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DRAGONMOUNT

A WHEEL OF TIME COMMUNITY

A Journey Begins With One Step (Attn: Owen)


Taymist
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The day had started out innocuously enough. She’d woken early, unable to sleep any longer and, as soon as she’d washed and dressed, had made a strong cup of tea before padding on bare feet out to the balcony. Curling up on her usual pile of cushions, Rhya sat in the half light of dawn watching the sun rise. She liked this time of day, often finding that the myriad colours washing the sky simultaneously washed clean any troubles weighing on her mind. It was not, however, working on this occasion.

 

She was restless, filled with an urgent need to be doing something... anything. Had been for days in fact. She was happy with her own company, enjoyed the solitude and peace that surrounded the tree house. No-one bothered her here save for the occasional visitor looking for Owen and nine times out of ten that suited her just fine. Unfortunately, this day wasn’t one of those nine and she suddenly craved company. Not just any company either as she didn’t know many people here in the Stedding.

 

Mostly my own fault, she thought but still couldn’t dredge up the slightest interest in making any effort in that direction.

 

She missed Maradon, missed the hustle and bustle of the town’s streets where there was ample company without actually having to speak to anyone. Her days had gone from being filled with meetings, trips to the warehouses, doing the accounts and attending social engagements to... essentially nothing... which explained why she looked forward so much to those evening interludes talking to Owen or listening to him play his flute. Her mouth curved in amusement at that thought. More often than not though he was busy with some business or other about the Stedding, off doing the Light alone knew what and she was left to her own devices. She’d had no complaints about that. Until now.

 

Working fingers through her heavy mane of hair to comb out the knots which managed to mysteriously form overnight, Rhya’s eyes dropped to the clearing below the balcony, knowing that Owen should be returning shortly. He ran every morning with his fellow Rangers so he’d informed her a few days after her arrival and she wondered if he ever actually slept. She wasn’t a great sleeper herself but when she did it was as one dead and nothing short of the house falling down around her would wake her up.

 

Suddenly impatient with herself and exasperated by her mood, Rhya stood up and headed back indoors. By the time Owen walked in, she had rinsed her cup and was busily tidying the kitchen area in an attempt to distract herself.

 

“Good morning, Rhya.”

 

“It is? I hadn’t noticed,” she replied with heavy sarcasm, ignoring the raised eyebrow and slight amusement on his face.

 

“Got out of bed the wrong side did we?”

 

She turned briefly, scowling at him, even more irritated that he was so unperturbed by her evident grumpiness. “I got out of bed just fine thank you very much. We can’t all be morning people. Sleep is good for you, you should try it some time.” She knew she was being churlish but the words were out before she could stop them and she bit her lower lip in consternation as she went back to wiping the work bench. It wasn’t Owen’s fault after all.

 

“Alright Rhya what’s wrong?” his tone was as laced with amusement as his previous question and she sighed, throwing the cloth into the sink and turning to face him. The grin on his face had her smiling back ruefully.

 

“I’m sorry. I’m just going a little crazy and it’s not doing much for my manners,” she explained, blushing slightly. She paused a moment then carried on, “I know you’re really busy Owen, but I need to get out of here. You’ve never taken me with you when you go anywhere and... well, I don’t know the area myself and since I lost my horse I can’t go riding and if I don’t do something soon I’m going to burst... but I’ll understand if you can’t of course....

 

She trailed off, looking at him hopefully.

 

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“Taken you with me? I am not sure you would want to do the things I do just for the fun of it Rhya, but if that is what you want then starting tomorrow morning I will wake you when I do and you can accompany me and the rest of the Rangers on our little morning jaunts, I am sure that will help cure your restlessness.” Owen did not mean to taunt her, he knew it was not easy to suddenly have to go from living your life one way to learning to live it a completely different way. All in the Stedding had had to do that to a greater degree, but not everyone found it easy to accept. “You know Rhya, when I first came to the Stedding I wanted nothing more than to leave and had to be dragged back here once or twice by Riverwind and Aragorn, and then I had to face Wolflover, so I do appreciate what you have to deal with.” As he spoke, Owen stripped off his sweat sodden shirt and threw it into a basket in the kitchen, one that Iris had made when she had gotten fed up with looking for his clothes that needed washing or mending. Scratching at an itch on his ribs, Owen continued talking as he made his way to his room to find a new shirt.

 

“You are not a prisoner here, if you had wanted to go for a ride there is a communal stables in the center of the Stedding where you could borrow a horse. As long, as you are careful and do not go too far no one would stop you. You could even leave altogether, we do not enforce the rules like they once where.” Owen returned to the kitchen, pulling a brown wool shirt over his head and tying the laces at the neck.” But if you did leave who would I have to welcome me home in such a pleasant fashion?”

 

Owen turned away from Rhya as he finished talking, but out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw he stick her tongue out at him in response to his last comment, but when he turned back there was no tongue in sight. In his hand he had a hunk of bread and a small jar of honey, taking his knife from his pouch Owen started to slice the hunk of bread into thin slices and then spread honey over them. Picking one up he offered it to Rhya who took it, but looked askance at it. “There is nothing wrong you know my knife only has a few dead bugs on it.” Again there was a lightness to his voice that almost startled him, obviously having company, mostly pleasant company, was having a good effect on him after all the time he had spent on his own since Iris’s disappearance. “Come on lets go and sit outside, I may have an idea how to help cure you of your restlessness.”

 

“You mean if this,” Rhya waved the bread and honey about, “does not kill me.”

 

Obviously she did not realise how well attuned Owen’s hearing was but he pretended not to hear her mutterings and continued out to the balcony, smiling inside.

 

Once he was sat down he busied himself with the bread and honey and did not speak for a while, but once he was finished he started to explain to Rhya what his idea was. “I know coming from a thriving town you must find all of this,” here Owen waved his hand to indicate the forest around them, “to be a little boring, if not strange. So why don’t you accompany me tomorrow on a little trip I have planned. I was going to ask if you would like to go, before your little outburst earlier.”

 

For a moment Rhya did not answer him, she had taken a bite from the bread and was too busy trying to work her jaws to free her mouth of the cloying concoction to be able to speak, finally she did break the hold of the honey and bread. “You know Owen this is not bad, I have never tasted bread this fresh before.”

 

“Well of course you have not, I made it special for you.”

 

“No you did not, did you?”

 

Owen winked at Rhya; a gentle teasing never hurt anyone and could revive most spirits. “So do you want to accompany me on my journey? We will be away from the Stedding for a few days and will be on foot, but I think you should find it to your liking and I promise not to wake you up too early tomorrow if you agree.”

 

Owen

 

The WhiteWolf

 

Ranger Leader

 

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The bread and honey was really remarkably tasty and she had to smile at Owen’s teasing. She was in a far better frame of mind already and the prospect of a journey only improved her mood further. She swung a foot lazily as she perched on the railing, studying the view while he spoke.

 

Not to wake her too early? Rhya sniffed delicately but kept her opinions on that to herself. She was more than used to being up at the crack of dawn, if not all night. Business hadn’t waited on daylight hours and sleep didn’t always come in the darkness. Her eyes were troubled for a moment, contemplating the past few nights when sleep had been more scarce than usual. The old memories dredged up by the last session of Dream training had been unexpected and left her with a vague sense of unease. There was definitely something she couldn’t remember. Just what it was remained to be seen but the vague, half formed images from the bad dreams she’d been having made her wonder if she even wanted to know.

 

She shook her head slightly, pushing the problem away for the moment and turned back to Owen with a carefully neutral expression, conscious of her delay in responding. He was already eyeing her with that unfathomable look of his.

 

“I’d like that, yes, it’s just what I need,” Rhya nodded then stopped, wrinkling her nose as she gathered her thoughts. She felt a need to say something, to clarify her earlier mood and continued quietly, “It never occurred to me that I was a prisoner here, Owen.. and this place.. it's many things..  beautiful, tranquil, safe... but not boring. I can’t go back to Maradon. Not now, perhaps not ever. I don’t want to leave here..,” a hint of anxiety slipped into her voice, “... not permanently.”

 

“You don’t have to leave, Rhya,” Owen’s reply was reassuring.

 

“Good. My home is here now, with ...” she became very still for a brief moment before averting her gaze and finishing, “... the Kin and the wolves.” She slipped down off the railing and started to walk back indoors, adding with an overly bright smile, “I need a purpose, to be useful I suppose. I’m sure most people do and no doubt I’ll find it. I’ll be sure to check out the stables when we get back. It’d be good to go riding again. Now, what do we need to take with us? Will Ice and Shadow come too?”

 

She knew she was babbling but thankfully Owen didn’t comment on her uncharacteristic chatter and talk turned to preparations for the journey ahead.

 

 

---------------------

 

 

True to his word, Owen didn’t drag Rhya out of bed too early but the following day was still young when they were almost ready to set out. The sky was clear with only a few clouds scudding overhead, boding well for the trip and Rhya was almost bouncing with excitement, her laughter and good spirits echoing round the house as she dashed back and forward.

 

“Will you come here for a minute and stand still?” Owen’s voice halted her as she waltzed past him intent on fetching her forgotten comb from her room.

 

She curtsied cheekily, grinning from ear to ear, “Yes, oh Wise One.”

 

He half turned, lifting up what looked to be heavy fabric from the nearby chair but as he shook it and held it out to her, she could see that it was a cloak, similar to one she’d seen him wearing before. “You’ll likely need this.”

 

“Oh. Thank you,” she swung it round her shoulders and felt the weight settle satisfyingly. She could tell it would be invaluable if the weather turned bad, warm and waterproof and far better than her own. It wasn’t bad right now though, so she removed the cloak again, placing it near the door, so that she wouldn’t forget it and ran off to get her comb.

