Prologue: Chapter Two
SHADOWS and flicker of torchlight. Drip of water somewhere in the dark, still on stone. The air chill and clammy, choked with a thick cloying incense. And she passing like a final breath, hooded and cloaked.
Through black halls and winding passages she passes, to come at last to a massive chamber where the gloom hangs heavy as death, shrouded by smoke and spiderweb. At the end of this hall, a throne.
She kneels before the deserted tableau, and whispers: "My lord."
"He's here." No voice this, but a soundless hiss of ancient hatred and despair.
"Yes, my lord."
"I felt his coming; the one who carries the blood. I knew it the moment he set foot on Hylian soil. We are tied by a bond that can never be broken."
Did the shadows stir?
"Why has he come back? Does he think to taunt me? Or is there some new devilry at work?"
"I will try to find out, my lord."
She turns and flits into the outer dark.
"Well, this is an interesting problem."
Link scratched his head and considered the way forward. Truly it had been many years since anyone had passed this way, and with good reason. A huge rockfall in the canyon had blocked off the way ahead and their path was cut short by thousands of tons of red sandstone. An awesome quantity of rock lay upon the floor of the gorge, reaching hundreds of feet into the air and filling the gully almost to the top.
"Could we climb it?" Zelda suggested.
"It would be far too dangerous," Link replied. "See how those stones are balanced? One step in the wrong place and it'd all come down on top of us. And there is no way to tell which is the right place, or whether indeed there is a way through. We must turn back and find another road."
"There is no other way," Zelda told him. "This is the only way to pass through the canyon. We must try."
Link inclined his head in agreement. "So be it." He turned and took the rein of his horse, loosed the saddle girth and with a short slap sent the beast trotting off through the canyon, its harness jingling lightly. "Loose your horse, Zelda. Where we go, we cannot take the animals. Better we let them take their chances in this land which they know." Gently Zelda released her own mount and the white mare followed the red. They were alone in the ancient valley. She shouldered the gear that had been taken from her horse and felt the burden to be bearable. "It will get much harder, I imagine," she said quietly. "Still, I will prove the stronger."
"Did you say something, Princess?" Link asked, but he was not interested in her answer. He took her by the arm and drew her close, pointing up toward the tall walls of the gorge as he inclined himself towards her. "Look there," he told her softly. "I can see a ridge that stretches across the very edge of the canyon, above the rockfall. If we can climb to it, we may pass through the valley."
Zelda looked where he indicated and saw the ridge--it made her shiver with fear merely at the sight of it, for it was many feet above the ground and could not be more than a handspan wide. "Do you think that we can cross the valley like that?" she asked tentatively.
"If we are brave, and do not look down," answered Link. "We could turn back now, Zelda... it is not yet too late to turn aside from this quest."
But she remembered the sharing of food by the pool that last night, and he remembered the spill of her golden hair on the stone, and both of them knew that it was too late.
"There are foot and handholds in the stone," Zelda said. "We can climb." She walked to the sheer wall of the gorge and set her hand upon the stone, finding a niche into which she could place her fingertips and from there begin the arduous ascent to the distant ridge.
"We must be cautious, Princess," Link told her. "Perhaps this road is blocked for a reason. The west is where the Gerudo came from, if the histories are correct." He believed that she would know what he referred to. Many of the years of his youth had been spent in the dusty tranquility of his grandfather's house, listening to ancient stories of the land, and among the most terrible passages in the old man's books were those which told of the Gerudo, short-lived in comparison to Hylians, but ferocious people passionate and merciless, who rode out of the west bearing fire and sword. It was written that in the earliest times they were a nomadic people, laying waste to much of the southern and western borders of Hyrule before they retreated to the deserts which had birthed them. His grandfather had oft told him stories of fighting the Gerudo in his youth--his grandfather who had taken up the sword to save the land like so many of his line.
"Do you think we will see any Gerudo?" Zelda queried.
"I don't know," Link had to allow. "It has been a long time since any stories of the desert people have come to Hyrule. Perhaps it was merely this accident" - he took in the blocked pass with a wave of his hand - "which prevented them from returning to attack us in recent years. Perhaps they are all dead and none are left to carry on their line." His face grew grim. "Perhaps it was our own people who blocked the pass to put an end to the Gerudo raids."
"What do you believe?" Zelda asked.
