The Far Sea: Chapter 66
SALT water rushed into the cuts on her palms and made her gasp with pain, but almost straightaway the cold numbed it.
"If we slip in this we're lost!" she cried over the crash as another wave foamed up through the jagged rocks. It was too dark to see anything much but the silhouettes of the sharp-edged cliffs against the sky, and the flash of white close on their seaward side when another wave reached the shore. The water could not quite reach them where they were, but every wave that hit the cliffs drenched them with spray.
Sofia was a few feet ahead, a dark shape indistinguishable from the rocks. She might have turned her head. Her voice came thin and indistinct through the rain. "Just... bit further!"
But how will we get down? Zelda wondered helplessly, inching after her companion. The climb down from the high cavern had taken them the rest of the day's failing light; her muscles were already shaking with fatigue and they were still trapped ten feet or more above the sea, perching on a narrow ledge. The last rock face was a sheer, devastating drop into dark water--and, most likely, more savage rocks lying just beneath the glistening surface. She was bleeding in at least three places where the jagged cliffs of Dragon Roost had caught her. At least the pain of her head had receded... or perhaps it was just that the icy rain had numbed her entire body by now.
Sofia's hand snaked back, groped at Zelda's side and shoulder. The Princess fumbled to catch it with her own chilled fingers. "Look," the other woman said, quite close to her ear--her breath was shockingly hot on Zelda's skin. "The boat."
Zelda blinked rain and spray out of her eyes. Almost directly below, in a semicircle of calm water ringed by jagged black stone, a long pale shape eased slowly from side to side. The old sail-boat rested in a kind of natural lagoon formed by two outreaching spits of stone, with a curving channel to the open sea. Occasionally a larger wave foamed up over the top of the rock wall, and made the boat wallow in the disturbed water.
"I see it," she said. "But I don't know how we're going to get down to it."
"The water's deep isn't it? Deep enough for it to float, at least." Sofia's voice was tight, excited.
"I don't think that's a good idea--what if there are rocks just under the surface?"
The other woman shrugged, the movement more sensed than seen in the darkness. "I don't think so. Look--the boat's only loosely tied; they wouldn't leave it here like that if anything was likely to knock a hole in it."
"Watch this." And suddenly she pulled her hand free, and jumped. The water in the pool boiled for a moment and then went still, ripples fading slowly as they lapped outwards towards the side of the boat...
Sofia surfaced, gasping, in a spray of white, and threw her head back to get the sodden hair out of her eyes. Pawing at her dripping locks with a pale hand, she glanced upwards, towards Zelda who crouched numbly on the ledge.
"Push forward when you jump, and bend your legs--I nearly twisted my ankle on the bottom. But it's deep enough here."
Her head looked small in the water, like a seal. There seemed a strange light in her golden eyes--or was that just a trick of the atmosphere? Rain was slanting down into the pool, hissing.
"Zelda, come on!" Sofia was treading water, waiting for her. Another wave came washing over the sea wall and her friend's head disappeared for a moment in a confusion of bubbles; when the water settled again, she was struggling towards the boat, her face barely pushing above the water surface. There was only the barest glimmer of violet on the horizon now; the sky above them was black, black as midnight without moon or stars.
Zelda was frozen--too cold, too tired. She couldn't do it.
Then, somewhere in the blind darkness above, a kargaroc screamed.
For such a short distance, the fall seemed to go on for a very long time. She looked down, saw the water surface dark with a pattern of pale foam lying on it like lace. The rain stung icily on her face; she was tipping, turning forwards in the air. Then another wave came foaming up over the sea wall, and just as it began to spill down into the bowl, hissing through fissures in the black volcanic rock, she hit the water, mostly on her stomach.
The impact stung like a whole-body slap. It knocked the wind out of her and she sank instantly, flailing in a black storm of muffled roaring. Bubbles, surging up around her, fizzed through her clothes and tickled her bare skin. And Nayru's Love, the water was cold!
She had, somehow, reflexively held her breath when she entered the water, and now her lungs were bursting with the desire for air. Where was the surface? It was all so confused; unseen hands were pulling her this way and that. There seemed to be nothing around her but foam and darkness; the salt water burned her eyes and she squeezed them tight shut.
