The City of Fire: Chapter Thirty-Three
A SLEEPLESS night for the four companions changed to a crisp autumnal morning. The threat of snow was in the air, although as yet the skies were clear; it would not be too long before true winter set in, and the mountain slopes were going to be cold.
Even so, Zelda and the others did not lack for equipment. After agreeing to help the villagers and investigate the monsters on Death Mountain, they had been deluged by offers of help--and had had to refuse some of them for fear of becoming overladen! They found themselves almost overwhelmed by the hospitality of the village people, and in particular the shepherds. Although these men had little enough themselves, they insisted on supplying all sorts of things for the companions; they, it seemed, had been hardest hit by the monsters' predations. The village itself had not yet felt the sting, but according to Impo the monsters were getting closer each week as the weather drew in. There was not much food available on the heights, so in order to feed the vast work teams the creatures were starting to steal sheep as well as trapping the remaining wild animals of the mountain. The purpose of their presence, and of the mysterious quarrying, remained a mystery.
The four companions stood at the edge of the village, upon the path that led up the mountain, as the sun's pale watered-down warmth bathed the roofs of Kakariko in winter light. Their breath fogged the frosty air. From the shepherds they had warm woollen cloaks and three round cheeses; the tanner had given them tough, hard-wearing leather boots for the mountain trek; all kinds of good food were gifts from the other villagers. The village elder himself had ventured to give them a gift; though the small, plump man had nothing practical to offer them, he pressed a little bag of money upon each of them.
The blacksmith had searched his stock and come up with the weapons that were perhaps the most valuable and useful of all the presents they had been given. Zelda had tried to refuse the gifts, but the kindly man was determined to see them accepted. "After all," he pointed out, "they were made to be used." There was a delicate knife for Zelda, a beautifully wrought blade in steel so fine and hard that it gleamed like diamond--and another, its twin, for Sofia. The daggers were undoubtedly of Goron make, the sort of things they had originally hoped to find in Hyrule Town, and it was obvious that they had been in the blacksmith's family for many years. Dark's gift was the weapon he had borrowed earlier: a Hylian soldier's short-sword, perfectly weighted, with a straight iron cross-guard and a hilt bound in red leather. It was plainly made, but no less excellent for that. She glanced at Dark with a wry expression; he at least seemed to have no qualms about accepting such expensive gifts. He had the sword drawn in his hand and was weighing it with critical expertise, passing it from hand to hand. Zelda wondered if the shadow had any sense of gratitude to the kind people who had given it to him.
Added to these they had Link's serpentine dagger and the rosewood bow, which latter Zelda carried slung over her shoulder by its cord. They were almost as well armed as if they had come from Hyrule Town prepared for trouble. Even so, they had no intention of getting into a fight--the plan was simply to go up, take a look around and then consider what action needed to be taken.
Impo trudged up to them, wrapped in his sheep's-wool cloak; he held a stout ashwood staff in his uninjured hand, a strong metal-capped rod that the shepherds used both for walking and for fighting. His slashed arm was in a sling now, but the way he carried the heavy staff suggested that he was still well able to fight. Only now could Zelda appreciate what a large man he was; he was a head taller than Link, and his muscled arms were strong beneath the woollen cloak. His faded blue eyes, free now of the clouding influence of alcohol, were intelligent and thoughtful as he looked up at the mountain, and she no longer held any doubt about his story.
"Well, lads and lassies," the shepherd said gruffly, glancing round at them all. "Ready to go?"
"We are," Link agreed, adjusting the strap of his pack. They would be going up on foot; no horses were sure-footed enough to traverse the difficult and treacherous ground that led to Seron Pass. The pass was one of the most isolated areas of the mountain, and not even the shepherds went there very regularly. Once again, though, it was the way the Hero of Time had taken during his ancient quest.
We walk in history, Zelda thought, falling in behind the shepherd. Their boots cracked through fallen leaves as they made their way through the village, walking single file in the early-morning light. For the first time this year, frost sparkled in the long grass. The weak sun shone fitfully between hazy streaks of cloud, promising more cold yet to come, and she felt grateful for the cloaks they had been given. Rich reward indeed for a deed that had not yet been done.
