Zora's Ghost: Chapter 53
THE RAIN fell steadily, ceaselessly, like something out of an old story; it fell as if it would drown the world. There was nothing but bleak, numbing cold, a slow trudging through thick submerged muck, feet without feeling and hands too numb to grasp the bladed leaves of the reeds all around. The invisible waters stole away life's breath with their icy touch; treacherously they surged, snatched, splashed as if to call the pursuit nigh. This, Link thought, fuzzy-headed with cold, is the end of everything, the cold at the end of time.
And then things changed. Death had gripped him in its icy embrace, flooding up his frozen shell towards the last flicker of warmth in his breast; now imperceptibly it was receding, flowing back down his numbed body. When the chill was no higher than his knees he knew it to be nothing more supernatural than water. He stood on mud flats, surrounded by the papery whispers of the reeds. The stone that he had gripped desperately in his left hand turned out to be a hand; it belonged to Sofia, who staggered up with him, fumbling, dull-eyed, the muscles of her face expressionless and slack. She fell against him for a moment, knocking him sideways, and then found her footing again. When she lifted her head he saw the whites of her eyes ghostly in the darkness.
We're alive, he thought, and then thought vaguely that it was something he should have been glad about. He was too numb to feel anything, much.
And the others? He had a cloudy memory now of other people. There had been more of them... Something was wrapped round his wrist, fine like a piece of hill-grass. He raised his arm and pulled on the thin strand which trembled faintly with something like life. It made him think of boats, and sunlight, and Calatia.
Something splashed. He turned and watched something else come floating out of the darkness. It shone faintly golden through the haze of rain. A golden fish out of blackness, on the end of his line. He felt his lips part in a slow, painful smile, and then the shivering began, working its way outwards in convulsive waves from that last fluttering spark in his breast. He had nearly forgotten how to shiver.
Fool boy! said a voice that might or might not have been real. You're half dead! You knew the danger! Get moving!
"Zelda," he said aloud as the shining thing approached; and now he could see that it was a figure, two figures. The Princess's face was bone-white, her blue eyes empty of any recognition. It was the sheen of her hair that he had seen against the dark of the lake. Dark... She was bent sideways because she was carrying something, or dragging something; an arm was draped over her shoulder. A piece of the night moved and opened two dimly gleaming blood-red eyes.
There was very little left in him, but somehow he pulled together his failing wits and became Link again. "All right," he said, or tried to say, but his teeth were chattering so hard now that he could not speak. He was alive again, and everything hurt. The cold burned.
He picked at knots made tight by water, and pulled the soaked cord from his wrist, splitting a fingernail in the process. His hands were stinging now with the heavy, weary pain of renewed circulation. He reached out and took Zelda's icy, boneless hand. She came with him, unsteadily, stumbling up through the soft clinging mud. On his other side Sofia wobbled as if drunk. Nobody spoke.
On the lake, a light twinkled fire-gold, gliding steadily across the sea of rainy darkness beneath a starless sky. Keep going - hurry!
There was mud, then stony ground, then rough tufts of spongy hill-grass that knotted around their dragging boots. He pulled his companions on, forcing them to walk or be dragged; he was following something, some inexplicable call. He knew only that he had to get away from the lake, and that he would know when he had reached the place.
The land rose steadily away from the lake, becoming less boggy and more rugged. The wind did not cut so fiercely now, and Link found his reason returning faster as his body warmed to the exertion. There was a short expanse of scrubland filled with treacherous potholes; bracken crackled wetly underfoot; and then they were under trees and out of the pelting rain. It was darker now and he saw very little, but he could not rest yet. Close, close...
Something loomed, an impenetrable darkness of spiky fronds. He freed a hand and reached out, and his fingernails dug into soft, pulpy bark; a wet, rich, loamy smell spread into the air. The smell was familiar: a stand of yew trees, he thought. There were forests on the southern side of the lake.
Here, said the voice in his head. He butted at the thicket and branches parted reluctantly; he dragged his companions into the rustling, perfumed space. Dry needle-leaves were thick and soft underfoot. There were four or five treetrunks grown close together here, their tightly interwoven branches warding off most of the rain. There was little room for four people but it did not matter; they huddled close like birds in a nest, sharing the warmth of their bodies.
Zelda, he found, had stopped shivering. He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight, drawing the deathly cold out of her body and into his. Life came back to her in little starts, the nervous twitches of a frightened horse. At last he felt her respond by leaning into him, nestling her cheek against his damp shoulder.
