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The Pegasus Cycle.

Book 1 : - Breath of the World.

Ranma 1/2 and 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 3: To Learn.

Ranma and Rand looked at each other in surprise as they found each other sitting at a table opposite two others. Rand recognised both instantly, Moiraine and Logain. Ranma only knew Logain, so he pointed at Moiraine, who seemed oblivious to the false Dragon sitting at her side and turned to Rand to ask. When no sound came from his mouth, he looked confused for a moment, but Rand shrugged and mouthed ‘Moiraine’ silently. Ranma repeated the action until he understood whom Rand was naming. He nodded in understanding and looked about, abruptly realising that the walls of the room were fading off into grey. The pair looked at each other in surprise, a sense of urgency building, and turned back to the others opposite, to find them missing and another figure Rand was intimately familiar with sitting in their place. Ba’alzamon. He paled and made a warning gesture to Ranma who nodded in understanding. Suddenly both felt the blood in their veins quicken with the growing urgency that made their ears ring and their breathing become shallow, continuing on until their vision blurred and darkened.

With a jerk Rand sat up, and immediately groaned and clutched his head, swaying. His whole skull hurt, and his left hand found sticky dampness in his hair. He was sitting on something soft, with green grass around.

"Rnd…Rnd! Gt ff mm!!" came a muffled voice. Rand slowly looked down, any attempts to do anything quickly ended up in the world spinning, and found a short pig-tail protruding from underneath his backside. Five seconds later he made the connection.

"Gah! Ugh!" Rand squawked, as he quickly scooted off his friend, only to regret it as the pounding returned in his head and the world span dizzyingly. He crumpled to the ground next to his friend who had a small rivulet of blood streaming down his face that dripped from his chin to land on the lush grass.

Wait…grass…wall…the girl! Rand grimaced as the world lurched whenever he moved.

"Now you know what it feels like to get hit by Akane’s hammer." Ranma commented dryly from where he lay propped up on his elbows a short distance away. Rand groaned in reply and slowly swivelled his head to look at their surroundings. They were in what appeared to be a garden or park, and a slate covered walkway meandered lazily around flower beds not more than six feet away, with a stone bench next to it with a leafy arbour over the bench for shade. Rand looked over at Ranma and the pair grimaced simultaneously.

We’re inside the wall. Came the synchronised thought as they continued to look about, Ranma looking decidedly better off than Rand, who looked like he had had a run in with a cheese-grater. Both spied the tree behind them and on that, rapidly descending, was the girl. When she reached the ground, she turned about and faced the teens, eliciting another groan as they took in her appearance, casting ‘we’re in deep trouble’ looks towards each other. A deep blue velvet cloak lined with pale fur rested on her shoulders, its hood hanging down behind to her waist with a cluster of silver bells at the peak. They jingled when she moved. A silver filigree circlet held her long, red-gold curls, and delicate silver rings hung at her ears, while a necklace of heavy silver links and dark green stones Rand thought were emeralds lay around her throat. Her pale blue dress was smudged with bark stains from her tree climbing, but it was still silk, and embroidered with painstakingly intricate designs, the skirt slashed with inserts the colour of rich cream. A wide belt of woven silver encircled her waist, and velvet slippers peeked out from the under the hem of her dress.

Rand had only ever seen two people wearing such clothing before, Moiraine and the Darkfriend that tried to kill Mat and him. He could not imagine who would want to climb trees wearing that. The way she looked at himself and Ranma was also cause for worry, like she wasn’t worried in the least about two strangers landing in her garden. The way she carried herself reminded him of Nyneave or Moiraine. She reminded Ranma of his mother, which made him feel slightly depressed, but his cocky smile soon returned as he managed to get to his feet, wincing slightly as his head swam for a moment before steadying out. He looked down at Rand, still sitting on the grass with a slightly panicked look on his face, more than likely wondering if they were in serious trouble or not, and rolled his eyes. He tried not to sway at the action as the world tilted slightly. Gingerly he hauled Rand to his feet, who groaned at the sudden motion, and inspected the girl, ignoring the finery and lofty attitudes. She was perhaps a year younger than himself and tall for a girl, taller than he himself, and beautiful, her face a perfect oval framed by that mass of sunburst curls, her lips full and red, her eyes the colour of the bluest sky to his midnight blue. Ranma, having overwhelming experience with pretty girls, though not quite as beautiful as this one he had to admit, concentrated on keeping Rand upright until he heard a scrabbling sound. Looking over the girl’s shoulder he noted a boy dropping down, approximately the same age as himself, his hair and face marking as the girl’s close kin. His coat and cloak were red and white and gold, embroidered and brocaded, and even more ornate than the girl’s. Ranma felt Rand shift in his hands and looked down to see a definitely worried expression on the older boy’s face, though his pale complexion could have added to the effect, he conceded.

The boy studied the pair over the girl’s shoulder, fingering the dagger at his waist. It seemed a nervous habit to Ranma, but he could tell the youth knew how to use it if need be. He held the same regal bearing as the girl, and both looked at himself and Rand as if they did not quite know what to do with them. Ranma noted that the girl almost seemed to be studying Rand intently, almost ignoring the pig-tailed boy, for which he did not know whether to be annoyed or grateful.

"We will never hear the end of this, Elayne, if mother finds out," the boy said after a moment. "She told us to stay in our rooms, but you just had to get a look at Logain, didn’t you? Now look what it has got us."

"Be quiet, Gawyn." The girl said, and although the younger of the two, she seemed to be expecting to be obeyed. Ranma smirked as the boy opened his mouth to say more, but shut it again after nothing came out. "Are you two all right?" she said suddenly.

Ranma gave a cocky grin and nodded quickly, forcing down the desire to flop about as the world span again. It would not do to show weakness in front of strangers. Rand however, had no such compunctions. After he realised the girl was talking to them, he shook himself free of Ranma’s grip, much to the younger boy’s protests.

"I’m fine. I just --" He tottered slightly, and his legs began to give way. Ranma jumped to his side quickly and caught him, ignoring the boy’s blink of surprise at his speed, and attempting to ignore the disquieting manner in which the world swam.

"We’ll just climb back over the wall." He supplied for his friend, who groaned and raised a hand to his head. Ranma suppressed the urge to bonk the older boy on the head for giving their condition away.

"You are hurt." Gracefully she glided over to the pair, who had by now collapsed to the grass, and parted the blood-matted hair on the left side of Rand’s head, seemingly oblivious to Ranma, who rolled his eyes in amusement and looked over at the other boy. After a moment, he struggled to his feet and walked over to the boy, blinking at the spots that danced before his eyes, who looked quite surprised to see him walking so easily.

"Hey. I’m Ranma. Ranma Saotome." He greeted, sticking his hand out. The boy named Gawyn looked surprised for a moment before returning the handshake firmly.

"Gawyn Trakand." He said, a small amused smile on his face as if he expected some sort of reaction. Ranma nodded absently and looked over his shoulder to Rand and Elayne.

"Give me your water flask, Gawyn," she said. "I need to wash this." Quickly Gawyn passed Ranma, giving him a faintly surprised look as he went, and handed her the flask. Ranma followed and plonked himself next to Rand, his substantial regenerative abilities already having dissipated the dizziness, although the wound was still open and would stay so for a few more minutes until it healed.

He watched as Elayne washed the wound in Rand’s hair with the water, then smoothed on some ointment from one of the various vials upon the grass. The pig-tailed boy eyed the vials for a moment, wondering if this girl perhaps knew the hidden weapons technique that Mousse favoured, but dismissed it quickly, as he found no evidence of ki in her when he looked. He did find that she was abnormally strong in spirit though, and he wondered about that privately until he heard Gawyn speak.

"She’s always finding stray cats and birds with broken wings. You are the first human being she has had to work on." He hesitated for a moment, then added, "Do not be offended. I am not calling you a stray." Ranma sniggered softly, and watched as Rand’s eyes flickered in his direction in an attempt at a glare before having his head pulled around again by Elayne, who gave Ranma a disapproving look before continuing with her work.

"No offence taken," Rand said stiffly. They were acting as if he were a skittish horse.

"She does know what she’s doing," Gawyn said. "She has had the best teachers. So do not fear, you are in good hands." Ranma watched as Elayne pressed some bandage to the wound, then pulled a silk scarf from her belt, blue and cream and gold. Ranma grinned as Rand’s eyes widened as she began to wind it around his head to hold the wad of bandage in place.

"You can’t use that," the older boy protested.

"Somehow I think she can afford it, if the get-up she’s wearing is any indication Rand," Ranma said simply as Elayne nodded and continued to wind. Rand looked at Gawyn.

"Does she always expect everybody to do what she tells them?" Gawyn looked surprised again, and his gaze flickered to Ranma and back to Rand again, his mouth tightening with amusement.

"Most of the time she does. And most of the time they do."

"Hold this, Elayne said. "Put your hand there while I tie – " She exclaimed as she glimpsed the trail of dried blood down the right side of Ranma’s face. "Not you too! Oh dear…I don’t think there is enough water." Ranma grinned at her concern.