The village was silent as they passed through; they had risen early out of necessity, planning ahead for a full day's walking. Still, some people had turned out at this daybreak hour, and sleepy men, women and children stood at the open doors of their homes and waved to the young adventurers on whom their hopes lay. A great bird flew overheard suddenly, its shadow crossing the company, and Zelda glanced up wondering if it were an owl. The silent night-hunters were said still to hold some part of an ancient magic, and had long been welcomed as benevolent protectors of the Hyrulian Royal Family. Wheeling high, the bird disappeared over the red roofs, and she thought no more of it.
They passed out of the village to the south-east, walking the ancient path that led to the graveyard. Instead of climbing the slope to the sacred place, though, they turned left, climbing a steep flight of steps that had been cut into the rock walls. Smooth and weathered with age yet still newer than the ancient graves, the stair had been almost invisible beforehand, and they had not noticed it yesterday when they had been in the graveyard. Impo climbed quickly, his eyes set on the great dark flank of the mountain that rose up before them. At the top they paused for a moment, standing precariously on a ledge with the sheer drop into the graveyard on one side, and a dense belt of trees on the other. There was light through the trees, however, and after a moment to catch their breath they went on. A momentary chill brushed at them under the shadow of the little wood, and their feet sank into cold mud, but the trees seemed only to fringe the graveyard and in a few short minutes they left the cover of the woodland once more, and were standing at the beginning of a great gorge carved by ancient rivers. A path had been laid here, winding through the ravine and up round the corner out of sight. Around them, on both sides, rose the mountains.
The immense stones defied description; seen up close as they were here, their familiar blue-and-purple outlines no longer blurred into one, but were revealed to be craggy and fierce, and incomprehensible in their very hugeness. The mountain range formed the boundary to Hyrule on this side; nobody, as far as it were known, had ever made it through the mountains to whatever might lie on the other side--except perhaps the Hero of Time. Peaks, lightly dusted with snow, were barely visible; though Kakariko itself stood upon the lower slopes of these mountains, their tops were so far away as to be misted with distance.
Impo coughed, bringing them back from trying to perceive the impossible. Freed from having to see the entire vastness of Death Mountain and its brother peaks, Zelda and the others glanced about themselves, looking at the scene as only a part of a whole. The track was well-traveled and clear, probably kept so by the shepherds. Here and there sheep grazed on the sparse foliage that grew in the ravine; a trickle of water wound its way through the broken stones, and around it sprang all kinds of plants, all well-nibbled by the foragers. Death Mountain's peak gleamed like a knife in the autumn sunlight. Impo tapped his stick on the ground twice, the iron cap sparking off a stone, and then started confidently up the path.
It was a hard walk up the mountainside, but on the whole a pleasant one; a wintry breeze blew down from the heights to cool them in their exertions, and there was a sense of stillness and peace about the high places that had been lacking in the bustle of Hyrule Town. The bells of cows rang out occasionally from the lower slopes, reminding them of Kakariko and the welcome that it had given them. No birds sang here on the stony slopes--the only other sound was their own footsteps, and the continual clink of Impo's staff as its metal tip touched the rocky ground. Gravel crunched underfoot. As they walked, clouds scudded across the pale sky: white ships upon their own mysterious errands.
Zelda kept alert for a while, but saw no sign of any monsters or even any other living creature. The air grew colder as they climbed ever higher, although their own exertion kept them warm. Link and Sofia walked together behind the shepherd, each silent as they concentrated on their footfalls. The Princess glanced back and saw Dark walking behind as ever, head down and eyes hidden beneath the hood of his cloak. Zelda sighed, thinking that she had never seen a lonelier figure. She looked forward for a moment, making sure that Link and Sofia were well, and then dropped back to speak with him.
"You seem troubled," she said softly, reaching out to lightly touch his arm.
He did not look at her but continued walking, stepping carefully over the uneven ground. "It is not important," he muttered, after a moment's struggle.
