," Loial muttered softly, "so excitable."

"Well, are you sure Loial? Are you sure you heard what I said about…" Rand looked at the door for a second. "About who is chasing me? Are you sure you want to involve yourself like this?" the Ogier chuckled softly.

"I am already involved just by being here. But aside from that, I originally left the stedding to visit the groves in the outside world, places where we planted the great trees to make us feel at home. But most have disappeared or been cut down by all you humans. In Caemlyn the grove was swallowed up by the city, and in Cairhein they have also disappeared. I hear there is a very fine grove in Tar Valon." He finished with an air of finality. Ranma chuckled at the doubtful look on Rand’s face.

"Better give it up! He’s dead set on coming you know." He advised. "Anyhow, I’m sure you wouldn’t mine the company ne? After all, which is safer? A large group or a single pair? And with me around you ain’t got nothing to worry about, right?" After a few moments, Rand sighed and gave a reluctant nod.

"I guess you are right. I’d prefer it if you’d reconsider though Loial. And you don’t really have to come Ranma. From what you’ve said you’ll be putting yourself in harm’s way by going with us to Tar Valon, what with your ki powers and everything." Ranma snorted and rolled his eyes.

"Listen Rand, you know I’ve been in harm’s way so many times I’ve lost count, and besides, if I go you get to drool at Kara all the way!" he ribbed, a cocky smirk on his face. Rand glared at him for a minute.

"I was not drooling!" he yelled as he leapt to his feet, only causing Ranma to break off into fits of laughter. Grumbling to himself, Rand sat back down and glanced at Loial, who was having difficulty hiding a bad case of sniggering. "Oh shut up!" Rand growled, giving the pair a mock scowl, which caused Ranma to put on a fake innocent expression, while Loial looked chastened. His shoulders still shook from silent laughter though. Rolling his eyes, Rand chuckled to himself. It would be nice to have others along. Being with Mat at the moment was almost as good as being alone, and Ranma seemed to take just about anything in stride, not to mention being able to lighten the atmosphere considerably. And Loial seemed almost as unflappable as Tam, plus he seemed to be a comforting presence.

Thinking about Tam reminded Rand of the others who he had hoped would meet with himself and Mat in Caemlyn.

Oh Egwene… I hope you are all right! Everyone has to be alive! He thought morosely. His depressing thoughts were interrupted by a cushion impacting on his head, making him look up to see Ranma’s serious face.

"Don’t worry about ‘em man. They’ll come through, you’ll see." He assured. For some reason, Rand felt a whole lot better, and nodded to the pig-tailed martial artist.

"Thanks Ranma."

"Don’t worry about it. There were plenty of times I wished I had someone to give me a morale boost instead of having to do it myself, so the least I can do is give ya a hand." Rand nodded and stood up, popping a few slightly stiff joints, and looked out of a nearby window.

"It’s pretty late, I’m going to get some rest," he said. He watched as Ranma smoothly got to his feet, marvelling at the economy of movement that the younger boy displayed.

"Good idea. Kara’ll probably want to talk and she should be awake by now. She never did take to being lookout very well. She’s more than likely exhausted," he murmured half to himself. Rand and Loial exchanged raised eyebrows and turned back to the pig-tailed boy. Ranma, seeing their looks, got a panicked look in his eyes and began to wave his hands in warding motions in the air before him.

"It’s NOT LIKE THAT!" he yelled, making the two blink in surprise at the strength of his outburst. He looked apologetic afterwards and gave a sheepish smile. "Sorry, force of habit." He muttered before darting out the door, leaving Rand and Loial to stare at the door in continued bewilderment.

"He is much more excitable than most humans." Loial commented. Rand nodded in silent agreement before he turned to the Ogier.

"Well, I’m off to bed. Perhaps I will see you tomorrow?" he asked as he held the door open. Loial nodded.

"Perhaps Rand al’Thor. Perhaps," he said and returned to reading a book that was sitting on the table he sat at. Rand smiled slightly before closing the door and going up to bed.

<Several days later>

Rand turned back from the window and grinned at Ranma, who stood framed in the doorway, his usual smirk returning Rand’s smile. Casting a quick look outside for what could quite possibly count as the four hundredth time, he looked at all the people as they ran, shouting and waving banners and streamers, in the same direction. Not one person looking as if they wanted to bash anyone else’s head in, just mindless joy and fun.