-There! Her kicking feet found hard rock, under her heels, and she understood. She had flipped over; she was almost on her back. With an effort she got herself upright, and pushed off the bottom of the pool.
It was not as deep as she had thought; her head broke the surface almost at once. She gasped air and got it mixed with salt water and rain; she coughed and spluttered, and nearly sank back down again.
"Zelda! Here!" The voice was close at hand, on her left. The boat--and Sofia, streaming with wet, crouching low on the bow and reaching down towards her. The wave had passed and the water was calm again, or nearly so. In the momentary lull Zelda found some remaining strength and kicked towards her friend, managing a fair approximation of a breast-stroke. Her fingers banged painfully against worn wood; she fumbled upwards and found the edge of the boat. The water sucked at her, tried eagerly to pull her back down; her woollen clothes and the leather bag on her back were so heavy with it that she could barely hold her arms out of the water. Sofia, hauling on her wrists, helped her scramble up and over the side. She was so exhausted that she nearly toppled headlong into the bilge on top of her friend.
It took a few minutes before Zelda was able to do anything more than shiver and shake her head. She knelt on the boards, hugging herself and trying to gather her flown wits. "We can't sail in this," she mumbled when she could speak again. "I don't think I could sail it on a fine day. We can't see what we're getting into... Sofia, we'll have to go back!"
"What, and climb that cliff again? We can't go anywhere now; we'll have to stay here and wait it out." The other woman rubbed her hands together and blew on them. "Wring your clothes out, quick--remember the lake? We mustn't get cold."
The sail-boat had a single tiny cabin or locker at one end, just about big enough for one person to sit with their knees drawn up. They both squashed in nonetheless, and crouched there side by side. There was no closing the door that way, but at least they were mostly out of the rain. Aside from when a wave came over the sea-wall, the boat was still.
Evidently the Rito used this boat for fishing; the cabin's untidy, cluttered shelves were mostly taken up by tangled lumps of net, damp and smelling of the sea, with torn bits of soggy weed caught between the strands. Zelda fingered one of the bundles, thoughtfully. The Rito seemed to be very casual about care of their belongings--there had been that bed, up in the cliffside cavern, with all the dozens of scraps and mismatched garments just thrown together. More like--no, don't think it! --a nest...
"Share the joke?" Sofia said.
She shook her head. "Oh... I was just thinking how very birdlike they are."
"Strange." Zelda pulled the cloak closer around her shoulders, her mood sobering again. "We've no stories about these people, no legends even. I think they're new."
"What are you talking about?"
The island, what little we've seen of it... These are evidently a highly intelligent people, but their culture... they've nearly none. It's a mishmash, bits taken from here and there. They've learned our language somewhere, but they don't seem to have one of their own. Gerudo rugs for their door-curtains and Hylian tapestries for their beds--and did they trade for these things or steal them? I don't think they made them. They're still trying to find their way.
A people who could fly. That was going to change things; if the Rito ever grew tired of living on this rock, and struck out east, it might change the power dynamic of the entire continent...
Sofia jabbed an elbow into her ribs. "Zelda!"
At that moment the boat lurched, and something fell off a shelf into her lap. She grabbed at it reflexively and felt a cold slick curved surface: a glass fishing float. There had been some very much like it decorating the Phoenix Plume back in Saria. Saria--had that been real, or was it a dream?
"What was that?" Sofia said. "A wave?"
"It must have been," she began, but almost at the same time the boat bumped against something, hard, and they were both thrown to the left.
"It's come loose," Sofia said, unfolding herself with some difficulty. "That was a rock. Come on, quick--or we'll both be back in the sea!" She struggled to her feet and limped out into the darkness. The boat bumped against something else, on the right side this time, and Zelda heard her friend curse.
"I'm coming!" She grabbed the shelf to pull herself up; the float rolled away into the darkness. The other woman was doing something down in the bottom of the boat, struggling with something that thudded woodenly.
The boat was drifting through the narrow passageway, spinning slowly; low ridges of stone jutted out of the water close on either side. It rocked, then rose up out of the water for a moment; a terrible grinding sound rose from under Zelda's feet.
"We don't have any choice now!" Sofia called out. "We're going whether we like it or not! Grab an oar--try to push it away from the rocks!"
