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DRAGONMOUNT

A WHEEL OF TIME COMMUNITY

Butterfly on a Wheel--Attn Rhya


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                               I am a man-wolf, I am a wolf man
                               I have half a canine mind
                               I have half the mind of a man
                               I am neither of one kind
                               Maybe it was only an hallucination
                               I made a thorough investigation
                               The image had a power that clings
                               To my jaded imagination
                               My brain has found the bells it rings

 

Sunlight after a long dark night, the sounds of birds singing, a refreshing rain shower after a long dry period, all these things would bring a smile to most peoples faces, but for Owen all of this faded into insignificance at the sight before him. Four small furry bundles nestled close to their mother, sucking on her teats with gusto. Their mother, Owen’s long-time wolf companion, lay on her side and watched her cubs as they fed. Her contentment and satisfaction did not need the enhanced senses of the Wolfkin to detect, it was plain for all to see.  However there was also an under lining of apprehension that only Owen could detect and he knew well the source of this apprehension. The outside world had moved on, the wheel had turned and in doing so become a darker place. A place where those who could not defend themselves were prey for the stronger, a land where evil walked in the shadows.

In the Stedding the Wolfkin were sheltered from the worst of the ravages and their alliance with the Band of the Red Hand provided outside support. It was a mutually beneficial alliance, the Wolfkin had talents that the Band lacked and vice versa. It was an alliance that had stood for several years and proved the doubters in both camps were wrong.

Rising from his chair Owen went out to the balcony and surveyed the forest around his home. Owen had always lived apart from the rest of the Wolfkin and valued the privacy his home offered. It was a home he now shared with Rhya and he had come to love her with a passion he thought he would never again know. Considering his past, the relationship with Rhya was even more remarkable and seemed to grow by the day. His inner musings ended abruptly as he sensed Rhya’s presence as she emerged from their room. He resisted the temptation to go to her as she was as grumpy as could be first thing in the morning and needed her morning mug of tea before she felt able to face the day. Eventually she joined Owen on the balcony sliding her arms around his waist.

“Why is it that you always want to have our training either first thing in the morning or last thing at night Owen”?

Turning to face her, Owen kissed the tip of her cute up turned nose and smiled down at her. “If we only trained when it was easy where is the challenge in that”? Rhya had no response to this knowing the way Owen’s mind worked she knew he always took the harder path, the more difficult decisions and walked the paths others feared to tread. Leaving her to finish her drink on the balcony and returned to their house to prepare breakfast. He was just putting the food on the table when Rhya entered the room and without ceremony sat down and started to eat the food in front of her.

“Today we need to move on with your training Rhya, you are ready for the final test before you move from a Guardian to a Ranger. I know I have been tougher on you than on the other Guardians, but I cannot be seen to be showing favour to the one I love.” Those words came easy to him now whereas a few months earlier he could not even bring himself to think that way never mind voice them. “When you have finished your breakfast meet me at the Rangers quarters and we will begin. Make sure to bring all your weapons and be prepared to stay away from the Stedding for several days, but do not bring any food or water. We will live off what we can trap and forage and drink only from streams and rivers. This will be no picnic for you, but I have great faith in your abilities and believe you will cope admirably.” With that Owen left Rhya to finish her breakfast, collecting his weapons and other essential items he kissed her on her brow and then made his way out of his treehouse. Once on the ground he jogged his way to the Rangers training field, spending his time practicing his archery.

 

White Fang

Ranger Leader

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Flipping the heavy weight of her hair back over one shoulder in a habitual movement, Rhya sipped at her second, rapidly cooling, mug of tea and watched the cubs while she mused over Owen's words. The quiet thrill of knowing another phase of her training was coming to an end battled with wry amusement over his careful neutrality. He was probably the only person in the entire Stedding who thought favour could be construed from his mentoring her. If anything it was the opposite. There had been more than a few 'kin over the months who had sympathised with her over her comparatively rigorous regime. Even Aislyn had been moved to concern once. But Rhya had simply shaken her head at them and denied the need for concern. For one thing, they should all have realised that Owen had never pushed her past what she was well able to cope with. For another, she enjoyed the learning of the new skills, still appreciating that sense of being useful, of being needed, by her adopted home.

 

And then there was the fact that she'd rather asked for it. She'd put her foot down months ago, very clearly, about not being wrapped in wool. In fact, she'd been quite harsh about it, demanding not to be left behind, left out or treated with any more concern than any other Ranger. Because she knew, if she let him, he'd be as protective as... her eyes flicked to Ice... a mother wolf over her cubs. Her lips curved into a rueful smile as she stood, stretching and rinsing out her mug. He'd respected her wish of course, difficult as he found it, and promptly started training her as hard as possible.