"Don’t worry about it," he said as he waved her off. "I heal fast." Quickly finishing her knot, she firmly grasped the pig-tailed boy’s head, ignoring his cries of protest, and examined the wound, muttering to herself about how little water was left. The washing stung, but Ranma had endured worse from Dr. Tofu, and her touch was surprisingly delicate. He thanked whatever Kami was watching that he hadn’t changed either.

"Hold still," she commanded softly as he shifted to get comfortable. He looked out the side of his eyes and spied Rand grinning at him as if to say, ‘you deserve it.’ Scowling to himself, Ranma stared intently at the grass as if it had personally offended him.

"Most of the time they do exactly what she says," Gawyn went on with an affectionate grin at the top of her head. "Most people. Not mother, of course. Or Elaida. And not Lini. Lini was her nurse. You can’t give orders to someone who switched you for stealing figs when you were little. And even not so little." Elayne raised her head long enough to give him a dangerous look. He cleared his throat and carefully blanked his expression before hurrying on. "And Gareth, of course. No one gives orders to Gareth."

"Not even Mother," Elayne said, bending her head back to tend to Ranma’s head. Throughout all this he had listened patiently until Elayne finished, but he was starting to get nervous. He had heard of a Gareth when he had listened in on Rand and Mat’s conversation with Master Gill. "She makes suggestions, and he always does what she suggests, but I’ve never heard her give him a command." She shook her head.

"I don’t know why that always surprises you," Gawyn answered her. "Even you don’t try telling Gareth what to do. He’s served three Queens and been Captain-General, and First Prince Regent, for two. I daresay there are some think he’s more a symbol of the Throne of Andor than the Queen is." By now the hackles on the back of Ranma’s neck had risen, and he cast a worried look to Rand, who returned it with generous lashings of anxiety.

"Mother should go ahead and marry him," Elayne said absently. Her attention was rooted on Ranma’s head. "She wants to; she can’t hide it from me. And it would solve so many problems." Gawyn shook his head.

"One of them must bend first. Mother cannot, and Gareth will not."

"If she commanded him…"

"He would obey. I think. But she won’t. You know she won’t." Abruptly they turned to stare at the two boys. Ranma had a feeling they’d forgotten they were there. He heard Rand clear his throat nervously.

"Who…?" He had to stop to wet his lips. "Who is your mother?" he asked in a faintly shaky voice. Ranma nodded his agreement of the question. He watched as Elayne’s eyes widened in surprise, but Gawyn spoke up in an ordinary tone that made Ranma want to run for the hills.

"Morgase, by the Grace of the Light, Queen of Andor, Protector of the Realm, Defender of the People, High Seat of House Trakand." Ranma managed to sum up his thoughts in two words.

"Oh shit," he muttered. Elayne blinked in surprise.

"The Queen," Rand muttered, shock spreading through him in waves of numbness. He cast a panicked look Ranma’s way, and saw it oddly mirrored back at him in the pig-tailed boy’s face. It looked odd on his face instead of the usual confident smirk, and made Rand want to laugh, which he knew to be the fringes of panic. He saw Ranma leap to his feet and hastily did the same, the need to flee gripping him tightly. He saw Ranma tear off a similar scarf to his own and made to do the same as the pair of Royals rose to their feet gracefully when Elayne’s hand seized his elbow. She cast a disapproving look Ranma’s way, who was hopping from foot-to-foot in agitation as he struggled internally on whether or not to run and leave his friend.

After a moment’s indecision, he decided to stay, after all, he was not his father.

"Stop that," Elayne said. "You will start the bleeding again." He voice was still calm, sure that he would do as he was told. Rand absently noted that Ranma now had a stoic expression on his face as he stood still by his shoulder. For some reason, Rand felt relieved that his friend had not abandoned him and was staying by his side, and felt added courage swell up within his breast.

"Ah…if you’ll pardon me, ah…my Lady, we should really go. We’ll just climb back over and – "

"You really didn’t know." For the first time she seemed as startled as the two teens. "Do you mean you climbed up on that wall to see Logain without even knowing where you were?"

"Yes ma’am." Ranma said simply, cutting of further words. He bowed respectfully, nudging Rand to do the same, and stood up again. "As my friend says my Lady, we shouldn’t be here. We thank you for your help with our wounds." He nudged Rand again, who nodded and touched the scarf around his head.

"Yes, thank you, my Lady," he said.

"Leaving without even telling us your name?" Gawyn said, looking at Rand. "I know yours Ranma Saotome, from before, but I’ve been wondering about you." He said, nodding to Rand again. "You sound like an Andorman, though not a Caemlyner, certainly, but you look like…Well, you know our names. Courtesy would suggest you give us yours."

"Allow me to re-introduce myself, my Lord. My name is Ranma Saotome, heir to the Saotome School of Anything-Goes Martial Arts. From Arafel," the pig-tailed boy supplied politely. Rand tried hard not to gape in surprise at the change in his friend, who went from brash youth to such a courteous demeanour in the blink of an eye, sounding like the heir to a throne, rather than an unarmed combat discipline.

"Interesting. You do not sound Arafellin," Gawyn murmured. Ranma maintained his calm exterior, but inside he felt like screaming and utilising the Saotome School Secret Technique: run away.

"And I am Rand al'Thor. From Emond’s Field, in the Two Rivers." He added, noting Gawyn’s surprised expression, which quickly melted into a polite smile.

"From the west," Gawyn murmured, a trace of surprise evident in his voice. "Very far to the west." Rand cast a fleeting glance at Ranma, and noted it was returned with a tiny nod.

"Tabac and wool," Gawyn said. "I have to know the principal products of every part of the realm. Of every land, for that matter. Part of my training. Principal products and crafts, and what the people are like. Their customs, their strengths and weaknesses. It’s said Two Rivers people are stubborn. They can be led, if they think you are worthy, but the harder you try to push them, the harder they dig in. Elayne ought to choose her husband from there. It’ll take a man with a will like stone to keep from being trampled by her." Rand and Ranma glanced at each other, and stared at Gawyn. Elayne was staring too. Gawyn looked as much under control as ever, but he was babbling.

Why? Was the unified thought of Ranma and Rand as they glanced at each other again.

"What’s this?"

All four jumped at the sudden voice, Ranma whirling in one swift movement to face the speaker, Rand joining him not a moment later. Casting a glance side-ways, Rand noted that the pig-tailed boy looked relaxed, but there seemed to be an underlying tension in his muscles that told of him being ready to spring into action at a moments notice. Seeing the newcomer, Ranma once more displayed his verbal eloquence.

"Crap," he muttered. Rand stifled a smirk at his friend’s comment, and concentrated on the figure. The young man who stood there was the handsomest Rand had ever seen, almost too handsome for masculinity. He was tall and slender, but his movements almost mimicked Ranma’s step for step. Rand had a feeling Ranma was a thousand times better than this man could ever hope to be, though. If Ranma’s confident smirk was any indication, he thought so as well.

Dark of hair and eye, he wore his clothes, only a little less elaborate than Gawyn’s, as if they were of no importance. One hand rested on his sword hilt, and his eyes moved easily between the two boys.

"Stand away from him, Elayne," the man said. "You, too, Gawyn." Elayne stepped in front of Rand, and Gawyn in front of Ranma, giving him a quick grin as he did so.

"This man is a loyal subject of our mother, and a good Queen’s man. And he is under my protection, Galad," Elayne said, her head held high and as confident as ever.

"This man is a traveller from Arafel, and an honourable man who supports the Queen wholeheartedly. He is under my protection, Galad." Gawyn said smoothly, every bit as confident as his sister.

Rand tried to remember what he had heard from Master Kinch, and since from Master Gill. Galadedrid Damodred was Elayne’s half-brother, Elayne’s and Gawyn’s, if he remembered correctly; the three shared the same father. Master Kinch might not have liked Taringail Damodred too well – nether did anyone else he had heard – but the son was well though of by wearers of the red and white alike, if talk in the city was any guide.

"I am aware of your fondness for strays Elayne, and yours for helping your sister Gawyn," the slender man said reasonably, "but the pair are armed, and neither hardly looks reputable. In these days, we cannot be too careful. If they are loyal supporters of the Queen, what are they doing here where they do not belong? It is easy enough to change the wrappings on a sword, Elayne." From the corner of Rand’s eye, he saw Ranma bristle at the implication that he was not as honourable as he claimed. Rand felt his mouth go slightly dry. He hoped Ranma didn’t do anything stupid. Like open his mouth.

"They are here as our guests, Galad, and I vouch for this one. As my brother does for the other. Or have you appointed yourself my nurse, to decide whom I may talk to, and when?" Ranma’s previously thin mouth quirked up in a tiny smirk.

"You know I make no claims for control over your actions, Elayne, but these…guests of yours are not proper, and you know that as well as I. Gawyn, I expected you to know better. Our mother would – "

"Enough!" Elayne snapped. "You are right that you have no say over my actions, nor have you any right to judge them. You may leave me. Now!"

Galad gave Gawyn a slightly rueful and disappointed look, hinted with a dose of mild disapproval. Elayne’s face darkened, but just as she opened her mouth again, he bowed, in all formality yet with the grace of a cat, took a step back, then turned and strode down the paved path with such grace that only Ranma could match him.

"I hate him," Elayne breathed. "He is vile and full of envy."