"I don't know." That was all he would say. He passed her quickly and began to climb, hand over hand, clinging spiderlike to the rock face. Zelda followed him as best she could that she would not be left behind. Her hands soon grew sore.
Link did not look down although the thought of the danger was always candle-bright in his mind. It was only when he was too far up to come down easily that he thought of Zelda beneath him, and wished that he had made her go first. If he fell he did not wish to bring her down with him. He concentrated on lifting each hand in turn, placing it upon the rock and pulling himself up to the next meager crack from whence to reach still higher levels. The first twenty feet or so were comparatively simple but then he hit a place where the stone was sheer. A thousand years ago and more, when the world was new-made, a great slab of granite had been borne up from the interior of the world and had made its way to the surface where it became embedded in the mountain. The erosion of time had laid bare the hardest bones of the mountain and now Link was faced with a surface which had no kind of purchase whatsoever.
"Princess?" he called down, unable to turn and look for himself. "The way is closed. Can you move sideways and see if we may not reach the ridge another way?"
There was a scrabbling beneath him somewhere and then Zelda's voice came up clearly, around eight feet below him. "Down where I am. There is a cleft in the rock. We might be able to climb up it to the ridge."
"Good. Get to the cleft. I'm coming back down." He did not wait to see if she would follow instructions--she would have to. Link began to climb down the rock face. Going down was more difficult for footholds had to be felt for and found from memory, rather than looked for by eye. He was patient and soon reached the place where Zelda had been, a slight rift where the feet could jam themselves and the body rest for a moment. He looked about him and saw Zelda kneeling in a small depression in the cliff face, a few feet to his right. The princess had found the bottom of a natural seam in the stone and it was just wide and deep enough to rest there without holding on. Moisture must collect in the hollow in the early morning, and soil blown on the wind--for here upon the middle of an inhospitable cliff face, small plants had found a place to survive. Link began to climb sideways toward the rift, finding the going difficult, but not impossible. He was beginning to admire the princess for rather more than her courtly manners.
Zelda reached out a hand and helped him climb up into the fissure. There was barely enough room for the two of them and they had to press together unbecomingly in order to rest in any sort of comfort or safety. Link sighed and looked up in the direction of their goal, the ridge. They would have to ascend forty feet or more of the cliff face to reach it and they had only come twenty by the estimate of his trained eye.
"A good start," he muttered. Stretching he stood and offered a hand to Zelda to help her up while he considered the climb to the ridge. "I believe I know a way to do this. Do as I do, but wait until I have got a little way up. I would like to be sure that this will work." Zelda nodded and Link backed into the crack as far as he could while still able to stand with arms straight and in front of him. He set his back against one wall and then braced his feet against the other. Now he was off the floor, supported only by the tension in his body. Carefully he pushed on the rock with his hands and wriggled his back up the stone a few inches. When he was satisfied with his new position he moved his feet up as well and thus gained several inches of height. It would be possible to make their way right up the fissure in this way, if they had the stamina to make it to the top. Link thought he did. He just hoped that Zelda too had the strength to do it. If only they had thought to bring rope!
He inched his way up the fissure, slow but steady. It was easier than climbing the rock face and indeed it felt strangely safer with stone at his back and beneath his feet. Quickly he got into a rhythm--shift feet, wriggle, shift feet, wriggle. Pause for breath and then back to the beginning of the cycle. A scrabbling of loose pebbles beneath him told him that the Princess Royal had started on the climb and he redoubled his efforts that he might not prevent her from making her way up. Soon his back and legs ached from the strain of holding himself up but he continued, knowing that there was no other way--it was up, or down, and with Zelda beneath down was not an option.
"This is... tough work!" Zelda panted.
"Save your breath!" Link called down.
She looked up to see where he was, and noted that he was a little further ahead than when she had started, but not much. Zelda grew determined and redoubled her efforts to climb the fissure. In some perverse way she found herself enjoying the harsh physical workout, as muscles she had barely used before got their first real airing. This was far more taxing than anything she could have found to do in the royal palace, even with her personal trainer. Zelda smiled. Personal trainer? She was only now beginning to see that the only real training was to go out and do whatever it was you wished to learn.
Her foot slipped suddenly on a loose rock, and it was only her instinctive straightening of her legs, bracing herself against the unmoving stone, that prevented her from falling all the way back to the bottom of the fissure. She took several deep breaths to regain control.