"How did the rope come loose?" Zelda asked, running to do as she had said.
"I don't know--maybe it was rotten? Maybe it wasn't tied properly to begin with and we dislodged it by climbing on board -" She set the blade of the oar against an approaching spike and leaned her weight on it until, groaning and creaking, the boat eased past it. Which left it drifting for another dark hump on the other side...
The work was monotonous, back-breaking, and stressful. They could not see the rocks until they were almost on top of them, or even felt them scraping at the hull. They had to feel out blindly with the oars, struggling to manage the heavy, unbalanced weight of them. At least so far the old boat seemed sound, although the cracks and creaks it made were alarming. The rain had settled into a light but persistent drizzle, almost indistinguishable from the sea spray.
After an interminable time of struggling in the darkness, running from one shadow to another, Zelda realised dully that the motion of the boat had changed. It was rolling steadily from side to side now, swaying over the water, and there were no more rocks. The dark sea around them was clear, the rich black of spilled ink, and it glistened as if its rolling contours had been chipped out of glass. She straightened up and laid the oar aside, ignoring the rusty agony in her spine, then turned to see Dragon Roost blotting out the sky at the rear of the boat: a blacker silhouette against the heavy clouds.
"We're out," she said.
"What was that?"
She laughed faintly and sat, or rather dropped, down on one of the board seats. "We're past the rocks and in open water. There's no going back now."
Sofia's outline was just visible in the gloom; she saw a movement, heard the soft thud as the oar touched the wood. "We'd better get the sail up, then."
The sail was wrapped tight around the mast, and tied with a dozen impregnable knots. The rope was wet through; its fibers had swelled with the rain and salt spray until the strands were taut, biting deep into the worn canvas. While they wrestled with it, the weather changed; a few fitful stars showed for a while low on the horizon, then faded again. The wind was strong, threatening to catch at their cloaks and carry them away if they let their guard down even for a moment.
At last they had the sail loose and untangled--and straightaway hit a new problem. They did not know what to do with it.
"Link tied it to something," Sofia said, hauling on an end of the wet, flapping canvas to try and stretch it into a sail shape. It kept twisting, or trying to roll itself up around the mast again. "Is there a hook or something?"
Zelda wiped water out of her eyebrows and bent to look. There were plenty of hooks, cleats, ringbolts all over the boat... but none whose function was apparent. "I think there's a piece of wood along the bottom of it--or there's supposed to be." She felt around the mast. "There's a sort of ring here..."
At that moment a wave broke right against the side of the boat, and it lurched violently, tipping them both down into the bilge. Zelda caught her shoulder a ringing blow on the edge of one of the board seats, bit her lip and tasted hot blood an instant later. Crouching on hands and knees, elbow-deep in icy water, she said a word she had never said before.
"What happened? Are you all right?" Sofia's hand touched her back in the darkness.
"Not really." She pushed herself up and sat back on her hams--cautiously, for the boat was rocking a great deal now. The waves rolling under them were frighteningly big--perhaps five feet from crest to trough, but big enough, certainly, to be higher than the boat when it rested at the bottom of one. "We can't handle this boat," she said. "Even if--if we knew what we were doing, I think it's supposed to be sailed by more than two people."
"It's my fault," the other woman mumbled, almost too low to be heard.
Zelda shook her head, though she doubted her friend could see the movement. "If we'd had Link with us it would have worked," she said. "Anyway, I think I'd still rather be here than a guest of Sepultura. We still have the Amulets, at least."
"So what do we do now?"
She stood up slowly, grabbing the edge of the boat for balance. Dragon Roost Isle was invisible now in the night--or perhaps they had already drifted out of sight of it--they had spent a long time fighting with that wretched sail.
"I think we should sit tight until morning," she said. "Maybe in the daylight we'll be able to tell better how that sail goes."
"Sounds like a plan," her friend said, in a voice that was just a little too cheerful.
The boat rolled clumsily down the face of a wave, trailing its sodden, tangled sail. At the bottom point water flooded over the prow for a moment before draining down into the bilge. Suddenly Zelda realised how low in the water they were; there was less than a foot of clearance between the side of the boat and the sea! She jumped back in alarm and her feet splashed into cold water deep enough to come over the tops of her boots.
