The Far Sea: Chapter 64
THE SHIP had not turned back. It was there, just as she had said it would be: rocking gently in the light swell, a quarter-mile offshore from the archipelago.
It had no legitimate reason to be here. They never ventured this far north to trade.
Well, they could not claim that they had not known. He had done his best, warned them twice, and they had ignored the warnings. It left him with no choice, now; certainly not after what they had done. He would have to act, for the Elders' peace of mind. They could not be allowed to come any closer unchallenged--the people had too much to lose.
But... he had no quarrel with these strangers.
There was a stink of sorcery hanging over the whole sorry business...
"Well," Zelda said, "there they go..." She leaned over the rail, shading her eyes to make out the little boat as it skimmed the waves. From up here on the Golden Queen's maindeck it looked very small; it was already half lost in the blaze of shifting light. She watched for a moment more, then turned away with a sigh.
"I wish we were going with them," Sofia muttered, and sat down on a handy crate. Down on the foredeck, the first mate let fly a string of shouted orders, and the scatter of curious watchers at the rail melted away. In another moment, the two girls were alone.
Zelda turned and looked out again, but she could no longer see the little boat. She felt a moment's unease at that--that their friends could disappear so swiftly and thoroughly out here. The great ship seemed suddenly a lonely place.
"I think Link wanted to cheer Dark up a little," she said. "He's been so miserable lately..."
"Oh, well, it evidently worked--he looked overjoyed when he was sitting in the boat." The Gerudo folded her arms.
Zelda closed her fingers on the polished rail, feeling her blood pulse on the smooth grain of it. Her skin tingled with the touch of sunlight. Sofia's tone had turned suddenly bitter and angry; it made her feel cross herself. She considered the feeling and its implications until it lost its power over her.
"Sofia," she said, "what's bothering you?"
"Bothering me? Only that we don't know what's out there, and they've gone sailing off into the sunrise as if it was a pleasant day's outing! What do you think, Zelda? We've never separated before, not intentionally. That isn't the way we do things! It should have been all of us or none of us."
"We wouldn't all have fit into the boat," Zelda said vaguely. There--that flicker of white in the blue--was that the skiff's sail, just slipping out of sight behind the nearest island? Or just a breaking wave? The light on the water was too bright to tell.
Behind her there was a sharp huff of breath, an angry, explosive sound. The crate scraped sharply back.
"Did you have another dream?" she asked softly, and sensed her friend flinch.
"What business is it of yours?" The other woman sounded aggressive and mean; she stood with arms folded tightly against her chest, seeming at once both challenging and defensive. Zelda looked at her for a moment, startled by the sight--and wondering why she was suddenly reminded of Dark.
Because... he's been just the same way lately... looking for a fight, looking for something he can hurt so it doesn't hurt him first.
What's happening to us out here? We're all falling to pieces!
She suppressed a sigh, knowing that she had to be very careful what she said at this moment. She was so tired of this lately... It was like dancing on a sheet of thin ice, never knowing whether the next step would send you crashing through to your doom.
"I'm your friend," she said softly, looking down at her hands as they played with a fold of the tunic. "I won't pry. But, Sofia, you can talk to me if you want to. I'd... I'd try to help, if it's something I can help with."
It was the right thing to say. The ice stayed firm. Sofia drew in a long breath and her mask slipped just for a moment; Zelda saw how her friend was frightened, and desperately tired. She went over to the crate and sat down, leaving a space, and the other woman came and sat beside her.
"You can't help," Sofia said.
Zelda shrugged. "Maybe not. What did you dream?"
"Oh... it's always the same. Well, not the same thing, but..." She reached up and pulled at a loose lock of her hair in a frustrated, unconscious gesture. "I have an overwhelming feeling that something's wrong and I don't know what or where."
"With the ship?" Zelda said. "With the voyage?"
"No--back home. My home." A shiver ran through her suddenly, though the day was hot. She clasped herself tight. "There was a lion..."
"It attacked you, in the dream?"
