Prologue: Chapter Eight
LINK yawned and forced his eyes open against the sun. "Not morning already," he moaned and threw his arm over his face, turning onto his stomach so that the light did not shine onto his closed eyelids. He still felt stuffed from last night, and a headache gnawed at his temples like a hungry animal.
With a sigh the young warrior sat up and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. The tent flap had been incorrectly tied last night, and the bright band of sunlight which had awakened him was streaming through a wide gap in the richly woven fabric, stippling the sandy floor of the tent. He was disoriented for a moment, until he remembered where they were and the events of the past few days. And today... Link threw back the covers and got to his feet. Today was the day they returned to Gaelaidh and, hopefully, headed home! Tonight they could be back in Hyrule for a well-earned rest.
It was as hot as ever, though an instinct told him it was yet only early morning. Last night he had gone to sleep in his clothes, pausing only to take off the leather vest before throwing himself down upon the blankets. He picked up the discarded garment and shook sand out of it--the cursed stuff got everywhere. And he was sure that sand had gotten into his bandage as well; either that or Gerudo bandages got pricklier the longer they were worn. Link grimaced and flexed his fingers... still weak, still numb. It seemed that he would have to live with the sensation, at least for a little while. Carefully he pulled the end of the bandage loose and unwound it, suppressing a wince as the soft material peeled away. Sure enough, a quantity of sand fell from the folds as he removed the dressing.
Underneath he was surprised to find that his shoulder and right side were spectacularly bruised. His ribs ached when he breathed in deeply, and the bite itself was a nasty puncture wound clotted with dark blood. It felt better to have the cool air on it, though. Link let the bandage fall and shrugged on the Gerudo leather vest. The desert clothes were definitely more comfortable than his old tunic had been on the trek and he was glad of the comfort afforded by lighter garments. Yawning he slipped his feet into his leather sandals.
Stepping out into the bright morning sunlight Link came face to face with the embarrassed Che, who had seemingly been standing outside to listen. "Hello," he said by way of greeting, and the young nomad responded with a few friendly words in his own tongue. "I wish you could understand Hylian," Link remarked cheerfully.
Che grinned and made a vaguely interrogative noise, then he pointed to Link's shoulder and pulled a painful face. "Ealu-scerwen," he remarked with an exaggerated wince.
"Hurt?" Link suggested. "It did, a little." He mimicked the young nomad's wince and touched his wound. "Ouch," he said.
"Ouch!" Che responded with a wide grin, and laughed, clapping the warrior on the (undamaged) shoulder. "že wildeor, leo." Reaching into a leather bag that hung by a strap from his own shoulder he grasped something securely and drew it out, holding it out to Link. It was a big, dusky kitten, only a few weeks old, still striped with the dark brown splashes that would mar its pale gold coat until it was old enough to live alone. Che dangled the kitten by the scruff of its neck, proffering it to the young warrior.
Link grinned in amazement and touched the kitten on its round pink nose; it blinked a pair of saucer-shaped topaz eyes and mewed loudly. "Wow!" he said, smiling at Che.
"že wildeor," Che insisted, gently pushing the young animal into the warrior's arms.
"You want me to have it?" Link asked. "I couldn't!"
"že wildeor," Che said gently. "Ge-sellan, Link."
"Many thanks, Che!" Link exclaimed, and held the cat close to him. It purred and snuzzled into his chest enjoying the warmth of his body.
Che grinned at him again and shrugged his now considerably lighter bag onto his shoulder; touching Link's wound once more the nomad bared his teeth in a friendly gesture and strode off across the sand to disappear inside another tent. Link held the kitten up to examine it properly; it was the size of a buck rabbit and surprisingly heavy, with comical outsized paws and ears. The kitten showed no fear and no alarm at being picked up and held, mewing softly and batting playfully at his face with its big soft paws. "What'll I call you?" Link murmured, cradling the kitten in his good arm and stroking the top of its furry head.
"Link?" He turned and saw Zelda peering out of the flap of her own tent. "What's that you have?"
Tucking the kit under his arm, the young warrior trotted across the sandy ground to show the Princess his present. "Look, Che just gave him to me! Isn't he great?" He held the kitten up as Che had done so that Zelda could take a good look.