 

Owen's concern didn't spring from a lack of faith in her ability or a lack of trust. It came from his own self doubt and guilt. Everything that had happened in the end with Ehlana and Iris had been traumatic, scarring him deeply and Rhya suspected that losing her too would really be the final straw. But she was also very aware that he had to be able to focus on his role as a leader in this community of theirs and he couldn't do that properly if every fibre of his being was concentrated on keeping her safe. He took his duty to the Wolfkin very seriously. If he failed in any way, it would just be another stick for him to beat himself with and, much more importantly to Rhya, it could poison their relationship because it would make her the cause of that failure. She loved him too much let that happen so she accepted all the challenges thrown at her with grace.

 

A wolf's equivalent of amusement seeped into her mind causing her to grin.

 

Most of the time at least, she threw the thought back at Shadow.

 

As she moved around the tree house, tying her hair back neatly and gathering all her gear, Shadow kept up a stream of images that told her quite categorically what he thought of her graceful acceptance until she finally emerged onto the balcony stuffing a small pack of herbs into her pack and laughing helplessly. 

 

I do not sulk and I was never that grumpy...well, apart from that once...but it took a whole week to get the mud out of my hair! A sense of disbelief rolled back to her from some distance away. Fine! Go hunt or something useful. Amusement returned to Shadow's mental tone before his attention turned elsewhere and Rhya shouldered her bow, checked her sword and daggers and set off for the Rangers' quarters, a smile still lingering on her face.

 

Owen was there before her. "Naturally," the thought was rueful. She never managed to catch him out and not for lack of trying. He was always one step ahead even over something as simple as an arrival time. She half wished she could blame it on him knowing her too well but she couldn't because he did it with everyone. He was just that good.

 

"What did you do, Rhya, go back to bed for another nap? It's almost mid-day already!"

 

Rhya arched an eyebrow, her smile widening. They were always up early and the morning was barely started. Most of the Stedding was still deserted at this hour. "Never mind your nonsense. Where are we going? You never did tell me what this part consisted of. How long do we need to be away?"

 

Owen was already moving, her last words addressed to his back and she hastened after him rolling her eyes at the noncommittal, "You'll see," that was flung over his shoulder. 

 

 

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Without any more talking, Owen started running, using a long loping stride; one designed to cover long distances easily. Rhya fell in beside Owen and the two of them headed towards the hills and a trail Owen knew would not tax Rhya too much.

“Tonight I will start to instruct you in the Way of the Ranger, being a Ranger is not all about using weapons, and you may find parts of it confusing at first. A Ranger should always act with the highest regard for the people they are protecting, even if they do not appreciate or desire the help. We do what we do, not for thanks, we do it because it is right, that extends to two-legs as well.”

Rhya was surprised by the mention of two-legs especially as she knew Owen had no love for them. However Owen divided the two-legs into two separate groups, those he could trust and the rest.

“Perhaps how we act around two-legs is even more important than how we act around our own brethren. To them we are Darkfriends, or fiends, the only way to change that is to let our actions speak for themselves. I know you know I do not like many of them and must think this is a strange view to have. But they chose to persecute us, not the other way round, so we have to act with great dignity and moral courage in our dealings with them.”

They were just cresting a small rise in the trail, and Owen did not speak again until they were over it and heading into the valley beyond. When they reached the valley floor Owen called a halt to their run, Rhya was puffing a little, but had managed to keep up so far. “Gather some dead wood love, we will start a small fire and then continue with our lesson.”

While Rhya gathered the wood, Owen scraped a fire pit out of the ground, using one of his daggers. When Rhya returned, Owen asked her to build the fire and light it. When the fire was going, Owen sprinkled some incense on it, the smell permeating the area. Owen motioned for Rhya to sit opposite him the started to explain to her what he wanted Rhya to do.

“Clear your mind , focus on the flames and seek that which is within us all, the centre where we are at peace.” Owen’s voice had taken on a very soft inflection, one that Rhya could hear only because of her enhanced hearing. “When you look into the fire, ask yourself this, where does the flame go? Seek that place and you will find the wal, your centre.”

Owen stopped speaking and let his mind clear, seeking out that inner calm that was so different to the Spring and was unlike any other technique of meditation he had heard of before Riverwind had taught it to him.

Owen watched as Rhya prepared herself, he had high hopes of her, after all she was a calming influence on him and he knew she should be able to attain her wal with ease. But after a while, Owen noticed her eyes open and a slight smile appear on her face.

“Looking at me and smiling will not help you achieve what we are trying to do here Rhya. Now concentrate on where the flame goes and stop thinking about me.”

Owen could not help but smile at the small scowl that appeared on her face, he was getting to know her very well and could usually tell what she was thinking. This brought a warm glow in him and Owen could not believe how fortunate he was to have Rhya in his life, no matter how much of a trial she could be at times.

“Now clear your mind, steady you’re breathing and concentrate. You can do this Rhya, we both know that. There is one thing though, and this is maybe the most important part of this lesson. I cannot teach you this, I can only act as your guide, you must find your wal on your own Rhya, everybody has their own path they must walk to attain this ability and it will not be an easy path. Sometimes when I try I get near, at others it is like grasping smoke. You will spend more time being frustrated than you would think possible, I know I have.”