"No! You don't understand!"
"I'm doing my best," she said gently. "What happened then--to the lion?"
"It's nothing, it's stupid..." Sofia's defences were up again; she hunched like a hawk in molt, staring out at the sea with moody, shadowed eyes.
Zelda was quiet for a moment, thinking swiftly. "It's not nothing," she said at last, "or it wouldn't upset you. And I don't think you're stupid. What happened to the lion?" She wanted to reach out and touch her friend, but she knew that in this mood Sofia would not tolerate it, would get up and leave. Thank you, Dark, for teaching me how to wait and be silent...
"It was dying," the Gerudo said at last, and then, vindictively, as if flinging away the thorn that had cut her foot, "A scorpion crawled out of its mouth."
"Ugh!" Zelda said, meaning it.
"They're all like that, Zelda--stupid, meaningless images. I feel so... I don't even know why they scare me!"
"They'd scare me," Zelda said with a wry smile, doing her best to make a joke out of it. "Well, I suppose you were right--I can't help. I can't stop you dreaming, anyway."
"I think you have helped--I feel a little better just having it out in the open." She heaved a sigh and closed her eyes. "I'm a mess, Zelda."
"You don't have to be strong all the time," Zelda said softly. "Like you said, we're a team; we do things together."
The other woman nodded silently. After a moment she sighed again, and tilted her head back, into the sunlight. For a little while, there was peace.
How long had it been now? Perhaps a half-hour, judging by the small movement of the sun. The main-mast's shadow was shrinking at her feet as the day approached noon. Link and Dark might already be on their way back. She laid her palms on her knees and tensed, intending to get up and go to the rail.
"Hm?" she said, distracted.
Sofia was looking intently to the east, towards the front of the ship. "Look--up there, at the edge of that cloud."
She looked--and felt a sourness in her at the sight of the speck gliding on stiff dark wings.
"I'm going in," she said, getting to her feet. "Those wretched birds--I'm sick of the sight of them. Are you coming?"
"I'll come," Sofia said, and smiled wearily. "Maybe I'll try to get some sleep."
"I'll wake you if you like--if it looks like you're having a nightmare."
A genuine smile now. "Thank you, Zelda, but no--I don't think I could go to sleep anyway with someone watching me. Don't worry--I'll be all right."
I hope so, Zelda thought, following her down the steps. Because I'm tired too, and Dark's hard enough to handle on his own.
In the corridor, a soldier saluted lazily as she passed. She nodded back to be friendly but said nothing; she wanted the peace and solitude of her cabin, now, while she thought about things. The door stood ajar; she slipped inside and latched it carefully behind her.
It was quiet and cool belowdecks, out of the reach of the sun, and without the boys it seemed rather lonely. Not that Link or Dark had ever made much noise--far from it--but they had always been there, a few widths of wood away, and now the lack of them was like a thick blanket pressing down, muffling everything. Like as not it was something Sofia could not feel, but Zelda felt herself very alone without their minds on the edges of her own.
To forget her loneliness she began to tidy her cabin. When she was a child, Harkinian had forbidden her to have a maid for anything other than doing her hair--something a Hylian woman would have difficulty fixing on her own due to the complexity of court styles. So despite her high birth and unlike most other high-born ladies, she had always kept her own room. If the Princess of Hyrule threw her clothes on the floor, she had to pick them up again. Her father's reasoning was simple and blunt: When you are Queen, and ruling all Hyrule, you'll have to deal with messes as they arise. Sometimes she had hated him.
Her bed had not been made for several days. She stripped it and bundled the linen out into the corridor, then fetched fresh sheets from the closet in the long room. That done, she tidied her desk, and then her sea-chest.
One of Link's summer cloaks had somehow found its way in with her things: it was a thin garment of homespun Calatian wool, somewhat patched, and dyed that distinctive smoky blue shade that was only seen amongst the people of the lakes. A battered bronze pin wrought in the shape of a dragonfly, fastened it. The dragonfly had eyes of green glass--picked up perhaps at some market fair. It seemed old, but she could not remember ever having seen him wearing it. She sniffed the fabric, but it did not smell of anything.
