The City of Fire: Chapter Forty-One
THEIR captors hauled them back across the tunnel floor and into the big cavern; Zelda struggled to stay on her feet, barely able to keep up with the much longer strides of the Moblins. The rough handling was a shock after Occa's clumsy kindness; she glanced around, trying to catch sight of the female, but she was nowhere in sight. After the blow the monster male had dealt her, Zelda supposed she shouldn't be surprised--still, it was awful knowing that they were alone and friendless once again.
The Moblins grunted at each other in their guttural dialect, spitting words like snarls. The three captives were hustled unceremoniously through the village and into a wide central area they hadn't noticed on their last trip through. Link screamed out in pain when one of them grabbed his broken arm.
"Leave him alone!" Zelda shouted, suddenly white-hot with fury. By Farore! She was not going to be pushed around any longer! Whirling, she kicked the Moblin who held her right in the kneecap. Muscles hardened by hours in the saddle and on the ground strengthened the blow--the monster yelled and dropped her to clutch at its injured limb. At once she whirled and went for another nearby.
Link staggered to his feet. "Zel, no!"
"Curse you beasts, I've had enough--"
"Sofia, stop her!"
The red-haired woman flung herself on the Princess, bearing her to the ground, as all around them Moblins snarled or moved forward with their gigantic fists raised. "Stop!" Sofia shouted, holding Zelda down with her own body weight. "Stop! We surrender!" Beneath her, Zelda spat out a word she had certainly not picked up in her father's court. Link scrambled to help Sofia.
"Enough," he hissed in Zelda's ear. "Don't break, Zel--don't break. This is not the time to lose our heads."
"Curse them..." The fury was abating; she felt hot tears starting to her eyes. Pushed to breaking point again and again by the hell of the city of fire, Zelda knew that she was at last going over the edge. The strain and toil was too much--she could no longer resist. She lifted her hands and pressed them to her aching eyes, and then a knot of misery clenched in her stomach, so intense that it doubled her up on the ground.
Link's arm was around her shoulders. "Easy," he whispered, his lips only an inch or so from her ear. She felt the warm breath of him, and his quiet strength. "Be easy, Zel... 'tis not much longer now. Be strong." His voice was suddenly colored with the Calatian accent she had rarely heard on him before. "Easy now, easy... be strong, my lass."
She gulped in a breath.
"Sorry." Zelda felt a wrenching sob of misery threatening to burst forth, but she forced it back, vowing to be strong like the others. Farore--she was no namby-pamby lace doll princess, to wail and scream at a rent in her silken dress! She was a warrior, and she would cursed well be worthy of the title. She ran a shaking hand through her matted hair, and then nodded. "I'm back."
"Welcome back," he said, pulling her close for a moment in a one-armed hug that was purely comradely--man to man as it were. Warrior to warrior. It strengthened her resolve.
The Moblin leader's lips had drawn back from his canines in a vicious doglike grin. Those small, pig-like eyes glittered in the firelight as he surveyed the three of them; united once more into a team they stood and looked back at him. They were surrounded by the pig-ogres, thirty or forty of them arrayed in a wide circle. Younglings whooped and stomped on the tops of roofs, their sinewy muscles glistening with sweat in the fire-glow.
Zelda looked up into the small red-rimmed eyes of Kurgh, and felt a chill run down her spine. Like Kleox Dinolfos who had chased them into the mines, and like Maximus the Stalfos who had taken their weapons from them at the entrance, this monster was unlike the rest of his kind. He stood a head taller than any other Moblin there, and his sparsely clad body was seamed with muscles, great mounds of them beneath taut ochre skin. His long pig's jaws were slightly open in a cruel, tongue-lolling grin. And the eyes... Nayru! There was a light in those eyes unlike anything she had ever seen before--cold intelligence and a very Hylian cunning lurked in the bloodied orbs.
But on the other hand--if this monster had intelligence, he could possibly be reasoned with. She glanced towards Link and saw by the look in his eyes that he understood the situation as well as she. That comforted her a little.
She lifted her head and looked the Moblin leader right in the eye. "So you are Kurgh," she said quietly.
"That I be." His rheumy eyes flicked up and down, evaluating her.
"What do you want with us?"