 

When she returned, another idea had occurred to her as she caught sight of Owen’s sword. “Umm... Owen, can I have a sword to take? I have my daggers of course but a sword might be more useful. Not that I’ve ever learned to use one,” she admitted regretfully. Her father had never allowed that, keen though she'd been.

 

 

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“A sword Rhya? I suppose you could not be any more trouble with a sword in your hand than you are without one, as it is it is almost impossible to get you to standstill when there are important things to do.” Not giving Rhya a chance to contradict him Owen quickly continued. “There is a large store of weapons in a chamber beneath the Ranger’s barracks. Some are personnel weapons kept there for safety, others are weapons that we have collected over the years and can be used by anyone.” Owen could not but help sense the anticipation that seemed to be pouring from Rhya. “But, there will be a price to pay for this.” Owen held up one finger. “You will do exactly as I say and when I say, without arguing. Some of my instructions may seem silly or nonsensical to you, but that is no reason for you to ignore them.” A second finger joined the first. “You will only remove your sword from its scabbard when I tell you to and at no other time. We are not talking about a toy here, or some fancy. If you do this you do it properly and show the correct respect for it. You may think you know how to handle an edged weapon because of your daggers, but a sword is vastly different.”

 

With the warning ringing in her ears, Owen and Rhya finished their preparations and climbed down to ground level before starting out for the weapons storeroom. “Ice and Shadow are already outside the Stedding, they will be meeting us when they are ready and will accompany us for most of our trip. Not all of it and you will see why when we get there.” Owen added quickly knowing if he did not another torrent of questions would burst forth from her ever-inquisitive brain. “It is not difficult to talk to the wolves you know, all it takes is a little concentration on your part, plus knowing the name of the wolf you want ot speak to helps. Why not give it a try and see if you can find Shadow. If he is to be your companion he will be waiting for you and will help you to contact him.” There was an immediate glow of expectation In Rhya’s eyes at this statement.

 

“Do you mean that Owen? That is all I have to do to talk with him, with any wolf?”

 

Owen laughed quietly, at the innocence of the question. “It is not as easy as you may think it sounds Rhya, but yes that is all you have to do. If a wolf does not want to speak to you they will not. But you will find they are very sociable animals and are willing to talk to any who can talk to them.” 

 

They continued to talk about contacting the Wolves and soon they arrived at the Barracks and Owen guided Rhya down the stairs to the underground storeroom. Taking a key from a pouch on his belt, Owen swiftly opened the lock and swung the door open, a slight musty smell greeting them, mixed in with the smell of well-oiled leather. “In here you will find all manner of weapons Rhya, but for now I advise you to contain your search to the area immediately behind the door. There are four racks there that hold swords of every description; except for the first rack you may choose any of the other swords. I suggest you pick them out and try them for weight and size, obviously the bastard and hand and a half swords are not for you, but the others should be ones you can cope with. You will also find a good scabbard and belt to go with the sword. So take your time and remember, this is an important choice so do not pick the most obvious one.”

 

Owen stood to one side and let Rhya make her way past him and over to where the racks where. He watched as Rhya walked around all three racks her hand hesitantly reaching out to touch a couple of the swords, but not lingering for any length of time. “I have to go to my office for a moment, so I will leave you to make your choice. If I have not returned by the time you have chosen then my office is the door at the end of the corridor on the right hand side at the top of the stairs. Just make your way there and come into the office.” With a distracted wave of her hand Rhya acknowledged Owen’s instructions, her mind obviously fixed on the task at hand.

 

 

Two hours later, Owen and Rhya had made their way through the woods that surrounded the Stedding and emerged into a large meadow, the morning breeze ruffling the grass and making it sway as if some giant hand was running it’s fingers through it. Off to their right was the lower slopes of the Mountains of Mist and to their left, the forest faded off into the distance and impenetrable wall of dark greens. As they started to walk across the meadow, Owen turned to Rhya and asked her why she had chosen the sword she had, he was intrigued to know why she had picked that particular weapon. He reasoning, he thought, would give insight into her choice and help him to come to understand her more.

 

Owen

 

The WhiteWolf

 

Ranger Leader

 

Rhya’a Mentor

 

OOC: Tay, end your post with us setting up camp somewhere suitable, include Ice and Shadow joining us ok?

 

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Rhya paid close attention to what Owen said but, no matter how many rules there were, she was getting a sword and that was what mattered. She tried to contain her excitement, nodding agreement to his terms and at least had some appreciation for his final warning. Respect for weapons had been drilled into her by her trainer and, no matter the differences, a weapon was no toy.

 

She didn’t think the day could get much better but, as they walked, Owen mentioned that the wolves would be waiting to join them and suggested that she try to find Shadow. Somehow, his explanation seemed too easy and she guessed it would be more complex than that. She tried though and laughed delightedly when, after several attempts, it actually worked. It felt rather like stretching her mind and a little like being in the Dream but different too. She sensed Shadow’s recognition, his acceptance of her presence and gathered that he was lazing in the sunshine with Ice not far away. There were no words as such but rather a series of images and impressions that her mind translated.

 

When they reached the storeroom, Rhya followed Owen’s instructions, slipping past him, her nose twitching at the stuffy mustiness of the air as her gaze took in the array of weapons. They held no interest for her however and she spotted the three racks and walked towards them. There were plenty of swords but she took Owen’s words to heart, eyeing them one by one, intent on picking the right blade. She heard him say something about his office, waved her hand distractedly and continued her hunt.

 

Her fingers flitted over some hilts, barely touching them. Several looked pretty but she wasn’t looking for decoration. Many were simply too large or heavy for a woman to wield and she moved on. At last her eyes lit on a simple looking hilt, an amber gem set into the top, with an elegantly down-curved cross-guard. She reached for it, her hand curling round the soft tooled leather, and drew it clear of the rack.

 

The blade was long but comfortable. She stepped back, moving it around experimentally, enjoying the slight whoosh as it sailed through the air. Bringing it up for a closer look, she found it had a sharp double edge and no faults through the metal. It was good quality workmanship and Rhya noted the smith’s stamp, nodding to herself, lips curving in pleasure. This is the one. Now… a scabbard.

 

She quickly picked out a plain black leather scabbard and belt, put them on and sheathed the sword. Its weight at her side was satisfyingly reassuring. Finally she was happy and headed out the door, coming face to face with Owen.

 

“All done?" he queried, locking the door at her nod of assent. “Good, then its time we left.”

 

Some time later, Rhya wasn’t sure how long exactly, they’d cleared the Stedding and were walking in an easy silence. She was too busy eating up the scenery and relishing the sense of freedom to talk. The mountains were incredible, rising majestically towards the sky, an imposing presence. She wondered idly if everyone who saw them had the same urge to climb them, to conquer them somehow as though doing so might diminish them somewhat. Lost in her own musings, Owen’s sudden question as to why she’d chosen her sword took a moment to register.

 

“Hmmm? Oh, well… because it felt right,” she replied, smiling slightly. Sensing that wasn’t going to be sufficient she continued, “It’s not too heavy or too long. It wouldn’t be much help if wielding it tired me within a few minutes. Even if I learn to use it well, I don’t have a man’s strength so speed and accuracy are critical.” She quirked an eyebrow. “It’s also not for show. Should there be a day when I need to kill, it will be for necessity and no amount of jewels, silver inlay or engravings will help to make it a more pleasant task. It’s a tool, to do a job and to do it well. The quality of the blade was important too. This one is of Saldaean origin. I could tell from the smith’s stamp. I may not have been allowed to train with one but that didn’t stop me learning what I could about them.”

 

She stopped then, aware that she was speaking to someone with far more knowledge of weapons and their usage than herself but Owen merely nodded and she wondered briefly what he was thinking before getting caught up in their surroundings once more.

 

By the time the light started to fade, Rhya was tired and her legs were sore but she was still in good spirits. It was a good tired she decided just as they entered a clearing in the woods they’d been traveling through for the past hour or so. Although she would have been happy to continue, noting that her sight was still remarkably clear in spite of the dimness under the trees, Owen called a halt.

 

“Time to set up camp and eat. There’ll be plenty more walking tomorrow.”

 

She nodded her agreement, dumping her pack gratefully and stretching. As she did so, she caught movement from the corner of her eye and turned to see Ice and Shadow padding silently out of the undergrowth. The wolves had kept pace with them during day though they hadn’t been visible for the most part and she was pleased they’d decided to join them now.

 

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Owen listened to Rhya’s explanation as to why she had chosen the weapon she had and was surprised at how well thought out her reasoning was. Listening to her, he had a moments daja-vu. It was almost as if Iris was with him and he was listening to her speak, so similar was the description of why she had chosen what she had. Iris was never one for a sword, but she was one who only acted with well thought out motives, even if at times it was hard to fathom the reasoning behind those motives. Iris could often be very fey in her thinking and actions, but once you understood her motives, then her actions made sense, well some sense. Owen still did not understand why she could not have waited for him to accompany her on that ill-fated trip to see her parents. He had felt sure that if the two of them had been together they could have stolen the sweat from the brow of the Dark One and no one would have noticed until it was to late.

 

“I doubt you will have ever had to make a camp from nothing Rhya, but you cannot have failed to notice that we did not bring any tents or shelters with us. There is a very good reason for this, we are not always able to find somewhere to stay and often times need to make our own shelter for the night. If we are in the mountains we can search for a cave. But out here on the plains we do not have that luxury. Instead we can always look for a willow tree, one that has branches that touch the ground. Inside those branches it is possible to pass a very pleasant, and warm night, even when it is blowing a gale outside. However, if there are no Willow trees about we need to know how to build a shelter from what we can find lying around. If we cannot be seen, then we cannot be attacked. To that end the Rangers have developed a method that not only keeps us warm, but also hidden, this is the method I am going to teach you this night. Tomorrow night you will be responsible for building out accommodation, so pay close attention.”