"More like full of himself." Ranma muttered softly, making Rand squeeze his eyes shut to stop from laughing at the irony of Ranma saying such a thing.

"There you go too far, Elayne," Gawyn said. "Galad does not know the meaning of envy. Twice now he has saved my life, with none to know if he held his hand. If he had not, he would be your First Prince of the Sword in my place."

"Never, Gawyn. I would choose anyone before Galad. Anyone. The lowest stableboy." Suddenly she smiled and gave her brother a mock-stern look. "You say I am fond of giving orders. Well, I command you to let nothing happen to you. I command you to be my First Prince of the Sword when I take the throne – the light send that day is far off! – and to lead the armies of Andor with the sort of honour Galad cannot dream of."

"As you command, my Lady." Gawyn laughed, his bow a parody of Galad’s. Elayne turned to look at the two boys with a thoughtful frown.

"Now we must get you out of here quickly."

"Galad always does the right thing," Gawyn explained to Ranma, "even when he should not. In this case, finding two strangers in the gardens, the right thing is to notify the Palace Guards. Which I suspect he is on his way to do right this minute."

"Time to go then!" Ranma exclaimed and moved in the direction of the wall. Rand began to follow until he saw Elayne grab the pig-tailed boy by his arm.

"Not after all that trouble I went to for your heads. That wall is almost straight down on the other side, and with the guards coming you’ll be rushing. It is likely you would slip and fall, either aggravating your wound or making a brand new one. There is a small gate on the other side of the garden. It’s overgrown, and no one but me even remembers it’s there."

Suddenly Ranma and Rand heard boots pounding toward them over the slate paving stones.

"Too late," Gawyn muttered. "He must have started running as soon as he was out of eyeshot." Elayne growled an oath that made Ranma grin and Rand raise his eyebrows in surprise at its vulgarity.

"How can you grin at a time like this?" Rand asked as he looked at his friend. Ranma shrugged nonchalantly.

"You really think they could stop me from escaping if I wanted to?" he whispered to the older boy. Rand had to nod wearily, resigned to something that was more than likely bad happening to him. Ranma grinned and leaned against the tree in a forced show of confidence. Inwardly he cursed at their misfortune. He knew he could escape easily. With Rand as well. But could he do so without using any of his techniques and causing uproar? He had no intention of finding out, and hoped everything could be resolved without a fight. He didn’t relish the idea of killing people, even if it were necessary to escape.

Gawyn and Elayne stood where they were, but Rand decided it would be better to be near Ranma, who had a very good chance of getting him out of the palace alive. No sooner had he arrived there red-uniformed men burst into sight, breastplates catching the sun as they dashed up the path. And soon more arrived, filling the small garden to the brim with shiny steel and a miniature sea of scarlet. Some held drawn swords; others waited to set their boots before raising bows and nocking feathered shafts. All the Guardsmen’s eyes rested on Ranma and Rand, the pig-tailed boy’s hands twitching slightly as if in anticipation of a fight, and every single broadhead arrow was pointed in their direction. Elayne and Gawyn leaped as one, putting themselves between the two boys and the arrows, their arms spread to cover both boys. Ranma tapped Gawyn on the shoulder lightly.

"Don’t bother, I can dodge them all by myself. Just cover Rand, he’s a bit slow," he whispered. Gawyn gave him a strange look, but nodded slowly, unsure as to why he did so, and moved to the left so that he covered what was left of Rand’s body from the archer’s line of sight. Ranma simply stood still, his hands in plain sight, and watched with seeming pacifism. One of the soldiers, with a golden knot of an officer on his shoulder, shouted, "My Lady, my Lord, down, quickly!"

even with outstretched arms, Elayne drew her self up regally.

"You dare to bring bare steel into my presence, Tallanvor? Gareth Bryne will have you mucking stables with the meanest soldier for this, if you are lucky!"

Many of the soldiers present looked confused, and some of the archers lowered their bows uneasily. Only then did Elayne lower her arms, as if she had only held them up because she had wished to. Gawyn cast a glance Ranma’s way then slowly lowered his own. Rand looked at Ranma, to grow slightly confused at the small smile on the pig-tailed boy’s face. Scanning the assembled group quickly, he counted the remaining raised bows and glanced at Ranma again, mentally calculating to see if they had any chance of surviving if the soldiers decided to have some target practice. He rated their chances as comfortably high. Safe in that knowledge, Rand stood up a little straighter, but kept his hands in plain sight. Just in case.

"My Lady, forgive me, but Lord Galadedrid reported a pair of dirty peasants skulking in the gardens, armed and endangering my Lady Elayne and my Lord Gawyn." Ranma’s smile disappeared at being called a dirty peasant, but he made no further move. The officer’s eyes flickered to Ranma, then to Rand, and his voice firmed. "If my Lady and my Lord will step aside, I will take the villains into custody. There is too much riffraff in the city these days."

"Just try it pal," Ranma growled softly.

"I doubt very much if Galad reported anything of the kind," Elayne said. "Galad does not lie."

"Sometimes I wish he would," Gawyn said softly, for Ranma’s ear. "Just once. It might make living with him easier."

"Careful what you wish for Gawyn," Ranma muttered in reply. "You might just get it someday."

"This man is my guest, as the other is Gawyn’s," Elayne continued, "and they are here our protection. You may withdraw, Tallanvor."

"I regret that will not be possible, my Lady. As my Lady knows, the Queen, your lady mother, has given orders regarding anyone on Palace grounds without permission, and word has been sent to Her Majesty of these intruders." There was a hint of satisfaction in Tallanvor’s voice. Rand suspected the officer had had to accept other commands from Elayne that he did not think proper; this time the man was not about to, not when he had the perfect excuse.

Ranma looked at Gawyn questioningly, and Gawyn understood.

"Prison," he murmured. Rand’s face went white, and Ranma’s lips compressed to a dangerously thin line. "Only for a few days," the prince added quickly, "and you will not be harmed. You will be questioned by Gareth Bryne, the Captain-General, personally, but you will be set free once it’s clear you both meant no harm." He paused, hidden thoughts in his eyes. "I hope you were telling the truth, Rand al’Thor and Ranma Saotome."

"You will conduct the four of us to my mother," Elayne announced suddenly. A grin bloomed on Gawyn’s face, and Ranma thought he heard a rumble of thunder in the distance.

We’re in trouble. He thought sourly.

Behind the steel bars across his face, Tallanvor appeared taken aback.

"My Lady I – "

"Or else conduct all four of us to a cell," Elayne said. "We will remain together. Or will you give orders for hands to be laid upon my person?" Her smile was victorious, and the way Tallanvor looked about as if he expected to find help in the trees said he, too, had thought she had won.

Ranma and Rand exchanged confused glances for a moment, before Gawyn spoke up softly.

"Mother is viewing Logain, and even if she were not busy, Tallanvor would not dare troop into her presence with Elayne and me, as if we were under guard. Mother has a bit of a temper sometimes."

The two friends exchanged looks, both thinking of what Master Gill had said about the Queen.

A bit of a temper? Came the simultaneous thought. Another red-uniformed soldier came running down the path, skidding to a halt to salute with an arm across his chest. He spoke softly to Tallanvor, and his words brought satisfaction back to Tallanvor’s face.

"The Queen, you lady mother," Tallanvor announced, "commands me to bring the intruder to her immediately. It is also the Queen’s command that my Lady Elayne and my Lord Gawyn attend her. Also immediately." Gawyn winced, and Elayne swallowed hard.

"Way to go Princess." Ranma muttered, earning him a dark glare from the golden-haired girl. He returned her glare with a steady gaze. "What?" A moment later and her composure returned, upon which she began industriously brushing at the stains on her dress.

"If my Lady pleases?" Tallanvor said smugly. "My Lord?" the soldiers formed a hollow box along the path, with Tallanvor in the lead, and Elayne and Gawyn walking before the pair of friends.

The soldiers, although their weapons had been replaced, swords in scabbards and arrows in quivers, continued to watch the pig-tailed boy and the tall youth avidly, as if they expected them to leap into action and try to cut their way to freedom.

"Rand?" Ranma murmured softly.

"Yeah?" the older boy answered in equally low tones.

"You know what shit is?" Rand gave Ranma a disgusted look.

"Of course I do! Why in the Light did you ask that?"

"’Cause we’re up to our necks in it." Came the even reply. Rand immediately started to worry. Elayne glanced backwards and took a deep breath.

"Remember yourself," she told the pair briskly. "Speak up clearly when you are spoken to, and keep silent otherwise. And follow my lead. All will be well." Ranma gave her a thumbs-up and a familiar cocky grin, making Rand snigger slightly and bringing a smile to Gawyn’s lips.

Palace servants filled the halls, in red liveries with collars and cuffs of white, the White Lion on the left breast of their tunics, scurrying about intent on tasks that were not readily apparent.

"Geez…looks like an ant farm." Ranma murmured as he looked about. Rand cast him a puzzled look, but shrugged it off and tried to leech off as much of his friend’s confidence as he could. Suddenly Rand spotted a cat meandering its way down the hall and stifled a cry of horror. Casting a glance to his friend, Rand tugged on Gawyn’s sleeve.