Someone had woven this garment for him, someone she had never met. She thought of a woman, with rough hands and tired eyes and the same startling red hair pinned into a bun, humming softly at a loom in the firelight of a country cottage: his mother? Had the pin been hers? Squatting on her heels before the open chest, running the rough homespun through her fingers, she realised, suddenly and unsettlingly, that she did not know him at all.
She folded the cloak and set it aside, then repacked the rest of her things. There was not much left in the sea-chest anyway--she had found homes in the cabin for most of her things. Her spare pair of boots, her bow, knife and a small short sword, a few books and oddments--this was about the sum of it now.
With nothing else in her room remaining to be done, she slipped out into the corridor with the cloak draped over one arm.
Link's door was not locked. She lifted the latch and stepped inside, feeling guiltily excited at the act of trespass. The cloak was nothing but an excuse and she knew it.
His cabin was tidy, in an absentminded way. The carved comb she had given him as a Yule gift lay on the desk, a few red hairs still tangled on its teeth. His beloved rosewood bow had been hung up on the lefthand wall, along with a scuffed leather quiver. The smooth honey-golden wood gleamed, newly oiled, in the shaft of sunlight spilling from the porthole window. There was something in it that was so much of him that she shivered, though the room was not cold. Suddenly she felt a strange foreboding, a sense of something closing in about her. Nayru speed him back--she wanted to begone from this place.
There was nothing more of interest here, and anyway the joy had gone out of it now. She found a vacant hook on the back of the door, hung the cloak on it, then turned to go.
Something made her pause on the threshold--a momentary flicker, a dimming of the light, as if something had flashed past the window. But that was impossible.
The view from the window was clear.
Danger! Go now! Don't wait!
It was not so much a voice as a compulsion, and it reached her limbs well ahead of her mind. The rosewood bow was in her right hand; she had it strung, and the battered quiver slung on her back, and was out of the door by the time the first scream split the air.
The soldier on duty by the hatch had only just begun to react. She shoved past him before he could bar her way--she had a momentary impression of wide gray-blue eyes, watery and pink-rimmed, and a rough mouth shaping the beginnings of a word--but she was too swift. She pulled her sleeve free from his grasp and leaped up the half-dozen wooden steps, onto the rear deck.
For a moment she saw nothing at all, and had time to begin to feel foolish. Then the birds, three of them, came sweeping down out of a clear sky towards the deck, men scattering before them in terror.
She had not seen them at close range before, not in the light of day at any rate. They glided silently, full of cold purpose--she remembered the gyorg in the water and shuddered in the thick heat of the afternoon.
As they soared over the ship, some twenty feet above the deck, one of the birds turned sideways in the air and idly plucked a screaming man from the rigging--as casually and easily as a hawk might take a pigeon in flight. The sailor's weight was too much for the bird, and it beat its huge wings three times, fighting for height with its shrieking, struggling burden, then dropped him into the water. The man fell with a despairing cry and smashed the glass-smooth surface of the sea. She did not see him surface again.
The sound of the splash broke the peculiar frozen stillness in the air. The ship was suddenly a cacophony of panicked voices, men running into each other and the captain roaring orders that went unheeded. Zelda saw the birds coming again, a second wave--five this time, flying in a tight V, diving directly out of the sun.
Nayru! These are no dumb animals! They're making sure to dazzle any archers--they mean to take the ship! Link, where are you--?
Her right hand tingled strangely, and she remembered that she was holding the rosewood bow. Her fingers had gone white with gripping. She raised the bow, nocked an arrow and drew, blinking painful tears as she sighted towards the sun.
Her arrow should have flown true, did fly true, but the kargaroc at which she aimed banked at the last moment. Its hooked beak snapped out, caught the arrow in midair and broke it in two. The pieces clattered on the deck. She was sure that the bird's sun-yellow eye lingered on her as it glided over, in a thoughtful manner. Marking her.