Owen lapsed into silence and waited to see if Rhya had any questions. The silence of the wooded glade settled around the two of them and despite the slight chill in the air, neither seemed to notice engrossed in what they were doing.

 

White Fang

Ranger Leader

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Rhya had lost track of how long they'd been sitting in front of the fire. What she was keeping track of was the numbness in her behind and the ever more insistent cramp in her thigh. She wasn't made for sitting still in one position for hours on end. Carefully easing the muscles in her right leg and surreptitiously rubbing the worst spot with the heel of her hand, she swallowed down a sigh for the hundredth time.

 

"Where does the flame go? Right up into the Light blasted air!" the frustrated thought pounded inside her skull as she lost concentration completely. Again!

 

She side eyed Owen over the fire briefly. To all intents and purposes he appeared oblivious, still as the eye of a storm. Rhya rolled her eyes. As if that was ever true. He was as aware of every move she made as she was of...well...another sigh caught before it issued forth...everything about him. This would be so much easier if he wasn't so distracting. And to make matters worse it wasn't even his fault. He was just sitting there. That was sufficient! "Blood and bloody ashes! This shouldn't be so difficult to do." She just had to pay attention. Getting uptight wasn't helping. Staring into the fire definitely wasn't helping. 

 

Inner calm. That wasn't a thing she normally had difficulty achieving. The phrase flittered around her mind like a butterfly trying to escape as she cast about for a pathway to this wal Owen spoke of with such certainty. In doing so, she forgot to try quite so hard. One moment her hands were clasped lightly between her knees as they had been for hours, the next they unconsciously shifted and landed, comfortably, on the hilts of her daggers. It was a common thing. She tended to do it when working through a problem or trying to formulate an argument. The texture and weight beneath her fingers were like a balm to her soul, soothing away her stress so naturally that she didn't even register the familiar sensation. Instead of looking into the fire,  Rhya's sight turned inward. Her breathing slowed as her consciousness of her own being heightened. Her heartbeat, rhythmic; the pulse beating steadily at the base of her throat; the slight frisson of air across the skin on her arm as the wind picked up...all were recognised and acknowledged...along with the fading thrum of pain in her thigh. She could actually feel the world around her receding. The strangest sensation. Like floating. And she caught it. For an infinitesimal moment, she was pure calm. Focused. Centred. 

 

The breeze changed direction slightly, ruffling the tip of Rhya's ponytail, and carrying an instantly recognisable scent to her nostrils. The reaction was immediate, like a flame flicking along her veins. And she lost her grasp on whatever she'd found! The pain exploded in her thigh, worse than before, and had her leaping inelegantly to her feet, trying to stretch out the offending muscle as she bit down hard on her lower lip. Her eyes caught Owen's, spotting the tiniest twitch at the corner of his mouth. 

 

"Just cramp," her grim tone dared him to laugh, annoyance writ large across her face. How in the world did he do that? He couldn't know. Maybe he was just laughing at her exasperation... and maybe pigs would fly! It couldn't be natural to be this hyper aware of another person, even for a Wolfkin. Surely not. Clearly she needed another talk with Aislyn. A little huff of laughter escaped her at that, despite her irritation. Their last talk had been... educational.

 

"Well, I suppose you did warn me this would be no easy task," she managed, attempting an unconcerned tone, but still not quite meeting Owen's eyes. "If frustration was the point, it's been achieved. I think I had it and then it slipped away like water through my fingers." She paused thoughtfully. "Hmm...and it took a trigger which I presume is not helpful if I need to be able to do this at will." Rhya stood, pensively considering her options. Then, instead of sitting down again, she leaned back against a nearby tree, her palms flattened against the bark. She liked trees. She did this often at home.

 

Owen hadn't said a word but she could feel him watching her carefully. Clearly she needed to work this one out for herself. 

 

"Everyone has their own path do they?" She considered that as she once more steadied her breathing and worked through each muscle, relaxing them one after another until all of the tension was gone. Fragmented thoughts drifted through her head of working in her herb garden, hands deep in the soil, planting new life. That was her meditation. Eyes slowly closing, her sensitive fingertips began to smooth idly over the tree trunk of their own volition, finding the knots and ridges in the bark, distantly aware of the great age of the wood. The distinctive smell of warm sap seeped into her nostrils as an echoing warmth permeated the skin of her face from the little sunlight filtering through the canopy above.

 

Very slowly a sense of deep contentment settled over Rhya and with it came a dawning understanding. This wasn't just about the centre of herself, it was about the very rooted, solid connection she felt to the land around her. That was her strength that she carried with her everywhere. It wasn't the emotionless stillness she'd been searching for so hard earlier. This was a rich, vibrant, life giving core of ...peace. And complete control. 

 

Rhya's eyes, a darker green than usual because of the emotion lurking under the surface, almost as if they were a reflection of the mossy carpet beneath her feet, opened finally. She didn't need to tell him she could do it again now; he knew. He always knew.