Zelda kept watching him, saying nothing, until finally he raised his head and looked at her. "Come on," she said gently. "You have to start trusting people some time--if not us, no-one. What's wrong?" He still did not answer, and after a moment more she persisted. "Dark, why won't you talk to us? We'd be your friends if you'd let us. I know something is bothering you--"
"Leave me alone," he said coldly, pulling his cloak close as if to shield himself from her. She could almost see him drawing back, retreating into himself; she made to reach out, but was stopped as he jerked violently away. "Why do you have to be so confounded nice all the time?" he snarled, glaring straight at her for a moment; a flash of crimson fire showed her the depth of his emotion. He met her eyes direct, trying it seemed to burn through her clear cerulean gaze, and then he hurried past her, almost breaking into a run to be rid of her. Zelda stared at his back, her mind full of whirling thoughts. Something was hurting him, that much she could see. She supposed that he had never had to deal with so many people before--and he had been around them constantly for the last few weeks, he who had only ever lived in silent solitude. No wonder Dark was starting to feel the strain.
She walked faster, catching up but not quite walking beside him. The section of path they were on was a difficult one, full of treacherous shifting gravel, and they all stepped carefully now for fear of slipping and falling. They were winding their way around a rocky promontory of Death Mountain itself, climbing steadily upward. The wide road from Hyrule Town stretched up towards the peak from a different direction, clearly visible behind them in the clean mountain air; it was the way they had come earlier, on their race to reach the summit. The path they were on now was little more than a sheep-track worn into the mountain stone.
Clouds were starting to gather by midday, and they sat down to eat a swift meal under an escarpment of weathered stone. "Looks like rain," Impo observed, glancing up into the whitening skies. "There's shelters we can take if a storm comes up--I know the places--but it shouldn't be too bad at this time o' year. Still, it don't do to underestimate this mountain. It's a lot older than we."
"We'll take your advice," Link agreed, breaking open a slightly hard bread roll. He sighed softly, missing Prowl's soft wet nose at the mealtime; ordinarily she would be begging for a share of his food.
"We should get to the pass by midafternoon," the shepherd said, standing up to look further along the path. Despite the morning's walking, he seemed to have no stiffness in his limbs. Link examined his feet, which were sore from the trek.
"Is there anything dangerous on these slopes?" Zelda asked. "Animals?"
Impo shook his head. "Not here, Your Highness--these parts are safe enough, I dare say. It wasn't here I saw the monsters anyway, but up at the head of the pass. If you don't mind, I'll be waitin' for you there while you go in and take a look--only I'm no fighter, see?" His powerful arms and the way he held his staff suggested otherwise, but Zelda held her tongue, bearing in mind that he had already been wounded once by the monsters.
"Should be interesting, no?" Sofia smiled, glancing at the Princess. "Personally, I am aching for a good fight to tax my muscles..."
"We're here to take a look, not take on an army of Moblins," Zelda reminded her with a wry look. "Don't you think it might be a little dangerous?"
"Maybe," she said with a smile, and drew her new long knife to check the blade. Working with swift skill, Sofia buffed the steel to a radiant shine, holding the weapon up now and again to make sure that it was not bent. There were faint nicks in it here and there, scars of previous battles; but the blade had been well repaired and had lost none of its keenness. Zelda watched her for a moment, before remembering her own gift from the village--the knife's twin. She had slipped it sheathed into her boot, for want of a better place to put it; she slipped her hand down now to feel the reassuring weight of the hilt.
They went on. The clouds continued to draw together, masking the bright blue expanse of the sky. With the approach of that shadow it grew colder, as a harsher wind began to blow down from the heights. As they left the lower foothills for the craggy, steep sides of the mountain itself, it started to rain as Impo had foretold: a light unpleasant drizzle. Zelda pulled the hood of her cloak over her head, trusting in the still-oily wool to repel the rain. If the path had been difficult before, now it became treacherous and they were forced to slow right down. On one side was the craggy flank of the mountain; on the other now was a sheer drop down onto jagged rocks, and the path was not overly wide. They went in single file, trying not to look down and concentrating hard on the task before them. The pass certainly was remote; it seemed inconceivable that a herd of domestic sheep could get across such terrain, but then the short and muscular Kakariko sheep were bred for this sort of land.