"Get that cat out of here! If Ranma sees it he’ll go nuts! Please! You have to get rid of it!" He hissed. Gawyn stared at him for a moment, but nodded and moved over to the cat, making the soldiers break formation. Ranma looked over in the prince’s direction curiously, but found his view blocked by Rand, a nervous smile on his face. "Nothing there Ranma! Nothing there you want to see," he said as he sidestepped each time Ranma tried to see his way past. Ranma gave him an annoyed look and prepared to shove him out the way until an indignant yowl of a cat being kicked away pierced the air. Ranma froze, a horrified look on his face, making the soldier behind bump into him with a muffled oath. Gawyn trotted back with a smile.

"All gone! No need to worry Ranma, just had to send it away. You know how it is," he said warmly. Ranma nodded gratefully and returned to walking, ignoring the soldier’s soft cursing as he moved woodenly forward.

So much for confidence. Rand thought dryly.

"All of you be quiet." Elayne’s voice was sharp, but sounded absent as she seemed pre-occupied with the coming meeting. Ranma rolled his eyes, the traumatic experience seemingly already forgotten, and grinned at Rand.

Don’t worry, he mouthed to the older boy, but Gawyn managed to catch it as well, I’ll talk us out of it! Rand stared in horror.

You? Are you mad? You couldn’t talk your way out of a broom-closet! Rand mouthed back as he waved his arms in the air. In response Ranma pulled down his eyelid and blew a silent raspberry, eliciting a chuckle from Gawyn and Rand alike. The tension in the air momentarily diffused, all three boys walked with small smiles on their faces, seemingly not having a care in the world.

Suddenly Tallanvor stopped before tall double doors of a dark wood with a rich glow, not so grand as some they had passed, but still carved all over with rows of lions, finely wrought in detail. Tallanvor and another soldier reached for Ranma’s and Rand’s swords, but Elayne moved to cut them off.

"They are our guests, and by custom and law, guests of the royal family may go armed even in Mother’s presence. Or will you deny my word that they are our guests?" Tallanvor hesitated for a moment, locking eyes with her, then nodded.

"Very well my Lady. First rank to accompany me," Tallanvor commanded. "Announce the Lady Elayne and the Lord Gawyn to Her Majesty," he told the doorkeepers. "Also Guardsman-Lieutenant Tallanvor, at her Majesty’s command, with the intruders under guard." Elayne scowled at Tallanvor, but the doors were already in motion. A sonorous voice sounded, announcing those who came.

Grandly Elayne swept through the doors, Gawyn, Ranma and Rand striding as confidently as they could one measured pace to her rear. Rand on her left side, Ranma to his left, and Gawyn on the right. Rand noted Ranma and Gawyn had carefully blank expressions on their faces and attempted to do the same. Tallanvor stayed close to Rand and the pig-tailed boy, and ten soldiers came with him. The doors closed silently behind them.

Suddenly Elayne dropped into a deep curtsy, simultaneously bowing from the waist, and stayed there, holding her skirt wide. Rand followed Ranma’s lead as the pig-tailed boy bowed. Rand wondered whether he knew this from the knowledge crammed into his skull the week before.

He knelt down on his right knee, head bowed, bending forward to press the knuckles of his right hand against the marble tiles, his left hand on the end of his sword hilt. As Ranma did not have one because it was slung over his shoulder, he carefully folded his arm into the position it would have been had a sword been there. Rand noted Tallanvor glaring at Ranma for a moment, and wondered why, until he noted his friend’s pink tongue poking out in the guardsman’s direction. It quickly disappeared, but was replaced by a victorious smirk. Tallanvor glowered as hard as he could, and Rand suppressed the urge to laugh, knowing that it was more likely to get him killed. Ignoring the by-play for a minute, Rand took his time to study the place to which he had been brought.

The square chamber was about the size of the common room at the Queen’s Blessing, its walls presenting hunting scenes carved in relief in stone of the purest white. The tapestries between the carvings were gentle images of bright flowers and brilliantly plumaged hummingbirds, except for two at the far end of the room, where the White Lion of Andor stood taller than a man on scarlet fields. Those two hangings flanked a dais, and on the dais a carved and gilded throne where sat the Queen. A bluff, blocky man stood bareheaded by the Queen’s right hand in the red of the Queen’s Guards, with four golden knots on the shoulder of his cloak and wide golden bands breaking the white of his cuffs. His temples were heavy with grey, but he looked as strong and immovable as a rock. That had to be the Captain-General, Gareth Bryne. For some reason he reminded Rand of Ranma’s description of his rival/friend Ryoga, but matured to a greater degree.

Behind the throne and to the other side a woman in deep green silk sat on a low stool, knitting something out of dark, almost black, wool. Her attention seemed to be entirely on her needles and yarn, just as if there were not a Queen within arm’s reach of her.

Sneaking a glance sideways, Rand spied Ranma carefully studying the figures up at the end of the room, his gaze unwavering except to look from one to the other. Looking forward once again, Rand found his attention drawn to the woman with the gleaming wreath of finely wrought roses on her brow, the Rose Crown of Andor. A long red stole, the Lion of Andor Marching down its length, hung over her silken dress of red and white pleats, and when she touched the Captain-General’s arm with her left hand, a ring in the shape of the Great Serpent, eating its own tail, glittered.

Morgase had her daughter’s beauty, matured and ripened. Her face and figure, her presence, filled the room like a light that dimmed the other two with her. He saw her studying him and ducked his head. Unable to match his friend’s confident air to such a high degree that he could meet the gaze of a Queen.

"You may rise," Morgase said in a rich, warm voice that held Elayne’s assurance of obedience a hundred times over.

"Mother –" Elayne began, but Morgase cut her off.

"You have been climbing trees, it seems, daughter. In fact," Morgase went on calmly, "it would seem that despite my orders to the contrary you have contrived to take your look at this Logain. Gawyn, I have thought better of you. You must learn not only to obey your sister, but at the same time to be counterweight for her against disaster." The Queen’s eyes flickered to the blocky man beside her, then quickly away again. Bryne remained impassive, as if he had not noticed, but Ranma knew those eyes noticed everything, just like his own. "That, Gawyn, is as much the duty of the First Prince as is leading the armies of Andor. Perhaps if your training is intensified, you will find less time for letting your sister lead you into trouble. I will ask the Captain-General to see that you do not lack for things to do on the journey north." Gawyn shifted his feet as if about to protest, then bowed his head instead.

"As you command, mother."

Elayne grimaced. "Mother, Gawyn cannot keep me out of trouble if he is not with me. It was for that reason alone he left his rooms. Mother, surely there could be no harm in just looking at Logain. Almost everyone in the city was closer to him than we."

"Everyone in the city is not the Daughter-heir." Sharpness underlay the Queen’s voice. "I have seen this fellow Logain from close, and he is dangerous, child. Caged, with Aes Sedai to guard him every minute, he is still as dangerous as a wolf. I wish he had never been brought near Caemlyn."

"He will be dealt with in Tar Valon." The woman on the stool did not take her eyes from her knitting as she spoke. "What is important is that the people see that the Light has once again vanquished the Dark. And they see you are part of that victory, Morgase."

Morgase waved a dismissive hand.

"I would still rather he had never come to Caemlyn. Elayne, I know your mind."

"Mother," Elayne protested, "I do mean to obey you. Truly I do."

"You do?" Morgase asked in mock surprise, then chuckled. "Yes, you do try to be a dutiful daughter. But you constantly test how far you may go. Well, I did the same with my mother. That spirit will stand you in good stead when you ascend to the throne, but you are not Queen yet, child. You have disobeyed me and had your look at Logain. Be satisfied with that. On the journey north you will not be allowed within one hundred paces of him, neither you nor Gawyn. If I did not know how hard your lessons will be in Tar Valon, I would send Lini along to see that you obey. She, at least, seems to be able to make you do as you must."

Elayne bowed her head sullenly.

The woman behind the throne seemed occupied with counting her stitches.

"In one week," she said suddenly, "you will be wanting to come home to your mother. In a month you will be wanting to run away with the travelling people. But my sisters will keep you away from the unbeliever. That sort of thing is not for you, not yet." Abruptly she turned on the stool to look directly at Elayne. "You have it in you to be the greatest Queen Andor has ever seen, that any land has seen in more than a thousand years. It is for that we will shape you, if you have the strength for it."

Rand stared at her, and noticed Ranma not staring, but studying her intently, as if assessing an opponent. She had to be Elaida, the Aes Sedai. Suddenly he was glad he had not come to her for help, and had met up with Ranma instead. He was sure without the pig-tailed boy he would have come to her within the week seeking help. He had sometimes thought of Moiraine as steel covered with velvet; with Elaida the velvet was only an illusion.

"Enough, Elaida," Morgase said, frowning uneasily. "She has heard that more than enough. The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills." For a moment she was silent, looking at her daughter. "Now there is the problem of these young men" – she gestured to the pair without taking her eyes off of Elayne’s face – "and how and why they came here, and why you both claimed guest-right for them to your brother."

