Prologue: Chapter Five
LINK," Zelda whispered weakly, out of breath. "Sofia, it stung him..."
"I'll see to him," the red-haired woman said grimly. She sprang to her feet and began to search among the still-twitching coils of the dead snake, while Zelda recovered herself and stood weakly. After a moment the adrenalin rush passed and she knew that her legs would support her once again. She unstrung her bow numbly and slipped the now useless weapon through her belt.
"Zelda," Sofia said quietly, and the tone of her voice held sadness.
"Link!" cried Zelda, suddenly coming to. "O no, Sofia, is he-?"
"Not yet," the red-haired woman answered.
Scrambling over the folds of the dead serpent, Zelda made her way with all haste to where Sofia knelt between two loops of coil. Link lay sprawled on his side before her, breathing shallowly. His skin was white and sweat-streaked and the two wounds upon his shoulder that the serpent's teeth had made, clearly visible through the rips in his tunic, were inflamed and seeping venom.
Sofia gently lifted him and turned him onto his back, propping the valiant young warrior up against the serpent's very jaw. With difficulty he opened his eyes and looked at Zelda who met his eyes with fear and love in her gaze. "H... hello, Princess," he murmured weakly, and closed his eyes again.
"Help him," Zelda begged. "Please, do something..."
Sofia frowned. "I do not have any antivenin here. We have to get him back to Gaelaidh or to another of my people's settlements. But there may be something I can do, so that he will last until then." The red-haired woman turned to Zelda and looked grave. "Naburu, the Sage of Spirit, was my many-times-great grandmother, and she once saved Lord Dragmire himself from death by a cobra's bite. But what I must do will hurt him grievously."
"What else can we do?" Zelda said.
"Nothing. There is nothing."
The Princess bent her head, blinking back tears. "Do it, then," she said.
Link still clutched the broken splinter of his sword. Sofia reached down and took it gently out of his hand. Zelda looked on as the red-haired woman peeled back the tunic from Link's afflicted shoulder. He cried out in pain as she touched the snake's wounds, but she shushed him gently, soothing the twin punctures with a soft, kind touch. Then she laid the sharp edge of the sword to the wound. Zelda screwed up her face and looked away, understanding. She heard him cry out, and scream, and fight, and then sob brokenly.
Sofia turned her head and spat. Then she reached down and unwound the sash from around her waist. She bound it tightly around his chest and shoulder, and a red rose bloomed at once through the gold silk. He lay quiet now, spent, his face marked with tears.
Zelda leaned forward and grasped his hand in hers. "Link," she whispered earnestly. "Link, come back to me."
Some color had returned to the young warrior's face. His eyelids flickered open and he looked at her. "Did you kill it, Zelda?" he whispered.
The Princess felt a lump in her throat. "Oh, Link," she began. "I thought you were dead when that creature bit you--!"
"Don't count your Cukkos before they hatch," Sofia broke in grimly. "I can only slow the effects down, not stop them. If he is not to die from that bite, we must find what we must and leave this place as soon as we may."
"No problem," Link said confidently, though his face betrayed the pain he was in.
"This is my fault," Zelda sighed. "If only I had listened to you, Sofia!"
"What is done, is done," the red-haired woman said practically. "Come now, we must go on. Link, can you walk?"
"I think so," he answered. "But I can't feel my arm."
"Come," Sofia said gently, and pulled his uninjured arm about her shoulders as she half-lifted him to his feet. Link gritted his teeth in pain but found his footing on the rough, tiled floor. His right arm hung unmoving at his side, and his face was deathly pale. He stood, took a deep breath, and pushed her gently away.
Greatly sobered by their terrible encounter, the three companions made their way silently around the gigantic corpse of the snake and onward into the heart of the Spirit Temple. Although the atmosphere of hostility remained, nothing else moved to attack them and after a while Zelda dared to relax a little. She walked beside Link, providing moral support even if he refused physical.
On his part, Link was feeling rather ill. His whole right side tingled, and his arm was numb and unmoving. A pain like fire was in his shoulder and he dared not try to move it. He walked stiffly, swinging from the hip to avoid the pain of muscle contraction. Annoyingly, he found he was sweating profusely.