Water was starting to puddle on the path, and Zelda tried to step around it. This slowed her pace enough that, when she looked up, she saw the others far ahead of her. Impo and Link had already turned around another side of the peak and were lost to view. Afraid of being left behind, she started to run forward, but her foot came down wrongly on a stone that turned underfoot, and she never knew how but suddenly she was hanging in space, clutching at the lip of the path with her hands and too terrified to even cry out. Dimly from above she heard Dark shout, and then there were running footsteps. With a lurch her right hand lost its grip, and she let out a scream; the other hand was slipping now in the wet, three fingers, two...
Then there was a cool, strong grasp around her wrist, and she looked up into Dark's face. Her hand slipped right off then and she screamed, brought up short by his hold on her, dangling by one arm over the precipice. It felt as if her shoulder would dislocate. Dark reached his other hand down, stretching as far forward as he could. "Hold on!" he called down to her. She reached up desperately, the confounded drizzling rain mingling with her desperate tears as she struggled to reach his hand. Her fingers waved within inches of his. His grip was slipping, she could feel it, lubricated by the water. "Help me!" she screamed. Dark hissed a curse as he began to slide himself, but then Link grabbed his belt and held him from behind, leaning back to try and take the weight.
Dark lunged forward and caught her other wrist. His face set determinedly, he hauled her back and up onto the path. Zelda's feet kicked in empty space. Then, a moment later she was kneeling on the very edge of the path, shivering and sobbing with rain running down her face and soaking her hair. Her fingers were torn and bleeding.
Sofia knelt beside her, touching her gently on the shoulder. "Are you okay?" she asked softly, then seeing that Zelda was not, she put her arms around the Princess and helped her to her feet. "Goddess, that was a close one..."
"Someone should have been watching her," Dark said, a tone of annoyance in his voice--but annoyance not at Zelda, as the Princess realized when she looked up at him. "I knew the path was becoming treacherous," he muttered, turning away with a scowl. "I should have..."
"No..." Zelda took a shivering breath and bravely lifted her head, throwing back her sodden mass of blonde hair. "It was nobody's fault but my own. If I hadn't been so concerned with not getting my feet wet, I would never have slipped. I... I'm sorry." Some warrior-princess she was, she thought angrily, having to be rescued through her own clumsiness!
"Perhaps it was not your fault," Dark remarked softly. Everyone looked up. He was kneeling in the path, looking at the flat stone upon which Zelda had slipped. Wordlessly he lifted it up and showed it to them; there were odd scratch marks upon it, and on the surrounding stones, and the rain had not yet washed them away. "Somebody loosened this stone before we set foot upon the path," he said, tossing the stone from hand to hand, "somebody intended one of us to fall."
Link's fists clenched. "Of all the mean, dirty, cowardly, sneakthief--!" he began furiously, but Zelda hushed him with an upheld hand.
"It doesn't matter," she said softly. "I am alive and well despite it, and now we know to look out for more traps like those." Recovering some amount of sense, she brushed herself down and lifted her hood back over her face--not that it mattered now anyway, for her hair was as wet as it ever could be. "Thank you, Dark."
He flashed her a rare smile. "Always welcome. Now, shall we go on?"
"How far are we now?" Sofia asked the shepherd, who had scrambled down the path after them and now waited for them a little way down the track.
"Just a few more miles, is all, a little way," Impo said, gesturing with a hand. "We'll make it before dark, no worries. Anybody hurt?"
"No, no," Zelda smiled. "But we will all have to take more care from now on--it seems the path is more treacherous than the last time you came up here."
The shepherd looked at the stone Dark Link held, and his brows drew together, but he did not comment. "Aye," was all he said, before turning and slowly walking back up the path again. They fell into line behind him, walking carefully in case there were any more loose stones. Dark knelt and carefully replaced the stone, patting smaller pebbles into place around it with his slender fingers. This done, he stood up and hurried after the others, soundless as a ghost.
Forewarned by Zelda's near-fatal accident, they went slower than they had been going before. The rain grew no heavier, but nor did it lessen up; it was an annoyance which got through their warm clothes and puddled on the uneven paved surface of the path. The going was harder now, too; as they got higher, so the path became less clear, and more often than not they were merely scrambling over rocks and between crevices, following the shepherd who was their only guide. Once the mountain rumbled and shook, and a great boulder came crashing down from overhead, missing them by a mere foot and blasting a chunk from the path as it plummeted down the slope, tumbling all the way to the tree-line with a sound like thunder. Link looked up, scowling, but said nothing.