He turned away again and looked at Mat, curled up in his bed, the blankets mussed in a very haphazard fashion. Sighing, he placed his hands on his hips and repeated the same words he had been reciting for the last half-hour.

"Are you coming?"

Mat merely glowered in response.

"Take that trolloc you are so fond of." He muttered. Rand glanced at Ranma, who had a dangerous scowl on his face from where he stood propped against the doorframe.

"Blood and Ashes Mat, he’s not a trolloc! You’re just being stubborn stupid. How many times do you want to have this argument? Light, it’s not as if you’d never heard of Ogier before."

"I never heard they looked like trollocs." Mat muttered, curling tighter into his blankets. From the movement in the corner of his eye, Rand detected Ranma had finally had enough.

Uh-oh.

"Shut up Mat," Ranma growled as he waved a fist in the other boy’s direction. "Loial has done nuthin’ to you, so if you can’t say anything nice, shut the hell up!" the pig-tailed martial artist looked up at Rand. "I’m goin’. You gonna come or stay here with this jerk?" He waved a thumb in Mat’s direction, who scowled angrily in response. Sighing, Rand nodded and stood up.

"Last chance Mat." He said as he closed the door slowly, hoping he would change his mind. The door clicked shut. Sighing, he leaned up against the wooden door.

"Don’t worry about it Rand. Once Nyneave or Moiraine gets here he’ll be fine." Ranma assured, scowling slightly at some unseen thing in the distance. "Moiraine could probably do more though. Especially about that dagger. The thing’s evil Rand." He said seriously. Sighing, Rand nodded reluctantly.

"Yes, I know. It was a mistake for him to take that thing, but there’s nothing can be done about it until they get here." Ranma nodded and adjusted the sword-belt that ran diagonally around his torso until he decided that it was comfortable enough. "Where’s Kara?" Rand asked curiously. Upon seeing Ranma raise an eyebrow, he scowled at the younger boy. "Hey, nothing like that. Just wondering is all." He muttered defensively. Grinning in an understanding manner, Ranma threw the older boy his cape.

"She’s with Loial in the library again. That girl loves that game, stones or whatever it is. She plays it all the time," he said after Rand finished adjusting it. Nodding in reply, Rand started down the stairs, to meet Master Gill coming the other way.

"There’s someone asking for you in the city," the innkeeper said around his pipe. Rand felt a surge of hope. "Asking after you and those friends of yours. By name. You younglings anyway. Seems to want you three lads most." Anxiety replaced hope until Rand felt a hand on his shoulder. Looking back, Rand saw Ranma standing a few steps above, his ever-present smirk chasing most of the worry away. Nodding his thanks, Rand turned back to Master Gill.

"Who?" He asked, not bothering to glance about. He had found Ranma to be an excellent warning system in the last several days, as he seemed to be able to locate people who were attempting to listen in on any private conversation, so he knew he would not have to watch his tongue until Ranma signalled him to clam up.

"Don’t know his name. Just heard about him. I hear most things in Caemlyn, eventually. Beggar." The innkeeper grunted. "Half-mad, I hear. Even so, he could take the Queen’s bounty at the palace, even with things as hard as they are. On high days the Queen gives it out with her own hands, and there’s never anyone turned away for any reason. No one needs to beg in Caemlyn. Even a man under warrant can’t be arrested while he’s taking the Queen’s bounty."

"A Darkfriend?" Ranma’s voice asked from over Rand’s shoulder.

"You’ve got darkfriends on the brain lads. They’re around, certainly, but just because the Whitecloaks have everybody stirred up is no reason to think the city’s full of them. Do you know what rumour those idiots have started now? ‘Strange shapes.’ Can you believe it? Strange shapes creeping around outside the city in the night." He chuckled to himself. The two boys exchanged looks, Ranma’s lips pressed to a thin line rather than his usual smirk. Ranma nodded, and Rand turned around.

"What sort of shapes?" He asked.