 

Owen’s first task for Rhya was to order her to find all the dead wood she could, of a certain length. When she had done that, he removed a length of twine from his backpack and started to tie two pieces of wood together. When he was finished he added a third and then a fourth piece until he had a long pole with an inverted V at one end and a single upright at the other. “This is the basis of our shelter for the night. We need to find a suitable spot to place this then we need to get ourselves some branches that have plenty of leaves on to cover the frame we have made.”

 

It did not take Owen long to find what he wanted and soon he and Rhya had woven the branches into the structure Owen had built. Once that was done, Owen had Rhya construct a second shelter, the same as the first. When she had finished this, Owen placed the two shelters near an over hang and started to place leaves and other debris around them. “As you can see, this makes the shelter almost invisible to any but he most detailed of searches. Not only that but the layered effect from the leaves protects us from the harshest of the weather. You will find such a shelter surprisingly warm and dry.”

 

The next task was to provide a meal. Owen showed Rhya how to dig a fire pit, and make a fire in such a manner that no flames could be seen by anyone not standing directly over them. “Always make sure you use dead wood, never green wood, or wood that has sap still in it. If you do you will find it gives off way too much smoke and no matter how well concealed the fire is the smoke will still give your location away.”

 

Once the fire was going, Owen built a small frame and from this frame he was able to hang a pot of water. Once this was bubbling away he added some rabbit meat, spices and some potatoes. Rabbit stew may not have been the most appetising of meals. But it was warm and filling and that was what they needed when away from habitation. All of which was washed down with a small flask of ale that Owen had brought with him. Not enough to dull the senses, but enough to take away the taste of smoke that always accompanied any meal cooked on an open fire such as this.

 

Owen

 

The WhiteWolf

 

Ranger Leader

 

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  • 3 months later...

By evening of the following day, Rhya and Owen were still traipsing through the seemingly neverending forest. Rhya was beginning to wonder if she'd ever see any open spaces again.

 

Thankfully there had been places where not quite all light was shut out but those patches of sunshine shot with leafy green colours were few and far between compared to the dim, shadowed paths under thick branches which obscured the sky completely. A fact that, surprisingly, didn't douse her spirits in the slightest. She'd slept soundly the previous night with Shadow curled up at her feet. She hadn’t expected him to stay so close and was thrilled that he’d chosen to, added to which, the exercise was agreeing with her and she was getting an opportunity to learn. That in itself was making the journey worthwhile.

 

Since they’d set out, Rhya had sprinkled the intermittent conversation with questions on the plants and barks they’d seen, picking Owen’s brain and making the most of this opportunity to have her mentor and teacher to herself. She had soaked up all of his lessons last night in her usual sponge-like manner and was glad of that when they rose in the morning and he told her that tonight she would have to set up camp herself. There was a sense of achievement that was most satisfactory in knowing how to care for oneself. It was all new to her but she was determined to never be quite so helpless again as she had been on her trip south. Self-sufficiency, she’d decided, was a very important goal.

 

Though taking instruction and actually putting it into practice are two very different things, she thought in mild amusement. I’m not at all convinced that making a fire is as simple as it looked.

 

Once or twice, Rhya tried to find out more about where they were traveling to but Owen, in his normal close mouthed manner, had only smiled and reiterated that she’d know soon enough and she had to be content with that, amusing herself instead by playing hide and seek around the trees with Shadow. The wolf had a mischievous side that delighted her, making up in some ways for all the years that had been lacking in companions of any kind.

 

As the evening light began to lessen and the air took on a chill, they looked for a suitable camping spot once more. When they’d found one, Rhya dropped her belongings carefully to one side and went hunting for dead wood then deposited it in two piles, one for a fire and another, of similar lengths for the shelters. Taking the twine that Owen handed her, she settled down to make the frame, her tongue sticking out between her teeth as she concentrated, oblivious to anything else. It took a few attempts the first time, since her fingers were cold and the dratted stuff didn’t want to co-operate with her but eventually she got it and her next sortie was for leafy branches with which to cover them.

 

Having finally finished two shelters, she stood back to admire her handiwork, hoping it was good enough that neither of them would collapse during the night. The image that conjured up gave her a fit of the giggles and it was some time before she collected her thoughts and started on the fire feeling quite pleased with herself.

 

As she’d expected, this was not nearly as easy and she was cursing under her breath and shoving hair out of her eyes in frustration by the time she managed to get a flame going. Arching a sardonic eyebrow at Owen’s grinning face, she slowly fed it until the fire was crackling merrily, blew on one burned fingertip and set about cooking some food.

 

Some time later, sated and warmer next to the heat of the fire, Rhya leaned back on her hands looking up at the stars twinkling above. Finding the Three Geese showing the way north, she nudged the feeling of homesickness the sight usually brought and was surprised to discover it had faded a considerable amount. Not gone, but not as immediate either. She wriggled her toes near the flames pondering that small revelation and what had caused the change.

 

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  • 1 month later...

Owen was up early the next morning and after waking a blurry-eyed Rhya he set out to check on the snares she had set the night before. While he was away, Rhya got a fire started and started to boil some water for a hot drink. By the time Owen returned, Rhya was feeling more awake, largely due to the wash in the nearby stream, the temp of the water having more to do with that than anything else. Just lately the temperatures at night had been a lot lower than they had been the month before. This was a relief to many as there had been some serious concerns about the weather and the way summer had lasted well into what should have been the winter.

 

“Well we will not go hungry this day Rhya, your snares have produced enough food to last us for a couple of days, so how about I start getting some breakfast on the go while you clear away the shelters you built.”

 

While Rhya worked on taking the shelters down, Owen quickly and efficiently gutted the brace of rabbits and soon had the meat boiling in a small saucepan and set about cleaning the skins, not wanting to waste anything that could be used for a purpose. Once he had the skins clean, he let laid them out on some rocks before checking the stew was cooking fine. Satisfied that the meat was fine, Owen cast a critical eye over Rhya’s work, and found that he only had to offer a couple of small suggestions and hints, otherwise her efforts would have done a much more experienced Wolfkin proud.

 

It was not long before the two of them were on their way, and Owen would still not reveal were they where going to Rhya despite her impassioned pleas. Owen was not being mean; he just wanted to see the surprise on her face when they arrived. As the day progressed, so the temperature dropped and dark, threatening, clouds could be seen gathering over the mountains to their right. At first Owen was not too bothered about this, but as the clouds built up and the temperature continued to sink he started to look around for a suitable place for them to spend the night, he had a sinking feeling that come the morning they would not find conditions so hospitable.

 

“Blood and bloody ashes Rhya, will you stop squirming and give me at least some of the blankets?”

 

The annoyance in Owen’s voice was not entirely faked, he was freezing and even with Ice and Rhya lying as close to him as they could he still felt like he was freezing. The fire was still burning, but the even in the shelter of the small dell they had found and made their camp, the wind cut through the meagre protection the shelters offered and nullified most of the benefits the fire offered.  In response to his outburst Rhya poked Owen in his back with her elbow, from Owen’s perspective it seemed that she was trying to dig herself in to the ground with all her wriggling about and he idly wondered if anyone would notice if he returned to the Stedding minus one Wanderer.

 

However, it was a fleeting thought, and one that was more humorous than anything else, there was no way he would lose a Wanderer, not if he had any say in it, and even if he did not he was fully prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the life of any Wolfkin. Sitting up, Owen reached over Ice and grabbed a piece of firewood and shook the snow from it before placing it on their fire. Owen had thought about leaving the dell and trying to find somewhere more hospitable, but he knew the land around their location and he could think of no better place than they were in. Taking a second branch he thrust it into the fire and then woke Rhya up. She was not happy at being disturbed, and grumbled quite a lot at being awakened from her slumber.

Owen waited until she finally stopped her complaining and then explained the situation to her. “I do not think we should sleep any longer Rhya, if this storm gets any worse, I am fearing we will not wake. For now I suggest we wrap our blankets around us, and our furry friends here, and keep the fire burning as intensely as we can stand. If the snow continues to fall with the ferocity that it is we will be buried and never found.”

 

Owen did his best to keep any doubts or fears from his voice, but he was growing concerned, snowfall of this intensity could easily cause them severe problems caught out in the middle of nowhere as they were.

 

Owen

 

The WhiteWolf

 

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Rhya wriggled. She squirmed. She twisted. Comfort was a thing she could not imagine any longer and it was not wholly caused by the weather. Necessity or not, she found herself distracted by the proximity of the sleeping arrangements.

 

Not that there is anything intimate in being fully clothed, wrapped in blankets and chaperoned by two wolves but even so, she thought, exasperated by her inability to settle and trying to send her mind in less confusing directions.

 

Time and natural tiredness eventually took care of that but it seemed she’d been asleep for mere moments when Owen was shaking her awake again. Grumbling and trying to get closer to Shadow’s warmth, she was less than amused at Owen’s insistence. When he explained his reasoning, however, she had to admit he was right. Although she was used to Saldaean winters, which were cold enough to freeze the sap in the trees, she was rarely outside in them. She could feel the sharp edge to the wind howling around them and was vaguely aware of the dangers inherent in being outside in such temperatures.

 

Struggling to sit up, Rhya brushed her tangled hair from her eyes and added yet more wood to the fire before adjusting her position so that she was tucked in between Shadow and Owen, her toes as close to the fire’s warmth as she could get them. An hour or more passed as they talked in a desultory fashion about day to day things, keeping the fire fed as the weather slowly worsened around them.

 

------------------------------------------------

 

 

Watching the wild flickering of the flames, Rhya’s thoughts drifted till she felt as though she was floating and a smile crossed her face in faint humour.