 

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Owen waited for Rhya to come out of her trance when she was good and ready. While he was waiting for her, Owen got up and walked around the small clearing they were in, searching for something. Eventually Owen found what he was looking for and returned to Rhya.

She had opened her eyes and was watching him as he sat down. “Well now you know what I was explaining to you, how do you feel?”

Owen listened intently to Rhya’s answer, smiling to himself as she tried to explain what she had felt. When she finished Owen nodded his head, then grabbed hold of her hand, pulling her to her feet. “Well now that you can do it sitting down and fairly comfortable, how about we see if you can do it while in a less comfortable situation.”

Rhya arched one of her eyebrows at Owen. “And just what do you have in mind Owen?”

Leading her across the clearing Owen made his way back to the tree he had spotted and pointed to two branches about halfway up. “See those two branches Rhya, the two that wind around each other? Well I want you to climb up there and hang by your knees from them.”

“You want me to what…?” Rhya looked at Owen and realised he had that not to be messed with look on his face. At times like this it was better to just do as he said, no matter how brain dead it was. Muttering to herself, Rhya started to climb the tree, Owen close behind her. After a short climb they came to the branches Owen has indicated and they crawled along them

“This will do Rhya, now remove your boots and stockings and do as I do.”

Owen locked his knees over the two branches and swung himself upside down, crossing his arms over his chest he looked for all the world like a large bat at rest Owen listened to Rhya as she tried to make him believe she was uncomfortable, but he knew what her abilities where and this task was not beyond her.

“What now, oh wise one?”

Rhya’s question brought Owen back to the present and his smile broadened. “Well ‘Rhya for now I will leave you on your own, but I want you to attain your wal, and hold it come what may.” Rhya threw Owen a sceptical look but knew him well enough by now to know he would never let any harm come to her. Concentrating on maintaining her position she slowed her breathing and then looked to see what Owen was doing only to find no sight of him  

I hate it when he does that to me

Owen had not gone far, he had prepared for this lesson with Rhya and what he needed was nearby. Gathering up the implements that he needed Owen returned to the tree that Rhya was hanging from and started to tickle her feet with a feather, he knew she was particularly sensitive there. He knew this would be a good enough distraction that she would find it hard to maintain her centre. If this did not work Owen had more things he could try; after all he could show no favouritism here and had decided that he would be just as harsh with Rhya as he was with every other trainee.

White Fang

Ranger Leader

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Rhya prodded gingerly at her left hip. She remembered the day Owen had discovered just how she felt about having her feet touched. The violence of her reaction had resulted in a nasty kick to the jaw for him. That had been a day of many firsts.

 

Satisfied that she was still in one piece, Rhya strode over to the tree and began to climb again. It was as well the ground was covered in such a thick layer of twigs and springy moss, it made for a softer landing. She wasn't going to do herself any irreparable damage but she was certainly going to be aching from all the bruises. Even being trained to land properly didn't prevent a few off balance landings and they'd only been at this for about an hour. She was no nearer to controlling her limbs.

 

Climbing the tree and hanging from the branch was a simple matter. She'd been living in the tree house with Owen for months now and was almost as adept at clambering around the place as he was. Admittedly, she didn't make a habit out of hanging upside down for hours, but after she got used to the oddity of it, she felt quite at home. No, the issue for Rhya wasn't the precarious perch, and that realisation brought her up short just as she reached the branch again.

 

"Rhya?" Owen's voice held a note of query at her arrested expression. "Now is not the time to give up."

 

Rhya absently held a finger up to show she was mulling something over and needed a minute or two to process it. For the first time in her life, it occurred to her that she didn't react in such an extreme way because she was ticklish. That was simply what people around her had said as a child and she'd never questioned it.

 

"If you tell yourself something often enough, you start to believe it. I've seen it," Rhya's thoughts whirled as her memory took her back to teaching some of the younger boys in the warehouses. Many of them had been convinced they couldn't deal with numbers and others had made up their minds that they simply couldn't read. It had been hard to break down those barriers. This was about trust. She didn't trust anyone to touch her feet. "Why on earth not?!" The memories floated beyond her reach though, far in her past. It was like navigating through fog.

 

Rhya settled herself upside down again, closing her eyes automatically and feeling the roughness of the branch through the fabric at the back of her knees. All of these musings had taken but seconds and continued as she centred herself. Finding her wal was becoming easier, holding on to it was a tougher nut to crack. She knew she trusted Owen implicitly, more than she ever had anyone else, so clearly this was very deeply ingrained in her psyche. That usually implied trauma. Yet still she couldn't grasp the edges of remembrance. A thorn to be pulled another time.

 

The insight seemed to have helped just the same, as this time, despite an initial flinching at Owen's light touch with the feather, mostly because he was alternating feet without any predictable pattern, Rhya held on to both her focus and the branch.