The little space beneath the trees filled up slowly with a drowsy warmth. Link let his friends doze for a while; he remained alert, listening and thinking. There was no danger now; his blood was warm in his body. But something would not let him rest.
It was Grandfather's voice...
But Grandfather was long dead. And in any case, the old man would not have known of the thicket, would never have been able to guide them; he had not known south-west Hyrule very well. His quests had kept him in the north, around the town and Death Mountain.
But something spoke to me in the darkness... Unless it was my imagination. Strange things happened to the mind when the body was cold. Most likely it was mere animal instinct that had led him to high ground and the shelter of woodland. He rubbed at a sore spot on the back of his right hand. It felt bruised and achy.
The timbre of the rain had changed now; it was lighter, less insistent. The wind gusted and a spatter blew in on them, making them flinch. Link looked upwards but saw nothing, just a blackness of branches.
"This is no good," he said. "We have to get to some sort of proper shelter. And we need a fire." His voice sounded strange and unfamiliar, as if he had never heard it before; he heard the Calatian country twang in it and felt curiously ashamed.
After a little while, Sofia spoke. "I can't, Link. I can't go any further tonight."
"We have to," he said. "We have to. Just a little more."
Zelda shifted against him. "I'm cold," she said, plaintively, like a much younger child.
"I know. But we have to." The compulsion was on him again; he knew that they must leave, must get to the horses and away, as soon as possible. The back of his neck tingled; he could feel the snare somewhere, the net closing in about them.
He hauled himself to his feet and pushed the branches aside. Cold air rushed into the little nest, bringing with it damp and rain and the distant sound of the lake washing on the shore. He stepped through and let the branches spring back into place behind him. At once he might have been utterly alone in the dark woods, the only living thing for a hundred miles. Except... in the distance there was a spark of golden light.
He walked out, treading carefully through the mud and slippery leaves. Thorns caught at his clothes; he pulled free and went on to the edge of the wood, where a fringe of tattered bushes overlooked the scrubland across which they had come, and at the bottom of the slope, perhaps a quarter of a mile away, the black expanse of the lake. There were two lights now, moving together across his field of view, and another off to his right.
A twig snapped behind him in the brush and he pricked his ears, knowing somehow that it had been done deliberately as a matter of courtesy. He remained where he was. After a few breaths, a shadow faded out of the night to stand beside him.
"The others are coming," Dark said.
"They'd better." He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his tunic and found wet mud there; grimacing he pulled his pockets inside out and and began to pick off the muck, all the time watching the lights on the lake. "They're sweeping the reeds, aren't they? It's the only way we could have gone. I suppose he knows that. He's not stupid like the others."
"He will find the scent in the reeds," the shadow agreed calmly. His strange eyes were half closed as he watched the waters, as if he feared they would give him away. His hood was down and rain ran in his smooth black hair. "When he does, he will be able to follow it. Ganon made the Lizalfos to be trackers."
"It looked like he was leading them," Link said. He shifted his weight; he felt nervous and uneasy. The danger was close - he could sense it, but he could not tell quite where it was, like thunder behind distant hills. "I'm surprised the Stalfos would take orders from Lizalfos - I thought they despised each other. It's strange."
"Many things are strange lately," Dark said with a hint of wry irony. He raised his hands and lifted his hood up over his head--the movement strangely delicate. There were three boats cruising the reeds now, and another gliding along to join them.
"Will you be all right?" Link said.
The shadow's eyes flashed momentarily as he turned his head. "I am very tired. As we all are, I suppose. Do not ask me to do any more swimming, Link."
"I hadn't planned to do any more myself," Link said. "It's fighting I'm thinking about - we might have to do some. Zelda's bow won't be any use against Stalfos, and anyway we don't have the strings for it now, but at least we have swords."
"Whatever good they will do us," Dark said.
There were more noises behind them in the forest: a crackling of brittle leaves underfoot. Link turned and saw the two girls coming out hand in hand from the deep shadow of the trees. The rain was quite light now, and low on the horizon a patch of luminous cloud hinted at the presence of the moon. The lake was visible for the first time as a dull glimmer of yellow on black.
"What now?" Zelda asked.
He sighed and turned back to the lake. "We've come ashore somewhere south of where we're meant to be, by my guess. If we walk to the right along the shore, sooner or later we should come back to the horses."
"The boats came from that direction," Dark said. "We will be going towards our enemies."