"It is very sweet," Zelda said with a smile, "but it's not a he."
Link blinked and turned the kit round again. "Hmm, so it isn't. Oh well. What should I call her, then?"
"It's up to you," the Princess smiled.
Sofia appeared around the corner of the tents. "How are you feeling, Link?" she asked.
"Fine, thanks," Link smiled. "And Che gave me a cat!" He bounced the kitten up and down in his arms, thrilled with his new pet.
A smile spread across Sofia's dark features. "A sand cat," she said, reaching out to rub the base of the kit's big ears. "Che must have trapped it in a rabbit snare or something similar. He probably gave it to you in payment for the bow you made the children--it is their way always to repay gifts. You're a very lucky man, Link! Few people ever have the honor of raising one."
"How big will she grow?" Link asked.
"Big enough to bring down a deer," Sofia said with a laugh. "As long as you can feed her enough!"
"I'll look after her better than her mother ever could," Link promised happily. "Will she be all right if I take her back to Hyrule?"
The Gerudo woman shrugged. "They don't have to live in the desert, but they are more comfortable in a hot climate. If you're going to take her to live somewhere cold, you should make sure that she is kept warm at least until she has grown."
"Are we okay to leave?" Zelda asked. "I don't want to spoil your day, Link, but we should be thinking of returning to Hyrule as soon as we can now. My father is probably having kittens himself by now!" Sofia stared at the Princess in confusion, obviously unfamiliar with the phrase.
"Well, I feel fine," Link said cheerfully. "And I mean it this time!"
"Sofia?" the Princess asked, glancing at the other woman.
Sofia flicked her twist of red hair back over her shoulder and then smiled. "I am ready. They have fed and watered our horses, so we can leave any time. But we should say farewell to Siman first."
"And thank him for all his kindness," Zelda said.
Sofia spoke to the chieftain in the darkness of his tent, while Link and Zelda waited outside in the bright sunlight. Their morale had improved beyond bounds during their short stay in the nomadic camp, and though neither of them mentioned it they both knew that they would be sad to leave the peaceful life of the desert people. Link squatted upon the sandy ground and played with his kitten.
It was only a short time before the tent flap parted once more and Sofia exited, followed by the powerful form of the chieftain Siman. In the sunlight he was even more intimidating, a head and shoulders taller than the Princess and jangling discordantly with ankle-rings, but his face was kind and his eyes bright. Zelda turned and bowed slightly to the chieftain, and Link stood up quickly with the sand kitten in his arms. Siman's lips drew back from his teeth in a wide smile as he laid his hands on Zelda's shoulders and reverently embraced her. The finality of his gesture left her in no doubt that Siman was giving her his farewell.
Next Siman took Link's hand in his and shook it gravely, rumbling a few words in his guttural tongue. The young warrior smiled and said simply: "Thanks for everything." Siman's smile widened even further, if that were possible. The chieftain turned to Sofia and spoke, and she listened carefully, nodding.
"He says," she translated for them, "that he has taken the liberty of replenishing our possessions, and he hopes that we will be pleased to accept his gifts in payment for our company. He speaks for his tribe when he says that it has been an honor receiving us, and he hopes that we will come back and visit his people again some day."
"We'll definitely try," Zelda smiled. Link's kitten mewed loudly as if in agreement, and they all laughed.
"This way," Sofia said gently, taking the Princess's upper arm. "Come on, Link." Siman ducked back inside his tent as the three companions walked across the warm white sand together. Sofia led them around the back of the camp to a small wooden pen where a number of gaunt horses browsed on the straggly grass. Their own three animals were clearly visible with their richly embroidered saddles and harnesses; the saddlebags now bulged with objects, presumably Siman's gifts to them. Sofia vaulted over the fence and took hold of her horse's bridle, leading the animal toward the swinging gate at the end of the miniature corral. Link and Zelda followed suit.
"What in the name of Farore has he given us?" Zelda asked in amazement, wondering at the full bags. Reaching up she untied the thong that bound one of them, and peeked inside to see a rich swathe of heavily embroidered cloth. "Oh, Sofia, this is too much!" the Princess exclaimed, a lump in her throat. "They have given us far too much already!"