"May I speak mother?" When Morgase nodded her assent, Elayne told of events simply, from the time she saw Ranma and Rand climbing up the slope to the wall. Rand expected her to finish by proclaiming the innocence of what they had done, but instead she said, "Mother, often you tell me I must know our people, from the highest to the lowest, but whenever I meet any of them it is with a dozen attendants. How can I come to know anything real or true under such circumstances? In speaking with this young man and his friend today, I have already learned more about the people of the Two Rivers, what kind of people they are, than I ever could from books. It says something that he has come so far and has put on the red with his friend, when so many incomers wear the white from fear. Mother, I beg you not to misuse a loyal subject, and one who has taught me so much about the people you rule."

"A loyal subject from the Two Rivers." Morgase sighed. "My child, you should pay more heed to those books. The Two Rivers has not seen a tax collector in six generations, nor the Queen’s Guards in seven. I daresay they seldom even think to remember they are part of the Realm." Rand shrugged uncomfortably, recalling his surprise at being told the Two Rivers was part of the Realm of Andor. He cast a glance sideways to see Ranma’s expressionless face, his eyes studying every detail he could see, and more than likely some that Rand would bet no others could see. Morgase saw him shrug and smiled ruefully at her daughter. "You see, child?" Elaida had put down her knitting, Rand realised, as had Ranma – who had tensed faintly when she did so, and was now studying the two boys intently. Ranma felt the hackles on his neck rise, his danger sense screaming at him in warning as the Aes Sedai’s gaze fell upon him. He returned her gaze evenly, feeling his confidence soar to new heights as he took in the faint surprise in her eyes. She turned her eyes back to Rand and stood up, slowly walking down the dais to come to stand before the older boy.

"From the Two Rivers?" she said. She reached a hand toward his head; he pulled away from her touch, and she let her hand drop. "With that red in his hair, and grey eyes? Two Rivers people are dark of hair and eye, and they seldom have such height." Her hand darted out to push back his coat sleeve, and Rand saw Ranma tense. He shot a warning look and drew another measure of confidence from his friend, whose angry look had begun to flare warning sirens in his head. "Or such skin." Rand glared at her with hostility.

"I was born in Emond’s Field," he said stiffly. "My mother was an outlander; that’s where my eyes come from. My father is Tam al’Thor, a shepherd and farmer, as I am." Elaida nodded slowly, never taking his eyes from his face and Rand could feel the cold anger at this woman’s callous attitude radiating from his left, where Ranma stood glaring angrily at Elaida’s head. Rand met her gaze steadily, knowing that Ranma would do the same, and feeling a swell of pride at the small success. He saw her note the steadiness of his look. Still meeting him eye to eye, she moved her hand slowly towards him again.

It was his sword she touched, not him, her hand closing around the hilt at the very top. Her fingers tightened and her eyes opened wide with surprise, her gaze quickly flitting to Ranma. Somehow Rand had a feeling this did not bode well.

Elaida looked at him again and moved over to Ranma, standing before him and looking into his eyes.

Twin pools the colour of the deepest ocean and filled with unknown thoughts stared back at her. The pig-tailed boy’s lips a thin line and his eyes hard.

"Arafel? You are not Arafellin," she said evenly. Ranma smiled at her, though it did not reach his eyes, which stayed hard and flat.

"No, nor is my father. I know not where we came from. We travelled from place to place, not staying long, until we stopped in Arafel. My father was killed by a trolloc attack on the town we were staying at, Shol Guinnar, which has now been destroyed. He commanded me to run. As his last request I had to do as I was bid." Rand admired Ranma’s story, as it was almost the truth, yet not quite. Elaida nodded and inspected Ranma, frowning as she took in the ever-present armour that Ranma never seemed to take off. Locking eyes with Ranma, she reached out and touched the chest-plate over the Pegasus symbol with her right hand. If it were possible, her eyes nearly popped out of her head, making Ranma’s smirk grow until it was threatening to lop his head off. Quickly she reached out and touched Ranma’s sword hilt that stuck up over his shoulder. She took a slightly faltering step back. And looked at Ranma with an unknown expression.

"What are you?" she asked the pig-tailed boy. His smirk melted into a small smile, seemingly appeased with the reaction.

"A warrior," he said simply, "on a quest for vengeance against the Dark One."

"A warrior," Elaida repeated softly, though the entire room could hear, "and a shepherd. One carrying a heron-mark blade, the other with Power-wrought weapons and armour." There was dead silence for a moment, before the room exploded into movement. The creaking of leather and scuff of boots upon tiles announced Tallanvor and the soldiers moving back to gain room, their hands on their swords, ready to draw, and by the looks on their faces, ready to die. Gareth Bryne moved in front of the Queen protectively, his gaze dividing itself between the two boys, and even Gawyn drew closer to Elayne protectively. Elayne herself looked at the two as if seeing them for the first time. Morgase did not change expression, but her hands tightened on the gilded arms of her throne. Ranma looked at Rand quietly with a small smile that seemed to say ‘don’t worry.’ Elaida displayed less reaction than the Queen, as if she had said nothing out of the ordinary, and looked speculatively between the two boys.

"Tell me, who has the heron-mark?" Morgase asked quietly. Elaida raised a hand to point at Rand.

"The shepherd," she replied.

"Surely," Morgase said, her voice level, "he is too young to have earned the heron-mark blade. He cannot be any older than Gawyn."

"It belongs with him. Though the other boy is the blademaster." Gareth Bryne said. The queen looked at him in surprise.

"How can that be? He is younger, even, than Gawyn."

"I do not know Morgase. But look at him. Look at his eyes. He is a fighter to his very core. The way he stands, the way it fits with him. It is a part of him and he a part of it. It is the same, in a sense, with the shepherd. Though he has seen less bloodshed. They belong with their blades," he finished. To Rand’s surprise, Ranma bowed deeply with great respect.

"You honour me Captain-General." He said softly as he rose from his bow, his eyes locking with the older man’s. When Ranma fell silent, Elaida looked at them both.

"How did you come by this blade, Rand al’Thor from the Two Rivers?" She said it as if she doubted his name as much as she did where he was from. Rand bristled angrily, and Ranma levelled a cold glare in her direction. Seemingly unperturbed, she waited silently.

"My father gave it to me," Rand said, "It was his. He thought I’d need a sword, out in the world."


"Yet another shepherd from the Two Rivers with a heron-mark sword." Elaida’s smile made Rand’s glare intensify and his mouth go dry. She switched her attention back to Ranma. "And you Ranma Saotome? Where did you get the raiment you wear?"

"A good man gave it too me. He said I deserved it, and that it had been in his family for many generations. He died nearly three weeks ago in a trolloc raid."

"How convenient," Elaida murmured, making Ranma’s cheek twitch as he reigned himself in from snarling. Rand licked his dry lips. "When did you arrive in Caemlyn?" she asked. Ranma didn’t hesitate.

"This morning. I met Rand at the same time as I arrived. We were in the line next to each other outside Caemlyn and got talking," Ranma answered. Rand nodded rather than speak, he felt he might mess it up, especially as Ranma seemed to be displaying a level of tact and control that he was not supposed to possess.

"Just in time," she murmured. "Where are you staying? Don’t say you have not found a place to stay. You both look like you’ve been able to freshen up. Where?" she asked, directing the question to Rand.

"The Crown and Lion." He remembered passing the Crown and Lion as he looked for the Queen’s Blessing. It was on the other side of the New City from Master Gill’s inn. He had a feeling she knew he was lying, but she merely nodded.

"What chance this?" she said. "Today the unbeliever is brought into Caemlyn. In two days he will be taken north to Tar Valon, and with him goes the Daughter-Heir for her training. And just at this juncture two young men appear in the Palace Gardens, claiming to be loyal subjects and supporters, from the Two Rivers and Arafel…"

"You doubt our word Aes Sedai?" Ranma growled angrily, his face twisting into a scowl. Rand balled his fists and glared hatefully at Elaida.

"…with a calculated story to entice Elayne and bearing Power-wrought weapons. They do not wear cockades or armbands to proclaim their allegiance, but wrappings that carefully conceal their weapons from inquisitive eyes? What chance this, Morgase?" By now Ranma was nearly shaking in rage, and Rand not far behind. Although their tales were altered slightly, at least Ranma’s, they were still the truth and this woman simply disregarded their words as falsehood, insulting their honour. Rand sucked in his breath and placed a hand on Ranma’s shoulder, who grit his teeth and crossed his arms across his chest, smoothing his face back into an expressionless mask. The Queen motioned the Captain-General to stand aside, when he did she studied the pair with a troubled look. It was to Elaida she spoke though.

"What are you naming him? Darkfriend? One of Logain’s followers?"

"The Dark One stirs in Shayol Ghul," the Aes Sedai replied. "The Shadow lies across the Pattern, and the future is balanced on the point of a pin. These two are dangerous." Suddenly Elayne moved, throwing herself on her knees before the throne, Gawyn following not long after.

"Mother, I beg you not to harm them. They would have left immediately had I not stopped them. It was I who made them stay. I cannot believe they are Darkfriends." Morgase made a soothing gesture toward her daughter, but her eyes stayed on the boys. Rand watched the Queen study him silently, enduring the scrutiny for a moment, before her eyes moved over to Ranma. Rand nearly fell over in surprise as her eyes wandered up and down Ranma’s well muscled body, her eyebrow twitching slightly as if it wanted to peak. With the tiniest of sighs she looked away from the pig-tailed boy and back to Rand, who stared at her in dumb amazement.