 

"Do you know much of Saldaea, Owen? Have you ever seen the sa’sara danced? That would keep you warm even in such weather as this, it is said to make the blood boil,” a low chuckle tumbled from Rhya’s lips. “It’s been outlawed for the trouble it causes you know...... it has started duels, even wars. I was not meant to learn it but the opportunity was too good to miss. Mother would never approve. One day, I might show you...."

 

An admission of such knowledge was not one she would ever have normally made, no woman properly raised would do so, but the isolation of this place and the drowsy, half awake state she was in not only gave it a dream-like quality but appeared to have loosened her tongue beyond the bounds of propriety. At the back of her mind a warning bell was sounding that something was wrong but she was past heeding that. Her toes and fingers were numb and she had an overwhelming urge to give in to the exhaustion that was pressing in on her.

 

“So tired...” she murmured.

 

Shadow growled softly in her ear but that too slipped across the outer edges of her consciousness, barely registering as her lashes fell across pale cheeks and her head dropped to Owen’s shoulder.

 

 

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

The next two days were spent trudging through the ever-deepening snow. They had no choice though as going back was not an option as Owen had made a promise to an old friend that he would stop by and spend some time with him and his family. Owen had not told any of this to Rhya wanting to surprise her. But with the way the weather had turned out, Owen was beginning to think he had been wrong to bring her on this journey, although in fairness to him he had not known that the weather would turn out to be so inclement. However, it only took one more night outdoors and then the next day Owen was able to point to their destination as they crested a small rise and below them, laid out like some child’s toy, was their destination.

 

The Inn sprawled over a considerable space nestled between several small hills and surrounded by a high wall with only one way in, a large iron bound gate. It was for that gate that Owen and Rhya made, trudging their way through the calf deep snow. As they got closer to the gates Rhya asked wanted to know if this was a safe place for them and Owen started to tell her about the time he and a small group from the Band of the Red Hand had rescued the owner of the Inn from a precarious situation “It was purely by chance that we arrived in time to stop the bandits from burning down the buildings and doing light knows what to Niall’s family. Ever since that day he has been a good friend to the Wolfkin and has always made us welcome. Come on, lets get inside, I do not know about you but I fancy a warm hearth and cold beer more than I do another night out in this light blasted weather.”

 

If Owen sounded relieved then it was a measure of his concern over the severity of the snow storm they had managed to survive so far, but he had grave concerns that they could endure many more days and nights such as the past three and he knew if they were taking a toll on him then the same and more must be true for Rhya.

 

An hour later they stood before the iron bound gates waiting for an answer to their rapping on the small gate that was set in the larger gate. “At least this way Niall does not have to open the large gate every time travellers who are on foot show up, mind you he usually answers more quickly than this!” The last of his sentence Owen said in a louder than normal voice, he had heard the sound of footsteps approaching the gate and had caught a whiff of scent that told him Niall was near. “If I did not know better I would say the poor chap is getting old.”

 

Just then the door opened and a man in his middle years poked his head through the door. “And I would say that you know nothing Owen, but then we know that already do we not my friend?”

 

Before Owen could respond, Niall had dragged him through the doorway and embraced Owen, almost squeezing him in two. Niall was strongly built from all the manual labour he did day in day out running the Inn. “Come on in my friend, this is not the sort of weather for friends to be out in.” Just then Niall’s gaze came to rest on Rhya and as he turned his gaze back to Owen, Rhya saw a quizzical expression form on his face. “Later Niall, I will explain more later.”

 

Quickly the expression vanished and Niall turned his gaze back to Rhya. Slowly he bent towards her and when his large reddish nose was almost touching hers he spoke. “And who do we have here, all bundled up and no doubt relishing a night in from the cold. Come on my dear I have just the thing to warm you up.” Without further ado Rhya found herself being gentlyushered through the door way and helped towards the Inn and a large roaring fire. “Sit yourself down girl and I will get you a steaming hot mug of tea and when you have thawed out a bit I will show you to your room.”

 

Owen

 

The White Wolf

 

Ranger Leader

 

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Rhya found herself suddenly nose to nose with an older man and had to crush the urge to take several steps back. His eyes were kindly though and Owen had said he was a friend. She smiled warily as he gently ushered her through the door to the building's interior.

 

That wariness lasted all of two seconds until Niall said the magic word... tea!! Rhya almost groaned in ecstasy. A proper mug of hot tea... sitting down and out of the snow. She'd have given her first born child for that tantalising promise right then. Moving forward more eagerly, she found herself being propelled towards a comfortable looking chair in front of a very large fire. Gratefully dropping her pack and shucking off her cloak, she collapsed into the chair and closed her eyes as Niall spoke to Owen. She ignored the murmur of their voices, letting the heat seep slowly back into her bones.

 

Note to self. Don't ever pester Owen to take me anywhere again, she thought, slightly surprised that she could still find humour in the situation. The past two nights had been rough, far rougher than she'd been prepared for. Owen had badgered her that first night, not allowing her to sleep, forcing her to stay conscious lest she fall pray to the freezing temperature. She'd found the will power from somewhere to heed his words and now, she silently thanked her own stubborness and the persistence both he and Shadow had shown. How they had survived the following days, she knew not. Her mind had all but shut down from sheer tiredness. Even Owen showed signs of flagging and that worried her more than anything else. The sight of the inn had been welcome in more ways than one.

 

Opening her eyes again, she wiggled her toes at the fire, eventually kicking off her boots to gain greater benefit as she thought over Owen's story. He seemed to spend a deal of time helping other people for all his general tendency to be solitary. And who helps him? The question popped into her mind with a concern that had her sitting up straight and shaking her head. What business is that of yours? she asked herself silently, her gaze flying to the other two figures in the room. That of a friend. It's natural. He gave me a home and a welcome when none other would. Nodding briefly in satisfaction at the answer she'd come up with, she relaxed back into the chair once more, ignoring the slight sense that she was somehow deceiving herself and unwilling to follow the thought any further.

 

She looked round the room wearily, admiring the solid craftsmanship in all the wooden furniture and the small homely touches that had been added here and there, until the two men returned to the fire. Niall held out a decent sized mug to her and Rhya lifted it to her mouth, blowing a little on the hot liquid and savouring the taste as it slid down her throat, warming her insides.

 

"My deepest thanks. You have no idea just how much I needed that," she told him, smiling a genuine smile for the first time.   

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Owen smiled at the sight of Rhya wiggling her toes in front of the fire; to see her able to ignore her surroundings and relax so easily was in sharp contrast to Owen. Even here, in a place owned by a good friend, Owen did not truly relax. Obviously he was not as wary as he was out in the wilds, or in an unknown place. He was like a wolf in a strange den, almost comfortable, almost trusting, but very wary. Before sitting down, in a chair with it’s back to one of the solid walls, Owen surreptitiously scanned the room, taking the measure of the other patrons.  Sipping his tea, slowly, Owen listened as Niall chatted away to Rhya, many had made the mistake that Niall was a frivolous person, but Owen knew that behind the playful exterior there was a mind that constantly worked to better the life Niall could provide for his family, and it was a rare day indeed that anyone got the better of Niall in a business deal. Mind you, he was not so astute when it came to protecting himself; Owen had pointed that out to him virtually every time he had visited.

 

Later on, after Niall had shown Rhya and Owen to their rooms, next to each other and with a connecting door, Owen took the opportunity to luxuriate in a copper tub full of hot water. Sinking into the copper tub, Owen let the water come up to his chin, and closed his eyes, letting the concerns of the last few days slowly evaporate.

 

Owen’s revere was soon disturbed by the sound of a knock at the door, for a moment he didn’t realise it was the connecting door, and then when he did a mischievous smile appeared on his face. “Come on in Rhya, what can I do for you?”

 

Owen was perfectly decent, decent in that he was still covered up to his neck in water and soapy water at that, but he could not wait to see the expression on her face. Although he did not always show it, Owen had a very well developed sense of humour, one that could appear at any moment, and disappear just as quickly. Sinking a bit lower into the copper tub, Owen waited for Rhya to enter.

Owen

 

The WhiteWolf

 

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Niall was a very kind and gentle man, Rhya had decided, beginning to feel at ease around their host as he'd chatted away making her feel comfortable before showing them to their rooms. It had been a struggle to get back on her aching feet to climb the beautiful wooden staircase but the opportunity to soak in a hot tub had been too good to miss.

 

The room itself appeared to be at the back of the upper level, away from any possible disturbance in the public room downstairs, while the furniture was of the same solid wood, the surfaces radiating a well burnished glow. Luxuriating in the warmth of the freshly poured water, she added some of the bath salts that had been supplied and the miseries of the past few days drained away, easing overtaxed muscles and emotions alike, though she didn't relax too much for fear of falling asleep. Drowning in the bath tub would not be the best way to thank Niall for his hospitality after all.

 

Having dried off and dressed in fresh clothes, Rhya eyed her reflection critically in the small oval mirror on the dressing table. She felt quite human again, not to mention almost ravenously hungry. Spurred by the thought of food, she seated herself and began vigorously towel drying her hair then rummaged around in her pack for her brush to remove the usual tangles.

 

Hmmm, I know I brought it with me. It was definitely there earlier, she thought, having no luck in locating the item, thought she recalled packing it. Maybe it got mixed in with Owen's stuff.

 

Deciding that was the most likely explanation, she looked at the connecting door between their rooms, moved to wonder again just why Niall had felt that to be necessary or whether it was just accidental. Pondering for a moment, she finally stood and walked over to the door, knocking once and waited for a response.

 

“Come on in Rhya, what can I do for you?”