"We've already accepted their gift," the red-haired woman pointed out. "What do you think it would look like if we gave it back now?"
Zelda sighed. "I suppose you're right. But I would have been more than satisfied had they merely given us something to eat and sent us on our way. This is more than ever I expected."
"These are kindly people," Sofia smiled. "They would say that they have already been paid with your presence."
Link climbed into the saddle, still clumsy with his right arm. Sitting up alertly on the horse's brown-and-white splashed back he sat the little sand kitten before him on the saddle; the horse laid its ears back at the smell of the predator, but was well enough trained not to object to such a young and inoffensive animal. "Well, shall we go?" he suggested, taking the reins in his good hand.
"They've all turned out to watch us go!" exclaimed Zelda as she caught sight of the throng that had assembled by the animals' pen. Even the children were there; Link's little toy bow and arrow was still clutched in the hands of one of them.
Sofia was also mounted by this time. "Come, Zelda," she said quietly. "I do not wish to leave this place any more than you do, but we must go."
"I'm ready," Zelda answered, but she waved to the Simani before she set her foot into the stirrup of her mount. A barrage of shouts and whistles followed them across the desert air as Sofia led the way over the white sand towards Gaelaidh, and at least a few of the tribespeople stayed to watch their visitors out of sight. Finally a tall dune hid the nomads' camp from sight, and Link and Zelda turned their attention back to the way they were headed, across the dunescape towards the endless horizon.
With fresh horses, and full of good food, they made excellent progress, cantering steadily over the hard compacted sand beneath the blue sky. The desert seemed to change from day to day, for now there was no sign of any sand in the air and the ground underfoot was no longer gold but pure bone-white. The surface of the desert was tough yet springy, a feeling almost akin to riding over short spring grass in Hyrule, and the horses were able to maintain a comfortable pace with little effort. The endless dunes rolled out beneath the companions' hooves.
"How far do we have to go?" Link asked after a while, shielding his eyes as he peered ahead into the glare. "I do not see any signs of a city yet!"
"It is not far," Sofia informed him with a smile. "Gaelaidh has a habit of creeping up on you unawares! You may not see it because of the heat-haze, but we shall reach it before the sun passes overhead." The light and heat that bore down upon them sprang from their left, at an angle which suggested a time of ten o'clock or thereabouts.
"Good," Zelda exclaimed. Reaching into one of the saddlebags she drew out a small green cloth and mopped her forehead with it. "Three, it's hot," she sighed. "Not as bad as the last time we were out here, but still hot."
"It's the desert," Sofia said wryly. "What do you expect?" The red-haired woman sighed softly and looked out over the dunes, her eyes far away. "Is it very much cooler where you live?" she asked thoughtfully.
"Depends where we live!" Link said with a laugh. "It's pretty warm in Calatia, but not like this. We have no desert in my homeland--I live on the shore of a lake. Hyrule Town, where Zelda lives, is in the north of the realm, so the temperature there is lower and they have snow in winter. Then there's Lotharia, which is as far north as anyone's ever been, and there's ice and snow there all the time, even in the middle of summer."
"Snow," Sofia said with a light laugh. "I have seen it from afar, on the flanks of the great mountains, but never has it fallen down here upon the sand. I should like to see your land when it snows, Zelda."
"Do not talk about snow!" Zelda begged. "It only makes me feel hotter."
"We can stop in the shade of a dune, if you like," suggested the red-haired woman. "There is plenty of water--the Simani saw to that. You can have a bite to eat as well."
"Can we?" Link asked eagerly. "My kitten's hungry." Indeed, the sand kitten had been vocalising its displeasure for some time now, and the mews were becoming louder as they moved onwards through the sand.
"Have you a name for her yet?" enquired Sofia, halting her horse. "This place looks as good as any."
Link dismounted energetically, leaping from the saddle with the cat tucked under his arm. "I thought I would leave the task of finding a name until we were back home. I don't really know her yet." Placing the cat on the surface of the sand, he looked through the saddlebags until he found a leather bottle filled with water; he removed the cork and drank deeply, then knelt and poured some into his cupped hand for the sand kitten to drink. Innocently trusting, the cat lapped from the hand of the young warrior, licking at the droplets of water which clung upon her pink nose.