"Are you all right, Princess?" Link called.
"It's Zelda, and I am well," she returned. "Go on."
"I am." He continued to climb. Zelda rested a moment, though resting on this ascent merely meant the cessation of movement rather than the cooling of overworked muscles. When she knew she would either have to move or to fall, she resumed her climb. The occasional glance up told her that they were making slow but sure progress and she was glad to watch the top of the fissure grow steadily nearer. At last with a scrabble Link disappeared from above her and she knew that he had reached the summit of the crack. She continued to climb steadily, working on instinct. Finally she saw a line of golden sunlight upon the rock she faced and knew that her next move would take her out of the shadow and onto the ridge. A strong rough hand offered itself to her, and she grabbed at it thankfully.
Link pulled her easily up onto the ridge and she stood with him, too tired to do anything else for the moment.
The ridge was not wide enough to sit on and only by pressing sideways against the rock could they stand. Yet standing was a relief after the ascent through the fissure, where they had by necessity been forced to work with backs and knees bent. Link held Zelda's hand and looked out across the valley of the Gerudo with shining, excited eyes. "See how far we have come, Princess!" he said joyfully. "A little further and we might see the whole world from up here!" Marvelling he beheld the sight of birds in the gorge flying beneath them, and far below upon the chasm floor, jagged threads of silver stream runneled between the dusty boulders of the valley bottom.
Zelda pressed herself against the stone as a crossdraught threatened to throw her from the precarious perch. She did not share Link's love of heights and tried not to look at the great distance they had climbed. "We must move on," she said firmly.
"Turn your face to the rock," Link instructed, "and then we can edge along the ridge until we are past the fall."
"We still have to get down," Zelda said.
"That will probably be the easy part," Link said wryly. "Let us hope it is not dangerously easy." Carefully he turned so that his back was to the drop, and then he took Zelda's hand in his. Together they began to edge along the narrow gap, relying on their mutual strength and agility. Link felt the wind tugging at him with dangerous strength and he pressed against the rock harder, feeling Zelda do the same by the increased tension in her grip on his hand. Always he was conscious of the chasm at his back, and the weight of his pack which pulled him towards the drop. His hair whipped about his face. The stone wall was rough against his hand and his ankles and calves soon ached from the strain of holding on by his toes. He knew that the princess would feel the same but she never complained.
The ridge disappeared beneath them as they made their way further up the wall of the gorge. It seemed an age before they reached the summit of the rock fall, where the blockage rose to only a few feet below them. Link glanced down longingly at the promise of rest upon the top of the landslide, but he knew full well that to stand upon the fall was too perilous. Yet luck was with them in some ways, for now the ridge became wider and sloped downwards gently. He looked ahead down the side of the mountain and saw that the ridge became a rudimentary path, scoured by the sands and undercut. "Take heart, Princess," he panted, "the way becomes easier."
"Good," was all Zelda said. Her hand was still tight in his and he loosed his grip a little for fear of hurting her. He continued to hold her hand and led her on down the cliff path--soon they were able to leave off hugging the cliff face and walk in single file. It was a relief from the endless toil of sliding across the vertical rock wall.
The ridge came to an end only ten feet above the floor. Link considered the drop and then carefully sat down with his legs over the edge. He twisted to let himself down, grasping the edge of their sanctuary with his fingertips. When he was at full stretch he let go, fell and landed with a jar that was bearable, if momentarily painful. "Follow me, Princess!" he called up.
Zelda looked down, tight-lipped, and nodded. She sat on the ridge the way he had but then she froze, closing her eyes and turning her head away. "Drop!" Link ordered. "You are almost there! I will catch you!"
"Yes you can! It's not far. I promise that I will catch you. Just turn around and slip off the edge."
Zelda shook her head.
"I can't come back up after you," Link told her. "It is the only way to come down. Hurry, drop!"
She understood. Taking a breath she wriggled forward on the ridge, clasping the edge of the rock in white-knuckled hands.
"Not that way!" Link instructed. "You must turn and let yourself down."
Slowly the princess turned around on the rock, grasping at any purchase on the smooth ledge. She slipped half-off and gave a short scream, clutching the lip of the ridge. "Almost there," Link encouraged. With a jerk Zelda slipped from the ridge and hung by her hands, feet kicking. Link darted forward. Then she let go with a cry, and landed in his arms.