"Yes," he said simply. "It's that or leave our things and take a chance on the woods. Saria's somewhere south of here, but we'd have to walk several miles through the woods in the dark, with no supplies, and with Kleox snuffing at our heels. If we get the horses, we've a better chance of outdistancing him."
"Then we double back and head for Mido?" Dark said.
"I think so, unless anyone has a better suggestion." He blew on his hands to warm them. "Anyone?"
"You're the Hero," Sofia said dryly. "Just tell us what to do."
It was a wet, miserable business, but the walking was not difficult and now that there was some light it was easier to find their way; they were not stumbling blind. Dark led the way, following the long slow curve of the shore. On their right the hills sloped up into a tall secretive darkness of trees. This was the westernmost part of Kokiri Forest, dominated by yews and other trees with soft, pulpy wood of little use as timber. The woods had been left almost undisturbed from ancient times.
Twice they hid from boats, patrolling the shallows; at Dark's hissed direction they crouched down in the scrub grass and waited for the lights to pass by. The ferocious north wind that had tormented them on the lake was their friend now, carrying their scent away to the south.
At length the terrain began to smooth out into rolling downs free of trees; the lake, which had been rattling over rough pebbled beaches, retreated back across a bleak expanse of mud flats. Still there was no sign of the place where they had rested a few hours ago. Link, bone-weary and trying not to show it, was starting to wonder anxiously whether they might somehow have passed it by.
They were struggling up a long slope covered in tall hill-grass and bracken, when just a little way ahead, a horse whickered. His heart leapt--he made to run forward, but someone's fingers closed on his forearm, painfully tight, and pulled him down headlong into the long grass. His arm, so recently healed, twinged sharply at the mistreatment, and he clenched his teeth on a cry.
"What did you--" he began, angry, but still cautious enough to whisper.
Clad in the black cloak of Kakariko wool, Dark was all but invisible--save for his narrowed eyes, which glinted ghostly red against the night. He shook his head sharply, warning, then glanced back; Link felt something intangible, a command, whip out through the chilly air. It was not directed at him.
He waited silently until the grip on his arm had loosened, and then reached out to touch the shadow's shoulder. Dark watched him for a moment and then made a small motion with his hand. Frowning, Link followed the movement with his eyes.
--On the brow of the hill, very faint against the starless sky, he saw a silhouetted shape. Whoever or whatever it was, it was still; he would not have noticed it himself, or perhaps would have taken it for one of the old standing stones. He held himself as still as he could and watched, barely daring to breathe. When after several tense seconds it made a small movement, he knew it for what it was. Without taking his eyes off it he lay down full length in the grass, and reached out:
Zelda? Where are you?
Here, came her answer at once. Just a few yards behind you. I can see you. What's wrong?
She's with me. What's happening? Dark just--!
The figure moved again, shifting its weight from one foot to the other. Stalfos, he sent. I think they're waiting for us. We nearly walked into it.
Curse it! Lying flat on the muddy hillside, cold rain soaking through the back of his tunic, he seethed at his own powerlessness: Kleox seemed to be constantly one step ahead. He had had boats, and fire, and who knew what other resources to draw on, while they blundered around in the night at the mercy of the elements. Was this planned out from the start?
If only they knew what was going on...
Zelda? he sent, and then, awkwardly, disliking himself, We could leave the horses, if we had to...
She responded instantly, her dismay strong and tangible. No, we can't.
We can't. Link, the map--I left it in the saddlebag. We have to get it back!
He breathed out slowly and lifted his left hand to his face; water was running down into his eyes. He wiped it away, then pinched the base of his nose, trying to think.
Well, there was little point staying out here. The hillside had no cover to speak of, nothing to hide behind - and it would only take one mistake from them to spring the trap that had been laid. They were too close; the Stalfos on the hilltop would hear anything above a whisper. Then, too, there was the cold and the rain, still falling, that threatened to undo all the good work of their earlier rest.
He reached out again and touched Dark's shoulder, held the shadow's gaze for a moment, then began to wriggle backwards through the wet dripping grass. In a few moments the grass folded in around him and hid the hilltop - and its silent watcher - from his sight.
The girls were waiting silently, crouching against a hawthorn bush for the meagre shelter it offered. They made way for him without speaking, and the three of them crawled back down the hillside, keeping low to the ground. At the bottom was a small gully strewn with broken rocks and half-choked with leaves; they had crossed it earlier on the way. A stream, swollen with rain, gushed down around their ankles and wriggled between the stones to form a small dark pool at the lake's edge.
Sofia sat back on her haunches and picked mud and gravel off the palms of her hands. "What is it?" she said, rather irritably; she had not been privy to the conversation on the hill.