 

She'd been labelling this as an exercise in futility, but now she wasn't so sure and ran over all of their earlier words. Owen never taught a lesson that didn't have a vital purpose. Coping with distraction? Sure. She could buy that... to a point. But there was more to it than that. He'd spoken of two-legs and their common reaction to the 'kin, and he'd been very insistent about not rising to their bait. Which made her think about his tight rein on his own emotions most of the time and his very careful, deliberate way of handling situations.

 

Having managed to ignore whatever Owen was doing for a good few minutes now, Rhya ventured to open one eye, and regarded him steadily. 

 

"This is about self control, right? Not letting emotions cloud judgement by learning a coping mechanism? Or something similar. Or am I way off the mark?" 

 

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Owen was having fun with this now; normally training was a chore, one he was happy to do, but a chore none the less. But watching Rhya and appreciating the effort she was putting in gave Owen a sense of satisfaction that he had not felt for some time. However, he quickly squashed that train of thought as it led to memories he did not want to think about.

"This is about self-control, right? Not letting emotions cloud judgement by learning a coping mechanism. Or something similar. Or am I way off the mark?" 

Rhya’s voice brought Owen back to the present and after clearing his throat Owen answered Rhya’s question. “Often when we are not in a calm frame of mind, we react differently than we would like. This technique allows us to view a situation dispassionately and with a clarity we might not have if we let emotion rule us. It gives us an advantage over those who are ruled by emotion and that can mean the difference between life and death.”

Owen gave Rhya a moment to contemplate his answer than continued. “While I clear the fire away why don’t you get yourself down from there Rhya.”
 

Owen had a small smile on his face as he started to put the fire out and scatter the soon cooling ashes all around the small glade, they were in. It would be most difficult for Rhya to climb down without any help from Owen, and the drop was too far even if she could wriggle herself free. Once he had finished cleaning up, Owen settled himself in one spot and watched as Rhya did her best to free herself from her predicament without losing her focus.

Owen waited for Rhya to walk over to him, studying her face the whole time, and it was obvious to him that she had maintained her Wal. Not only from the expression on her face, but also from the sense of calm she radiated, Owen did not have to use his enhanced senses to tell that.

Owen did not speak to Rhya once she joined him, instead Owen indicated she should follow him, turning he started to jog out of the trees and back onto the path, and headed deeper into the forest. Owen did not need to look to see if Rhya had followed him, he could sense her just behind and off to one side of him, so attuned to her presence had he become. As they ran along shafts of moonlight pierced the trees and crossed their paths, making for a breath-taking sight. Soon the trees opened out and the sound of a stream could be heard as it bubbled over some stones. Owen angled towards the sound, leaving the path behind as it headed off up the side of the foothills of the mountains.

Once they reached the stream Owen led Rhya off to one side where a small tributary of the stream disappeared into a small cave. A few feet in and the cave was filled to the top by the brook. Owen started to strip off his boots and removed his shirt when Rhya spoke. “I hope you haven’t dragged me all the way out here just to get me undressed, Owen?”

Untying the laces on his breeches, Owen turned his head and winked at Rhya. “And would that be such a bad idea, my love?”

“It is when we have a perfectly good, and more importantly warm bed back in our house.”

She tried to sound outraged at his suggestion, but Owen could tell she was not. He knew she was a willing partner in all this. “This time it isn’t Rhya, but maybe later I will let you satisfy yourself; Now get undressed and come into the water.” With that Owen pulled his trousers off and slid into the water. By the time Rhya followed him, he had acclimatised to the temperature of the water, and so when Rhya got in, Owen smiled at her gasp as she realised how cold the water was.
 
“Now what we are going to do here, is swim through this tunnel until we come out the other side. It is a long swim, but I know you can do it.”

Owen watched her face as he said this, and without giving her a chance to complain he continued. “Of course, you will have to maintain your Wal at all times. Once you are in the tunnel you will not be able to turn around, it can be a tight fit in places, so keep swimming in one direction and I will see you on the other side.”

Not waiting for a reply, Owen walked over to the tunnel entrance and taking a couple of deep breaths disappeared into the dark water, kicking powerfully he was soon well into the tunnel and swimming for the exit. He knew his lungs would be bursting when he got to the other end, but this was a good test of control, and it would not do to succumb to panic. This was the ultimate test of ones Wal.

 

White Fang

Ranger Leader

Edited by WhiteWolf
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Rhya allowed herself a few seconds to acclimatise to the water's chill, letting the sudden tightness which the shock had caused in her chest to ease up a touch so she could breathe freely.  If she was going to have a distance to swim, then attempting it without full lungs of air would be idiotic. 

 

A wry smile touched her mouth briefly. Her question to Owen about getting undressed had been curiousity rather than teasing. She wouldn't have been surprised at all. Any time they were near water, they ended up naked as the day they were born. It was a deliberate, if unspoken, reminder of their first swim together and, by association, of how astoundingly lucky they'd each been to find the other. Besides, if that man asked her to get undressed, she wasn't going to say no wherever they happened to be. A gurgle of laughter escaped at that admission. 