"Zelda!" It was Sofia, leaping up the steps with a blade in each hand. The guard came up behind her.
The dead seagull...
"It was warning us," she said, her memory flying back to that moonlit night. "Din curse it, Link knew something! And he didn't tell me!"
"What?" Sofia's expression was blank.
Soldiers boiled up onto the maindeck, a score or more of silver helms catching the sun's fire. Someone shouted, "To the Princess!"
There were a dozen kargarocs in the sky now. One of them swooped towards the huddle of silver, talons outstretched. But the soldiers of the Royal Guard were disciplined. They closed ranks and raised their shields to fend it off. It veered away and snatched a luckless man from the deck, tossed him bodily into the sea.
Noise hammered at Zelda's head.
Stay calm, something said. Watch. All is not what it seems.
Sofia was grabbing her shoulder, shaking her. She turned her head with an effort, feeling as if she were underwater. "What?"
"Have you lost your mind? The bow--use it!"
"Oh..." she said dreamily. "Yes..."
She lifted the rosewood bow and set another arrow to the string. The supple wood, smoothed by the hands of two Heroes, was cool in her grip.
One of the kargarocs was quite close. It hovered, flapping and screaming like a seagull, as it darted pecks at a sailor who cowered against a crate, lashing out with his knife in disorganised terror. Red blood already ran freely from his dark tanned forearm, the knife arm.
She knew she could kill the bird. This close, with this bow... Anyone could be a master archer with this bow. She sighted along the white-feathered arrow, found the place, the hollow beneath the wing.
"No," she said, and lowered the bow. Sofia screamed words at her, made to push down past her to the maindeck; Zelda caught her arm.
"They don't want this. They're not killing, even though they could. Don't you see?"
"Let go of me!"
She was quite serene. That was the important thing, that was what she would remember later. How calm she felt.
The soldier had hold of both of them, one by each arm, and he was trying to drag them back to the opening, trying to get them inside. Sofia punched him in the face.
Zelda was the only one to see the kargaroc come sweeping in towards them, rearing and braking with its wings just as the seagulls did when they came to land upon the quay in Saria. It swept low, skimming a man's height above the reardeck, then pulled up, wheeled gracefully, and descended in a storm of wings to perch upon the stern rail.
The bird -
- no -
Feathers whirled and settled slowly as the gusting wind died down. For a moment he balanced lightly on the rail, shifting his feet clad in soft gray leather boots, then he leaped lightly to the deck with the feather cloak swirling behind him. Those nearby drew back with inarticulate cries of fear and horror.
Ah, Zelda thought, and felt pleased as a couple more puzzle-pieces clicked together.
The sorceror was dressed exotically, even bizarrely, in a mongrel collection of bright garments: a gaudy shirt of red and blue striped Sosarian silk, lying open to the wide leather belt, clashed with leggy cloth breeches--which in turn were tucked into knee-high boots of a strange cut, made of no familiar kind of beast. An assortment of gold chains, pendants and barbarous bone-and-tooth necklaces hung about his neck. A wild mane of rough brown hair swept back from his tanned brow to blend in with the thick cloak of feathers hanging from his shoulders. A slim Hylian short sword rested on one hip; at the other he carried a curved falchion of unknown make. His clothes were dirty: creased and salt-stained, conforming to his shape through long wear.
This apparition folded his arms, surveying the deck with quick birdlike turns of his head. When he glanced towards Zelda, she gasped: the stranger's face was not Hylian. Not entirely. Instead of a nose, he carried the curved beak of a kargaroc. It was incongruous, ridiculous--and deeply frightening. She could not begin to fathom this chimera, this mixture of many things; in his Hylianness he was more alien than any monster could be.
His eyes were large, amber, with small black pupils, like the hawks that were kept at Hyrule Castle. He looked at her with interest then, as she met his stare defiantly, a dawning childlike pleasure. Others were landing on the ship now, blurring between two forms as they landed in a way that pained the eye. On the lower deck there were cries and the ring of steel.