"We've got to get the water out!" Please, Nayru, not a leak... but it had been raining constantly, after all. Hopefully it was just rain and spray. She tottered towards the cabin, sloshing through the chilly water and having to catch herself on the side of the boat every time it rolled. There had to be something in there... a bucket, or...
"How did they get out? They can't fly!"
The flames were sputtering low in the smoke-pit; the wood had nearly been consumed, and the light in the chamber was poor. Kovanni, disbelieving, kicked at a few stray rags on the floor as if the wingless women might have been concealed beneath them.
Grell sneezed wetly. "Maybe they crawled down, like sand lizards."
"Can they do that? She didn't say they could do that!" He ran to the opening and stared out into the rainy darkness. His night-eyes were not the best, and in any case the cliffs sloped down in a hundred craggy spurs and ledges; they could have been hiding just a few feet down, and he would not have been able to see them. "Now what?"
Grell did not answer; he was kneeling to warm his hands at the flames. The two attendants simply watched from the open doorway, nervously respectful of their Prince. Doubtless they were wondering what punishment would be visited on them for having let the prisoners escape.
Ortha will claim I did this, that I wanted them to go; he's been looking for something to pin on me. And maybe I did want them to go, at that, but...
The White Serpent, witch or spirit or whatever she might be--she must not learn of this. Unless... His mind raced. He drew in a long calming breath and closed his eyes for a moment to think more clearly.
"Grell." The older Rito stumbled clumsily to his feet and snapped to attention. "Send someone to the ship. Double the guard there--they might be trying to reach it, and if they do I want them picked up at once. You -" The attendants' names escaped him for now; he settled for pointing. "I want you to pull a search party together: try the fledglings, anyone who knows the cliffs well. Look in every likely hole. And you, go down to -"
"Prince Kovanni?" A flutter at the opening: a tall dark-maned man alighted heavily and strode in, shaking water from the wide sleeves of his long tunic.
"Rani," he said, turning swiftly. "I hope you have some good news for me."
"Ah... no, my lord, not as such." His steward slicked back his streaming hair; he looked cold and weary. "We couldn't find them."
"They were there."
"Yes, my lord. We found footprints, and there were marks where a small vessel had been pulled up on the sand. They were there this morning, but left again."
"Then why aren't you looking for them on the sea?" Kovanni said angrily.
"Because I thought I ought to report back before morning, Highness." The other man's voice was gruff, carrying a hint of reproach now. "My fliers are still out there searching--though like as not it's a task we'll need the morning's light for."
Kovanni nodded slowly, feeling very tired and strained.
"By the way, my lord," Rani added after a moment, "who's out fishing?"
"Beg pardon, I only happened to notice as I came in, and it seemed a little odd. Boat's not there. I'd have thought the seas too high tonight for pulling nets -"
"Gull crap!" he spat, shouldered past the startled steward, and flung himself into the night.
Zelda could not be sure when exactly they had lost all control of the situation, but it was undeniable now. The old sail-boat was in difficulties: riding lower and lower in the water despite their best efforts with a slop bucket and an old leaky bait tin recovered from the tiny cabin. They were both weary almost to the point of lying down where they were, soaked to the skin and fuzzy-headed from cold and fatigue, and the black water was still gaining on them with every passing hour. And there was no rest to be had, for the waves were high and getting higher; simply to stay put on the bench was a balancing act. They did not speak. There was no time to speak, no time for anything but staying alive.
What would it be like to drown? Would it hurt?
Her thoughts whirled, vague and dreamy. I suppose I never really understood the sea. Link always did. It's death, and we're lost in it. If we lose the boat, we will certainly die. I don't even know if we're going to see the sun rise as it is...
The boat lurched suddenly, tipping violently in the face of another approaching wave. It loomed up out of the night, a dark, glossy wall of water--Nayru! it would pull the boat under! Why were they leaning so much to the left?
"It's the sail!" Sofia was shouting, her voice barely audible over the roar of wind and water. "We should have -!"
Whatever else she said was lost, but it did not matter; Zelda turned, and saw at once what she meant. The loose sail--they had not secured it after giving up on it earlier, and it had been whipping about the mast ever since. She had not understood how the weight of all that thick canvas, sodden with seawater, might affect the boat's balance. The torn sail was hanging down into the water on the left side of the boat; it was this that was dragging it off balance, causing it to lurch so sickeningly on the waves.