He had seen someone die of snakebite before. It had not been a pleasant thing to witness. Back home in his native Calatia, an elderly man had been bitten on the ankle by a rattlesnake that had nested in his boat. Link remembered vividly how the limb had swollen and festered until it looked like it would burst. His grandfather, the nearest thing to a doctor for twenty miles with his folk knowledge, cared for the victim of the bite so diligently that nobody thought of chasing away the six-year-old boy who watched with morbid fascination every pain-wracked convulsion of the doomed patient. And it had been so quick! He tried not to think of his numb right arm.
"Through this door is the Goddess's Chamber," Sofia said as they stopped outside a great stone portal, barred with a set of strong iron bars. "It has not been opened since the Hero left this place. Through the Goddess's Chamber is the way to the ancient treasure vaults of my kind. I have heard stories--"
"I am sure they were wonderful stories," Link interrupted irritably, "but how do we get through the door?"
"Patience," Sofia answered coolly. "Not everything is as it seems. There is a switch that will open this door. It is where nobody would ever think of looking for it."
"Well, where?" exploded Link, the pain of his injury making him short-tempered.
"Above your head," the red-haired woman answered with a smile.
Link and Zelda looked up in unison. Within arms' reach above them was a small piece of wooden dowel attached to a rope, making a crude but effective handle. Zelda reached up and took hold of the wood, then looked across at Sofia for confirmation. "I pull this?" she asked.
Sofia nodded. "But let me help you," she said. "It will be heavy. We have to pull that portcullis up out of the way before we can enter."
Between them, the two women managed to shift the heavy iron grille; Link could not help. Once the bars had been lifted up away from the door, Sofia yanked the rope down another few inches and slid the dowel beneath a hook which jutted out of the floor, seemingly for just this purpose. Taking a deep breath she let go of the rope and motioned for the other two to do the same. The rope held, though it hummed with tension, and the portcullis stayed up.
"There," the red-haired woman said with a satisfied smile. "Now, follow me!" She grasped the door, and though it looked like a work of vast and immovable stone it swung aside soundlessly at her touch.
A blast of cold and musty air met them, and Sofia's torch guttered wildly. In the wake of the wind, a soft gentle hissing was heard from within the chamber, by their sight the largest yet. "I have entered this place only once before," Sofia said quietly to the others, "as part of my vision quest and coming of age. My quest was to make an offering to the Goddess in her realm of old." Her eyes closed and she muttered in her native tongue, "...ofer min gemet... ne wæs þæt ehe sih..."
"Sofia?" Zelda said anxiously.
The red-haired woman blinked suddenly and shook herself, like one coming out of a trance. "Yes... yes," she said slowly. "I am sorry. It is the nearness of the Goddess... I feel her all around. It is unsettling." Raising her torch high, like one in a dream she walked through the dark portal, the eternal flame lighting only the floor around her. Zelda took Link's hand and followed her in, keeping close beside the red-haired woman to use her meagre light.
They descended some steps and stood upon a tiled floor. The room they found themselves in now was vast--taller than the gables in the ancient Temple of Time, and wider than the great throne room in the Royal Castle. Drifts of sand covered the floor, and it was obvious where the hissing had come from, for a thin stream of sand fell endlessly from somewhere in the eternal darkness above. A faint scent of must and long-dead flowers was present in the ancient, stale air. In front of them rose a megalithic statue of a woman sitting cross-legged with her palms held out in benediction. In wonder the two Hylians craned their necks to take in every detail--the great calves, the thickness of a cart, the smooth, gigantic thighs, the hands that looked wide and strong enough to envelop a pair of horses at once, and yet delicate enough to be adorned by the flimsiest of jewelry... then the great torso rising higher than a house before them and the expressionless face. Link squinted, distance blurring the spectacle for him, and saw that some dreadful damage had been done to the face--there were great pieces of stone upon the floor beneath the Goddess's effigy, and a large part of the head had been bored out. Directly above them, a huge hexagonal slab of stone, forty paces from end to end, hung suspended by gigantic iron chains.
"It is said that the damage you see was done by the Hero of Time when he came to this ancient place," Sofia said, hushing her voice as she turned to speak with the others. "It is very strange that the Goddess would allow him to damage Her monument like that, and yet allow him to leave with the sacred Mirrorshield!"