"Tha's trespassers." The Moblin snorted--she smelled his breath, and it stank. "This be our place."
"We didn't intend to trespass. We'll leave, if you'll let us, and never come back."
"I know," Zelda said fervently. "But this is the last place we want to be. If you could just show us the way out, we will be only too happy to go and leave you in peace. We want no trouble with you."
Kurgh's small eyes narrowed suspiciously. He wouldn't do it, Zelda realized. Another Moblin might well do what she asked without thinking, but Kurgh was too smart for that. She watched him think it over. He knew instinctively that she and the others did not belong in the mines. Perhaps he also guessed that the Lizalfos would be very interested in them.
Suddenly, Sofia elbowed her in the ribs. She flinched and stared at the red-haired woman in astonishment. Sofia shook her head almost imperceptibly, telling her to say nothing, and then flicked her eyes meaningfully towards Kurgh's heavily muscled right arm. Zelda blinked, following the other woman's gaze with little comprehension.
Then she saw it. Around his wrist, pitifully small and tight on that brawny limb, was a delicate golden ornament. On a Hylian it would have been a bright ruby medallion to hang about a neck--on the huge Moblin it could barely serve as a bracelet. A thick round disc finely etched with swirling patterns, it gleamed with fiery light reflected from the torches. Upon the center of the jewel was carved a strange three-pronged symbol, like a pawprint or a flame.
She would have recognised such craftsmanship anywhere, for up until today, Link had worn its twin.
"Nayru's Love," she whispered, fumbling to find his good hand and catch it in hers. "We've found the second Amulet..."
"So that's your report."
A skeletal hand crushed a slender silver goblet. Kleox Dinolfos blinked nervously. He was standing to attention as erect as he could; his spiked armor creaked as he moved. His scaly green tail stuck out behind him, straight as a rod. Everything about the Lizalfos captain spoke of fear. The musk of his body screamed it.
The orange flames in Maximus's eye-sockets flickered brightly and Kleox's armor rattled. "I want bodies, lizard," the Stalfos said coldly, rising to his feet. "I want to see them. Until I know they are dead, they are not dead. Do you understand me?"
"S-sir," Kleox got out, stuttering in his terror. "But sir, they were caught in a cave-in. The tunnel collapsed on them. Nothing could have lived through it, sir, nothing--they're buried under tons of rock!"
Maximus's hand shot out like a snake, the bony fingers locking around the lizardman's muscled neck in the same way they had locked around the goblet. Kleox choked and clawed at that merciless grip as he was lifted high into the air; his head bounced off the low ceiling of the chamber, narrowly missing the bowl of white-hot stone that gave light to the room. "Then dig them out," Maximus hissed, his eye-flames boring into the Lizalfos's single orange orb. "I don't care if you have to pull everything out of the Eastern Reach. I want the bodies found. I want them exhumed, and I want them laid out in this room! Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," Kleox choked.
"Good." The eye-flames thinned out, giving the impression that the Stalfos's eyes had narrowed. "Because you may know they are dead. Maybe the Lady herself knows they are dead. But all I know is that descendants of the Hero tend to spring out of the woodwork when you least expect it. And until I see the bodies for myself, Link Fifth is presumed alive and dangerous."
"I will--do as you command--my lord--"
"Good." Maximus's fingers opened, and Kleox dropped to the ground, coughing and choking as he massaged his throat. "See to it that you do." The Stalfos flicked his fingers towards the door, indicating that the interview was over. Kleox staggered to his feet, saluted lopsidedly and made for the door at something little short of a dead run. The corridor outside echoed to the sound of pounding feet.
"How I detest those vile lizards..." came a soft, purring voice from the corner screened by curtains. A form moved behind them, flitting like a shadow between the folds.
The Stalfos's head turned, his eye-flames blazing up. "They are useful, my lady. Put a little of the fear of Din into them and they'll obey after their fashion. And that one, at least, is brighter than the rest."
"Not too bright, I hope." There was a dry irony in the sorceress's voice. "I am given to understand that he was some sort of leader here once, if this prehistoric rabble even have such a concept. It would be a shame if he started to question orders now." A slender arm, white as milk and bare as bone, stretched out of the folds of the curtains and lifted a diaphanous robe from the back of a nearby chair.