 

Taking a few slow, deep breaths, Rhya brought her attention back to the matter at hand. She wasn't concerned about the swimming part of this or the having to hold her breath. In a small, tightly controlled part of her brain though, she was utterly terrified of the confined spaces she was about to face. This was a very deliberately chosen test. It had to be. Owen knew of her fear all too well. She'd hated enclosed spaces throughout her life but had only remembered why a matter of months ago. Her uncle had a lot to answer for. 

 

So be it. A test wasn't a test if it was easy. With one final deep breath in, Rhya dived and, once deep underwater, was thankful to find the way easily enough. The huge fissure that split the rocks before her was certainly narrow but, despite being dim, the water wasn't murky at all. 

 

She made steady progress, forcing herself not to rush, keeping a stranglehold on that panicking voice in the back of her head so that she wouldn't lose her wal, and gave thanks for her slender build. There were bends in the rocks where she felt her skin getting badly scraped along all those areas where she naturally had curves, but nothing worse than the grazed knees one often got as a child.

 

Just as her lungs were starting to protest, she could see the light changing far above and realised she must be reaching some kind of destination, possibly a cave. But of course it wasn't ever going to be that simple. At almost the same moment, she hit the most cramped part of the tunnel. It wasn't so much the width that gave her pause as the protruding rocks at irregular intervals and heights on either side. Even someone who didn't have her generous curves would struggle to be quite so fish like that they could undulate their way through that obstacle with ease.

 

Her anxiety increasing by the second, Rhya gingerly propelled herself forward, feeling carefully with her fingertips and half pushing, half pulling herself through the tightest places. The walls pressed in, the rock no longer merely grazing, but actually slicing her skin in one or two places. She ignored it. The weight of the water and the sense of oppression were a greater threat. She had to get out of the other side of this soon. Her lungs were aching, and now that she could feel the rocks against both her front and her back, that voice of panic wasn't just making itself known, it was screaming at a pitched counterpoint to the insistence of her body that she needed air. 

 

"Burn you, Rhy, don't lose it now," she admonished herself. "The rocks are no different to the tree or the soil. Just part of the earth. They're not trying to hurt you! Focus."

 

It wasn't helping. Her eyes were screwed tight shut as she held on to the calmness and peace inside, refusing to let that voice win but her mind still shouted at her about heavy darkness, fear, walls closing in and the need for escape. She could feel her mind racing down into memories she didn't want to touch. Not here, not now. Scrabbling fingers searched for some purchase on the rocks ahead and eventually found it at almost the full reach of her arms. Hauling hard, she was convinced her arms were coming out of their sockets. Her hips were definitely stuck. Wriggling frantically, Rhya twisted and turned, hunting for an angle that would let her move. It seemed like hours rather than seconds but finally, she felt herself slip through and free of the grasping rocks and pushed upwards grimly, sure that she couldn't make it out before her lungs burst.

 

But make it she did, her head breaking the water just as her need for breath won out over the need for self preservation and she gulped in a mixture of river water and blessedly fresh air, hands grabbing blindly for the side of the channel she was in as she coughed and choked, clearing her throat of the water. 

 

Rhya clung there, making no move to leave the water, a vague expression of horror on her face that even the calmness couldn't wipe out entirely. "Promise me, you won't make me do that again. I know why you did. But promise me," her voice was flat and matter of fact. It would have fooled any other listener into believing she was merely making a civilised request...

 

 

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Owen kept his own council as he led Rhya up the trail that wound around the mountain. He was not being rude towards the young Guardian, instead he wanted to unsettle her, place her in the correct frame of mind that Owen wanted her in. The location Owen was heading for was one that he visited on his own, many times and suited his purpose exactly. Finally, after covering a few miles, Owen spoke to Rhya, keeping his comments clipped and letting a small amount of irritation creep into his voice, all by design.

 “We will make camp a little further on”

 Without waiting for an answer Owen continued upwards, noticing the snow that was starting to appear, this high up in the mountains the snow was permanent and could often catch an unwary traveller out. It was another hour or so, before Owen and Rhya arrived at the location they had been heading for, it was a large cave, set back from the cliff edge, and it provided a panoramic view of the land below them and on a good day it was possible to see Emonds Field from this vantage point. However, today was not such a day and the lands below were totally covered by thick, grey black clouds that threatened to dump their contents at any moment.

 Ducking into the cave, Owen indicated where supplies had been stored and told Rhya to start a fire and get a hot drink and some food going. “There is something I have to check on then I will return, don’t venture out of the cave Rhya, it may not be snowing now but that can change in a heartbeat”. Turning on his heel, Owen left the cave, the clouds overhead looking more threatening by the minute.

 By the time Owen returned to the cave, night had fallen, and there were the makings of a blizzard, the wind was just as strong as before, if not stronger. Shaking the snow from his cloak, Owen quickly made his way to the fire and started to warm his hands. When he had worked the cold from his fingers, he removed his weapons and went over to his pack and found some dry socks, removing his boots he quickly took off the damp sock he wore, and placed them near the fire. While Owen was doing this Rhya sat by the fire stirring the contents of the large pot she was using to cook their food. Owen sniffed at the contents and then smiled at Rhya, “That smells very good Rhya, how long before it is ready?”