"Is this a Foretelling, Elaida? Are you reading the Pattern? You say it comes on you when you least expect it and goes as suddenly as it comes. If this is a Foretelling, Elaida, I command you to speak the truth clearly, without your usual habit of wrapping it in so much mystery that no one can tell if you have said yes or no. Speak. What do you see?"

"This I Foretell," Elaida replied, "and swear under the light that I can say no clearer. From this day Andor marches toward pain and division. The Shadow has yet to darken to its blackest, and I cannot see if the Light will come after. Where the world has wept one tear, it will weep thousands. This I Foretell." A pall of silence descended upon the room, broken only by Morgase expelling her breath as if it were her last. Elaida stared into Rand’s eyes. She spoke again, barely moving her lips, so softly either boy could barely hear her though they stood less than an arm’s length away. "This, too, I Foretell. Pain and division come to the whole world, and this man stands at the heart of it, the younger at his side. I obey the Queen," she whispered," and speak it clearly." Rand felt as if his feet had become rooted in the marble floor. The cold and stiffness crept up his legs and sent a shiver up his spine. Only Ranma had heard. She was still looking at him, and he, too, had heard.

"I am a shepherd," he said for the entire room. "From the Two Rivers. A shepherd." He looked at Ranma fearfully, but was surprised to find a twinkle of something in his eyes.

Ta'veren, Ranma mouth silently, a tiny smile on his lips. He shrugged slightly as if to say ‘what happens, happens.’

"The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills," Elaida said aloud, and Ranma detected a hint of mockery in her tone that set his teeth on edge.

"Lord Gareth," Morgase said, "I need the advice of my Captain-General." The blocky man shook his head.


"Elaida Sedai says the lads are dangerous, My Queen, and if she could tell more I would say summon the headsman. However, I doubt all the soldiers in the palace, including myself, could catch that one if he wished to leave." He nodded toward Ranma, who gave a tight smile in response. "As for the other one, all she can say is what we can see with our own eyes. There’s not a farmer in the countryside won’t say things will get worse, without any Foretelling. Myself, I believe both are here by mere happenstance, though an ill one for them. If it were merely the shepherd himself, I would say clap him in irons for a day or two till the Lady Elayne and the Lord Gawyn are well on their way, then let him go. But…" he trailed off as his eyes went to Ranma again. The pig-tailed boy cast a glance at Rand for a moment, then firmed his lips and looked at the Queen.

"Your Majesty. May I speak?" He asked respectfully. Seeing Morgase’s nod, he spoke, "Your Majesty, if it pleases you, I humbly offer my life for my friend’s freedom." He said as he knelt. Elaida looked ecstatic and turned to Morgase.

"My Queen – " she began, but Morgase silenced her with a gesture.

"You, who it appears have done nothing wrong, would sacrifice your life to relieve your friend of a few days in prison?" she asked curiously. Rand stood motionless, his mouth open in an expression of surprise. Ranma lifted his head slightly to look at the Queen.

"Yes, your Majesty. He does not deserve to be clapped in a cell. Besides, I was the one who began to scale the wall, he merely followed my example, even if it was only to gain a glimpse of Logain. Please your Majesty, let him go, he has done nothing wrong." Morgase sat silently for a moment, a small smile on her face, and studied the pig-tailed youth. She looked to Bryne, who shook his head minutely, then to Elaida, who looked fit to bust a vein as she glared angrily at he kneeling boy.

"Truly you would be willing to make such a noble sacrifice for your friend. But no, I will not accept such a sacrifice. As you said, neither of you deserves to be locked away. Suspicion is smothering Caemlyn, perhaps all of Andor. Fear and black suspicion. Women denounce their neighbours for Darkfriends. Men scrawl the Dragon’s Fang on the doors of people they’ve known for years. I will not become a part of it."

"Morgase –" Elaida began again, but the Queen cut her off.

"I will not become a part of it. When I took the throne I swore to uphold justice for the high and the low, and I will uphold it even if I am the last in Andor to remember justice. Rise and stand by your friend Ranma Saotome." Ranma did so quickly, standing so close to Rand that their shoulders were almost touching. "Rand al’Thor, do you swear under the Light that your father, a shepherd in the Two Rivers, gave you that heron-mark blade?" Rand worked his mouth to get the moisture to speak.

"I do." Feeling an elbow in his side, and remembering whom he was talking to, he added, "My Queen." Lord Gareth raised an amused eyebrow, but Morgase did not seem to mind.

"And you climbed the garden wall simply to gain a look at the false Dragon?"

"Yes, My Queen."

"Do you mean harm to the throne of Andor, or to my daughter, or my son?" her tone said the last two would gain him an even shorter shrift than the first.

"I mean no harm to anyone, my Queen. To you and yours least of all."

Morgase turned her blue eyes to Ranma.

"Ranma Saotome, do you swear under the Light that a friend, a good man who went in the Light, gave you that armour and blade?"

"I, Ranma Saotome, hereby swear on my honour and under the Light that what I say is true, your Majesty." Gareth Bryne’s eyebrow rose again, this time in surprise at the heavy oath. Morgase continued unperturbed.

"And you, also, climbed the garden wall to gain a look at the false Dragon?"

"I swear on my Honour and under the Light that this is true, your Majesty."

"Do you mean harm to the throne of Andor, or to my daughter, or my son?"

"I swear on my Honour and under the Light, that I meant no harm to you and yours. And I also swear to protect the wearer of the Rose Crown of Andor and their heirs with my very life, under the Light." At this Morgase’s eyes widened slightly in surprise, and Gawyn let out a low whistle. To Rand’s surprise Gareth Bryne, Captain-General of Andor, actually smiled in approval. Elayne looked faintly stunned, and Elaida seethed silently as she glared at Ranma, who had not dipped into a deep bow.

"Very well," Morgase recovered. "I will give you justice, Ranma Saotome and I will remember your oath. I will grant you justice as well Rand al'Thor," she said. "First, because I have the advantage of Elaida and Gareth in having heard Two Rivers speech when I was young. You have not the look, but if a dim memory can serve me you have the Two Rivers speech on your tongue. Second, no one with your hair and eyes would claim that he is a Two Rivers shepherd unless it was true. And that your father gave you a heron-mark blade is to preposterous to be a lie. Third, your friend’s oath to protect me and mine, even with his life, and the fact he would throw it away merely to save you from jail. And fourth, the voice that whispers to me that the best lie is often one too ridiculous to be taken for a lie…that voice is not proof. I will uphold the laws I have made. I give you your freedom, Rand al’Thor, Ranma Saotome, but I suggest you take a care when you trespass in the future. If you are found on the palace grounds again, it will not go easily with you."

"Thank you, my Queen," he said hoarsely. Ranma bowed his head.

"Thank you, your Majesty," Ranma murmured, making contact with her eyes as he came back up, a flash of some hidden emotion flitting across his eyes before vanishing as fast as it had appeared. The Queen smiled and nodded her head.

"Tallanvor," Morgase said, "escort these… escort my children’s guests from the Palace, and show them every courtesy. The rest of you go as well. No Elaida, you stay. And if you will too, please, Lord Gareth. I must decide what to do about these Whitecloaks in the city."

Tallanvor and the guards sheathed their swords reluctantly, ready to draw them again in an instant. Still Rand felt slightly relieved when the guards formed a hollow box about himself and Ranma and glad to follow Tallanvor. Elaida was only half attending what the Queen was saying; he could feel her eyes on his back.

I’m glad she stayed in there. I dread to think what Ranma would have done if she’d been here! He thought to himself as he looked over at his friend, who seemed troubled.

"What’s the matter?" Rand asked. Ranma looked up and over at his friend and gave a wan smile.

"Tell you later," he said. Rand nodded and looked forward. To his surprise, Elayne and Gawyn exchanged a few words outside of the door, then fell into step either side of the pair, Elayne standing next to Rand, Gawyn next to Ranma. Evidently Tallanvor did not expect it either, looking back and forth from them to the closing doors.

"My Mother," Elayne said, "ordered them to be escorted from the Palace Tallanvor. With every courtesy. What are you waiting for?" Tallanvor scowled at the closed doors, behind which the Queen was conferring with her advisors.

"Nothing, my Lady," he said sourly, and needlessly ordered the escort forward. Rand ignored the wonders of the palace as they trudged forward, his thoughts elsewhere.

Pain and division. This man stands at the heart of it, the younger at his side. The escort stopped. Rand blinked, surprised to find the group in the great court at the front of the Palace, standing at the tall, gilded gates, gleaming in the sun. He looked about for a moment, before his eyes came to rest upon an all too familiar smirk.

"Head in the clouds Rand?" Ranma asked with a chuckle. Rolling his eyes, Rand copied a gesture he had seen Ranma rarely use. He flipped him the bird. "Ooh…careful. You might loose that finger, my friend," Ranma ribbed with a grin. Rand decided to ignore the pig-tailed boy for a while. Wordlessly Tallanvor unbarred a sally-port, a small door set within one gate.