 

Stepping into the room, Rhya opened her mouth to speak.... and came to a dead stop as her gaze took in Owen's supine form in the bath tub. She heard the strangled squawk that issued from her throat instead of the words which had been hovering on her tongue just a second before and her face flamed red. She stood there, rooted to the spot, the blood just as suddenly draining from her face as her brain frantically tried to find some way to cover her unexpected confusion. She knew in some part of her head that she was over reacting but there was no time for analysing why right then.

 

Nothing to see... just water... perfectly respectable... being silly... SPEAK for pity's sake girl.. her mind screamed at her while her body tried to deal with the unnerving awareness her newly heightened senses were conveying to her of the room's heat and the strong, distinctly male scent in the air. How long she would have remained like that was anyone's guess but as her eyes finally locked on Owen's, she could clearly see the mischievous humour on his face. The flash of temper that hit then had Rhya reaching her hand out for the nearest object on the chest of drawers to her right and lobbing it with no small force in the Ranger's direction.

 

"Why you...!!

 

"Hey now..." Owen barely flinched as the missile struck the water, merely laughing and fishing around beneath the soap bubbles. "I can see we'll need to work on your aim." Having located the item, he raised it in one hand, grinning broadly, and Rhya, much to her own chagrin, recognised her own brush!! Eyes glinting dangerously, she stiffened her spine and let fly with several choice expletives that left him in no doubt as to her current opinion, stalked to the tub, snatched the brush and marched out of the room, slamming the door behind her for good measure.

 

Flopping on to the soft embrace of the bed covers, her temper dissipating equally as quickly as it had come, Rhya began to drag the brush through her knotted hair and screwed her eyes shut as though to wipe out the last few moments. What in the Light had possessed her to act like such a fool? It was utterly out of character. She dropped the brush to the floor, hoping that her inability to speak had gone unnoticed by Owen but even as her lashes brushed her cheeks, sleep overtaking even hunger, she somehow knew that was unlikely.

 

 

 

 

 

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The violence of Rhya’s reaction left Owen feeling totally deflated, he knew she could not see anything of him that would cause her to react in such a way, and his intent had certainly not been to cause such a violent reaction in her.

 

Realising that this was not something he could ignore, nor was it something that he could hope would solve itself at some point, Owen climbed from the copper bath tub, the water cascading from his glistening white skin. Quickly he dried himself, recklessly running his fingers through his long white hair before he climbed into his dark woollen breeches and threw on an earth coloured shirt. Not bothering with shoes or stockings Owen strode across the room making straight for the connecting door, hand reaching out for the handle with a single minded determination, which disappeared in the blink of an eye as he heard Iris’s voice in his mind.

 

Standing there, as rigid as if he had been turned to stone, Owen’s mind drifted, travelling along the pathways of his past, not seeing the door in front of him, instead he was walking with his one true love, the one person who had always been able to understand him, and cope with his many varied moods.

 

The expressions on his face changed so rapidly it was as if they were being driven across his face by a storm force wind, quicker and quicker they went, and more distorted did his face grow.

 

Then, almost as quickly, he grew still, and his face took on a faraway expression as if he was listening to a voice that was on the edge of his hearing, carefully picking out the words they were saying.

 

”You are a fool my brother, you have never let anyone you loved down and you know it. Do I have to come back and beat you about the head until you come to realise that?”

 

Against the odds Owen suddenly smiled, and that smile brought movement, as if it had melted the invisible bonds that held him.

 

Turning the door handle, Owen walked into Rhya’s room and noticed two things, the hairbrush on the floor, and the tears tracking across Rhya’s face.

 

Moving without conscious thought , Owen picked up the hairbrush and sat down next to Rhya, gently wiping away the two thin streaks that marred her face. “My sister used to love having her hair brushed. When she was tense, or had some really important decision to make, usually one that involved sending people on dangerous missions, she would ask me to brush her hair.”

 

Not knowing how she would react to this, Owen just sat there, staring at Rhya and waiting on her response.

 

Owen

 

The WhiteWolf

 

Ranger Leader

 

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The bed dipped slightly under the new weight but still it took the gentle touch against her face to pull Rhya back from her encroaching slumber. All thought of sleep fled as she opened her eyes, caught and held by the intensity of Owen's stare and, somewhere in that moment, the warring emotions she’d been trying to understand clicked into place, coalescing into a tight ball of certainty that locked her breath tight in her throat.

 

She didn’t have a name for it, had never even experienced the like before. Somehow though, she knew it was vitally important, knew that any prospect of being without this man in her life was unbearable. It had crept up on her... taken her completely unawares.... slid under her skin and taken up residence. And now what could she do?

 

Nothing, the word popped into her mind with extraordinary clarity. There was no reason to think it would ever be reciprocated. She was just another Wanderer to be taught... a friend at best... maybe even family in a way... but anything more? Rhya couldn’t see it. It would have to be her secret. She would deal with it.

 

Owen’s softly spoken words finally registered somewhere but she was too distracted by the slight edge of vulnerability to his voice to react immediately, taken up with sorting her own thoughts and studying the face before her almost in wonder.

 

Eventually, realisation dawned that the silence had stretched long enough and a response was needed. Pushing herself  to a sitting position, Rhya smiled faintly and turned her back.

 

I can do this. I can live with it. I just need to be strong. Her fingers closed round the pendant at her throat, thinking of her Grandmother, one of the strongest people she’d known. Life is so strange. The words came at last.

 

"Will you brush my hair please?"

 

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    At first it was easy, it was not like combing someone’s hair was a taxing task, but then the memories started to surface, and that was when it became a chore rather than something else. Gritting his teeth Owen ploughed on with the task and as he did started to talk to Rhya about his upbringing, telling her about how he had been brought up by a woman he later learnt was not his mother, although he did not think any of the less about her. He varied on talking, quietly so as not to let any overt emotion come through, explaining how his lack of skin colour had caused many a problem, long before the change in his eyes came to fruition.

    “Then, one day, I was apprenticed to a stone mason and started to travel around the Borderlands, learning a trade and meeting people. But wherever I went I found people were not welcoming would turn their backs to me. My master was not of that ilk though, he had always told me that my worth was more than the sum of my skin and bones, but he was one voice amongst many and despite his best efforts I was effected more by the words of others.”

    Owen finished brushing out Rhya’s hair and handed the brush back to her, she had been quiet all throughout this and took the brush from Owen without comment. Not that he expected her to say anything, whenever he told someone about an episode in his past they were usually left not knowing what to say, it was never easy dealing with the sort of prejudice that he had faced. “But, despite all this, I did find people who would accept me for who and what I am, not just among our own folk, but outside the Wolfkin, they are there, it is just not that easy to find them, but they are out there.” Owen’s voice trailed off, almost as if his words were swallowed up by the emptiness of the room.

Owen

 

The WhiteWolf

 

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Rhya tried to relax as Owen brushed her hair but found it difficult as she adjusted to the new knowledge so rudely thrust upon her. Despite her inner assurances to herself, she was not nearly so certain that she could pretend nothing had changed. Thankfully, Owen provided a distraction by speaking of his past and his childhood and, as she listened, she became engrossed in picking out the undertones he was trying to hide with an almost monotone voice. There was pain and hurt, lonlieness too and tension.

 

He paused, handing her back the brush and she ran a hand over her hair, checking for tangles as she turned back to face him. She said nothing, merely waiting for him to continue, surprised by the sheer strength of the protectiveness she felt.

 

“But, despite all this, I did find people who would accept me for who and what I am, not just among our own folk, but outside the Wolfkin, they are there, it is just not that easy to find them, but they are out there.”

 

His voice trailed off leaving Rhya to wonder what had made him speak of such things.... what response he was looking for. Does he class me as one of these people? No, surely he would not see her as so blinkered. Then perhaps he's trying to reassure me? But that didn't sound altogether right either. She thought back over the past weeks, recalling her impression of him at their first meeting and the sadness she had sensed, images of him playing his flute on the balcony and relaxing one evening at the Inn. She remembered his patience when teaching, his concern over the safety of those in the Stedding, his empathy through her changes of moods, his gentle humour.... and then tamped down on her anger that people had treated such a man in a such a way.

 

Of their own volition, her fingers lifted, catching several strands of white hair. "Like snow," she murmured, then caught the slightly startled expression in Owen's eyes and flushed, looking away and dropping her hand as though burned. Strength comes from honesty my girl, she heard her Grandmother's voice distantly in her head, we each face our tests but it is how you face them that matters.

 

Her shoulders straightened at the thought. Hiding isn't honest. How can you expect trust if you hide what matters? Rhya raised her eyes again allowing her feelings to show. She need not speak of them but she need not lock them away either. Should they be recognised for what they were, then so be it. It was nothing to cause shame, rather the opposite. Content with her decision, she spoke quietly but firmly into the silence, her voice suffused with all the emotions the evening had brought, intent on wiping away any of that pain she could.

 

"Judgements prevent us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearances, Owen and preconceived notions are just locks on the door to any wisdom we might gain in this life.... chains forged by ignorance to keep men apart. A very wise lady once told me that if you judge people, you have no time to love them. If we all judged... the world would be a cold place, don't you think?" she paused, lifting her hand once more. "What matters... all that matters... is what is in here," she touched fingertips to Owen's temple, "and in here.." her palm lay flat against his heart. "The only person who can take your worth from you... is you. No-one else can do so.... unless you let them. Will you allow them do that still? Or will you accept who and what you are? It is not enough that others do so if you do not."

 

So caught up in what she was saying, Rhya didn't realised that her hand remained where she'd left it till she felt the steady hearbeat beneath her palm and self consciously withdrew it. Fool I may be, but an honest fool at least, she thought self-mockingly.