Zelda walked carefully, feeling each step before she put her foot down on it; that lesson had been hard gained, and she had no wish to learn another. After a while, she started to relax, but she still watched the path before her as if it were untrustworthy--and remembered the marks on the stone that Dark had found. Somebody here wished them harm. At that thought, she glanced forward, seeing Link and Sofia walking together behind the shepherd, and then again she dropped back to where Dark walked by himself at the rear of their little company. He said nothing as she fell in beside him, only moving to the side a little to allow her room on the narrow path.
"I... I need to thank you," Zelda began haltingly after a few minutes' silent walking.
"You already did," he answered, his tone slightly short. "When I pulled you up."
"No, not for that..." She paused, wondering how best to phrase her meaning. "For everything. These last few days, you have been absolutely invaluable to us." The words sounded cold as they came out, and she sighed at her failure to express the way she felt. "I mean, we are all grateful that you did decide to stay. I know--I know that it isn't easy for you, but believe me when I say that we need you." He made no reply, and she thought that in his silence she detected some reluctance. Zelda paused again, collecting her thoughts. "If... if you need me to... you know, back off... you have only to say, and I promise that I will leave you alone. The last thing I want is to make you unhappy."
Dark was silent for a long time, and she thought that he would not answer. Finally, though, he glanced at her, that faint ironic half-smile once again tugging at the corner of his mouth. "It is a long time since any have cared for my feelings. As to my loyalties... fear not. I have decided to stay by you, for good or ill."
Zelda quirked an eyebrow, surprised. "You mean you still had not decided when you took the Sword of Tears?"
He grinned then, flashing his sharp white teeth. "You have no idea how close I came to betraying you, Princess Zelda. But--ah! why spoil a good thing when you have it? I might as well stand on a snowy peak and tear my clothes asunder."
How typical, she thought, for Dark to reduce what he had done to a passionless calculation of advantages. Indeed, she almost believed him.
"Did you like the music?" she said quietly.
"Music?" His voice was mildly curious, that was all.
"The music," Zelda said, smiling now. "At the feast. Sofia said you went over to listen. I didn't know you were fond of music."
For a few moments he said nothing, but she could feel him staring at her. Then, abruptly, he quickened his pace, striding ahead into the drizzle; his cloak flapped damply. "I did what was necessary. Make haste--we are falling behind."
But in a little while they were forced to halt again: they had reached the end of the path. Before them, a sheer rock wall rose up for many hundreds of feet, impassable and bleak. Yet harsh weather and the passage of time had wrought a transformation on the stone: a great vertical split had cracked it right in two, leaving a way that was just wide enough for them to pass. Beyond was an opening, leading on to some brighter place upon the other side. Impo had stopped here, and was leaning against the rocky wall, waiting for the others to catch up.
"What is it?" Zelda asked, hurrying the last few yards. "Why have we stopped?"
Impo raised his walking-staff and motioned toward the crack. "Yonder is the pass, Your Highness. This is as far as I can go; it's to you now to walk on through. You'll come to a cliff, and if ye lay down and look into the pass, you'll see what I saw. Take care now, for the monsters patrol beyond."
"Wonderful," Link said drily, loosening the serpentine dagger in its sheath. "Will you wait for us here, Impo? We may be some time."
"Aye," the shepherd said gruffly. "I'll be at the bottom of this stretch until nightfall. If you're not back by then, I assume that something has held ye back, and I'll return to Kakariko. If you've not returned by morning, we'll give you another full day and then send to Hyrule Town. Be that well with you?"
"It will do, thank you," Zelda said, smiling her thanks. With a last glance at Impo she walked forward, turning her body sideways to slip into the narrow opening. "Well, who is coming? Anyone? Or do I have to go alone?"
"If I get stuck, I'll murder someone," Sofia said balefully, squeezing herself and her new Goron knife into the crack. Impo grinned and lifted his hand to salute them farewell before turning to walk back down the path, heading back to one of the small stone shelters the shepherds had built upon the mountain.