"It is the custom," Elayne said, "to escort guests as far as the gates, but not to watch them go. It is the pleasure of a guest’s company that should be remembered, not the sadness of parting."

After a moments prompting from Ranma, namely a stubborn glare, Rand took the lead.

"Thank you, my Lady," Rand said. He touched the scarf bandaging his head. "For everything. Custom in the Two Rivers if for the guest to bring a small gift. I’m afraid I have nothing. Although," he added dryly, "apparently I did teach you something of the Two Rivers folk."

"If I had told my mother I think you are handsome, she certainly would have locked you in a cell." Elayne favoured him with a dazzling smile. "Fare you well Rand al’Thor." Gaping, he watched her go, a younger version of Morgase’s beauty and majesty. Behind him came the sound of sniggering, and as he turned about to spy Ranma and Gawyn, thick as thieves, standing together with innocent expressions on their faces, though Ranma appeared to be struggling to retain that image as he burst into laughter.

"You should have seen your face!! Ha! Ha! Ha! You looked like this!" Ranma did an abrupt goldfish impression, complete with bug-eyed look. Rand’s cheek twitched for a moment.

"Blood and Ashes! She’s the Daughter-Heir!" He shouted, making Ranma grin even wider.

"Guess that makes you lucky, ne?" he asked, a sly expression on his face. Rand decided to retain his dignity and merely glowered in response. Gawyn grinned and bowed to Ranma.

"I look forward to meeting with you again Ranma Saotome. I have a feeling it shall be so," he said. Ranma grinned and nodded his head in reply.

"Probably. Knowing my luck it won’t be that long a wait!" Gawyn laughed and looked over at Rand.

"Do not try to bandy words with her," he laughed, "she will win every time." Rand nodded absently as he turned to stare off in the direction of the departed princess.

Handsome? Light, the Daughter-Heir of Andor!

He never noticed Gawyn slip away with a smile on his face. Ranma tapped him on the shoulder and gestured to the exit where Tallanvor waited impatiently, a frown on his face. Rand nodded and the pair stepped through, the door slammed shut on their heels and the bars bolted across loudly. Ranma grinned at the older boy.

"Friendly ain’t he?" he said. Rand chuckled for a moment. "Hey Rand?"

"Yeah?"

"RACE YA!" Grinning like idiots, the pair ran as fast as they could go, feeling free as the wind.

===

Ranma and Rand collapsed against the front door frame of the Queen’s Blessing, panting heavily, but wearing enormous matching grins.

"Haven’t…ever…run…like that…in my…life!" Rand panted, leaning heavily on his knees. Ranma, though noticeably better off, nodded in agreement while he got his breath back. Lamgwin, sitting nearby with a cat in his lap rolled his eyes. After a moment he looked down at the cat, then up at Ranma, and hastily stuffed it inside his shirt. Ranma was too happy to notice the struggling inside his jacket. Rand raised an eyebrow, but the big man shook his head and pointed to Ranma. Rand looked at the tail sticking out of the man’s vest and sniggered slightly as he dragged Ranma inside. Carefully extricating the irate animal from his clothes, Lamgwin grunted softly and fingered one of the numerous scratches the animal had given him. The cat merely contented itself with hissing at him.

A few moments later, Rand stuck his head outside.

"Where’s Master Gill?" he asked.

"Library," Lamgwin replied. The cat settled down on his lap and he grinned. "Nothing bothers a act for long, not even being stuffed in someone’s shirt." Rand grinned and went inside to his friend, who had seated himself in the common room.

"Well?" Ranma asked, quirking an eyebrow. Rand poked his tongue out in childish petulance before replying.

"He’s in the Library, let’s go." The pair stood up and walked through, occasionally hearing snippets of conversation, about the false Dragon or if the Whitecloaks would cause trouble when he was taken north.

They found Master Gill in the library, playing stones with Loial. Ranma froze at the sight of a plump tabby sitting on the table.

"C-ca-ccat!" Ranma yelled, back-pedalling rapidly. Master Gill sighed and shoed the cat into the shadows, where it promptly returned to doing cattish things. Ranma grimaced and bowed quickly.

"Sorry ‘bout that, Master Gill." He said. The innkeeper waved it off with a smile.

"Don’t worry about it, lad." He said. "I was beginning to wonder where the two of you had gotten to. Thought you might’ve had trouble with some of those white-flashing traitors, or run into that beggar or something."

Rand and Ranma gave a simultaneous blink and looked at each other.

"We didn’t see him," they answered in eerie unison.

"But that's nothing. We saw the Queen, too, and Elaida; that’s where the trouble is." Rand continued without a pause. Ranma nodded in agreement.

Master Gill snorted a laugh.

"The Queen eh? You don’t say. We had Gareth Bryne out in the common room an hour or so ago, arm-wrestling the Lord Captain-Commander of the Children, but the Queen, now… that’s something." It was obvious he was being sarcastic, but the Saotome skills of observation kicked in.


"Huh? That can’t be! Gareth Bryne was still with the Queen half an hour ago!" Ranma exclaimed in surprise. Master Gill turned and looked at him carefully.

"I almost believe you aren’t making fun.," the innkeeper said slowly as Ranma described climbing the wall and falling off into the palace garden.

"Ta’veren," Loial murmured.

"Oh, it happened," Rand said. "Light help me, it did."

Master Gill’s scepticism melted slowly as the pair went on, each filling in some small detail the other missed, turning to quiet alarm. During their narrative the pair had sat down next to each other on the edge of their seats, their faces flickering mercurially from fright, disbelief, anger and through a broad range of other expressions. The innkeeper leaned more and more forward until he was perched on the edge of his chair the same as Rand and Ranma. Loial listened impassively, except that every so often he rubbed his broad nose and the tufts of his ears gave a little twitch.

Although they told all that had happened, neither spoke of that which Elaida had whispered to them and them alone.

"Well," Master Gill said, "there’s no more waiting in the city for your friends for you. You will have to leave the city, and fast. Two days at the most. Can you get Mat on his feet in that time, or should I send for Mother Grubb?"

Rand gave him a perplexed look. "Two days?"

"Elaida is Queen Morgase’s advisor, right next to Captain-General Gareth Bryne himself. Maybe ahead of him. If she sets the Queen’s Guards looking for you – Lord Gareth won’t stop her unless she interferes with their other duties – well, the Guards can search every inn in Caemlyn in two days. And that’s saying some chance doesn’t bring them hre the first day, or the first hour. Maybe there’s a little time if they start over at the Crown and Lion, but none for dawdling."

Rand looked over at Ranma, who nodded in response. Looking back at the innkeeper, Rand nodded slowly.

"If I can’t get Mat out of that bed, I’ll just get Ranma to kick him out." He said with a perfectly straight face. Ranma’s evil grin spoiled the serious air somewhat, but Rand had gotten used to it, so didn’t feel put off. Oddly enough, even with the threat of being hunted by Elaida he could not feel any fear. The thought made his confidence swell slightly, and his serious expression melted into an exact replica of Ranma’s smirk.

"I suppose I can lend you a couple of horses. You try walking to Tar Valon and you’ll soon wear through what’s left of your boots halfway there."

"You’re a good friend," Rand said. "It seems like we’ve brought you nothing but trouble, but you’re still willing to help. A good friend." Ranma nodded in agreement.

"Yeah. If you could fight, I’d gladly have you at my back." It sounded a little odd, but from what Rand had been able to gather of Ranma’s life, it was entirely accurate. Master Gill merely looked faintly confused.

"Aye, well, Thom's always been a good friend to me. If he’s willing to go out of his way for you, I can do a little bit, too."

"I would like to go with you when you leave, Rand, Ranma," Loial said suddenly. Ranma raised an eyebrow and looked sideways at Rand, who suddenly felt very uncomfortable.

"I thought we settled that, Loial." He hesitated – Master Gill did not know the whole of the danger – then added, "You know what waits for Mat and me, what’s chasing us. Same goes for you Ranma." The pig-tailed martial-artist simply shrugged it off, as he had expected.

"Darkfriends," the Ogier replied in a placid rumble, "and Aes Sedai, and the Light knows what else. Or the Dark One. You are going to Tar Valon, and there is a very fine grove there, which I have heard the Aes Sedai tend well. In any case, there is more to see in the world than the groves. You truly are Ta’veren Rand. The both of you are, and you know it. The pattern itself weaves itself around you, and you, with your friends, stand in the heart of it."

This man stands at the heart of it, the younger at his side. Rand felt a chill, and looked to his right to where Ranma stood. A tiny nod in response told Rand the pig-tailed boy had felt it too, and also remembered the words.

"I don’t stand at the heart of anything," he said harshly. Ranma frowned slightly and pressed his lips together.

Baka, he thought to himself. Master Gill blinked, and even Loial seemed taken aback at his anger. Ranma scowled at Rand, who reddened and looked at the floor.

"Sorry ‘bout that." Rand muttered. Loial looked at Master Gill, who returned the look, and they shrugged. He sound’s like me! Ranma thought to himself in surprise. He put the thought aside for later when Rand spoke up again.

"You can come, Loial," he said. "I don’t know why you would want to, but I’d be grateful for the company. You can’t survive without a dose of humility once in a while." He said this while giving a pointed look at Ranma.