 

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    “Such words of wisdom usually come from one with far more years on her shoulders than you have Rhya, the more time I spend with you the more I find that you are far more knowledgeable and mature than your lack of years would imply.” Owen did not comment on the lingering of her hand, a curious thing but not something that he felt needed commenting on. As she withdrew he hand Owen stood up and offered her his hand, speaking as he did.

  “Come on, Niall will be thinking we are being rude if we do not join him in the Common room, and I do not know about you but I feel the need for warm food and cool ale, even though it is almost as cold as a winter’s night in the Borderlands, I still feel the desire for cold ale rather than that horrid concoction spiced wine.” Owen pulled Rhya off the bed and half dragged her out of the room and down the stairs, with unnatural speed, almost as if he was trying to outrun the reason why he had been in Rhya’s room.

    Some time later, after a hearty meal that was easily the best meal either of them had eaten in some time, Owen and Rhya were relaxing at their table, Owen with a tankard of his favourite Dark ale. They had not really spoken since they had left Rhya’s room, being comfortable enough with each other to not worry about silence and not try to fill the silence with unnecessary talk. But when Niall finally found time to come and join them his infectious nature soon had the pair of them talking nine to the dozen, mostly in response to the stories he had to tell, most of which were true, but Owen had warned Rhya that Niall could at times embellish events for no better reason than to make he story more enjoyable for the listener.

    Later on that evening a trio of musicians, who had been staying at the Inn and had decided to extend their stay due to the inclement weather, started playing and soon there were people dancing and singing, many had come to the Inn from near and far, but all had been forced to stay because of the weather. “Rhya, would it be wrong of me to ask you to take a turn on the dance floor with me, I am sure Owen will be ok on left to his own devices here.”

 

Owen

 

The WhiteWolf

 

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Rhya leaned back in her chair, replete after the hot meal and soothed both by the warmth of the common room and the gentle buzz of chatter from the other occupants. She'd been rather startled by the abrupt change of subject and hasty exit from her room earlier but reasoned that Owen must surely be at least as hungry as she was herself. At any rate, she was silently thanking Niall for breaking the silence that had fallen between them when they'd finished eating. Though it had been comfortable, the thoughts reeling around inside her head had not and she gladly concentrated on his stories instead.

 

While the men caught up, Rhya watched the other patrons with thinly veiled interest. The room was busy, redolent with smells of recently consumed food, newly lit pipe smoke and freshly poured ale. The large fire still flickered merrily, emanating its heat through the company and adding a festive feel to the evening. Many others besides themselves had been stranded at the Inn due to the weather and her trader’s eye and training identified most of them with ease. A young couple, probably visiting family. A traveling scribe, with ink stains on his fingers. Two young stablemen judging by the hastily brushed dander marks on their trousers and three musicians who were preparing to play. Her eyes lit up at this last, distracted from her internal inventory, and she watched their preparations avidly. They struck up a tune she hadn’t heard before and soon people were singing and dancing and her feet too were tapping along in time.

 

“Rhya, would it be wrong of me to ask you to take a turn on the dance floor with me? I am sure Owen will be ok left to his own devices here.”

 

She almost bounced to her feet, taking the hand Niall held out and grinning at him. “I’m sure he will and it wouldn’t be wrong at all. It’d be my pleasure!!”

 

They were soon circling the floor amongst the other dancers and Rhya was pleased to discover that for all his size, Niall was remarkably light on his feet, twirling her for all the world as though she were just a feather. They chatted lightly as the dance went on and she complimented him on his skill, asking about his family and exchanging comments on how business was faring. She noted the quizzical expression that entered his eyes when she answered a seemingly innocent question about her training and its progression and wondered what was on his mind.

 

“You have just begun training then?” Niall queried then abruptly changed the subject. “You’ll know Iris then. It’s unusual to see Owen without her. Do you know why she didn’t come with him this time?”

 

Rhya stared for a moment, taken aback by the question. “No, I don’t know Iris I’m afraid. I haven’t met her. Though that’s not unusual. I haven’t yet met many of the others in the Stedding. I’ve spent most of my time in and around Owen’s home. I’m… not too good with a lot of company recently.”

 

As she talked, Niall’s eyebrows rose higher, a look of shock settling on his features as he turned Rhya in time to the beat. As the music moved them back together, she spoke again, smiling hesitantly. “Is it important? You seem bothered by that if I’m not mistaken.”

 

Niall scanned her face before answering, almost as though he’d reached a decision after some argument with himself. “Yes. Yes it is, lass. Owen has only ever had two women in his life. His sister, Ehlana, and Iris. He’d not be parted from either by choice.”

 

Rhya felt a heavy knot form in her stomach at what she was hearing, but an almost masochistic need for knowledge made her probe further.

 

“Owen does not… speak of private things much. He’s mentioned Ehlana … not by name but … yes, he has talked of a sister, though only in passing. Can you tell me of them?”

 

Niall’s eyes searched Rhya’s for lengthening seconds, the music now almost forgotten as they followed the steps on instinct alone. Finally, he nodded, his voice kindly as he stated, “You care for him.”

 

She went rigid, her eyes widening. “It’s that plain to see?”

 

“No, lass. Not to just everyone, be at ease,” he trailed off, pausing and gathering his thoughts before continuing almost to himself. “Well he did bring you here. Very well Rhya, I’ll tell you what I know.”

 

She listened intently as Niall’s story unfolded. His tale of Ehlana, Owen’s twin, Commander of the Band of the Red Hand. Of how Owen protected her and she trusted no other to do so. Of Ehlana’s kidnap and probable death at the hands of the Seanchan and of Owen’s futile chase in a Sea Folk vessel. Rhya’s eyes grew wider at the horror he must have felt, the pain he must have endured every day since with not knowing his twin’s fate. She could not begin to imagine what torture that would be especially with the added closeness a twins’ bonding could bring. Niall cut into her thoughts once more.

 

“He blames himself you know. For not stopping it, for not saving her. Thinks he let Ehlana down so he does. And Iris…. “ the man heaved a gusty sigh. “I do not know what has happened there. The love those two shared was a once in a lifetime kind, lass. Inseparable they were. If you are living at Owen’s house and have not met her then she is no longer there.” His worry was clear to see both in his eyes and tone.

 

Rhya, lowered her head and bit her lip hard, her heart sinking as she swallowed down the objection that instinctively tried to be heard. “You will have to ask him then, Niall. I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything in return for what you have told me. It explains much…. yes, very much. I think the dance is done for now.”

 

Niall seemed to return to the present, visibly shaking himself before leading Rhya back to the table. As he sat down, she scraped unsteady fingers through her hair, refusing to meet either man’s eyes. Hurriedly, giving no chance for objections, she muttered, “I’ll leave you to talk. No doubt you have much catching up to do and I’m tired. Thank you for the dance Niall. I’ll see you both in the morning. Good night.”

 

Rhya forced herself to walk, not run, across the common room, threading her way between the remaining revelers and climbing the stairs. Her spine was so straight she felt like she had a poker rammed between her shoulder blades. Entering her room once more, she closed the door and leaned against it, tiredness seeping into every corner of her frame.

 

That’ll be that then. No illusions Rhyanon. No false hopes. You can be a friend, be there when he needs you… if he does… but nothing else. She jibed at herself mockingly, finding the only way she knew of to deal with the maelstrom of emotions pervading her mind. Suddenly overcome with a strong claustrophobia, she rushed to the window, throwing it open to the night. The rush of cold was a relief and she stood there long moments, starng at the stars as though they held all the answers to life's mysteries. Let’s hope the morrow brings better tidings.

 

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    Owen was taken aback at the change in Rhya, before Niall had asked her to dance she had been as eager as that night in the Hole in the Wall, when she had sung for the first time and impressed all that heard her stunning voice. But, once the dance was over, she wasted no time in leaving the common room of the Inn and Owen caught a definite sense of distress mingled in with what he though was disappointment. Why she should be disappointed after dancing, especially with Niall, was beyond Owen. But just as he decided to go after her and find out what was the cause of her distress, Niall’s large meaty hand clamped down on his arm, stopping him in his tracks.

    “I would advise you leave her alone for now Owen, she has something that she needs to think through, come to terms with you might say.” Owen stared at Niall, not sure what his friend was referring to, especially as Owen thought he knew Rhya as well as anyone could and certainly better than a person who had only met her for the first time a few hours ago.

    Owen was about to ask Niall what it was that he had said to Rhya that had sent her scurrying from the common room when Niall got his question in first.

    “So tell me Owen, why are you here without Iris and Irlen, and in the company of another woman, in all the time I have known you, you have never brought another woman here”.

    This was a moment that Owen had not planned for, or even thought about, and Niall’s innocent question brought a whole mountain of self- loathing crashing down on top of Owen. It has often been said that death is lighter than a feather, but duty is like the weight of a mountain, Owen knew that whoever had come up with that proverb was not mistaken.

    Raking his fingers through his snow-white hair, Owen scanned the room, and for a moment Niall had the distinct impression of a cornered wolf looking for a way out, no matter how desperate that may be.

  “Truly I have no idea Niall, she could be dead, she could be a slave, I just do not know.”

    The despair and longing was evident in Owen’s voice, so much so that Niall involuntarily drew back from Owen, before remembering that his man had saved his family, and livelihood, before regaining his composure. Niall signalled to one of the serving girls, who quickly made her way over to her employer and Niall quietly whispered to her and she hurried to fulfil his order

    “You know that you have my deepest sympathies Owen, to see you with Iris was a revelation and a reminder in these troubled times that love could conquer all, I only wish I could help you in this matter. I take it you have searched for her?”

    Before Owen responded, the serving girl returned to their table and placed a large earthenware bottle and two glasses in front of Niall. Niall nodded his thanks to her and she quickly retreated, somehow instinctively knowing that her presence was neither welcome nor needed.