Zelda found her own canteen and upended it, careless of wasting water now that their goal was so near. Sofia did not criticise; indeed the Gerudo woman even had a good mouthful herself, swilling it round inside her mouth to relieve dryness. Recapping her bottle Sofia wound a scarf over her mouth and nose and then lowered herself down onto the sand with a wince. The horses bunched together, snorting in the heat and lazily switching their tails.
"Here, Link," Sofia said, rifling her bag of provisions. "They gave us some fresh meat for the kit." She drew out a parcel wrapped in waxed cloth and tossed it to the young warrior. Scenting the food the kitten miaowed loudly and jumped into Link's lap. He stroked the kit's fine fur as he fed it small pieces of spiced beef. Delving deeper into the bag the red-haired woman found a small loaf and a hunk of goat's cheese, and she broke the items into three roughly equal pieces to share out. The three companions washed down their midmorning snack with draughts of clear water and relaxed for a while, enjoying the heat in some strange perverse way.
"I think we should get back to Hyrule as soon as possible," Link said finally, sitting up. He had been reclining on the warm sand in the shade of the dune, the kitten curled up and purring on his flat stomach. "If I stay here much longer," he added with a light laugh, "I'll end up becoming a Gerudo and never wanting to leave!"
"That might pose difficulties in the completion of our quest," Zelda agreed, smiling. "Sofia, shall we move?"
"Ready when you are," the other woman yawned, getting to her feet and brushing sand off herself. "Now, both of you... before I forget, I must teach you the greeting of our people. It may soften my father's heart if you are able to address him in his own tongue."
Zelda grimaced. "I think I already tried that one."
"What one?" Link asked; he had not been present during the mutual language lesson.
"Me žin mod-sefa licao leng swa wel," Sofia answered with a smile. "Can you say that?"
"You better not be able to say it first time," Zelda growled under her breath.
Link frowned. "Could you say that again... slower?"
"Me žin mod-sefa licao leng swa wel."
The young warrior took a deep breath. "Meh thin..." He stumbled on the next word.
"Ha!" Zelda crowed.
"žin, not thin," Sofia corrected with a wry smile, climbing into the saddle. "Can't either of you master one simple sound?"
"It's not a simple one," Link grumped. He shook out an empty saddlebag and put the kitten in, then sat the bag in front of him upon the horse's back. The warm darkness and gentle rocking would settle the young kit and perhaps send it to sleep, with its belly full of food.
"Let's go." The red-haired woman flicked her horse's reins and guided the animal up the slope of sand. The young warrior and the princess followed with little regret--it was, after all, growing hot and the shade that remained for them between the dunecrests was meager. Hardy they might have become, but the heat of the desert day was too strong for even the animals that lived there, and there fast approached the time when nothing moved upon the bleached sands. "Try just making the one word," Sofia suggested; "žin."
Link screwed his face up. "Th... pth... spht... pffth..."
"Ew!" Zelda grimaced. "Stop that!"
The young warrior sighed loudly. "It's too hard! My mouth's not the right shape!"
"Oh, and mine is?" Sofia challenged. "There's no difference, silly! And you almost had it. Try again!" She slowed her horse to walk alongside Link's, Zelda falling in beside her.
Far back along the desert trail the three sets of hoofprints stretched out over the smooth sand, marring it with their presence. The wind toyed with the marks, tipping a few grains of sand over the edges of the prints to round off their corners a little, but the day was a calm one and mostly the trail remained.
A ripple appeared in the sand as something moved underneath; many desert creatures took sanctuary under the surface of the desert when the midday heat shimmered over the crests and ripples of the sea of sand. Momentarily something broke the surface; something hard and sand-colored. The ripple submerged again in a moment, but two or three other ripples appeared in different places shortly after, and then another after that.
The hoofprints upon the dune surface shivered suddenly, and then the sand sank inwards to become a flat, smooth trough, wiping the tracks from the desert. The ripples surfaced again, heading up and over the dune, wiping out the tracks as they went. A small curl of wind floated along the dunetops and stirred grains into the air, but there were no longer prints for the breeze to play with.