"What was the Mirrorshield, do you know?" Zelda asked. "We know little of it, save that the Hero used it to defeat the witches."
The red-haired woman's eyes glowed with a light of enthusiasm as she began to speak. "There was a smith once, a great and powerful king of ours, many years before Ganondorf. Once we lived in a green land beyond the waters, before the plague forced us to sail and come to here. The Blacksmith King, Sichelm, led us to the new land. But he brought with him a piece of pure silver as big as a man's head, which had fallen from the sky like a star. It was a treasure of our people.
"When we came to the new lands, Sichelm took the piece of otherworldly silver, and he took a great amount of burnished copper of such quality that the sun shone from it like a mirror. He forged the copper, a gift from the Gorons of far-flung Death Mountain, into the frame for a shield, and onto this he placed the silver, which he hammered into a boss and inlay. Forty times he folded the metal before it was done, forging into it a magical strength. When it was done, the silver on the shield had become as an unbreakable mirror. Sichelm named it the Bord-Leoma, which in your tongue is Mirrorshield."
"It is said that the Mirrorshield was buried with the Hero of Time when he died," Zelda said, "but I have heard also that it was lost in the Death Mountain crater, that it was shattered by a blow from Ganondorf, even that the Hero came upon hard times and sold it to a traveling merchant!"
Sofia smiled and shook her head. "Some of those may be possible, perhaps, but the Mirrorshield could not have been destroyed. It is there still, somewhere in our wide world."
Suddenly the whole chamber shook. Zelda screamed and fell backwards, and Link leapt out of the way as a piece of stone fell from the high-gabled ceiling. And the effigy of the Sand Goddess moved! One great hand loosed itself from the knee with a cracking of rock and a shower of dust, and letting fall more pebbles and chunks of rock the head itself turned, inclining forward.
"Goddess!" Sofia exclaimed, more in shock than in anything else.
YES, RECREANT CHILD came the answer, echoing in the great chamber like the sound of a sea-wave falling down upon the stones. I AM SHE. WHY HAVE YOU DESTROYED MY GUARDIAN AND BROUGHT THESE UNBELIEVERS TO ME?
Reverently the red-haired woman fell to her knees before the awful spectacle of the Sand Goddess come to life. "Great one, I come to you to ask for your aid."
NOT FOR THE MIRRORSHIELD? came the mocking voice.
"Well, that would be nice too," broke in Link with great daring. Zelda glared at him.
"No, Goddess," Sofia said quietly. "The warrior is a descendant of the Hero of Time who destroyed the witches in your Temple. The girl is his consort and the heir to the Hylian throne." ("Consort?" whispered Zelda to Link in fury.) "We seek the Legendary Knights!"
The laughter of the Goddess echoed like death in the chamber, and more stone fell from the ceiling to smash upon the floor and shatter. THEN YOU HAVE COME HERE FOR NOTHING
"You know nothing of them?" Sofia asked in despair.
I KNOW THAT ONE IS CLOSE TO DEATH the Goddess replied, as one huge stone hand swung majestically. AND WILL DIE SOON
"Where can we find him?" Zelda shouted out against the sound of shifting rocks.
The Goddess's blind, maimed face turned, bending low to the Princess. THERE With a rumble the stone hand extended, treetrunk fingers closing to form a fist with a pointing index finger. Lightly, the finger came to rest above Link. Showers of sand cascaded around him.
"Me?" Link said in shock. "But--I don't feel that ill!"
THERE IS A POISON INSIDE YOU the Goddess responded. YOU ARE STRONG, WARRIOR, BUT IN TIME YOU WILL BE OVERCOME. IT IS INEVITABLE. YOU SHALL REPAY THE DEATH OF MY GUARDIAN IN KIND
"Link's going to be one of the Knights!" Zelda said, caught midway between joy and horror.
"Well, we definitely cannot let him die now," Sofia answered coolly.
Link blinked. "You were okay about that before?"
Zelda ignored both of them, stepping forward to look directly into the Goddess's damaged face. "Goddess, who else?" she cried. Only the giant, mocking laughter of the Sand Goddess answered her.
"Please, tell us!" Sofia begged. "We seek to destroy Ganondorf with the Knights!"