 “A few more minutes should suffice Owen.” Rhya handed Owen a mug of hot tea and continued stirring the contents of the pot. Owen watched Rhya over the top of his mug, it was obvious that she was confused by his earlier behaviour towards her, but Owen had his reasons and if she had not been so effected by the tunnel she would realise why he had reacted the way he had.

 It was not long before the stew was ready, and while Rhya doled it into two bowls, Owen cut some slices from the loaf he had brought and handed two to Rhya in return for the bowl of stew. “A fair exchange is no robbery.” Owen winked at Rhya as he said it, and then started to eat the stew, occasionally dipping his bread into the bowl and soaking up the gravy. By the time the two of them had finished eating and cleared up, it was fully dark outside, and Owen decided it would be best for them to get some rest. “We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow Rhya and after the climb up here today, I think we could both do with an early night.” With that Owen started laying out their blankets on one side of the fire, the side nearest the cave entrance

 

Later that night, after Owen had assured himself that Rhya was well asleep, Owen left his blankets and quickly got dressed. When he was finished, he gently shook Rhya awake and once she was awake told her to get her things together, there was something that needed doing, and had to be done now. With that Owen left the cave and moved towards the edge of the ledge outside the cave. With the snow swirling around in the increasing wind, Rhya could not see where Owen went, but found his footprints easy enough to follow in the snow in the ground. As Owen came into sight, he had his back to Rhya, and was stood, poised, on the very edge of the cliff. Without turning Owen addressed Rhya.

 “There comes a time when all of us have to do things that we would rather not, that is what is in front of you tonight Rhya. If you die up here, you die alone, unlamented, and with your body never to be found. You need to face this fear and demonstrate to me, and more notably, to yourself, that you are ready to do this.”

 Without waiting, Owen stepped out into the abyss and disappeared from Rhya’s view. “Will you follow me into hell Rhya?” Owen’s voice floated up on the wind, before being snatched away.”

 Snickering to himself, Owen lay in the gorse bushes, sucking on a thorn cut to his thumb, knowing full well what must be going through Rhya’s mind right now, Owen could not keep the wolfish smile from his face. Although the drop was a long one, the bushes at the bottom more than cushioned the fall.

 

This test was a matter of sublimating common sense, and allowing your instincts to take over, Owen hoped that Rhya would have the nerve to do this, but that was yet to be seen. Owen also realised she would give him hell when all of this was over, but it was necessary to explore your own limits, that way in times of extreme stress you knew you had the ability to cope and overcome.

 

White Fang

 

Ranger Leader

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Despite her exhaustion, sleep had not come easily. The physical stresses on her body were taxing, but with all the training she'd been put through, they weren't beyond endurance. The emotional stresses were taking a far greater toll and it would be fair to say that Rhya was hanging on to the level headed, practical aspects of her nature by the skin of her teeth. The adverse reaction to her trip through the tunnel had been bad enough. Then Owen had started acting strangely, putting her even more off balance if that was possible. Had she done something wrong without realising it? Was it just another way of testing her? But if so, then why the irritation? She couldn't fathom what that achieved. He'd been quite brusque with her from the time they left the cave until they were eating, then had done an about face and been, if not warm, then polite and good humoured. Asking why wasn't an option. She couldn't have managed a coherent conversation if she'd been paid to have one. She was still gnawing away on these problems when blessed darkness and rest had taken over.

 

Now, grabbing her gear, dressing again and trying to rid herself of the last vestiges of sleep, all of the earlier thoughts resurfaced in rush. Rhya squashed them down ruthlessly. It seemed there was more testing to be faced and dealing with tiredness, emotional strain, and bad weather was more than enough for any sane person without adding puzzles on top. This wasn't the time. No doubt it would all become clear.

 

She hastened after Owen, relieved to see his footprints were still visible given there was no immediate sign of him. It didn't take long to catch up, though she was surprised to find him standing at a clifftop, closer to the edge than she personally considered advisable with the wind picking up. She was about to tell him as much when he spoke instead.

 

"... you die alone, unlamented, and with your body never to be found...." 

 

Rhya's head jerked back in shock, her eyes widening and her skin turning a peculiar shade of grey.

 

"What the...? Unlamented?!"

 

What was he even saying? What under the Light was she supposed to understand from that?! That he didn't care? He couldn't mean it. Could he? She swayed from the psychological battering, the whirling snow around her a fitting reflection of her mental state. But Owen was still talking and no sooner had she registered that than he'd literally walked right off the edge of the cliff. Rhya was already running forward, shouting his name, as his words drifted back to her on the wind.

 

“Will you follow me into hell, Rhya?”