Maximus leaned back against the wall, his rusted armour creaking with the movement. "Dinolfos is loyal enough. What other choice does he have?"
"I would have said that about another... until today." Behind the curtain, the hidden movements became brisk and annoyed. "He refused, Max! He even had the gall to stand there and claim they were his friends! Has he gone mad?"
"What are you going to do?"
"About the shadow? Let him lie and think things over--at least he is safe and secure. The others were just children, as you yourself so recently remarked. They only escaped at all because our mutual friend picked the lock for them. I find it hard to believe that such babes in arms could have survived as long as they did."
"With all due respect, my lady, I wouldn't count them out just yet," Maximus said gruffly. "His Majesty always neglected one thing when he had dealings with the Heroes--they have an abominable streak of luck. Farore's darlings, every last one of them. We should never assume one dead--if we do, we run the risk of having him pop up when we least wish it."
"I see your point, Max," the sorceress murmured. "Very well. I have no wish to let the boy slip by me like that again. It was carelessness... sheer carelessness. Well, we'll catch him sooner or later, I suppose."
"Oh?" the Stalfos said.
The curtains blew to one side, and Sepultura stepped out. Clad only in a semitransparent robe, she seemed as a statue carved from marble--with white, flawless skin and hair the shining dark of a raven's feathers, shot through with streaks of snow. She was beauty beyond compare, but she was nothing to Maximus now; he was no longer touched by the desires of mortal men. The sorceress rested one pale hand on the back of the upholstered chair, artfully revealing a length of marble leg--taunting him with the inaccessibility of herself. He did not look away from her face.
"What now, my lady?"
She moved towards the silver table that stood in the center of the room. A small cage, wrought out of golden wire, sat here--imprisoning something bright that shone. "What shall we do with this?" Sepultura asked quietly, picking the glittering box up and tilting it into the light. She shook it suddenly, viciously, and the thing rattled; something squeaked in terror from inside. "This little flitterbug... this useless scrap of a glowing gnat that so carelessly let our prisoners escape. What shall we do with it, Lord Maximus?" The sorceress's cruel smile gleamed white. "I beg your advice."
Maximus grunted. "There is no sport in squashing fireflies. Perhaps you might find it a more interesting subject if you pulled the wings off, one by one."
The thing in the cage screamed and sobbed, its high voice almost inaudible. "No, Lady, I beg you! Merciful Lady!"
"Perhaps I should..." Sepultura mused, ignoring the creature's pleas. "But no... It may still come in useful." She opened the top of the cage and upended it, dropping the glowing thing out. It fluttered weakly down to the table and crashed there, its wings trembling with terror. "I have shown you mercy for the last time, Pirrillip," the sorceress said softly. "Fail me again and I shall teach you the true meaning of pain."
"Oh, I won't, Lady! I'll never fail you--I swear it!"
Sepultura turned and scooped up a cloak to cover her robe. Taking up the dragon's head staff, she swept to the door and then paused there, looking back. "I go, Maximus. Come with me. And you, Pirrillip. We had better have a look at this rockfall ourselves. If the children escaped, we will learn about it."
"Not good," Link remarked. "Not good."
The three of them were tied to heavy wooden stakes that had been driven deep into the ground. A short distance away, half-grown Moblins were hard at work rolling boulders around, clearing an expanse of flat rock some eight yards across. Kurgh stood proudly on top of one of the low dwellings, overseeing his minions as they worked. The Amulet of Fire gleamed like a spark on the Moblin's massive wrist.
"What are they going to do with us?" Zelda whispered. "Link, you know more about Moblins than any of us--"
"They will probably have us put to death." His green-eyed gaze rested for a moment on the arena being cleared. "They are evil beasts but they have a sense of honor. As far as I understand it, when there are disagreements within the tribe, those involved fight each other one-on-one to the death. The same with their prisoners on the surface--they like to give them a sporting chance, if you could even call it that."
"A fight to the death?" Sofia hissed. "Us? Against one of them? But--Goddess! The things are twice as tall as a man, and four times as wide!"
"That will be our only advantage, then," Zelda murmured. "Speed and small size."