The Goddess's immense chest shook, stone cracking with the movement. The monument was falling to pieces as they watched. WHAT IS THAT TO ME? came the reply.
The red-haired woman jumped to her feet. "If Ganondorf returns, Goddess, he will destroy the world!"
YES the Goddess agreed, her voice as slow as mountains. THERE WILL BE ONLY DESERT. AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING THE WORLD WILL BELONG TO ME. I, CHAOS, WILL RULE
"That's not true!" Sofia cried. "Ganondorf will never let you have any sway over Hyrule or the other lands! He wants it all to himself!"
The Goddess laughed again, terrible in her amusement. The statue's right hand fell and smashed thunderously, crumbling to dust. HE CANNOT TAKE MY REALM FROM ME
"He can and will!" shouted Zelda. "He has access to the Triforce of Power!"
THIS MEANS NOTHING TO ME the Goddess rumbled. I WAS FIRST. I SHALL BE LAST
"It will mean something, when Ganon breaks free from the Dark World and comes to fight with you!" the Princess insisted. "You must help us!"
NONE OF YOU ARE FATED TO SUCCEED
"What does that mean?" Zelda exclaimed. "We are not going to defeat Ganon?"
IT MEANS WHAT IT MEANS, INFIDEL the Goddess responded. FATE PLAYS NO PART IN YOUR DESTINY. IF YOU CHOOSE TO DO THIS, YOU WILL WALK A PATH UNKNOWN. YOUR LITTLE PROPHECIES WILL BECOME MEANINGLESS. WHETHER YOU SUCCEED OR FAIL CANNOT BE TOLD
"And the Amulets?" Sofia asked, standing her ground against the falling stone.
YOU ARE NOT READY the Goddess replied.
"I understand," Zelda said quietly. "We have three Knights already! Sofia, we only need to find three more! We must leave, quickly!"
"Wait," the red-haired woman said slowly. "With all due respect to you, Princess, I do not yet know if I want to be a Knight."
DECIDE QUICKLY warned the Goddess. With an earthshaking clatter of stone, the head toppled and smashed. Huge cracks raced across the torso and it split and fell into two. The temple shook, and trembled, and slowly returned to stillness and silence.
Zelda glanced behind her and saw Link sitting upon the step and leaning against the cool stone wall, his eyes closed, seemingly insensible to the discourse taking place. The pallor of his face alarmed her. "Sofia, she's right," the Princess said anxiously. "Look at Link. If we do not leave now, he will die. We have to get him to a doctor."
There came a sigh of settling stone from the remains of the effigy, and then the Goddess spoke again. ONCE MORE HEARKEN
"Yes, Goddess?" Sofia asked, turning back to the shattered megalith.
THE BOY BROKE HIS BLADE UPON MY GUARDIAN the Goddess replied quietly--or as quietly as could be expected, for her voice still shook the room. FOR HIS INSOLENCE HE HAS PAID IN BLOOD. TAKE THIS AND REMEMBER WELL
Falling like a star from above, a slim shaft of metal thunked into the pedestal before the Goddess. Upright in the stone, it vibrated softly in the light from Sofia's eternal torch, a long dagger almost the size of a sword, with a burnished steel blade and a curving hilt that was tooled with scales to resemble the serpentine tail of a snake or dragon.
Sofia bowed reverently to the rubble. "A thousand thanks, Goddess," she said quietly as she stepped up onto the pedestal and removed the serpentine dagger. "Zelda, Link, let us go." As they walked away, the last remnants of stone fell, and shook the Temple to its foundations.
Link said nothing on the way back through the corridors of the Spirit Temple. He refused help until they found themselves clambering over the remains of the dead cobra, when Sofia finally prevailed upon him to let her give him a hand. Zelda could not avoid looking back anxiously at him every few moments, but he gave no sign that he was aware of her. "Sofia," she said finally. "Will he make it?"
The red-haired woman looked back expressionlessly. "Maybe," was all she said.
It was almost night when they exited the Spirit Temple. Zelda was astonished by the swift passing of time within the Desert Colossus, for it felt more as if only a few hours had passed within the Temple. Sofia went to fetch the horses from the oasis while Link rested and tried to recover some of his strength. The cobra's venom was sapping his vitality now with frightening swiftness. His right arm hung limp at his side.