The passage was only around eight feet in length, yet it took a good few minutes for everyone to get by; they had to suck in their breath to squeeze through the tightest part. It seemed inconceivable that Impo or any of the shepherds could have got through this place--but then, on the ground there were fragments of sheep's wool from the white cloaks they wore, so it seemed that at least one or other of them had done so recently. Zelda stumbled out of the other side of the cleft with a gasp of relief, thankful at being able to breathe again without constriction. She found herself standing on a small semicircular overhanging ledge: a precarious path, little more than a foot wide, led down from here to the floor of the pass, and again up in the other direction to some dizzying height. Nearby grew some strange plants with leathery dark-green leaves and fat black seed-pods; squat, slow-growing mountain succulents. Zelda stepped aside as Link squeezed his way through, and then Sofia.
Dark stepped out of the cleft as if solid walls had no hold over him. For a moment the shadow stood spellbound, looking about him with wide eyes, and then he smiled. "I know where we are... this used to be the old way up to Goron City. This is the way I had meant to come. Have the very mountains changed since I was here last?"
"There have been a great many rockfalls here, it seems," Zelda said, looking at the broken ground beneath their feet. "This used to be part of some wider passage, but time has filled it."
Link cautiously knelt on the ground, mindful of the danger of their exposed position, and looked over the edge. He remained unmoving for so long that Zelda started to become concerned. "What-" she began, but was silenced as he frantically gestured with his hands for quiet. Without saying anything or even turning his head away, he pointed down into the gorge below them. Very carefully Zelda knelt as well, and the others beside her. They crawled to the edge and peered over.
Steep sides of rock led down two hundred feet into a natural ravine: the pass of which Impo had spoken, the way that had been closed for hundreds of years. At the bottom, made tiny by distance, was a surreal scene. The floor of the ravine was filled with carts of stone, ropes, blocks and pulleys, everything buzzing like a beehive. Great ochre-skinned shapes hauled the carts across the valley floor--whole teams of them were visible pulling chained-together cartfuls of rubble out of the yawning mouth of a cave. At the same time, other monsters pushed emptied carts back into the cavern. The Moblins worked to a steady, monotonous chant, a faint echo of which drifted up the valley walls to the astonished watchers on the ledge: a chorus of deep, primitive voices. Among them stalked smaller green-scaled shapes; loathsome lizardmen, carrying whips. The cracks of sharp leather goads echoed up around the chant of the Moblin miners, exhorting the powerful ogres to ever greater effort. Two grinning Stalfos stood either side of the cave entrance, apparently overseers for the work.
"That is Dodongo's Cavern!" Dark Link exclaimed in amazement. "What in Din's name are they doing?"
"Digging?" Zelda suggested helplessly.
Sofia whistled, long and low. "Goddess, Impo wasn't exaggerating when he said there was an army down there... Zelda, I take back what I said. This task is far beyond us. We should go back to Kakariko right now and send a message to the King."
"Ki! Ki!" came a new voice, hissing and sibilant. "No chansse! You sstay, foolissh tresspassersss!" They leaped up, hands going instantly to the weapons which hung at their sides... too late. Four of the lizardmen stood behind them, crystal daggers readied in their clawed hands. Up close they were even more hideous than they had been from a distance; their faces, though twisted and elongated into the resemblance of a lizard's, bore a man's intelligent eyes, and a parody of Hylian speech issued from their fanged jaws. The monsters had sneaked up on them without even Dark noticing a thing.
"Back off!" Sofia shouted, whipping out her long knife, "or we cut you to pieces!"
The lead Lizalfos grinned toothily. "Ki! I think not!" he hissed in a voice dripping with reptilian malice. His yellow eyes gleamed evilly, and his tongue, forked like a snake, flicked out after every phrase. "Throw down your weaponss, now! Or would you rather fall to your doomss? That too can be arranged..."
Link felt empty space at the heel of his boot, and knew that they were caught. A fight here would be a mistake; they had only a few spare feet in which to move, and the way the Lizalfos handled their daggers suggested that they were powerful opponents. Even on a level arena, they would be difficult to overpower, and here it took only one push from them to knock Link and the others to certain death two hundred feet below. He glanced at the others in despair, knowing that they too understood the hopelessness of their situation. "We surrender," he said sullenly.
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