He glanced at her and smiled. "True," he said. "They are strong all right--strong enough to uproot a tree with their bare hands. But those bulky bodies make them slow. That's how I always beat the things--I outmaneuver them." Suddenly he sighed. "Then again... Kurgh will almost certainly be their champion. I would not like to have to fight him even were I on the top of a tall rock with a bow to hand."
"Where's Occa? Is she all right?"
"Nayru's Love, Zel, this is hardly the time to worry about her."
"No," Sofia said with a sigh, "I'd worry about us. Who gets the honor of facing the mighty Kurgh first in battle?"
They were silent for a long moment. Link was the only one with any experience against Moblins, but it was self-evident that he was in no condition to fight one. Even if he had had a weapon, his sword arm was broken and useless. Sofia was in constant pain from her cracked ribs.
"It'll have to be me," Zelda said quietly.
"No," Link hissed. "You can't! Let me!"
"Link, you cannot take Kurgh on with a broken arm! I am the only one who stands the ghost of a chance against him right now!"
"You don't even know how to fight!"
Her eyes narrowed. "I will do what I have to do. I am not just a pretty ornament for you, Link--I came on this quest for a reason."
"To die?" he snapped. "Farore's Wind, Zel, you are an untrained woman--and look at him! Ten foot of muscle!"
"Link." It was Sofia, her voice tired yet calm. "Let her do it. She is right--she is all we have right now. This is no place for chivalry."
"I am sworn to protect her--"
"I'll die on my own two feet, thank you," Zelda said, feeling tired and irritated.
The arena was cleared. Kurgh clambered down from his vantage point and came towards them. The Moblin's muscles rippled in waves beneath the sheen of sweat that coated his gray-brown skin. His lips were drawn back from his fanged teeth in a semblance of a smile.
"Blood." Maximus lifted the stone in one skeletal hand and tossed it up and down. He held it up to the light, showing Sepultura the crusted substance that coated the sharp edge. "And there, too," the Stalfos said, pointing down towards the ground. "Little droplets leading off into the tunnel. At least one of them survived."
"Wounded, though," the sorceress remarked. "How far would he have got?"
Maximus bent his knees and leaped from the rockfall, landing with a crunch of gravel on the solid ground at its base. He tossed the stone away into the darkness. "Who knows?" the Stalfos answered gruffly. "But I'd stake my sword that it was the Hero who got out."
"Let us say that you are right," Sepultura said calmly. "The boy escaped. He got out from beneath the rocks, and then padded off into the darkness. Who controls this area of the tunnel network?"
"Kazakh, my lady, and his troop. The tunnels lead out into the Eastern Reach through one of the Moblin camps."
"Has there been any report from the Moblins?"
He shook his head gravely. "No, my lady, but there is no surprise in that. The beasts are animals, barely capable of stringing two words together." Maximus paused, then went on, "They are short-sighted and stupid. Possibly the boy could have sneaked past them--but I think it unlikely. There is a lot of blood on the ground--he was bleeding from more than one wound."
"Unless there were two of them," Sepultura remarked, then suddenly knelt. "Maximus." Her white finger pointed to a mark in the rough masonry dust coating the floor. "Here."
The Stalfos bent low to examine what she had found. "Footsteps," he said flatly. "Too small to be the boy. So another one got out as well, and helped him along. A shame the lizardmen didn't bother to check for bodies when the rocks first fell."
"That fool Kleox! I'll have his entrails on a plate for this!"
"What now, my lady?" the Stalfos asked stiffly.
Sepultura paused, thinking, then stood up and fastidiously brushed down her gown. "We go," she said. "First I wish to check on my prisoner one more time--the last thing I want is for him to disappear while we are chasing the children--then, you and I shall return here and follow the tunnel along. I want a Lizalfos with a good sense of smell to sniff out their trail. Find me one. And I want the rocks dug out. There is always a possibility that one of them is still under there."
"It shall be as you wish, my lady," Maximus answered, bowing his head.
Zelda swallowed hard, trying to relieve some of the dryness in her mouth. She had never felt so frightened in her life--it was cold terror. She had to concentrate hard to keep her legs from shaking uncontrollably.
The Princess was standing alone on the uneven, rocky ground the Moblins had cleared. A rope stretched around the perimeter, held up by wooden posts--it marked the confines of what was nothing so much as a gladiatorial ring. Torches had been lit at each of the five corners; the flickering firelight illuminated the place with orange shadow. Outside the rope were clustered the Moblins, Link and Sofia, the latter two still tied immobile to their posts.