Zelda sat beside him upon the steps of the Colossus, her hand resting on his knee. "How are you feeling, Link?" she asked gently.
"It hurts," he said simply.
The Princess took his left hand in hers. "Don't be afraid," she said softly. "We'll beat the Goddess yet. You'll be fine." Link did not reply, but bowed his head, his sweat-slicked hair falling limp across his face. Even his hair seemed lifeless. She reached up and brushed a long twisting strand away from his face, feeling suddenly a protective care for the brave young warrior. "Look, Sofia has the horses. Take my arm, I'll help you down to the sand."
It took both her and Sofia to get Link mounted, and then he slumped in the saddle like a sack of flour, unable to muster the strength to sit upright and ride. Sofia frowned. "I think we will have to lash him on, or he'll fall off." Without waiting for a reply, the red-haired woman went through her saddlebags and withdrew a coil of strong rope.
"It hurts," Link said again, and closed his eyes.
Sofia looped another coil of rope through his horse's bridle, and fastened it to her own saddlehorn. With that done, she mounted and indicated to Zelda to do the same. "Ride beside him," she told the Princess, "he cares deeply for you. It might encourage him to hold on a while longer."
"I will," Zelda said quietly. She guided her horse next to Link's, thinking privately of the world back home. It went totally against her nature to follow orders, but here she was, meekly obeying the word of some Gerudo chieftain's daughter. She wasn't sure, but she thought her father might have been proud of the way she acquitted herself during the fight with the serpent, and then again in the Goddess's chamber. Either that, or he would have been furious for her risking her life as his heir. The Princess sighed and thought that it would probably have been the latter.
Sofia set the pace at a steady walk as they left the confines of the Desert Colossus and set out across the open sands. From time to time the red-haired woman glanced up at the star-studded sky above them and then changed their direction very slightly.
"How long will it take to get back?" Zelda asked.
The red-haired woman sighed and looked up at the stars again. "It's a calm night, Zelda. It took us a day to get from Gaelaidh to the oasis, through a storm. Our horses are fresh. If the Goddess does not change her mind again, we should get back in around six hours."
The Princess sighed, and glanced at Link again. "Sofia... I do not understand. First the Goddess tries to kill us in the sandstorm, then she sends a giant cobra to fight us, then she turns around and starts to help us. Why?"
Sofia turned in the saddle to meet Zelda's eyes. There was a helpless look in the Gerudo woman's eyes as she spoke. "The Goddess of the Sand is like any of us, Zelda--She likes to play games. It makes little difference to Her whether we win or lose; She is merely watching us for entertainment, helping or hindering according to Her whim."
"She is cruel," Zelda said coldly.
"I have said it," Sofia agreed. "This way." She turned her horse's head to the left, forging a trail across the silent sand dunes. Behind the trio, a long line of hoofprints stretched out all the way back to the dark walls of the Desert Colossus, now far behind them and fading into the distant night sky. Not even a breeze blew to dull their tracks. Before them was only desert, and somewhere beyond the horizon there was aid for a sick warrior.
Link swayed in the saddle and Zelda reached out swiftly to steady him, grasping him gently by the shoulder. "Sofia, Link isn't going to make it much further," she said quietly, her tone belying her panic. "We must do something for him now."
Sofia shrugged. "I cannot. I have already used what little skill I possess. Now only his will keeps the venom from overpowering him."
"Sofia!" Zelda insisted. "We stop now, or he will die in the saddle! He needs rest! Perhaps if I stay with him--you could go on alone and get help."
"You?" the red-haired woman snorted. "Zelda, there are dangers in the desert even when it is calm at night. What if I get help for snakebite and then come back to find you dead of a scorpion's sting?"
"Look at him," the Princess insisted urgently. "Sofia, he's dying right now. This ride is killing him. We have to stop."
Sofia reined in her horse and lowered her eyes to the sand, considering. Finally she sighed and said, "You're right. He won't survive this exertion much longer. I will leave you here with most of the equipment and get to Gaelaidh. If I ride fast and have luck on my side, I'll find help and return within a few hours." She dismounted and untied the rope which bound her horse to Link's, then began to unhitch the saddlebags with which her mount was laden. "You can take the water--I will not need it. Give some to him if you think he needs it. If you hear me whistle, whistle back." Remounting, the red-haired woman soothed her skittish mount and wheeled around to face the distant goal. "I will come back," she said over her shoulder, and dug her heels into her horse's sides. The shaggy pony sprang away over the dunes, kicking up puffs of fine golden sand made white by the pale moonlight. The moon was waning.