"We could take him," Sofia hissed behind her.
Zelda shook her head numbly. There were too many wings crossing the deck. Nevertheless she hefted the bow again and reached for another arrow. She nocked it but did not raise or draw.
"Who are you?" she said.
He did not reach for the weapons at his belt, but stood back, resting fists on hips--as if he knew that her arrows could not harm him. The hooked beak opened.
"Kovanni. Of the Rito."
"What do you want?" she asked, hesitating a little now. The sorceror's voice was clear, masculine, musical, with an untraceable accent.
The bird's beak could not show emotions, but he set his shoulders back proudly, and when he spoke again his voice resounded with evident pleasure.
Zelda did not manage to form a response, for at that moment someone hit her on the back of the head. She fell forward towards the sun-bleached planks, but never reached them...
...the sky was the colour of polished amber. Sand hung heavily, hazing the scorched air. A killing storm was building. Winds howled over the ridges of the dunes, stirring up the Dancers: dust-devils, whirling funnels of sand that raced along the dune-tops. Every Gerudo child knew not to go outside when the Dancers were abroad.
But this was the deep desert, where few wise folk ever went. The great black basalt cliffs rising into the sky were unfamiliar; but known nonetheless, from hearsay, from tales told around the fire in the dark of the night. They were the Warlock Stones, the fallen, crumbled remnants of a great fastness. Black sorcery clung to the sand-scorched cliffs. In ancient times, the witches Koume and Kotake had flown from this dark and desolate place.
Something small lay at the foot of the nearest pillar: a dead horse, neck outstretched. It had not been dead long, for the sand had not yet drifted over it, and the foam of bloody sand on its lips had not yet dried. It was a black horse, its close-clipped mane dyed with red ochre.
High on the cliff face something fluttered, a scrap of cloth perhaps caught on the rocks. No... it was climbing, inching slowly skywards.
On the ground the man would have been huge in stature: dark as the folk of the deep desert, with hair the bright fierce red of heart's blood. His rust-coloured cloak would once have been a rich tapestry of geometric shapes, but the wind and sand that had rended it to tatters had also robbed it of its colours. His black leather armour was sand-scored, as was the handle of the great two-handed sword strapped to his back; the binding flapped loose.
He reached up painfully with one gauntleted hand; the nails were painted black. Driving sand had made the bare flesh of his fingers raw; he had padded the flat of his hand in torn cloth to save the tendons. A sudden blast of wind and sand threatened to tear him from his perch, and he shrank into himself, clinging like a spider by toes and bleeding fingertips, until it passed. Then again, wearily, he continued his slow, agonising ascent.
Heat lightning flickered in the sky. He was close to the top of the spire now, many hundreds of feet above the desert. The black stone was worn and treacherous; it crumbled in his grip, cracked beneath the weight; but somehow, even when large chunks slid out from under him, whirling down to shatter in deadly shards on the lower slops, he managed every time to scramble to a safer hold.
At last his scarred fingers found the top, and he dragged himself up onto a rough platform some ten paces long and just two steps wide. He remained on hands and knees for a full minute, gasping hoarsely through the rag that covered his mouth, then dragged himself to his feet and stood leaning into the wind. In his dark face his yellow eyes flared like flames; his red hair flowed loose, rippling wildly.
He reached up and tore the sand-mask from his face, then walked to the very edge of the plateau. There, one step from oblivion, he raised both hands to the sky in a gesture that was something between a lover's embrace and the final plea of a starving man.
His eyes shone suddenly with a strange sorcerous light. He began to whisper words into the storm.
And it listened.
From the shadowy cliffs behind, from the circle of frozen red waves that was the deep desert before him, the clouds came creeping, darkening the amber sky to black. Lightning flickered over and over. The man stood at a nexus of power, the sky drawing down towards him as the wind rose roaring. In the whirlwind his voice gathered strength, rose to a raw shout.