In front of her stood Kurgh. The Moblin chieftain had stripped until he was wearing nothing but a leather loincloth. His legs were tree-trunks gnarled with muscle; his barrel chest glistened with sweat, and his small eyes were fixed on her. His pig's nostrils flared as he wrinkled his snout, baring his long fangs. On his right wrist, the Amulet of Fire glowed faintly--she had to tear her eyes away from it in order to watch him. It was the Amulet, she knew it instinctively.
And between them... two gleaming weapons had been stuck into the dirt: a glittering, slender Sheikah spear, obviously purloined in ancient times from some hapless warrior, and a tremendous battleaxe that none of them would have been able to lift. Fire glistened on the tarnished blade.
"Will tha run, little stripling?" Kurgh grunted, bending down slightly to talk to her. Drool hung in pendulous ropes from his bristling jaws. "Will tha give us good sport?"
"If it's a fight you want..." she said, trying not to let her voice tremble in the way her legs wanted to. A thought struck her suddenly. "Why don't we make this a little more interesting?"
"Zel," Link called, "what are you doing?"
"If you win," Zelda said, ignoring him for the moment, "you can do whatever you want to me--of course. But if you lose..." Her eyes narrowed. "I want that stone you wear on your wrist."
Kurgh snorted. "No deal."
She smiled at him, a cunning light in her eyes. "Oh, come now. What do you have to lose? Do you really think something like me can beat something like you?"
"Is mine." He lifted his bulky arm, letting the Amulet catch the firelight and shine out more brightly. "I found it. I dug it out. Is mine, child-woman."
"Are you afraid you might lose to little me?" Zelda taunted.
"Zel!" Link yelled, struggling.
A low rumbling growl found its way out of Kurgh's barrel chest. "Fear nothin'."
"Then you agree to my terms?"
There was a long silence. "Ay."
She exhaled slowly, not knowing whether to feel relieved or appalled by the settled bargain. It was unlikely in the extreme that she could beat Kurgh in a fair fight, and he would fight harder now in order not to lose his pretty bauble. But--she stopped, and looked hard at him, evaluating--there was no reason why she had to fight fair. Zelda smiled to herself.
Kurgh spread his arms wide and roared, and his shout was answered by the other Moblins. They screamed and whooped, egging on their monstrous leader. Kurgh's arms glistened with sweat in the firelight, and as he lifted both meaty fists above his head, the thick cords of muscle humped and twisted beneath his skin. It was a display that was meant to intimidate the watchers and it worked; she glanced at Link and saw him blanch with fear for her.
The princess stared up at the beast with chill blue eyes and a jutting jaw. He stared down at her with a cruel confident grin on his fanged face. The watchers were screaming for blood, spittle ran down from their excited mouths. The heat washed over both of them like a wave of fire. She could smell Kurgh's musky, bitter sweat.
The Moblin moved like lightning, but Zelda's reactions were equal to his speed. As he charged forward, his hands outstretched for the battleaxe that lay between them, she dived for the slender spear. They snatched their weapons at the same time, then leaped back simultaneously.
Zelda felt the breath coming hard in her chest as she raised the spear to defend. She had not fought with a spear before and did not know whether she would be able to. Trying to show her confidence, she spun it lightly in her hand, and tried to remember the little she had learned about serious armed combat. Kurgh lifted the axe one-handed and brandished it with another roar of challenge.
Kurgh charged. Zelda allowed the axe to come whistling down at her, knowing that the fragile spear would never be able to parry such a thunderous blow. At the last second, she dived and rolled between his legs, coming up behind him as he staggered...
Sepultura looked down with distaste at the snuffling form at her feet. It was not to be helped--Goriyas would not enter the cave network, and although she detested the Lizalfos she had not yet found another subterranean creature with a similarly good sense of smell.
The lizardman was a cripple, born with weak and malformed legs that limited his walk to a clumsy hobbling; this was why he was not amongst the warriors. Instead, the beast had developed his sense of smell in order that he could serve the sorceress in another way--as a tracker. He had no name but "Oozou", an ancient Lizalfos word for "Weakling". To add insult to injury he was afflicted with a malformed jaw and cleft palate that made his already sibilant speech all but incoherent. Beaten and downtrodden, always half-starved through an inability to chew properly, cuffed and jeered at by other denizens of the tunnels, the deformed monster was a truly pitiful beast.