"I told you I'd catch you," Link told her softly.
After a moment the princess opened her eyes again. She marshaled her strength and then ordered, "Put me down." Her voice was weak but firm. Link set her upon her feet but remained holding her. "Let me go."
"Are you sure you are all right, Princess?" he asked with a smile.
"As you say, Princess."
She pushed him roughly away from her. "You are the most irritating man I have ever met!" she said with annoyance.
"I know," Link grinned. "I'm unique."
"Ooh!" Zelda scowled, crossing her arms.
Suppressing a smile he turned away and looked around him. This side of the gorge was just like the other, save for one thing--the end of the canyon was now visible. Framed by the tall rock walls, which now shrank down into the sand, was a red and golden sandscape of dunes shining beneath an amber sky. The sun hung in the sand-shrouded air like a lantern of molten gold. Already he could sense the heat of the western realm, taste the sand and spices upon the hot dry wind which battered at his lips and seared the sweat from his forehead.
"Tiroedd Tywod," he said softly, murmuring the words. The Desert of Mystery. The old name, rich with history, hung in the still air.
"Do we have enough water?" Zelda asked with some anxiety.
"I am not sure," he owned. "I filled every container I could find when we reached that spring, but this is a real desert. I confess, Princess, I was not prepared for this. It has been too long since anyone came out of the desert. Now I see--I was thinking of some pleasant, sandy beach without a sea, but this is real."
"It is too late to go back now," Zelda sighed, "even if we could climb the canyon again. And I do not think that we can."
Link looked out over the desert, wiping his sweat-slicked face with the back of his hand. "Is it true, Zelda," he began, "that they used to call this place the Haunted Wasteland?"
"It was once," Zelda agreed. "But that was long ago and no ghosts have come out of this place for a thousand years and more. You have not read enough history."
"I read as much as was allowed to me," Link replied crossly. "That much of my time was taken in learning the arts of sword and bow, I cannot deny!"
"I know and thank you for it," Zelda answered gently. "I did not intend to slight you. Well, shall we go on?"
"I think we must," Link said inclining his head.
"Hæft!" rang out a voice and an arrow landed before them with a whistle. Link jumped back, his hands finding his own bow and nocking an arrow to the string. "Feond oder freond?" came a second shout.
"No," Zelda told him, laying her hand upon his. "Look around."
Link lifted his head and saw what he had not seen before--concealed behind the stones and on the clifftops were watchers. What kind of creatures they were he could not ascertain, save that each was wrapped in coarse cloth the color of the sand, this camouflaging them from unwary eyes. Each had a bow trained upon Link and Zelda and by their stance they knew well how to use their weapons.
Eyes like chips of amber gleamed beneath the shadows of the shapeless wrappings.
"Gerudo!" he said in amazement. "They still live beneath our sky!"
"Feond oder freond?" called one of the warriors again, a more urgent tone in his voice.
"I do not know their tongue," Zelda owned, "but I believe they are asking us whether we come in peace or war. They grow impatient for an answer."
"And will shoot, no doubt, unless we give them one." Link threw his bow to the ground and then raised his hands slowly above his head. Zelda followed suit and then the warriors rose and came forward.
They were not nearly as barbaric as they had seemed from a distance. Each wore white baggy trousers and a jerkin made of skins, beneath the ragged sand-coloured wrappings that had concealed them. The most obvious difference between them and the people Link was familiar with, was their rich cinnamon-brown skin and their ridiculous small rounded ears. They were also more muscular than most Hylians, and their bodies hairier. They encircled the travelers, drawing long scimitars or hunting knives.
"Was that a mistake?" Link hissed.
"I do not know their customs," Zelda replied. "I was taught that the Gerudo were a race of women, but these are men--obviously the lore which has passed down to us concerning these people no longer applies, or has been corrupted over time."
"Ælfan," one man said in a low growl, and turning his head he spat in the dust. "Ic Ælfan-cynn for-seon!"
"We are here in peace," Zelda began but they did not listen, occupying themseles in a fierce whispered argument. At all times four of the Gerudo stood over their captives with ferocious scowls and naked blades. The guttural vowels of their language seemed an affront on the beauty of language to Link's untrained ears. They seemed to spit their words rather than speaking them, or to expel them from somewhere deep in their throats.