"An au unna ni Peta, en Ta; resu meh mehta, meh amenta, meh abta; U-eh-kua em kshat-ten. Nuk eh-b em maat-pv; un mit-a em nem. At-a em kshat-ten; aru-a em kshent-a; nuk un rekesh-eksh-eth; teseriu hra-sen er-a..."
Lightning bit a chunk of stone from the edge of the cliff, and for a moment the world was white; when the flash cleared, the jagged hole smoked, cracks glowing dull red for a moment before dulling again to black. The thunder roared, and the pillar trembled. The quality of the light was changing, growing chill and bluish like a bruise; the temperature dropped ten degrees.
He stood straight, shaking with the strain, every muscle taut as he dragged the storm to him. The sky over the Warlock Stones was black now, the deep thick black of a thunderhead. Reddish desert light gleamed faint on the distant horizon where the sky was still clear. His outstretched fingers strained towards the clouds that swelled now only a few yards above. He was nearly at the end of his strength.
The lightning had stopped. Now the touch of the wind was cold and damp; the thunderheads hung low, pregnant with rain. The desert held its breath.
Something snapped, or shattered like the breaking of a dam, and the power flooded out and away in a great rush, dissipating swiftly into the sky. And as swiftly as they had come, the clouds slipped away, drifting apart, wisping into gray and then to gold. The amber heat washed back into the air, and the sand came swirling, rising.
Spent, he fell heavily to his knees on the cold stone, then forward, catching himself on the palms of his hands. He knelt on all fours, head low and blood-red hair hanging crusted with clinging sand.
"Damn you... why can't I... why won't it work?"
Staggered to his feet again, muscles loose and clumsy now with abject exhaustion.
"RAIN, DAMN YOU!"
The swirling wind stole his voice.
He whirled, wide-eyed, grabbing for the huge two-handed sword on his back. The blade grated as it slid forth; he raised it defensively across his body, staring and gasping for breath.
The woman stood at the other edge of the rock, just three paces away. Her face was pale, ghost-white, and she wore a cloak of white fur pulled tight about her. The howling wind could not tear it from her grasp.
A tiny smile quirked the corner of her mouth.
"So... it is as foretold."
"Who... who are you?" His voice came out weak and breathy; he was tired, so tired.
"One who has been waiting for this day for a very long time, Great King."
"Not... not until my father dies..."
"Your father is dead."
"No..." The sword was heavy, so heavy... Its tip fell suddenly and struck a spark from the basalt as it struck. He leaned on the blade, shaking his head, dizzy with weariness. "It cannot be... not yet..."
"King of Thieves, it is time to claim your heritage. You have taken your first step--you found the Book of Shadows, and you read from it. Now, my lord, let me show you where your understanding was deficient. I will teach you the old ways as they were taught to me."
"Who... are... you?"
"Do you fear sorcery, my lord? You, the Wizard-King, mighty Ganon? This is a thing that must be. Come. Let me show you..."
He straightens up, finds from somewhere a reserve of strength to swing his great sword into its sheath. And then he nods faintly... reaches out, takes her hand...
Sofia's scream shook her awake.
The room was dim and shadowy. Nothing had changed in the captain's cabin, except that outside it was evening: the sun, red-gold, was shining directly through the large window ahead. She sat for a moment shivering, her body tingling with the violent waking. Beneath her, the patterned counterpane was damp with sweat.
Zelda still slept where she had been dropped, sprawled on the big bed beside her. The Hylian Princess's breathing was shallow; a small red stain had seeped through the hasty bandage on her head.
Another vision... It was of ancient times, she told herself. It was Ganon you saw, Ganondorf Dragmire. She even called him Ganon. The old legend. He went to the Warlock Stones and found wisdom, found sorcery. It was not her brother. She had to believe that.
Anyway, who are you to have visions? You, a prophet? Don't flatter yourself! It was a dream, a foolish dream brought on by fear and too much sun...