All this she took in in the split second before the wave reached them. When it did, the boat punched through it rather than over it. Water, roaring, flooded down on them both and swamped the bilge, undoing in an instant their work of the last few hours. It filled her mouth and her ears; she choked on a mouthful of the salty-bitter stuff and, coughing, actually felt herself lifted up for a moment. Her reflexive, desperate grip on the edge of the boat was all that saved her from being swept bodily aboard.
Here it comes, she thought as the deck groaned horribly; beneath her feet, wood was shaking and cracking with the strain. The water was around her shoulders, the boat submerged entirely save for the mast. It would sink. It was sinking--
Unbelievably, it surfaced into warm air, water pouring away over the sides and back into the sea. They were through the wave and, for a moment, resting calmly in a trough--as if they were drifting down a straight avenue whose walls were made of dark water. The boat was barely afloat with all the water in it, and it leaned at a steep and painful angle with the sail, fastened now only at the top of the mast, acting as an anchor to pull it right over. Only a little more and the edge of the boat would go right under: the cold and hungry sea would rush in eagerly to swallow it...
"Sofia!" she cried out, staggering to her feet. For a horrible moment she could not see her friend, and feared that she had been swept out when the wave struck.
"Here--Zelda--I'm coming..." The voice came from the opposite end, somewhere near the cabin. She moved towards it blindly, knocking her shins on the board seats which were now entirely underwater. Balancing was difficult with the deck at such an angle. They met at the midpoint of the boat, beside the mast.
"Well," Sofia said, trying unsuccessfully to sit on the side, "we tried." She might have been talking about saving the boat, or escaping Dragon Roost, or the Quest itself.
Zelda sighed, and felt a knot of fear and tension fade away--as if, under unbelievable stresses, the thread of it had simply snapped. She realised with a growing sense of wonder that she was suddenly quite calm.
"It'll be all right," she said. "Just hold on."
"Nobody's going to rescue us, Zelda." The other woman didn't sound angry or afraid--just matter-of-fact.
The boat groaned and tipped a little further; they both instinctively threw their weight back against the side, trying to counterbalance the drag of the sail in some small way. It worked, or at least halted the movement before the boat turned completely over--but their little moment of peace would soon be over; they were drifting out of the center of the trough now, and heading for another wave. This one, Zelda knew, would be the one that sank the vessel.
Then a kargaroc screamed, somewhere quite close, and all the hope and terror came back in a rush. She jumped to her feet and nearly toppled head over heels backwards into the sea.
"Here! We're here! Help us!"
Had it heard? The wind was fierce, but if the kargaroc's cry had come from downwind, her cry might have carried far enough... And then again, somewhere in the blind black sky, the bird screeched again as if in answer.
"He can't see us," she said, "but he knows we're here. Call for him!" Sofia looked at her doubtfully, but cupped her hands to her mouth anyway.
The kargaroc called again, closer this time. Zelda took a deep breath and shouted as loud as she could, a wordless cry that cracked her voice. Again the bird answered--and was suddenly filling the sky above their heads. It came in low and fast through the trough, its wingtips almost brushing the water on either side, then swooped up sharply and veered away. In a breath it was back, huge wings waving awkwardly as it tried to match the movement of the slowly spinning boat. It was trying to land on the slanted mast. No, to -
Long talons closed about the mast, splintering deep gouges in the weathered wood. The kargaroc beat its wings urgently, flapping like a duck trying to take off from a pond. But it was the wrong shape, with the wrong sort of wings--built for endurance, for gliding flights spanning the length of days, and not for power.
"He's trying to pull the boat upright," Zelda exclaimed. "Sofia--come on--he can't do it on his own!"
"What can we do?"
"Use our weight! Lean!" She leaped back and perched on the very edge of the boat, leaning out over the water as far as she could. Sofia stared, understood, and clambered up to join her. The boat shuddered and groaned; wood was cracking somewhere, giving way--Nayru grant that it held long enough! The kargaroc screamed angrily. And the boat was coming up again! A foot of twisted sail appeared out of the water, glistening and streaming, then, slowly, another...