"Well?" Sepultura spat, when the sniffing slowed.
Oozou flinched at the sound of her voice and lowered his nose to the ground again. In truth it was an easy trail to follow; even if it had not been for the blood, the scent of the three humanoids was strong after their exertions. "Sstha," he said, lifting one stringy arm and pointing.
"Lead us, Oozou."
Cringing every time Sepultura or Maximus made a move towards him, Oozou set off stumbling down the tunnel, his head hanging low. His weakened lower body meant that his nose was naturally lower to the ground than most other Lizalfos--after so many years of stumbling on crutches his back was permanently hunched, another deformity to add to his already impressive list. It made him a better tracker. He flinched away from Sepultura and was rewarded with a heavy but not unexpected slap from Maximus's gauntleted hand. "Get on with it," the Stalfos said coldly.
"I despise these creatures," Sepultura remarked as she and Maximus made their way up the tunnel, following the Oozou's bony tail as it dragged on the ground.
The Stalfos glanced at her; his eyes burned softly. When Maximus looked at the sorceress the shade of those eye-flames was almost affectionate. Protective, certainly. There was no doubt as to where his loyalties lay. "The beasts can be trained, do not forget."
Sepultura gestured towards the Oozou ahead of them. "Look at that one," she said in a tone of disgust. "The filthy creature is no more than an animal." A chilly smile crossed her pale features all of a sudden. "Perhaps it would be more fitting to have the thing on a leash, since it is our hound today."
Maximus threw his head back and laughed. The sound was once deep and rich--was still rich, save for the strange echoing quality it had. "Indeed, my lady," he said. "It would indeed be fitting."
Ahead of them, Oozou listened. He was used to being reviled, had come to expect it even, and he had no love for his own species, but one thing he did object to. He was not stupid. Everyone assumed Oozou was a mindless beast because he could not speak clearly, but in truth he was extremely intelligent.
Oozou was no cur to wear a collar as the sorceress suggested. His people had once been proud hunters, not scrabblers in the dirt as the elf-woman made them. And they revered those who were born different, for that was sacred. In another place and time, Oozou with his deformities would have been a shaman or spirit-priest, not a limping snuffler scavenging for scraps. This woman, and others like her, had changed everything. Although he did not turn his head to look at them, fearing another blow from Maximus, the deformed Lizalfos's sunken eyes narrowed to slits beneath the scaled brow ridges that shielded them.
There was a mound of fallen rubble in their way. Oozou scrambled up the uneven surface with a speed that was surprising in his twisted form, but Maximus paused uneasily, wondering whether he should assist Sepultura or not. She solved that question for him by barrelling past and making her way up the slope with the use of her staff. Pebbles and rocks shifted under the sorceress's feet and rolled down behind her, and Maximus tensed, but she made it to the top without incident. He felt a sense of relief and would have exhaled if he had been capable, then set to climbing the mound himself. The Stalfos lacked the skill of the Oozou and the staff of the sorceress, and he was forced to skid on hands and knees more than once on the unstable slope. He slipped and slid down the other side and rejoined Sepultura and the Oozou in a cloud of rattling pebbles.
"Careful, idiot," the sorceress snapped. Maximus bowed low in apology. "Well," she said, turning to the Oozou, "where now?"
The Oozou snuffled at the ground again, then pointed towards the far end of the tunnel, where there was a dull red glow of firelight. "Sstha."
"But that is one of the Moblin camps," Maximus said, glaring at the Oozou. "You have led us wrong, you stupid cur! Find the real trail!" He swung his hand back and the Oozou cringed, anticipating the blow... but Maximus did not strike the lizardman. Instead, he lowered his hand slowly and stared at Sepultura as a light dawned in his eyes. "Of course..." he said.
They looked at each other for a second, then as one they turned and hurried towards the exit of the tunnel. Oozou followed them, doglike in his obedience and at the same time despising himself for being so.
This page is hosted by North Castle and created by Dark Link © 1999-2006. All rights reserved.