Zelda was the one who first managed to approximate the sound. A pleased grin spread across the princess's face as she looked toward the red-haired Gerudo. "Sofia-!" The rest of her sentence was unspoken, but the meaning was clear. Did you hear that?
"Very good," the other woman said, sounding surprised. "Hold that thought. Now you, Link!"
The young warrior groaned. "Must I?"
"Come on," Sofia said briskly. "One more try."
Link took a breath. "Sspth... no. Can't do it." His horse snorted as if to express derision, and the others smiled at the funny happening. He made a horrible face. "Even our animals are against me!"
Sofia laughed. "Perhaps you had better do the talking, Zelda." The princess simpered smugly.
Link grew red in the face. "Right! I'm going to do this if it kills me!" he said crossly, intensely disliking Zelda's self-satisfied expression.
"Hopefully it won't come to that," the red-haired woman said dryly. "Try to make the sound harder. You El--Hylians--have mostly soft sounds in your language, which is why this is difficult for you."
"Go on, Link!" Zelda giggled. "You can do it!"
"Thph... daah!" He snarled in frustration.
Sofia was staring intently into the distance. It was a few moments before her companions noiced the silence of the red-haired woman, but when they did they both turned their attention onto her--such was their instinctive trust in each other that neither Link nor Zelda said anything but waited for the Gerudo woman to speak first. After a long and pregnant silence she drew a small breath and said, "Look. Do you see the reflection in the sky?"
Link frowned as he gazed into the expanse of deep blue, shimmering with heat-haze. Upon the horizon, above the dunes was an image, upside-down, of the tent city! It was so detailed that his sharp eyes made out even the people who walked upon the sand between the tents, though they were tiny and appeared as through rippling water. "Gaelaidh!" he said in excitement. "How near are we, Sofia?"
"I judge it to be an hour's ride away, no more." The red-haired woman drew her scarf up over her face. "Come, you two. Let us ride fast now! We shall soon be back in safety!" Without waiting for an answer she dug her heels into her mount's sides, and the gray-maned horse sprang forward over the sand. Link slapped his horse upon the rump to urge it forward, and he and the Royal Princess followed their escort at a gallop. The nearness of a place which could be called safe, beckoned to them. And once they reached Gaelaidh it would be a matter of speaking to the King and then they could return home to Hyrule. Hyrule... the very word conjured thoughts of home. The adventure in the Western Lands had been exciting, but both Link and Zelda were beginning to feel a desire for the green and pleasant fields of their own land. Perhaps sensing their riders' eagerness to be home or perhaps scenting the nearness of home themselves, the horses stepped up their pace, throwing sand out behind them as they ran.
Link made a sour face. Over and over again he mouthed the difficult words of Sofia's greeting. He was determined to have the phrase right in his mind and in his mouth before they reached Gaelaidh!
The ripples in the sand had reached the place where the three companions had stopped for their rest, and they found the discarded cloth which had wrapped the kitten's meat. For a moment the sand seemed to boil, so frenzied was the excitement as the wrapper was drawn into the sand and there torn to pieces. The companions' resting place was completely turned over by the movements beneath the sand, until no trace of their passing remained atop the surface of the desert.
The ripples flowed on, searching, following the tracks of the horses and the faint scent left in the sand.
The kitten suddenly mewed loudly, and Link jumped before placing a hand into the bag where it sat before him to check whether the little creature was all right. He felt its warm fur, and beneath the bunched muscles where the kit crouched. Its fur was bristled along its back. Frowning in puzzlement, the young warrior held the reins with one hand and tried to stroke the kit's fur down with the other. He could feel it trembling beneath his hand.
Sofia's horse reared suddenly, and it was only by a feat of good horsemanship that the red-haired woman was able to keep her seat. A moment later Zelda's own horse shied, and Link yanked on the reins to bring his mount to a halt, turning it round to try and calm the princess's spooked animal. The kit fought to be free of the leather bag, spitting and hissing like a creature gone demented.
"What's wrong with them?" the young warrior yelled, perplexed. He fought with his own horse, trying to force the animal to settle down, but the horse bucked and shook its head, skipping sideways across the sand.