Link sighed. "They've got the horses."
"So what do we do now?"
"Just give me a minute--!"
He turned away from them and stared out across the lake as if the answer might lie there. A decision had to be made fast; their options were decreasing moment by moment. For the first time he found himself confronting the possibility that they might not get out of this.
But this isn't the way things are supposed to go...
There was a change in the texture of the night. He looked up, and a space that had been empty of anything but rain turned out to have Dark in it.
"I went up on the ridge. There are two there, and a further two, I think, with the horses."
"They didn't see you?" Link said.
The shadow's lip curled in scorn. "I should think not."
"Can we get in there without being seen?"
"In--yes. Worry about getting out." Dark turned his head and glanced back towards the forest and the direction they had come. "But if we stay here any longer, it will not matter; there are lights in the wood. He has our scent."
In the face of a clear and present danger, the fog cleared. "Right," Link said, straightening up and laying a hand on the hilt of his sword. "We'll go in. Dark, if you can try to lead us between the sentries, we'll try to mount up and be out of there before anybody knows what is going on. It's going to be tight, but it's all I can think to do. Be ready to fight, everyone."
The sentry had not moved from his position on the ridge. They crept away from him, following the line of the hill inland until they came to a kind of promontory covered in purple heather. Link crouched down, the sweet-smelling stems brushing against his lips, and very carefully leaned forward to look over the edge.
A steep slope of loose gravel led down into a kind of inlet, rocky on one side and on the other tapering away into bleak flat moorland. In the center, some two hundred yards away, was the fallen tree - and nearby, gray and indistinct in the poor moonlight, were their horses, standing pressed together with their heads down to endure the rain. When they had been here this afternoon, the place had been well inland; now the mud flats had vanished beneath an expanse of restless dark water.
"Dark?" Link muttered. "I see only two guards. On the hill, and down by the shore."
"There," the shadow said very quietly, close beside him. "Look to the right of the tree, and there at the bottom of the slope."
"I see them." He bit his lip. "They're too close."
"Then we will have to kill them." Dark spoke without concern; it was an inconvenience, nothing more.
Link frowned, uneasy at something he could not quite name, and turned his attention to the girls. "Listen - we'll go down first and you follow us. Don't engage them - just mount up and ride for the road, all right?"
"But--" Sofia began; he shook his head at her.
"Don't engage them. Dark and I will take out the two closest guards. We don't want to be down there long enough for the others to reach us. Once the cry goes up they're going to be coming in from all around, and if we hesitate even for a moment we'll be surrounded."
"But you can't fight them alone--!"
"Trust me," he said. "I don't intend to do any more fighting than I have to. Surprise is the best weapon we have at the moment." He hesitated, torn, then reached into his tunic and drew out the Forest Amulet. "Zelda - look after this for me, all right?"
The Princess smiled weakly as she took hold of the golden chain. "This is no time to go playing at Heroes, Link..."
"Who's playing?" he said softly. For a moment he held her gaze, then turned to where Dark stood, one hand already gripping the hilt of his sheathed sword.
They crouched together on the edge, looking down. The two Stalfos by the horses had not moved; one had his arms folded casually as he leaned against the tree. Evidently they were not expecting trouble. So much the better for us, Link thought.
Grandfather had taught him about Stalfos, too, all those years ago. Those long dreamy summer days had not been wasted after all. Go for the head; that is where the spell binds them.
"I'll take left," he muttered. Dark moved his head slightly to show understanding.
Don't think - just go.
The moon came out from behind a haze of cloud and glowed suddenly bright over the lake, throwing the gloomy features of the landscape into stark black-and-white relief. In that light bone glittered whitely; distracted, the Stalfos turned their heads towards the sky.
There was clear air, then a spatter and skid of gravel beneath his feet; he came down the side of the hill in three long desperate strides and hit solid ground hard enough to send a shock of pain up his legs. For a moment he staggered, then was up and charging towards the enemies who were turning, drawing their own ancient and battered swords. Dark flitted past, blade a gleam of light against the dull sable of his cloak, and became a flurry of black cloth and steel.
A skull's rictus grin loomed before Link, eyesockets luminous with witch-fire. The rusted sword swung, and he met it with his own to turn the blow. Twice, thrice, the blades clashed together, jarring an agony in his right arm; then they were locked, scraping shrill against each other.