Zelda dismounted and, going to Link's horse, began to unfasten the rope which held him in the saddle. The moment he was loose he fell from his mount and she had to catch him and let him down onto the sand. "Oof... Link, you're heavy," she muttered. Her only reply was a faint and unintelligible murmur. "Please don't die on me," the Princess said softly, taking off her thick desert clothes to make a pillow for the fallen warrior. She made him as comfortable as she could and then took up Sofia's discarded saddlebags, arranging them neatly on the duneslope. The water skin, still full from the oasis, she took and placed beside her as she sat with her friend. Gently she touched Link's forehead and was shocked at how hot it was. Now that Sofia's work had lost its power, the snake's venom was running its full course with accelerated speed--he was barely conscious. Although the night was bitterly cold, his body was running with sweat and Zelda was afraid that he would lose too much water. Carefully she slipped a hand under his head. "Try to drink something," she murmured, raising the warrior's head and neck as she brought the full water skin to his lips. Some was spilt or ran out of the corners of his mouth but Zelda felt satisfaction as he swallowed the majority.
She let Link rest and lie back then, taking only a sip of the water for herself. Above them something dark circled, blacking out the stars for a moment, and she shivered at the omen. Carrion birds in the desert were sensitive to water even in tiny quantities and could find a corpse by tracking down the residue of moisture that came from it. Those that died in the desert were returned to the sand.
"Hurry back, Sofia," Zelda muttered, looking up at the stars and the pale insensitive moon. A cold whiteness fell from the heavens to lay a stark light upon the dunescape, white and black waves replicating themselves to the horizon. The only break in the frozen monotony of the desert landscape was the faint line of Sofia's tracks streaking off into the night, clearly visible upon the white dune faces even until they were made to vanish by distance.
Sofia did not look back. Her mind was occupied with the things that had happened to her over the past couple of days. She still did not understand why, when she had been told about the two strangers trespassing on their territory, she had not had them killed as was the ancient law. Her curiosity had been touched by the travelers out of the east even before she saw them, and when she heard their story--a ridiculous yarn by any measure, full of myths and blank spaces!--she should by rights have followed the decree of her fathers. They could not be telling the truth, she thought, for such a fantastic tale was plainly an invention.
Yet she had listened to them, and now it had been proved to her. Every mad thing that they had told her was true. The Goddess Herself had spoken.
"What shall I do?" Sofia muttered. "Join them? Or go back to my father's house?" She knew that her father would be furious when he found out that Sofia had been aiding these two foreigners behind his back, but she did not suppose that much could be done about that now. Sofia had gotten into trouble many times before for not conforming to her father's expectations and she expected to get into trouble many times more before she inherited her freedom.
"Oh father, why do you have to make life so difficult?" Sofia sighed.
It troubled her greatly. What could she do? She had been invited by the two teenagers to join their quest, and what was worse, she found herself tempted. She had seen them overturn every conception her people held of the Ælfankind--they were courageous, self-sacrificing and just as determined to succeed as she was. More importantly to her, they did not treat her as an inferior just because she was young, or bow and scrape because she was her father's daughter. It was a rare taste of companionship.
The horse whickered softly and Sofia realised that she had allowed it to slow to a walk. She thought of Link's grievious hurt--for it was far more serious than she had admitted to Zelda--and knew that she had to hurry onwards. From what she had seen of him, he had the courage of ten men, and that perhaps would help him to hold on a little while longer.
But she was far from any mortal aid, and in every moment she was away he would grow closer to death.
Sofia knew the effects of snakebite--what little child did not? The initial intense pain of the bite passed, leaving a throbbing agony in the wound. The afflicted part soon became numb and useless, while the pain of the poison would slowly mount. If the bite had been weak, a strong person could throw off the effects of the poison and after a few hours of misery the pain and numbness would recede. However, if a large enough amount of poison had been introduced, the second, fatal stage would be entered.