She touched Zelda's shoulder; it was warm through the fabric of her tunic. She was asleep. She shouldn't sleep with a head wound.
The bird-people had swiftly overrun the ship. They had had the element of surprise, and the sailors feared them so, they would not resist. Sofia remembered the swift, deft hands that twisted her arms behind her, forcing her to drop her weapons; being dragged across the deck to the captain's cabin. She had not seen who had hit Zelda, or she would have done her best to kill at least that one. As it was, there seemed little sense in fighting.
The men had been disarmed and forced below, into the hold. Only she and Zelda had been separated out. Why? Because they were women? It was no use--she couldn't think.
"Zelda," she said softly, and shook her friend. "Zelda, wake up..." Nothing, no change. She swung her legs off the bed and stood, testing her strength and balance for a moment. She was bruised on her shoulder and side, and her lower lip was split, but she had taken no serious hurt in the scuffle. She went to the door and hammered on it with her fists. Someone outside chuckled gutturally. She hit it harder.
"Damn you, there's a sick woman in here! Fetch a doctor!"
She did not recognise the response, but from its tone she suspected it was a curse. Either they did not understand, or they did not care. Either way...
Dizziness swept over her, and she leaned on the door for a moment, trying to catch her breath. She bit her swollen lip, hard, until the scab opened again and salt blood rushed onto her tongue. The silver spike of pain brought the world back into focus. She turned and went back to the bed, took hold of her friend's shoulder again.
"Zelda, wake up. Zelda, please... come on, wake up..."
Finally there was a faint mumble. Better than nothing... oh, far better than nothing. "Zelda," she said again, urgently. "Zelda, don't sleep. Wake up and talk to me, Zelda."
"I know. Wake up."
The Princess opened her eyes slowly. They were dazed and had a glassy sheen to them that she did not like one bit. "Sofia..."
"Yes. I'm here."
Suddenly Zelda pushed herself up on her hands, sat up. At once she cried out and put her hand to the back of her head, where the bloody place was. She swayed.
"Don't!" Sofia said in alarm. "Stay still!"
Zelda shivered, then smiled at her weakly through bedraggled strands of hair. "First you tell me to wake up, then you tell me to lie down again... make up your mind!"
"I'm all right. I'm just..." Her expression changed, eyes squeezing closed. "I think I'm going to be sick..."
Sofia jumped up, grabbed the canvas bowl from the captain's nightstand and brought it to her. The Princess clutched it and hunched over it, coughing. An acrid smell filled the confined air.
She could not sit still, now. She wanted to pace the cabin like a caged sand cat; she wanted to be out, and free. She went to the window and pressed her hands against it, tried to make out something of the view. All she could make out was ocean and sunset. They were sailing somewhere--west--but beyond that she could not begin to guess.
"Link... Dark...?" It was Zelda's voice.
"Hush," Sofia said, turning back. "Don't talk about it." They could be listening to us--it might be a pretence that they don't understand us. At least Link and Dark are still free right now... whatever good it might do them to be stranded on that rock.
Zelda was looking at her, her blue eyes wide with a hundred unanswered questions. Sofia wished bitterly that she could speak the way Hylians did, without words--but then, like as not she could answer none of those questions anyway. She was probably asking the same ones herself. Where were they going, who were these bird-folk, what did they want with the Golden Queen?
"They call themselves Rito," Zelda said. "Kovanni, of the Rito."
"Is that that tall skinny one? The one with the shagreen boots?" Sofia shrugged, dismissing him. "They've locked the door and there's a couple of guards outside. If we had a weapon, or something to... But I've checked the cabin and there's nothing here, not even an eating-knife."
Sofia bit back a sharp response. "Don't go soft on me now, Zelda. They attacked us without provocation. I know for sure that at least two of our people died in the fight earlier."
"It could have been a lot more," Zelda said, "if their hearts had been in it."
She lost her temper. "Why is that always your first response? You said that about Dark, that you'd decided to trust him solely because he didn't kill your father!"
"I was right, wasn't I?" the Princess asked softly.