"Hey!" the pig-tailed boy yelled indignantly. "I’m not that bad!" Loial merely grinned in response and Master Gill looked up at the ceiling. Ranma scowled. "Fine." He muttered sourly.

"And…well…you know how Mat is." Rand finished.

"I know," Loial said. "I still cannot go into the streets without raising a mob shouting ‘Trolloc’ after me. But Mat, at least, only uses words. He has not tried to kill me.

Yet, thought Ranma silently.

A tap came at the door, and one of the serving maids, Gilda – who had an eye for Ranma it seemed, stuck her head into the room. Her mouth was tight, and her eyes worried.

"Master Gill, come quickly, please. There’s Whitecloaks in the common room." Master Gill leapt up with an oath, scattering the stones game to the four winds.

"I’ll come. Run, tell them I’m coming, then stay out of their way. You hear me, girl? Keep away from them." Gilda bobbed her head and vanished. "You had best stay here," he told Loial.

The Ogier snorted, a sound like sheets ripping.

"I have no desire for any more meetings with the Children of the Light." Master Gill’s eye fell on the scattered stones board and his mood seemed to lighten.

"It looks as if we’ll have to start the game over later." Loial raised an eyebrow.

"Indeed. Most fortunate that it was overturned," he stated dryly. Master Gill coughed and hurried from the room. Ranma and Rand snickered slightly, then followed at a slower pace. They had no desire to tangle with the Children of the Light. Rand had his own reasons, and Ranma just thought they were glorified Kunos. They stopped at the door to the common room, easily enabling them to see, but hopefully not be noticed.

Dead silence filled the room. Five Whitecloaks stood in the middle of the floor, studiously being ignored by the folk at the tables. One of them had the silver lightning-flash of an under officer under the sunburst on his cloak.

"If he calls himself the ‘Silver Thunder of the Children of the Light’ no power on earth is gonna save his hide," Ranma muttered to himself. Rand sniggered softly.

Lamgwin was lounging against the wall by the front door, intently cleaning his fingernails with a splinter. He caught Ranma eye and made a few surreptitious hand motions. Ranma nodded in reply.

"What’d he say?" Whispered Rand.

"Be careful. Danger." Ranma answered. The pair returned their attention to the confrontation on the floor.

"-no time for your drivel, innkeeper," the under-officer snapped. "I’ve been to twenty inns already, each a worse pigsty than the last, and I’ll see twenty more before the sun sets. I’m looking for darkfriends, a boy from the two rivers-"

Master Gill’s face grew darker with every word. He puffed up as if he would explode, and finally he did, cutting the Whitecloak off in turn.

"There are no darkfriends in my establishment! Every man here is a good Queen’s man!"

"Yes, and we all know where Morgase stands," the under-officer twisted the Queen’s name into a sneer, and Ranma found his blood boiling at the insult, "and her Tar Valon witch, don’t we?"

the scrape of chair legs was loud. Suddenly every man in the room was on his feet. They stood still as statues, but every one staring grimly at the Whitecloaks. Silently Ranma pumped his fists.

Take that ya jackass! He crowed silently. The under-officer did not appear to notice, but the four behind him looked around uneasily.

"It will go easier with you, innkeeper," the under-officer said, "if you co-operate. The temper of the times goes hard with those who shelter Darkfriends. I wouldn’t like to think an inn with the Dragon’s Fang on its door would get much custom. Might have trouble with fire, with that on your door."

"You get out of here now," Master Gill said quietly, "or I’ll send for the Queen’s guards to cart what’s left of you to the middens." Lamgwin’s sword rasped out of it’s sheath, and Ranma surreptitiously loosened his own sword in it’s scabbard, along with most of the other patrons of the room who also drew their weapons as daggers and swords filled hands. Serving maids scurried for the doors.

The under-officer looked around in scornful disbelief.

"The Dragon’s Fang –"

"Won’t help you five," Master Gill finished for him. He held up a clenched fist and raised his forefinger. "One." Ranma smiled appreciatively.

"Guy’s got guts." He commented softly to Rand, who stood mute in astonishment.

"You must be mad, innkeeper, threatening the Children of the Light."

"Whitecloaks hold no writ in Caemlyn. Two."

"Can you really believe this will end here?"

"Three."

"We’ll be back," the under-officer snapped, and then he was hastily turning his men around, trying to pretend he was leaving in good order and in his own time. He was hampered in this by the eagerness his men showed for the door, not running, but not making secret that they wanted to be outside. Lamgwin stood across the door with his sword, only giving way in response to Master Gill’s frantic waves. When the Whitecloaks were gone, the innkeeper dropped heavily onto a chair. Ranma looked at Rand, who returned his look with a mixture of admiration, horror and fear.

"Cool!" Was all Ranma said as he entered the room. Rand resisted the urge to bash his head on the doorframe in exasperation. Master Gill raised his head as Ranma crossed over to him, a large smile decorating his handsome face.

"Who would have thought I had it in me to be a hero?" he said wonderingly to the pig-tailed youth. "The Light illuminate me." By this time Rand had joined his younger companion, and Kara had wandered over from the corner where she had been sitting as well. The innkeeper gave himself a little shake and looked at Rand.

"You’ll have to stay out of sight until I can get you out of the city." With a careful look around he pushed all three deeply into the hallway. "That lot will be back, or else send a few spies wearing red for the day. After that little show I put on, I doubt they’ll care whether you’re here or not, but they’ll act as though you are."

"Jerks!" growled Ranma angrily. Kara merely looked confused.

"Out of the city? We’re leaving?" she queried. Ranma turned to face her and shook his head.

"No. ‘I’ am leaving with Rand and Mat. YOU are going to stay put. We’re not going anywhere pleasant, and you’d be in more danger than I could protect you from," he said firmly. She opened her mouth to protest, but he growled at her and she pouted cutely. Rand looked uncomfortable, but Ranma, having endured worse in his time, merely shook his head in a firm ‘no.’ Giving a frustrated huff, Kara glared at the pig-tailed boy and stormed past him and upstairs.

"Well…that went well," Rand commented, earning him a smack to the back of his head from Ranma.

"HEY!" He yelled, looking like he wanted to say more, but at Master Gill’s frantic shushing motions he settled for glaring at the younger boy, who stuck his tongue out. He turned to Master Gill.

"That’s crazy! The Whitecloaks don’t have any reason to be after me."

"I don’t know about reasons, lad, but they’re after you and Mat for certain sure. What have you been up to lad? Elaida and the Whitecloaks." Rand glanced at Ranma and, seeing his shrug, decided not to protest. It made no sense, but he had heard the Whitecloak.

"What about you? The Whitecloaks will make trouble for you even if they don’t find us."

"No worries about that, lad. The Queen’s guards still uphold the law, even if they do let traitors strut around showing white. As for the night…well, Lamgwin and his friends might not get much sleep, but I could almost pity anybody who tries to put a mark on my door."

"Almost," commented Ranma wryly. Rand sniggered in spite of himself. Gilda appeared beside them, dropping a curtsy to Master Gill and favouring Ranma with a sly smile. He gave a nervous smile and edged away slightly. Rand tried hard not to laugh.

"Sir, there’s…there’s a Lady. In the kitchens." She sounded scandalised at the combination. "She’s asking for Master Rand, sir, and Master Mat, by name." Ranma and Rand exchanged puzzled looks with the innkeeper.

"Lad," Master Gill said, "if you’ve actually managed to bring the Lady Elayne down from the Palace to my inn, we’ll all end up facing the headsman." Ranma snickered softly at Rand’s horrified look, and Gilda squeaked at the mention of the Daughter-Heir and gave Rand a round-eyed stare.

"Off with you, girl," the innkeeper said sharply. "And keep quiet about what you’ve heard. It’s nobody’s business." Gilda bobbed again and darted down the hallway, flashing glances at the pair of youths over her shoulder as she went.

"In five minutes –" Master Gill sighed – "she will be telling the other women that you two are princes in disguise. By nightfall it will be all over the New City."

"Master Gill," Rand said, "I never mentioned Mat to Elayne. It can’t be –" Suddenly he exchanged a huge smile with Ranma and the pair nodded. Master Gill blinked, and they were gone, off at a dead sprint for the kitchens.


"Wait!" the innkeeper called behind them. "Wait until you know. Wait you fools!"

Ranma and Rand crashed through the door to the kitchens, broad grins plastered across their faces, and there they were.

Moiraine rested her serene eyes on Rand, unsurprised, until she looked at his companion. At Ranma, her eyes flew wide open.

"Rand…" she breathed softly, urgency shining through her calm and collected voice. "Why can your male friend channel Saidar?"

All eyes swivelled to Ranma, who smiled weakly.

"Crap." He muttered. Rand rolled his eyes.

=========================================================================

Tell me you love me! ^_^ I am EVAILE!!!!! *laughs*

Anyway, Hope you like this chapter. Took me bloody long enough -_-

Send C&C to: strider_richards@hotmail.com

<Preview of next chapter!>

Flight from Caemlyn! Ranma’s curse! Lan gets his arse handed to him on a silver platter! ^_^ Well…maybe not. I dunno yet!

Ja!

Strider Richards