With a rending crack, the mast split down its length, then snapped. Released too suddenly from its strain, the boat flipped right over--and Zelda found herself sinking under it...
Early dawn light painted the sky pink and gold; only a sliver of the sun's light yet appeared above the horizon. The sea had calmed somewhat in the interval, but there was still a strong wind and a corresponding heavy swell.
He raised his head. The waves lifted him and set him down, rocking him rhythmically as if he were a child in a cradle. What happened...? Oh. The mast. He was lying on it, or what was left of it, at this moment; it was what had kept him from drowning during the darkness.
He was cold, and everything hurt. Cautiously he tested arms and legs and found them sound, though his muscles ached as if he had flown a hundred miles through headwinds. He must have changed shape instinctively when he hit the water, though he could not remember having done so--could remember nothing, in fact, after the moment when the mast snapped, catapulting him backwards, and the shock of cold came crashing down over him. He must have got himself wrapped around the remainder of the mast somehow. It was a miracle that gyorgs had not taken him while he lay senseless.
And the boat--the two girls? He shook his head to clear it, spattering water from his salt-encrusted mane, and looked about him. There was no sign of anything on the water--not even wreckage. Of course he was not likely to see anything from down here.
Their deaths will be on my conscience, if they have not survived. The boat... that had certainly gone down. He had simply found them too late; if he had arrived with ten strong Rito at his tail, he doubted still that he could have saved it. But the girls might still have survived with an oar or a bit of the hull to rest on. He had.
"Kovanni! My Prince! Are you hurt?" A shadow crossed the water a few yards in front of him. Rani, he thought, recognizing the steward's voice, and his companion most likely Grell. They were wondering why he made no move.
Well... First things first. He let himself slip slowly backwards off the mast, down into the water--ah! it was cold as it soaked into his clothes; the top half of his body had been nearly dry. Carefully he pushed the mast away and trod water for a moment, marshalling his strength for the next part.
Taking off from water was something every Rito learned from a young age--the second lesson they ever received in the art of flight. It was not easy. A gull, so much smaller and lighter, and with large webbed feet for traction in the water, could do it effortlessly with only a push; for a Rito it would be a long and exhausting ordeal of skittering across the water, pounding long wings gracelessly. The others could not help him now without a boat; either he got airborne on his own, or he died.
He took a deep breath, steeling himself for the effort, then changed. His other shape was a mixed blessing in this situation. In the lighter-boned kargaroc form he was more buoyant: could float better, but his clawed feet could exert little pressure in the water.
The others were circling anxiously. He lifted his wings above his head and beat them twice, testing his strength. He was not sure how many tries at it he would be able to make. Paddling awkwardly with wings held high to escape the worst of the wet, he turned himself towards the prevailing wind--knowing that he would need the little extra lift.
The first and second attempts failed. His muscles were chilled and sluggish from his long stay in the cold water, and he simply could not beat his wings fast or hard enough. He waited a few minutes to try and recover some strength, then pushed off again. His wings flapped frantically as he scudded across the water surface, bouncing from wavecrest to wavecrest. Height--he needed more height!
And then suddenly he was up, gliding scant inches above the waves. Grell, above, cried out fiercely in joy and relief. Kovanni could not answer him: he had no breath to spare. Grimly, inch by painful inch, he clawed his way up to a gliding height, turned towards home, and locked his wings; he was too exhausted to think.
They fell in beside him and formed a little skein with himself at the head.
"We were afraid you were lost, Prince," Rani said, in the flier speech. "It was luck that we found you--we'd been over this stretch a dozen times and saw nothing!"
"The boat?" he asked weakly.
The other dipped his head, not wanting to meet his gaze. "Wreckage, Highness, that's all we found, and not much of that."
"I want -" He had to stop talking for a moment, to get some breath back and to gather his wits. Din, he was about ready to drop... "I want as many as we can spare to be out here, looking."
"For the wingless, Highness?"
"There's still a chance..." His eyes narrowed. "Rani, I'll leave that task in your capable hand. I have to go back to Dragon Roost; there are things that need doing."
"You should rest, Prince."
"Rest?" His beak opened in a savage, humorless grin. "I should be so lucky! I'm going to have a word with our friend the White Serpent--she'll not be pleased with this latest development."
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