 

Burn that man! She'd follow him beyond that if necessary! It shouldn't have even been a question. What kind of game was this? Pain seared her heart as she jumped, not even pausing once to consider the action because, with a momentary flash of her usual wry humour, she was fairly sure training wasn't meant to end in death. Then she shut all the emotion out, leaving fate in the hands of the Creator. 

 

 

 

(OOC: don't RP Rhya's reaction as anything other than distantly polite with minimal speaking. She's going to have no expression, no tone, and no body language other than polite and to the point, as if she were talking to a stranger. He can assume she's in shock or explain it away to himself. She's not, at least not entirely. But it's how it may seem. She's got all her barriers firmly slammed up.)

 

 

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With the weather closing in and the wind picking up speed, Owen decided it was best to head straight back to the cave as the last thing either he or Rhya would need was hypothermia. Thankfully Riverwind had ensured there was a rope ladder anchored in place just a hundred paces away. Owen had already disentangled himself from the gorse bush before Rhya joined him.  As soon as she hit the gorse bush Owen started to help her get out of the bushes. Under different circumstances this might have been a moment of mirth as they struggle with Rhya’s cloak, which seemed to have deliberately entangled itself in the gorse bushes. However, tonight was not a night for mirth and the conversation was kept to a minimum which meant very few words were exchanged. Owen led the way to the rope ladder and let Rhya go first.  She was still feeling the effects of the trials of the day, understandable, and Owen wanted to make sure if she slipped, he was there to catch her.

 

The climb was only a short one and when they reached the top it was only a short walk to the cave where the fire was still burning. Owen quickly built it up and taking out a container quickly filled the kettle with some broth they had brought with them. When it was ready, Owen filled their mugs and handed Rhya hers. Taking his in-hand Owen took hold of the mug and let the warmth seep into his hands, all the time watching Rhya, wondering when she was going to speak with him. She had been emotionally shut down since they had left the gorse bush. Eventually Owen put his mug down and just watched Rhya, giving her the space, she obviously needed. Just as Rhya started to speak the wind outside the cave picked up in intensity and drowned out her words. Owen wasn’t sure if it was irritation or annoyance that he could sense from her, whether at the wind or at him, no doubt he would find out soon.

 

White Fang

 

Ranger Leader

 

OOC Bring it on, buttercup ?

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Shivers down your spine chill you to the bone
'Cause the mandolin wind is the melody
That turns your heart to stone

 

 

The rock was very good at magnifying the sounds of the wild weather outside the cave and irritation slipped briefly through Rhya's defenses as the wind drowned out her question, forcing her to wait on it changing direction.

 

"Is this test complete?" she queried flatly into the sudden silence, not bothering to look up. She got the impression it wasn't the question Owen had been expecting. He nodded confirmation, his eyes never leaving her. He'd been watching her carefully ever since she landed in the gorse bush and she wondered what precisely he was expecting from her. Maybe he thought she'd ask if she'd passed the test but she didn't care about the answer to that at the moment. "And we'll wait for morning to leave for home?" Another nod. They both knew it would be a fool's game to brave such weather up here when there was no need. 

 

Rhya had been deep in conversation with herself ever since they'd arrived back at the cave. She couldn't call it arguing precisely because she was too numb to raise that kind of effort. 

 

He loves you. 

 

Yes.

 

You don't truly doubt that?

 

Rhya checked. Did she?

 

No. 

 

Owen's actions, as always, spoke louder than any stupid words he had spoken. There was no true cause for doubt there.

 

He wants to make sure you're safe.

 

Yes.

 

He's testing your limits...because it may be the difference between life and death some day.

 

Yes.

 

This is how every Ranger is tested...

 

Ah. There's the rub.

 

NO!

 

That was the source of the problem. That's what was causing the pain. She'd taken everything thrown at her, knowing the reasons behind it, and empathising with his need to make sure she could take care of herself because she wouldn't let him do it. At least no more than he would for any other person in the Stedding. Except...she wasn't just any other person. Which made it harder. She understood all of that. But... that last challenge... those words had crossed a line. It felt like a betrayal of her trust. No amount of logic was going to change that.

 

Rhya raised her head finally, her eyes bleak. She was in no fit state to have this conversation. He clearly didn't recognise what he'd done and she wasn't up to explaining. He thought she was angry. It was more complicated than that.

 

"I can't do this. Not here. Not right now," she offered, dully. He deserved more than that though; more than she could give with just words. She held one hand out towards him, barely finding the energy to move, and waited until he took it between both of his. Then she let go of the unnatural self control and opened the floodgates, projecting every ounce of what she was feeling, knowing he could sense it for himself. The hurt, the pain, the confusion, the stress, the exhaustion, the betrayal...the feeling of being lost. Rhya squeezed Owen's fingers gently, reassuringly, "Later..."  and blackness claimed her.

 

They could deal with anything. Later.

 

 

Wise men say, "All is fair in love and war"
And, "There's no right and wrong in the design of love"
And I could only watch as the wind crushed your wings

 

 

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