    Niall removed the stopped from the bottle and poured two measures into the two glasses. “I am not sure what you would call this drink, but I know from experience that it can cure many ails, so drink deeply my friend as I sense that you need to unburden yourself and now is as good a time as any.” With that Niall raised his glass up high and offered it in salute to Owen, but did not drink from it until Owen returned the salute and drank from his.

    “You know Owen that they say to show true love you have to set the one you love free. If you had tried to stop her leaving that day, she would have resented it, no matter the motivation behind the act.”

    Niall knew he did not have to add anymore, Owen was one of those people who did not need telling twice when it came to what was in front of him, but Niall also knew that that would not stop Owen feeling the way he did.

   

    “I burnt the town down because they would not tell us what had happened or whether or not anyone had survived and where they might be. I think that that cost me the respect of at least one of my Rangers, if not more.”

    Owen and Niall still sat at the same table they had occupied hours earlier, the only difference being no one else was still in the common room. Well that was not the only difference, both men were slightly drunk, Niall more so than Owen, but even that could not take away Niall’s awareness of the utter despair and disgust that was evident in Owen’s voice.

    Those few words told Niall more than 12 fold could do, they revealed more to him about Owen’s response, and the unknown depth of his feelings for Iris. If someone were to ask Niall how he felt at that moment, he would have said he felt humbled and not a little bit afraid at the love, and anguish displayed by his friend.

    Suddenly, Owen stood up and looked about the common room, as if seeing it for the first time. “I need to be somewhere else Niall, this be doing me no good. I thank you for whatever concoction you have been forcing down my throat, but for now I cannot continue on this path otherwise it will lead me to places no one can follow. I will see you in the morning, my friend.” With that Owen left the table, and a stunned Niall, and made his way to his room, swaying slightly as he mounted the stairs. By the time he got to his room he was singing quietly, the words spilling from him like water from a sponge

 

Maybe in another life

I could find you there

Pulled away before your time

I can't deal it's so unfair

 

And it feels

Yeah it feels like

the world has grown cold

Now that you've gone away

 

He pulled his boot off, falling back on the bed unable to maintain the precarious balance that he had been holding onto for dear life.

 

Leaving flowers on your grave

Show that I still care

But black roses and hail Marys

Can't bring back you back home to me

 

He pulled his shirt over his head, his arms tangling in each other before he managed to untangle them and throw the shirt into the deepest depths of the room.

 

I beseech to the sky

And call out your name

and if I could trade

I would

 

Next his breeches came flying off, stripped away like rotting bark falling from a wind blown tree, leaving him clad only in a loin cloth.

 

And it feels

And it feels like

You’re so far away

And it stings

Yeah it stings now

The world is so cold

Now that you've gone away

Owen

 

The WhiteWolf

 

Ranger Leader

 

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  • 1 month later...

She didn’t know how long she’d been standing there, staring at the vast reaches of the night sky, for her mind had been long distances away, lost in the tangled web of thoughts, emotions and memories that were the essence of herself. At some point though, she’d found respite. She wasn’t certain when it happened but a deep seated peacefulness had stolen over her, calming her fears, righting her sense of self and gradually knitting back together all the fractured feelings of the past weeks.

 

She knew that it should have happened sooner, that she should have given herself the space to heal before now but getting caught up in a new life and all that it had brought didn’t allow much leisure for soul searching. Her earlier superficial acceptance of these most recently discovered feelings had now crystallised into a more rooted knowledge. She could do nothing to change them and knew she did not wish to. To care so much for any person in life was a blessing from the Creator and not something to be wished away. It would be foolish to think that Owen had not shared his life with anyone before now, indeed it would be more than passing strange and she had come to realise that her objection lay not in that fact, but rather in the little knowledge she had gathered of the wolves. Wolves paired for life. What she was uncertain of was whether the ‘Kin were the same. She suspected they may be but there was no way to find out the truth at present. Perhaps she could ask Miryana once they had returned home. Meanwhile, she was more concerned by Owen’s state of mind than her own. Carrying all that pain and self blame around for so long could be nothing but bad.

 

Having reached that stage in her musings, Rhya finally came back to an awareness of her room and, more urgently, to the protests of her fingers and toes which were achingly numb from the cold night air. Stamping her feet to encourage her circulation into moving again, she reached out to close the window and then vigorously rubbed her hands and arms, blowing warm air onto them. Having decided that jumping beneath the covers would be the quickest way to warm up she was distracted by the sound of  heavy, staggering footsteps passing the door and entering the next room. She listened carefully, slightly shocked that Owen was only now heading to bed. She’d left the two men hours ago and it was well into the early hours of the morning.

 

Moving quietly, she rounded the foot of her bed and crossed to the connecting door, setting her ear against it. He seemed to be struggling to undress and she almost laughed at the image that presented itself to her mind’s eye.

 

It would appear that Niall provided plenty of refreshment at any rate, the acerbic comment slid across her thoughts laced with concern but was suddenly interrupted by a new sound. Singing?  He must be further in his cups than I thought!!

 

Rhya’s amusement withered rapidly, however, as the words and tone seeped through the door. Filled with pathos and haunting in the depth of emotion they displayed, her earlier concerns rushed back. How can anyone live with that much grief? It must be eating away at him! The song ended abruptly and she straightened, looking at the door indecisively, a small part of her wanting to just go to sleep and pretend to have heard nothing but a far larger part needing to make sure he wasn’t lying unconscious on the floor. The nights, even indoors, were still cold.

 

Cautiously, she turned the handle and peeked into the darkness on the other side. As her eyes adjusted in the small amount of light provided by one partially open window shutter, she could make out Owen’s form splayed across the end of the bed. Rhya silently gave thanks for her newly improved senses. There was no point in trying to be quiet since he was ordinarily such a light sleeper. He’d either hear her or not, she decided stepping towards the bed.

 

"So you managed to undress at least," she muttered to the prone figure. "Well first things first. Let’s get that window closed before you freeze."

 

She suited action to words, pushing the shutter till it clicked fast and then busied herself picking up all the strewn clothes, dropping them onto the chair in one corner and kicking Owen’s boots under it. At least he wouldn’t need to hunt for them come morning. Halting at the foot of the bed once more, she leaned across him, tugging at the corner of the heavy blanket and pulling it over him, glad that he’d at least dropped off on top of it instead of on the floor. She wasn’t weak but neither did she have enough strength to move his dead weight.

 

Satisfied that he was well enough covered to keep any chill away, Rhya’s eyes dropped to his face….. and she watched him sleep for long moments. In repose there was often an innocent quality about people but in Owen’s case, with his translucently pale skin and silver hair, it was more pronounced, almost ethereal. Almost. If one did not see the care lines around his eyes and ignored the hard determination in his jawline or was taken in by the deceptive leanness of his frame and missed the strength residing there. Deceptive, she mused. A good word for this man, in more ways than one. She stooped slightly, brushing a few stray hairs gently back from his face and wondering, as she straightened again, whether he had ever cried for Ehlana and Iris, ever mourned their loss properly. Somehow she doubted it but knew that he wasn’t going to heal until he let them go.

 

With a sigh she stretched, working out the knot in her back and realized that a faint light was beginning to filter into the room. Morning was far closer than she’d have liked and sleep was beckoning. Her gaze dropped a final time, her features cast with a faint bemusement. “Why this man? Of all the people it might have been, why did I have to fall in love with you?” Rhya sighed softly, a rueful smile tilting her mouth as she admitted the presumption in expecting to understand the Creator’s designs. “Sleep well cariad.” She cast the words into the ether, safe in the knowledge that they went unheard and turned back towards her own room. Bed. It is definitely time for bed.

 

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  • 3 weeks later...

    Owen stuck his head through the open window in his room, surveying the countryside around the Inn, not that there was much more to see than a blanket of white, and it was still snowing. Owen turned around and walked over to the door of his room, forgetting to close the window, through which small snow flurries blew every now and then.

    Once he was down stairs Owen made his way through the common room and out into the kitchens, as he passed he offered up his greetings to those he met, meeting their gave with his own. He was welcome here, and no one thought he was a darkfriend as he had been accused of by less enlightened souls.

    Leaving the kitchen behind, Owen carefully made his way across the slippery yards and started looking through the various out buildings until he came across one that suited his purpose. Entering the barn, Owen made his way across the floor and took the rungs of the ladder two at a time, finally emerging through the loft floor.

    Owen swiftly checked the are out before drawing the sword he wore on his hip, a dull red tinge added colour to the blade, but it was a blade with a singular desire, to kill.

    Clearing his mind, Owen started to move about the loft floor, his movements taking on a grace that belied their purpose. Flowing from one form to the next, Owen lost himself in the feel of his muscles, the discipline of the forms absorbing him totally. He could not have said how long it was before he sensed the form coming close, a scent that he had already memorised and would know anywhere. Without turning Owen spoke. “The weather is not going to relent any time soon, and I cannot just sit around doing nothing but drinking, so I thought it was about time you learnt what to do with that pig sticker you wear. This morning we will concentrate on the hold on the sword, and how to thrust.”

    Owen turned and grinned at the expression on Rhya’s face, obviously she had attempted to creep up on him and now looked crestfallen.

    “Come on Rhya, stand next to me and do as I do, quick about it now otherwise I will think you are not interested.” When Rhya got herself into position Owen started to explain about the correct way to grip a sword, mention the different grips you would need for different weapons. “But for now lets concentrate on that sword you carry. Take it out of the scabbard and grasp it how you think it should be grasped.

    Hesitating for a moment, Rhya pulled the sword from the scabbard and held it out in front of her self. Owen smiled when he saw how stiff her arm was, obviously the muscles were all bunched up and Rhya was gripping the sword so hard he could see the whites of her knuckles.