"What kind? I don’t know what kind. Trollocs maybe. The Shadowman. Lews Therin Kinslayer himself, come back fifty feet high. What kind of shapes do you think people will imagine now that the idea’s in their heads? It’s none of our worry." Master Gill eyed the pair for a moment. "Going out are you? Well, I can’t say I care for it, myself, even today, but there’s hardly anybody left here but me. Not your friends?"

"Mat’s not well, and Kara’s playing Stones with Loial again." Ranma supplied helpfully.

"Well, be that as it may. You watch yourselves, now. Even today good Queen’s men will be outnumbered out there, Light burn the day I ever thought to see it so. Best you two leave by the alleyway. There’s two of them blood-be-damned traitors sitting across the street watching my front door! They know where I stand, by the Light!"

Nodding the pair crept to the doorway that led to the alleyway, and Rand stood behind Ranma as he checked the alley for signs of intrusion. Rand blinked as Ranma seemed to disappear before his eyes, but a few days experience had taught him that the pig-tailed youth was faster than the eye could see. Especially after watching him practice in the stableyard. He chuckled as he headed after the younger boy, remembering the stunned stares of the stablehands as they watched Ranma bounce about in a graceful arial ballet, and the admiring looks of the female patrons until Kara glared at them hard enough to melt steel. Although Rand had a feeling she liked Ranma, she seemed to fuss over Mat an awful lot, mothering him and smothering him with attention, much to Mat’s distress. Rand thought it was rather hilarious watching Mat protesting grouchily as Kara hauled him to his feet and pulled him downstairs to the bath. The loud shout of surprise, followed by a loud splash signified what Kara thought of Mat’s rather proficient odour.

At the mouth of the alley stood one of the bulky men Master Gill had hired, leaning on a spear nonchalantly. Ranma had cautioned Rand not to underestimate those men, as he said they were concealing a fair amount of skill. Of course, after his caution Ranma went into his usual spiel of ‘of course I am still the best there is.’ Rand had noted that Ranma seemed to have an ego the size of the moon, and a head just as big to go with it.

As they passed the man, Lamgwin if Rand remembered correctly, Ranma’s hand flickered in a fast and seemingly complicated gesture, quickly returned by the larger man. Moving closer, Rand spoke.

"What was that?" He asked. Ranma looked over his shoulder guard at the older boy.

"Just a message. He says to be careful, that’s all. And that we’d be more useful back there than with a knife in our backs when trouble breaks out," Ranma responded before turning back and moving forward through the mass of people. Looking about as he trailed behind the confident martial artist, Rand saw the two men Master Gill had mentioned, standing atop two barrels so that they could see over the crowd. They made no secret of their allegiance, with not only their swords wrapped in white, but white armbands and white cockades in their hats as well.

Neither of the pair had been in Caemlyn long before they found out what the colours meant. Red meant allegiance to Queen Morgase, and white said the Queen and her involvement with Aes Sedai and Tar Valon were to blame for everything that had gone wrong. For the eternal winter that seemed to have descended, for the crop failures, and possibly even the false dragon. Rand did not want to get involved in the local politics, but it was too late now. He had chosen – quite by accident, and there was no going back. He gained some measure of relief from the fact that Ranma had no problems displaying his red-swathed sword and scabbard, waving off Rand’s worries by saying, ‘If they try something, let them! I’ll kick ‘em so hard their kid’s will be feeling it!’ What could you say to an argument like that?

Today seemed to be different than the normal hostilities. On the surface, at least. Today everyone celebrated the victory of the Light over the Shadow. Today the False Dragon was being brought into the city, to be displayed before the Queen before he was taken to Tar Valon. No one mentioned that last bit though. The Light had defeated the Shadow, and soldiers of Andor had been in the forefront of the battle. For today, that was all that was important. Everything else could be forgotten.

Rand eyed the small knots of ten to twenty men wearing red bands or swords speculatively. He was beginning to think that being with Ranma was the only chance he had.

Or maybe it’s my death warrant. He thought dryly as he looked at the pig-tailed boy, his red-wrapped sword clinking against his shoulder guard softly, in plain view for all to see. Unlike Rand’s own blade, which he hid deeply within his cloak, hoping that no-one would see it. It seemed rather obvious though, seeing as he was in Ranma’s company. He felt like a giant in a land of midgets, easily spotted by anyone who cared to look. He jumped in surprise as Ranma placed a cautionary hand on his arm.