Sofia gasped suddenly, and stared at the sand with wide eyes. "Leevers!" she cried, fumbling for a weapon.
"What?" Zelda shrieked. A moment later her horse bucked hard and threw her. The princess landed upon soft sand with a cry of surprise, and struggled to her feet. Sand rippled around her as things surfaced--things with dark leathery skin and humped backs armored by horny sand-colored spikes. Zelda jumped backwards and fell as one of the monsters heaved itself partially out of the sand towards her; she saw for a second a nightmarish visage, all gaping greenish mandibles, like some kind of giant crab.
Link leaped from his horse's back, drawing his sword in midair. The bag with the kitten dangled from the terrified horse's saddle horn, and in a moment the string which held it came loose. Hissing furiously the kit clawed its way from the bag and darted hither and thither upon the sand, seeking some kind of solid refuge where the monsters could not reach. The young warrior had no time to spare for his pet, however; he dashed forward with the Goddess's serpentine dagger in his left hand and brought the shining blade down upon the horny back of a Leever, driving the point in with all the force he could muster. The blade slid right through and came out slick with dark green ichor. Zelda found an arrow miraculously in her hand, and when the next monster leaped at her she shoved the slender dart at it point-first; the iron tip tore through the thick hide, and the wounded beast shuddered back beneath the sand in a spatter of green liquid.
Two of the horses had bolted, disappearing into the desert landscape, but one--Link's--remained. Neighing in fear the plucky little animal plunged and stamped upon the sand. Sofia, drawing her blade, advanced in a curious uneven stride and with a sharp swift slash cut one of the monsters in two. Yet, more remained. The three companions instinctively backed into a defensive circle upon the sand and watched the rippling intently; they were surrounded by a ring of seething sand, and the monsters were working themselves up for a full-scale assault.
"What are these things?" Zelda screamed.
"Leevers!" Sofia answered, breathing heavily. "Partly animal, partly plant--or at least that is what people say. They must have picked up our trail and been following us all this time!"
"They're carnivorous, I assume," Link said dryly. Sofia shot him a glare but his eyes were firm on the ripples, the long dagger readied in his hand.
"Ware!" Zelda cried suddenly. A Leever erupted from the sand right in the middle of their circle, and before any could react the monster had surged forward and attacked the Princess. Zelda cried out in pain as she felt the sharp mandibles of the plantlike creature slash into her calf.
With a snarl Link dived on the monster and slashed it to pieces. "I survived... being bitten by a... giant snake..." he panted as he attacked, "...and I am... not... going to be beaten by... a plant!"
"There are too many!" cried Sofia desperately as two more Leevers surfaced a few paces away and slid in for the kill. "We cannot fight all these!"
There was a sharp "ziip" followed by a meaty thud. With an unearthly yowl one of the monsters turned over in the sand and then began slowly to sink--visible embedded in its leathery flank was the red-fletched shaft of a longbow arrow. Sofia's eyes widened in amazement as two more arrows appeared seemingly out of nowhere, biting into the bodies of more Leevers. Then, indistinguishable from the dunes in their sand-colored clothing, Gerudo closed in around them, each holding a bow with an arrow nocked to the string. As if by magic, the Leevers disappeared.
Link knelt beside Zelda and shrugged off his leather Gerudo vest; quickly he wrapped the thick material around the Princess's gash, pressing it down to slow the bleeding. "Nice timing!" he called out to their rescuers.
One of the Gerudo came up to Sofia and laid a heavy hand on her shoulder, rumbling in the guttural tongue of the human peoples. She shook her head in disbelief and spat out a few sharp sentences, but the other did not seem to be interested in her words. Strong fingers grasped Link and pulled him away from Zelda; before he could react, an unsheathed dagger was pressing into his throat. Words rolled over him.
"Sofia!" the young warrior gasped, struggling with his captor. "What are they saying?"
The red-haired woman had upon her face an expression of shock. Her brows drew together in puzzlement and she spoke sharply to the apparent leader of the band. Her only answer was a vicious headshake. "They say," she began, her voice trembling, "that you are under arrest... for kidnapping me!"
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