The corroded blade snapped, pieces pinwheeling away in the stark moonlight. The Stalfos stumbled. Link recovered faster, swung - and a skull bounced and splashed away into a puddle. A thin tongue of yellow flame licked skywards for a moment; then there was a hiss and a thin dwindling thread of smoke. His enemy fell apart with a sound like old pottery.
Hooves - and the looming bulk of a shrieking, prancing horse, its rider cutting off the moonlight. Dark's eyes flared brilliant red as he looked down; he had another terrified horse by the bridle. Link grabbed for the pommel with his free hand and hauled himself up somehow with his sword still drawn.
The red horse reared and kicked out, catching a Stalfos in the chest and knocking him down out of sight. Then it bolted after the vanishing black. Link, sprawled half in and half out of the saddle, gave up on trying to find the stirrups and concentrated on hanging on.
Atop the ridge, a small group of cloaked and heavily muffled figures watched the riders go. The night folded in around the last fleeing horse, racing inland along the line of the hill; it vanished into scrubland and was lost to sight.
"Sir?" ventured one of the group, after several seconds had passed. "What now?"
The leader waved a hand, irritably, demanding silence. He stood for a few moments more looking down at the dell, then began to pick his way down the steep and treacherous slope with quick, sure steps. The others followed more slowly, clumsy in their heavy boots.
On flat ground again, Kleox pushed back his hood and blinked irritably at the water dripping over his brows. He glanced back, breath puffing through his teeth in hot white clouds. "You - Galba."
One of the larger Stalfos lifted his head sullenly, yellow eye-flames flickering above a heavy, brutal jaw. "...Sir."
"Collect as many as you can find and get them to the north road, spread them out on either side as far as you can stretch them. No-one is to pass, understand?"
"We can't catch 'em wi'out horses," the Stalfos muttered rebelliously. "Anyway, they's headed across country--"
"By her worship's decree I am in charge here, Captain. Though Din knows I'd rather not be. Now if you want to disobey a direct order, draw your sword and let's have it out here and now." Kleox's voice was sharp as a whip; his eye glinted dangerously in the stark moonlight. "Otherwise I suggest you do as I say."
The tension mounted, became unbearable - and suddenly broke, like a cord under too much strain. It was the Stalfos who turned away. Motioning to others of the silent watchers to follow, the bulky figure jogged off into the darkness, surprisingly quiet for all his size. In a few moments the hillside was all but abandoned.
Only two remained standing beside the Lizalfos, and when one spoke, it was in a slightly more respectful tone.
"Sir? He... he's got a point. If they's gone up over the hills, then what good is it to block the road?"
Kleox grinned slowly, baring a double row of pale fangs. "Never seen Hylian cavalry try to charge across a field full of rabbit holes? I have, lieutenant, and only half the horses even reached us. Believe me, unless they're really stupid they'll get onto firm ground as soon as they can, and around here that means the road. Now--come with me."
He could see very little, but at least the horse seemed to know where it was going; it ran flat out in great leaping strides, sending up plumes of glittering water with each step. Link knotted his fingers in the rough wet mane and shook his own damp and tangled hair out of his eyes. The terrain was moorland, boggy after rain and pocked with puddles that glimmered as the moonlight hit them, so that the ground seemed scattered with shards of light. Distantly he saw the black horse as it crossed a rise, fleeing like a shadow on the heather. There was no sign of the girls; they must be too far ahead by now. He hoped that was the case.
Something rose up almost under the horse--made a slash at the slack reins with something that glittered sharply against the night. The horse shied away wildly and Link slid sideways, nearly losing his seat. His left hand was tangled in the mane and he could not hold on with his right without losing his sword. One desperately kicking foot miraculously found a stirrup and, cursing, he hauled himself upright again.
The reins had not been cut, though he had feared for one awful moment... He bunched them in his left hand and leaned forward, trying to make out what lay ahead. The black horse was no longer anywhere to be seen.
He swore again, under his breath, and risked his balance for a few moments to jam his sword back in its sheath. Their enemies were not mounted, and a short sword made for a poor cavalry weapon. In any case, falling would be a greater hazard right now. With both hands freed he was able to rein in and get the horse under a semblance of control. At the top of the next rise he wrestled it to a halt and wheeled it, listening for any sound of pursuit.
There was none - and no other sound but rain, and the heavy huffing breaths of the horse. How far had they been scattered in their retreat? How far had he come? There was nothing but moor to be seen--jagged ridges of gorse and heather stretching away under the moon until all faded into sky and darkness. The land was rumpled like an old blanket.