"Quit bein’ so jumpy! You stick out like a sore thumb!" He hissed, earning him a glare from the older boy. Shrugging, Ranma continued blithely forward, hardly caring if anyone saw his red cloth-wrapped sword. His small smile widened as he watched a Whitecloak almost get knocked down and trampled by the tide of humanity before he was hauled out of the way by his two companions. He shared a glance with Rand and the pair of them sniggered for a few minutes, enjoying the boisterous atmosphere while they could.

The pair worked their way to the inner city, never straying more than an arm’s-length away from each other lest they permanently get separated, and tried to get closer to the palace for a better look at the False Dragon, or perhaps the Queen, or even both. Rand felt excitement bubble up in his veins and grinned inanely at Ranma, who rolled his eyes and smirked in reply. Rand laughed and continued to worm his way through, envious of the ease with which Ranma seemed to glide through the crowds as if he were greased.

Abruptly they passed around a bend, and the palace appeared before them, huge and sprawling, seemingly crafted by an artisan than built, all the gleeman’s tales Rand had heard about palaces seemed to come back to him at that moment…which was abruptly shattered as Ranma’s knuckles rapped on his skull.

"Are ya gonna stand there gawkin’ all day or are we going somewhere?" the pig-tailed boy asked as he crossed his arms across his chest. Rand scowled slightly, but nodded his assent and followed, vowing silently to himself that he would get the younger boy back for the offence.

Having seen the palace told the boys that they weren’t going to get any closer if the veritable army of Royal Guards had anything to say about it. The fact that the entire road leading to the palace seemed to be shimmering with white was also an indication. Looking down at Ranma, who stood jut under 5ft 10ins, Rand sighed at the fact he would not be able to use his superior height without denying Ranma a view.

"You could always activate you cur-" he began, only to have Ranma’s hand over his mouth and a nasty glare directed his way.

"Do you want to die?" Ranma hissed. Rand shook his head in reply. "Then never mention that around other people," Ranma finished before taking his hand away. Rand rolled his eyes and nodded at the younger boy. Flashing a quick grin, a startlingly good impression of Ranma’s own, he looked about.

"So where shall we go to get a good view?" Rand asked as they pushed away from the street until they found a clear spot. Following its lead, they continued on until they reached a backstreet, whereupon Ranma turned and faced his companion. He gave an evil grin that made Rand’s hackles stand on end and motioned for Rand to follow which he did, however reluctantly.

After nearly an hour of what seemed to Rand to be aimless meandering, Ranma stopped and squinted up at a building. He motioned for Rand to be quiet and bunched his legs up underneath him. Rand, knowing what came next, moved back against the opposite wall of the street and watched in fascination as Ranma jumped to the roof in a single leap. He watched Ranma nose around for a few minutes before the pig-tailed youth jumped back down, a frown on his face.

"Well?" Rand asked eagerly. Ranma shook his head in annoyance.

"No, it’s filled with guys wearing white, just like all the others," he muttered. Rand blinked.

"Others? What do you mean others? You’ve only checked that one!" he exclaimed. Ranma shot him an ‘are you stupid?’ look.

"You know all that walking we did?" he asked.

"Yeah?" Rand replied slowly.

"Well you know I was lookin’ up a heck of a lot?"


"Yeah? So?" Rand asked impatiently. Ranma rolled his eyes.

"So I was lookin’ you baka! You thought I did all that walking for nothing? Geez…what a moron." He muttered. Rand glared at the retreating back of the younger boy for a moment before he jogged to catch up.

"So now what?" he asked.

"We keep looking, what else? There’s bound to be some place we can use." Ranma replied simply. Rand sighed and nodded as they continued to search.

About another half an hour later, a great shout rose up from the new city, accompanied by trumpets and the steady beat of drums. Rand groaned and slumped against a wall sadly, suddenly wishing he had rid himself of the younger man so that he could have seen the procession.

"All right!" Ranma crowed loudly, bringing Rand’s attention back to the present.

"Huh?" he commented intelligently. Ranma smirked back at him from over his shoulder pad as he pointed straight up. Rand followed his point to the top of the very high wall right in front of them.

"You can’t be serious!" he cried, his eyes widening in surprise. One look at Ranma was all he needed. "You’re serious." He stated flatly.