Roughly Sofia pulled a chair out from under the table, and sat down. There were still sea-charts spread out on the desk; the Rito hadn't touched those, though they had obviously gone through all the drawers and chests in this room to look for weapons.
"You infuriate me sometimes."
"I know." The Princess's voice was frank and honest, and also very very tired. "I'm always the one who has to second-guess things, to look and think, to wonder if we're doing the right thing. I know you all get fed up with it sometimes. It's just that there's got to be a better way than killing people you disagree with."
"Would you like me to knock on the door and ask if they'd like to be friends?" Sofia asked sarcastically. The Princess sighed but did not answer.
This was a nice ship. A very nice ship.
He had to admire the ingenuity of the Wingless. Could not go beneath the waves like the Sea People, could not soar above them like the Sky Lords, so they found a way to ride the sea, carrying their food and water with them. A clever folk, and strong too, despite their bodily infirmity.
The sun was a little to his right. He moved the wheel, made a small correction to the course, and felt the great wooden vessel respond to his touch. Exhilarating. The sensation of intoxicating control almost made up for the slowness of travel: even a lesser Sky Lord, one of the fliers without speech or the power of changing, could have made this journey in half the time.
A flutter of wings. Rani.
"My lord, we can't find the two males. They're not on the ship."
He turned to face his lieutenant, looked down at the older man kneeling before him on the deck. "They must be. The white serpent was right about the rest of it. Look again."
Rani's grizzled mane stirred in the breeze as he lifted his head slightly. "Eminence, there is something else. This ship carries a number of smaller boats in its hold--we think one of them is missing."
He stood quietly for a moment.
"Send a couple of the fliers back to Finne's Rock."
"The ship had stopped; I did not think to wonder why. Depend upon it, their males had gone to the Rock."
"Whatever for?" Rani asked, momentarily forgetting his place in puzzlement.
"Who knows why wingless do anything? Go and look, Rani. Take two fliers with you. In the meantime, I think I will go and talk to the females. Perhaps they will be more amenable to a voice of reason by now."
"Yes, my lord." The older man bowed his head low, moved back two paces and took wing into the east, calling out as he did so. A couple of others peeled away from the tight flock about the mast and followed swiftly. Kovanni watched the little skein out of sight, then beckoned to another Rito to take his place at the helm. Without waiting for the other to reach him, he turned and made his way across the slowly rolling deck towards the captain's cabin. Grell and Perseth, guarding the door, bowed themselves reverentially out of the way.
The red-haired woman came at him with a chairleg the moment he opened the door. He had been expecting it, and it was an easy matter to catch her makeshift club and twist it out of her grip. She stumbled back, snatched a pot off the dresser and flung it. It shattered on the wall by his head.
"Missed," he said, brushing a few fragments off the shoulder of his cloak. "Are you done? No? There's a rather pretty vase over there, if you like."
"Sofia," the other female said softly, her voice gently chiding. She was sitting on the bed; she had not moved when the door opened.
"No." The red-haired woman backed away, hands clutching at her waist for a weapon that was not there. "No, I won't just lie down and surrender." Her odd yellow eyes flared with rage as she stared at him. "Well? Come on then!"
"Sofia, don't," the other woman said, holding up her hand. She slipped off the bed and stood, carefully, reaching out to the wall to steady herself. Her blue eyes met his without fear or hesitation. "You've won. What do you want with us?"
She's the dangerous one, he thought.
"What do I want?" He spread his hands wide in a gesture of affability, calculated to put them at their ease. It worked--a little. Some of the tension went out of their shoulders. He waited a moment more, letting their curiosity build. "I want to know about the white serpent."
"The white serpent?" The golden-haired girl frowned, obviously bemused.
He shoved the door closed with his foot and leaned back against the cabin wall, folding his arms. "The spirit who names herself so, claiming that she speaks for a great king of a higher realm. The spirit who told us to seek out this ship and four wingless traveling upon it."
The colour drained from both their faces.
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