The horse was shuddering under him, jerking at every splash and rustle. He leaned forward and patted its hot neck, hoping to calm it a little.
The moon was over the lake... if I keep it to my left I should reach the Mido road... but the others...
A sound made him jerk and sit up hurriedly; something was pushing through the heather at the top of the rise, some twenty yards or so off to his right. Thick stands of gorse blocked it off from his sight. He flicked the reins and urged the horse into a trot. The sound kept pace with him, following him along the the curve of the rise. No foraging night-beast, then. Grim now he reined in the horse again and moved his left hand to the hilt of his sword; he waited, straining his eyes in the darkness. There was a jingle of harness.
Something pale glimmered through the bare thorny branches: the flank of a white horse. His heart leaped. "Zelda?"
The darkness parted to reveal a gleam of golden hair. "Thank Nayru!" she said gladly, riding down to meet him. He held his free hand out and she slid her fingers into his for a moment; when she withdrew, he felt something cold and hard in his palm. He breathed out slowly and slipped the fine gold chain over his head. The Amulet settled into its old place and at once he felt more himself.
He closed his collar over the gem, hiding its glitter. "Where are the others?" he asked, but already there was the sound of hooves on the hillside. A shaggy gray horse faded out of the shadows, and then a black, a featureless silhouette, appeared atop the rise. Suddenly the night, which had been empty and still, was full of movement and a hot stable smell.
"Were you hurt?" Sofia said.
He shook his head. "I ran into one of them, I think--he tried to cut my reins. Are you--?"
"We're fine," Zelda said, "thanks to you! But it was close! I had to knock down a couple of them to get away, or rather Snowdrop did."
"Good horse," Link said, impressed. The white palfrey looked at him out of one dark unfathomable eye.
"Link?" It was Dark, calling them from the ridge. He had his head turned, looking back the way they had come; they could not see his eyes. "We must go. I do not think they will give us up that easily."
"Yes..." He wiped water from his face, then stood in the stirrups and tried vainly to make out any familiar features in the bleak landscape. "Does anyone know exactly where we are? If I remember right, the Mido road goes straight south past Lake Hylia and then turns west toward Saria. I don't think we've gone far enough to miss that turn--if we can get on the road, we should be able to ride straight back to Mido."
"We'll be more exposed on the road," Sofia said doubtfully.
"But we'll make better time, and at less risk to the horses. If one of them gets lamed out here we've had it." He turned his horse and walked it off a little, then stopped, glancing back at them. "Come on! One more try!"
It was not far to the road, in the end. Moving at a steady, cautious trot they cleared the heather in ten minutes or so and found themselves at the top of a steep bank of close-cut grass. Below, pale in the moonlight, was a bare muddy track scored with deep wheel-ruts: the main road from Lake Hylia to the south. In the summer it would be alive with carts and convoys coming up from Saria to Hyrule Town; but in January, at this hour, it was abandoned. A night-bird cried mournfully, somewhere away to the west on the margins of the forest.
They dismounted to lead the horses down the slippery bank. The rainstorm had loosened the ground a little but in the center of the road, between the wheel-ruts, it was reasonably solid. Better, at least, than riding blind over the treacherous moors and waiting for one of the horses to break a leg.
Link swung himself back into the saddle with an energy he did not feel. The horse made a noise midway between a snort and a groan. "You and me both," he muttered, wryly amused, then turned awkwardly to look back at the others: Zelda sitting slumped from weariness, Sofia rubbing at her own eyes. Dark looked back at him impassively.
"Mido isn't far," he said. "I know this stretch of road. It's not more than five miles."
"It had better not be," Sofia said tiredly, flicking her reins. The gray horse moved off at a reluctant canter, followed in a moment by the white.
He sighed and leaned forward to rub his horse's neck - then paused, and looked up. Dark had not gone after the others; he sat quite still, the reins loose in his hand. Watching.
"What?" Link said.
"Something is different about you, Link."
He stared for a moment. "What do you mean?"
But the shadow did not reply; he was already urging his horse on, riding fast to catch up with the girls. Link kicked the red horse into a gallop, and followed, thinking.
The road ran along for a while, close to the lake, and then turned east towards the hills and the village of Mido, sinking down between high banks crowned with leafless trees. From atop the bank, a watcher might command a wide view of the lakeside: the road winding away over bare grassland into misty distance, with the lake's glint all along the horizon. In the moonlight, the cutting drowsed.
Something moved on the bank, dark among bare branches.
"You 'ear that? Horses. Comin' on fast."
"Aye. Stand ready..."
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