    “Relax your arm Rhya, bend it at the elbow.” Owen moved over to her and after sheathing his own sword took hold of her sword arm and bent it to the shape he wanted her to hold. “Now loosen your grip, if you hold it to tightly it is easier to loose your weapon, especially if fighting a stronger an opponent. The weight of their blows will shatter your hold.”

    Rhya looked confused by this so Owen explained that a loose but tight grip, one that could absorb an enemies blows was more preferable. “Imagine you are in a forest just after a strong wind storm. If you were to make a note of what trees still stood and which had been blown down, you will see the mighty oak among the fallen. But the humble wayward pine would still be standing. But why is this? Everyone knows the oak is the stronger tree so how come it is not still standing?

 

    Answer me that Question Rhya and then show me that you understand how to grip your sword and we will move on to the next part of the lesson.” Owen waited patiently, fully immersed in the role of teacher and student, one that he had done more times than he could remember. This time though, he was going to make sure Rhya was as well trained as she could be to face the outside world on her own terms.

 

Owen

 

The White Wolf

 

Ranger Leader

    “

 

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Surprisingly after such a late night, Rhya was refreshed, full of energy and feeling light hearted when she awoke to a deep silence. Swinging her feet to the floor, she padded over to the window, opened the shutter and stared in disgust at the world shrouded in a blanket of white that met her eyes. It was still snowing but more lightly than before and the air felt milder but that didn’t mean they’d be able to leave yet and she scrunched up her nose in disapproval before turning away. It didn’t take long to wash and dress and, having knocked on Owen’s door and received no reply, she’d deduced that he was either still asleep, which seemed unlikely, or he was already up and about. With that conclusion reached, she bounded carelessly off down the stairs, taking them three at a time in her haste.

 

There was no sign of Owen or of Niall in the main room, so Rhya smiled politely, if distantly, at the other patrons who were starting their days and headed for the kitchen instead. She was destined to be disappointed though as that room was also devoid of occupants. Standing indecisively by the large, scrubbed wooden table for a moment, she debated what to do next, absently reaching towards a colourful bowl on the nearby work surface and plucking one of the apples that it held.  Scanning the room as she took her first bite, she spotted the rear door slightly ajar and moved to investigate.

 

Better outdoors than in. The prospect of staying in the common room with strangers or shut up in her room alone was far from appealing.

 

Pulling the door to behind her, Rhya walked along the short veranda, jumped down into the snow, landing with a quite satisfactory crunch, and took a deep breath of the fresh, crisp air. She realised in slight startlement that she could actually smell the snow. It had never occurred to her before that snow had a scent. Smiling at the idea, she began to walk towards the outbuildings, the still drifting snowflakes landing softly like a coronet on her uncovered hair. As long as she didn’t wander far, a little exploration could do no harm she decided, happily devouring the remainder of the apple.

 

She hadn’t gone very far when an impish gleam entered her eye, the vast expanse of unmarked snow recalling all unbidden the winters of childhood when entertainment could not be found but must instead be made for oneself. Not stopping to think about the cold or the wet, all responsible adult ideas momentarily put to one side, she flung herself down on her back and merrily commenced a scissoring movement with her arms and legs. Finally bounding back to her feet and leaping lightly to one side, she turned to admire her handiwork. A snow angel!! Rhya’s peals of delighted laughter rang through the air unnoticed, muffled as they were by the falling snow and by the time she reached the nearest barn, her cheeks were flushed with a healthy colour from the brief exercise.

 

Sliding through the heavy doors, she brushed damp tendrils of hair from her forehead and allowed her eyes time to adjust to the dimness of the interior, glancing around in curiousity. The ground floor appeared mostly empty save for a few tools, the floor strewn here and there with old straw and a slight mustiness suffused the air. She was about to turn and try the next barn when a scuffle from overhead caught her attention and she stiffened, stretching her senses.

 

The noise came again and continued, rhythmic, methodical and gradually she realized what she was hearing and why it sounded familiar, a wide grin spreading across her face as she walked quietly towards the ladder to her right. Slowly and carefully, she climbed the steps, that earlier sense of mischief returning twofold as she listened for any break in the rhythm. She peered over the top ledge into the loft and watched for a moment as Owen worked through the forms, then lightly got her feet under her and stood. He seemed to be engrossed and unaware of her presence…. until he spoke, disabusing her of that foolish notion.

 

For a second or two she was disappointed at the failure of her attempt to catch him by surprise but her good temper reasserted itself as soon as his words sank in.

 

“Come on Rhya, stand next to me and do as I do, quick about it now otherwise I will think you are not interested.”

 

A sword lesson? Rhya’s eyes lit up eagerly and she shifted quickly to stand beside Owen and do as he bid before he changed his mind. She had no idea how to hold a sword correctly but she drew it and took a good grip on it anyway, feeling a little self conscious and waited, certain that she’d be quickly corrected. She was right and Owen adjusted her arm, explaining that she must relax her hold for it to be effective. His subsequent question brought her up short, furrowing her brow a little and making her think carefully, however, as she knew it was important to get the answer right. Remembering the aftermath of some of the worst storms in the north, she could see the truth of what he was saying.

 

“Is it… is it something to do with flexibility?” Rhya paused uncertainly, frowning and flexing her fingers, before continuing. “The pine bends with the wind … but the oak stands against its force and so can not hold? So… if I hold too tightly, the shock and force of a blow will knock the sword clean from my hands. Is that what you speak of?” she queried, adjusting her grasp on the hilt, relaxing her arm muscles one by one in an effort of concentration and noting how the weight of the blade felt more natural. “Firm yet flexible.”

 

 

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    “That’s is exactly the correct answer Rhya. Outright strength has it’s uses, but flexibility increases the strength of an item. However, too much and it would bend and break. You have to strike the correct balance between suppleness and outright strength, as the willow does.”

    They continued to work on Rhya’s stance and balance until Owen was satisfied with her progress. “Now too much repetition can dull the brain and the senses, so lets try something else, watch and learn Rhya, you will be doing this next.” Owen grinned at Rhya, taking any sting out of his words.

    Owen moved to the on guard position and then executed a perfect low block before resuming his position. He repeated this four times, but on his fifth move Owen blocked high. He repeated this move four times, then started to alternate his movements finally coming to rest, a small gleam of sweat on his brow.

    “Block high, block low, that is what you will achieve with these moves. Remember to keep balanced on the balls of your feet, knees slightly bent and do not over extend yourself. Try to do it exactly as I have done Rhya.” Owen stepped aside and signalled for Rhya to take her turn.

 

    Later that evening, Owen and Rhya entered the Inn having spent all day practicing with their weapons on the hayloft. Owen had worked Rhya hard, but no harder than he would any other member of the Wolfkin; Owen showed no prejudice towards anyone. All worked, all contributed, all fought when it was required of them.

    After a hot bath and some fresh clothes, Owen went in search of a hot meal and was soon sitting in the common room of the Inn with a tankard of Dark in front of him and Rhya, looking freshly scrubbed moving across the room towards their table.

Owen

 

The WhiteWolf

 

Ranger Leader

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Learning the use of a sword, Rhya had come to appreciate that day, was far from easy. The weight and feel of it, the execution of the moves, even the balance required to weild it effectively, all were a far cry from using her daggers and yet, it had seemed the most natural thing in the world and she'd enjoyed every second of it. Finally, to be learning the one thing she coveted most and which she'd thought would never be allowed.

 

By the time Owen had called a halt for the day, she was pleasantly tired, every muscle in her body aching from the unaccustomed exertion. She hadn't wanted to stop even so, thoroughly engrossed in this latest experience, intrigued by the discipline inherent in the repetitions of the moves and oblivious to anything else as the hours slipped by.

 

She was surprised to note on emerging from the barn that the light had faded almost completely from the skies above. Following hot on the heels of that came the realisation that she'd eaten nothing save for the apple all day. As though summoned by the thought, her stomach objected. Loudly. Hurrying to keep up with Owen's longer steps, she followed him back to the main building and was soon getting washed and changed, preoccupied with delicious smells that were now creeping up the stairs and pervading every corner of her room. For once, she left her hair hanging loose, hoping the warmth of the air would dry it more quickly and set off downstairs.

 

The common room seemed quieter than the previous night so she had no trouble spotting Owen, already seated with a tankard and appearing, on the surface at least, to be relaxed.

 

"I hope you intend to feed me well if we're to continue this training!!" she greeted him with a broad smile, plonking herself down with a sigh. "My stomach thinks my throat's been cut and I blame it not in the least."

 

The food appeared almost instantly, halting further conversation for the time being as they applied themselves to demolishing the various dishes set before them. Rhya happily worked her way through far more than her fair share, polishing off a large bowl of steaming hot broth, followed by some smoked meat with generous helpings of vegetables and an even more generous portion of apple pie for afters. It occurred to her that Niall managed to provide a good table considering the weather and must have substantial stores laid by for his guests.

 

Finally replete, she leaned back in her chair, pushing her plate away and stretching contentedly. Considering the fresh tankard which had just been placed before Owen for a moment, she arched an eyebrow. "I trust you slept well last night? The singing was entertaining enough but I doubt the other guests would appreciate being disturbed at that hour of the morning." Although her tone was dry, the twinkle in her eyes belied any censure. Her next question was posed in a deliberately light voice, however, as she had no wish to spoil the mood. "Niall spoke of Ehlana and Iris last night, Owen. Will you tell me about them? Only if you don't mind. I don't intend to pry ... but I'd rather hear it from you than through idle talk."   

 

Rhya was not comfortable hiding what she'd heard and felt it would be far better to speak of it honestly and directly. She suspected there would never be a right time to bring the topic up but the choice to do so or not was in Owen's hands now and so, she waited patiently, not pushing the matter, her expression showing only a friendly interest. 

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