At length the knot broke up and their captors ceased to talk. One of the Gerudo, the leader by his stature and garments, motioned to two others who grasped Link's hands and expertly tied them behind his back with strips of rawhide. He bit back a yelp as his arms were cruelly twisted. His sword was removed along with the knife which he carried. Zelda was treated in the same way. Once they were bound to the satisfaction of the group leader, he spoke shortly and motioned to the others to move. A blade pricked the small of Link's back, urging him to go forward. With tied hands and surrounded by an escort of unfriendly warriors they set off into the desert. Link glanced back longingly at his discarded bow. One of the Gerudo picked it up and weighed it idly, then tested the spring of it, and slung it over his back.
"Well," he whispered to the princess, "we found the legendary guardians of the Spirit Temple. Now what?"
"All we can do is wait and hope that eventually we will find one who speaks our language," Zelda answered.
The journey through the desert was not comfortable. They were forced to walk all day through drifting sand so light and fine that their feet sank up to the ankles at each step. Their captors seemed inured to the discomfort and walked with a peculiar high-stepping stride to compensate. After a while Link began to copy them and found that it was easier to move through the sand that way. The Gerudos' footwear gave them an advantage; they wore wide moccasins of hide which prevented their sinking. The Hylian-style boots Link wore, while of supreme quality, were ill-suited to the desert terrain and were soon sandstained and worn by the abrasive action of the sand.
Of far greater concern than the discomfort caused by the sand, was that caused by the heat. Link felt the sun's force physically beating down upon the top of his head and with that adding to the tough exertion of the walk through the sand, his hair was soon plastered to his scalp with perspiration. Sweat dripped into his eyes but he could not wipe it away with hands tied behind his back, and was reduced to blinking it out. Most of their Gerudo escort wore filthy cloth bands around their foreheads and he found himself envying them. He concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. They were surrounded by gold--the sand gleamed sunlike all around them, and the amber haze of it hung in the air, windblown, like a gauzy curtain which let through more heat than light.
They halted at some time past midday, in the miserable shade provided by a pile of ancient boulders which were all that remained of some natural outcropping or even a building, now eroded by the sand and an indistinguishable part of the desert. The Gerudos squatted in the overhang and talked in their guttural language, leaving their prisoners sitting back-to-back in the sun. They had skins of water and uncaring of their prisoners, shared it out in full view. Every time Link or Zelda attempted to move, one of the Gerudo would half-rise and grasp the hilt of his weapon, and they soon understood that they must sit still while their captors drank and rested.
"This is not much fun," Link whispered. "How long will they hold us prisoner?"
"I know nothing of these people," Zelda replied. "We were foolish--we should never have attempted this so ill-prepared!"
"It is easy to repent afterwards," Link said dryly. "Well, I suppose all we can do is wait. But I wish they would give us some water."
Zelda sighed. "I had managed to stop thinking about it until you mentioned it. I am so thirsty..."
Link raised his head and looked at their captors. "Hey!" he called. "May we not have some of your water?" He was answered only by a snort and raucous laughter. With a sigh he bent his head and closed his eyes.
They moved on shortly after and the pace increased rather than slackened. Before long both Link and Zelda stumbled along in a haze of heat and thirst, only the swords of their captors at their backs preventing them from lying down in the sand. Link felt warm liquid on his hands and knew that the bonds upon his wrists had broken the skin through the constant friction of movement. He wondered that he could feel no pain, and hoped that the injury would not be too severe. By the level of wetness he could feel, he judged that as yet it was not great. He cared little for it anyway--the heat was the one thing he still felt greatly.
As they continued, Link felt a strangeness coming over him. The desert lifted up a scorching wind of sand, with, it seemed, no other object than to further punish them. The golden sand blurred his vision after a few feet, yet the light and heat diffusing through the tiny airborne particles seemed if anything greater than it had been before. The ground seemed to shiver beneath his eyes, and he became conscious of a strange rocking motion, faint at first but then growing stronger. The feeling of motion was at odds with what his eyes told him was happening. Then, bit by bit, the world began to recede down a dark tunnel. He knew that he would pass out and tried desperately to stay conscious, but despite his will the desert darkened before his eyes. He felt himself falling forward into darkness, falling and never reaching the ground...
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