Black cobra venom was a moderately strong nerve toxin and it got straight to work in the area it had been introduced into. Mice and small lizards, the usual prey of normal-sized cobras, were paralysed almost instantly upon the bite--a good thing for the cobra, for a cold-blooded snake could never match the panicked flight of a wounded desert rodent. In larger animals, the toxin lacked the power to kill outright, yet if it remained in the body it could damage nerves and eventually cause partial paralysis. Although that in itself would not kill the bitten, a side-effect of the venom in mammals would. The toxin broke down the walls of the channels that carried blood in the body, and the victim died of internal haemorrhaging. It was a bad death.
Link, Sofia knew, had taken enough poison to kill ten men.
And despite her displayed confidence to Zelda, she did not think that she would see the young warrior alive again. Gaelaidh was many miles over the horizon still, and even if she got there she would have trouble acquiring any of the valuable medicine. Certainly nobody would give it to her if they knew its destination was an Elf.
Sofia reined in her horse and listened intently. She did not have the incredibly acute hearing possessed by Link and Zelda, but the still desert air carried sound for miles. Over the white sands floated a noise she knew, a noise which had drawn the attention of her subconscious mind even when her conscious thoughts were of Gaelaidh and home--a high tinkling of many bells. Somewhere, the nomadic tribes were on the move.
Standing in the stirrups Sofia looked toward the source of the sound, and far out in the sands she saw a bright point of light, yellow-gold and flickering. She considered for a moment. The nomads would have antivenin, though whether it would be for the bite of the black jewelled cobra she could not say for certain. They tended to stay on the desert fringe and keep away from the deep desert where the black jewelled cobra lived. But their lifestyle nevertheless insisted that they carry preparations to treat snake bites and scorpion stings. Not only that, but they had no grudge against the Ælfankind. If she could enlist their help, she could return to Link and Zelda that much more quickly and it could give the young warrior a chance of surviving.
"Fly now, Graymane," she whispered to the horse, and flicked the reins. The shaggy gelding, hardly tired, loped steadily forward into the desert, the beat of its wide hooves muffled always by the drifting sand.
It was some time past midnight when the sleepless Princess knew that her companion was going to die. Link became delirious as the moon passed its peak, and he cried out weakly to people who were not there, speaking in an unintelligible melange of words. His face was corpse-colored, as if he was already dead and only the illusion of life remained in his damaged body. Helpless to do otherwise, she sat by him and held his left hand until he jerked it away in a fever-dream. His skin was burning hot to the touch, and the green tunic was dark and stained where it lay over the swollen site of the cobra bite. His whole right arm was blackly bruised.
There was no sign of Sofia. The moon was sinking low over the southern border of the world, and with it went the cold white radiance that illuminated the duneslope, leaving Zelda in a world of gray half-light left her by the stars. The horses lay in the lee of the dune, snorting occasionally. They were thirsty, but Zelda had nothing to pour water into to give them a drink. In any case, she did not know if she could spare any for them. The water skin was almost empty now anyway, and who could tell when Sofia would return?
"Hold on, Link, just a while longer," she begged, stroking his burning forehead with a gentle, soothing hand. With a revelation, she knew she loved him and could not bear to see him die. She knelt close and put her arms around him, as if she could cool his fevered body with a touch. Tales told of the Princess Zelda First, the Prophet Princess, who could heal mortal wounds with magic--why couldn't she?
She jerked upright, breathing hard. Drawing away from Link, Zelda stood up on the duneslope and looked around her, searching the night for signs.
It came again, faint with distance. Pweee! And then a shout: "Zelda! Link! Are you there?"
Zelda could have danced for joy. "Here!" she cried at the top of her voice. "We're here! Hurry!"
"Keep calling!" Sofia shouted back. "I can't see you now the moon has set!"
And less than a minute later Zelda was surrounded by the dark sweaty bodies of horses, and by shadowy shapes who leaped from their mounts to raise up Link's unconscious body and carry him away. A snort--a soft scrape and a jingle of harness, and Sofia herself sat before her on her dusty gray steppe pony. "Ride with me, Zelda," the red-haired woman said gently. "I have found us a sanctuary."
A tear of relief made its way from the Princess's eye as she boosted herself into the saddle.
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