"But of course!" Ranma retorted in a fake French accent as he leapt to the top of the small hill at the bottom of the wall. "Hurry up will ya? It’ll be here soon!" As soon as he finished Ranma began to climb, placing his hands in what looked to Rand like the tiniest holes imaginable. Heaving a sigh, Rand scrambled up to the top of the hill and began to climb after his friend.

"You’re insane." He muttered softly as his hands searched for places to hold his weight, but his grin of exhilaration told of his enjoyment.

"Ah stuff it. I can hear your smile from here." Ranma replied from above. Rand sniggered and began to climb swiftly as he realised the wall was almost like a natural cliff. In no time at all he drew level with Ranma, who grinned in response to the unvoiced challenge.

Challenge accepted.

The pair scrambled faster than should be humanly possible to the top of the wall, both planting their hands on the top at the exact same time, making both boys laugh. They hauled themselves atop the narrow wall, noticing for the first time the large tree that grew just inside the wall, it’s branches brushing the top of Rand’s head. He grinned at Ranma, his chest heaving with giddy accomplishment, mirrored by Ranma, who normally took three times the amount of exertion to make him the least bit breathless. His excitement made up for it, and caused both boys to breathe heavily, neither minding one bit. As they settled down comfortably, the first of the procession rounded the final bend to the palace. In the front of the procession, twenty ranks of trumpeters came first, splitting the air with peal after triumphant peal, a fanfare of victory. Behind them, as many drummers thundered. Then came the banners of Caemlyn, white lions on red, borne by mounted men, followed by the soldiers of Caemlyn, rank on rank on rank of horsemen, armour gleaming, lances proudly held, crimson pennants fluttering. Treble rows of archers and pikemen flanked them, and came on and on as the horsemen began passing through the waiting Guards and through the Palace gates.

The last of the foot soldiers rounded the curve, and behind them was a massive wagon. Sixteen horses pulled it in hitches of four. In the centre of its flat bed was a large cage of iron bars, and on each corner of the wagonbed sat two women, watching the cage as intently as if the procession and the crowd did not exist. Between the wagon and the footmen, and to either side, rode a dozen Warders, their cloaks swirling and tangling the eye. If the Aes Sedai ignored the crowd, the Warders scanned it as if there were no other guards but they.

With all of that, it was the man in the cage that caught and held the boy’s eyes. they were not close enough to see Logain’s face, as they had wanted, but suddenly Rand felt he was as close as he cared for. Ranma merely snorted softly in disdain.

"He’s just like Taro," he muttered to himself. "All mouth." That wasn’t quite true, and he knew it, but it was close enough. He certainly wasn’t afraid of the man in the wagon, though Rand seemed to be pretty spooked. The crowds howled with hatred and fury as Logain passed, though they fell silent as his gaze swept over them, howling and screaming all the louder when he looked somewhere else. As the gates of the palace swallowed him up, the false Dragon reared his head back and laughed before disappearing from view.

Rand leaned out a bit further to try and catch a last glimpse, but overbalanced and began to fall forward. A sudden jerk as he was caught and hauled back up made him relieved of Ranma’s presence.

"Thanks," he muttered as he felt himself placed back on the wall.

"Don’t mention it pal." Ranma commented as he gazed out over the city.

"Why were the Aes Sedai in the wagon watching him?" he asked, as he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the younger boy. Before Ranma could answer, another voice intruded.

"They’re keeping him from touching the True Source, silly."

Both boys jerked to look up to the girl’s voice, but Rand suddenly realised he was standing and looking up was not a good idea. He flailed his arms wildly, accidentally knocking Ranma off the wall and inside, before he finally lost his balance and followed. He looked up, or down depending on your perspective, and saw the familiar face of Ranma looking back in horrified surprise before their two heads collided and inky blackness swallowed them up.

 

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End Chapter 2.

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<Preview of next chapter!>

Ranma meets Morgase!!

Authors notes: Okay, so I didn't include Moiraine in this chapter. Want to know why? It was getting too long. ^_^ Plus I was getting tired of writing for nearly 9 hours straight. She'll be in the next chapter. I promise!!!

Strider Richards

C&C to strider_richards@hotmail.com

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