Prologue: Chapter Thirteen
THE great hall of the King was filled with light and laughter, and as they walked past the entrance a wash of heat rolled over them, though the young night had already laid a chill upon the desert surface. Galdenor led them to another smaller tent, this one patterned in rich gold and turquoise thread. Although most of the population of Gaelaidh had turned out for the feast this night, the King and his generals sat apart from them in a private place where they could discuss the business of the coming year. It was here that they were to be, for Thorkelin had to be persuaded to let his daughter go back with the Hylians... and indeed, Harkinian would need to be persuaded too!
"I hope Daddy's not too cross," Zelda whispered to Link as they approached the doorway. "I had no wish to cause all this trouble!"
The young warrior shrugged. "There was nothing we could do, Princess. We had no way of knowing we would be kept in the deserts so long." He smiled crookedly, flashing his green eyes at her. "Besides, you had me to protect you, you were never in any danger--I'm sure the King will understand!"
Zelda seethed. "Oh, so you meant to get bitten by the cobra and leave all the fighting to Sofia and me?" she demanded, her own eyes glinting daggers. "And then we had to race across the desert to save your life! Great job, Link! Some Hero you are!"
Link frowned and folded his arms crossly, shaking his hair out of his eyes. That had stung him. "You would never have made it this far without me, so get used to it, Princess," he snapped.
"I would so!"
Sofia turned round and looked at them, eyebrows raised quizzically. "Is there a problem?" she asked mildly.
"Yes," Link muttered, "and it's called Zelda."
Galdenor moved in between them fast enough to catch Zelda's wrist before she could deliver another stinging slap. "Stop it, you two!" the prince ordered, scowling at each of them in turn. "Act your ages!" Zelda yanked ineffectually at her trapped wrist but Galdenor refused to release her, holding her gently yet firmly in his powerful hands. "Stop," he said, and though his voice was quiet it carried such a weight of authority that she did stop. Galdenor waited until she was quite still, and then he let her go. "Now listen to me," he insisted. "Both of you. This quest you have chosen will not be easy... and if you insist on acting like bickering children, you will fail. I am afraid you will both have to grow up quickly if you wish to become true Knights." He glanced at his sister, who looked on in some amusement. "Even you have a lot to learn, Sofia," Galdenor remarked.
"You can't tell me what to do," Zelda snapped.
The prince sighed heavily. "No, but I can advise you to work together, not against each other," he answered, looking into her eyes. "Trust me, it is the only way you will succeed. It is a dangerous world... dangerous for even a skilled warrior like Link to navigate alone. Is that not true, Link?"
Surprised by the question, Link glanced towards Zelda. "Yes... that's true," he answered reluctantly. "Many times during my first quest I was almost overwhelmed by the evil monsters Ganon sent to fight me."
"Exactly," Galdenor agreed. "Not that I am any expert on what you mean to do, but I strongly advise you to learn from each other and stick together." He looked away, toward the hills which surrounded the city. "I wish I could come with you," he said quietly.
"Father needs you here, big brother," Sofia said, touching his arm gently. "We'll be all right."
Galdenor smiled weakly. "I know," he answered.
Link's stomach rumbled.
He blushed as everybody looked at him with barely concealed amusement. "Okay, okay," Link huffed defensively, folding his arms again and scowling. "Can we get some food now?"
A warm golden light bathed the interior of the tent, emanating from tiny delicate shell-shaped lamps placed the length of the great stone table. Soldiers both Hylian and Gerudo stood against the walls, more or less at ease in the genial atmosphere of friendship. The contrast between the slim blonde elves with their silver armor and the heavyset dark-skinned humans in their sand-stained silks, was a strong, but a strangely pleasant one.
The two kings were sitting together at one end of the table, talking with great animation of their past exploits. It was evident that in the space of one day Harkinian and Thorkelin had become friends; the realisation boded well for the future of the Gerudo-Hylian peace. Link blushed shyly as he took his chair next to Zelda, at Harkinian's right hand; although he had spoken with the Hylian King before, when he had come to Hyrule to drive out Ganon, he was still very much in awe of the ruler of his homeland.
King Harkinian glanced up. "Ah, Link," he acknowledged gravely. "You have certainly gone native since I saw you last. You look quite at home in those clothes."
"Er, yes, Sire," Link stuttered. "That is... I mean... yes, Sire, sorry Sire," he finished lamely.
"Link, are you feeling all right?" Zelda asked sweetly. Sofia stifled a giggle as she sat down. Food was set before them by silent attendants, but nobody made a start on the hot roasted meat, cheese and fruit... not even Link.
Harkinian folded his hands on the table and leaned forward slightly to speak to Link. "We were just speaking about you," he began in more friendly terms. "You proved your courage once again this morning, I hear? I am impressed!"
Link's cheeks reddened. "I did very little, really, Your Highness," he explained modestly, recovering some of his poise. "It was Sofia and Galdenor who really saved our lives. Sofia has been our protector ever since we came here."
The Hylian King's eyes settled on the red-haired woman and he looked thoughtful as he said quietly, "I thank you for looking after them, young lady. We make no secret of the fact that my daughter and this young man are important to Hyrule. You will be rewarded."
"Oh, I want no reward," Sofia said in surprise. "In truth, there is just one thing that we all three need." She looked at Zelda with a faintly anxious expression. "I think the time is now," she murmured.
Zelda nodded slowly. The moment she had been dreading... she had to convince her father to let her go with Link on the quest to find the Amulets. There was no way around it, it seemed; Zelda might be the heir to the throne and the beloved Princess Royal, darling of the realm, but she was needed as a Legendary Knight. "Daddy, this wasn't just a childish adventure," she began, and lifted an object onto the table; the battered Book of Mudora, proof of the quest.
"Zelda..." began Harkinian sternly.
"No, daddy, hear me out," she interrupted. "I was studying the Book when a reference to the Knights of Hyrule caught my eye. The Knights were guardians of six medallions that were also keys to the Sacred Realm. People thought that the Amulets and their powers were lost, but we think we can find them and regain the Triforce for Hyrule!" She pushed the open book over to the King so that he could examine the reference himself. Leaning forward, her eyes alight, Zelda continued, "When we spoke to the Goddess of the Sand in the Spirit Temple, she told us that Link was going to be the first of the Knights, but Sofia and I also have a part in the quest. If we can get all six medallions back together, we could open the way to the Sacred Realm and bring back the Triforce--all of it, including the Power that Ganon now holds."
Harkinian read several pages carefully; the others watched the King's expression intently, alert for any change that might signify either his acceptance of the quest or his refusal. Finally he sighed and pushed the aged tome aside. "Zelda," he said sadly. "You should have told me."
"But you would have stopped us going!" Zelda cried in despair. "Daddy, please don't say no! Imagine if we can get the Triforce back! We would have the power to destroy Ganon forever! We would be free!"
"I need to go with them," Sofia broke in. "We three are going to be the first of the Knights, if we can find the Amulets. Destiny brought us together..." She looked appealingly at Harkinian, and then at her own father.
It was Thorkelin who spoke next. "You are very young to be riding off on such a quest," the Desert King growled. "Sofia, I do not feel happy about this scheme. Neither are you, Link and Zelda, ready for the enemies you would face before you could complete a task like this. It is too dangerous for children."
"Zelda, you simply cannot run off and become a warrior," Harkinian said. "You have responsibilities as the heir to the throne of Hyrule."
Link scowled and slammed his fist onto the table, making the others jump. "Listen, everyone!" he insisted loudly. "If we do not do this, in three hundred years Ganon will return and devastate the world once again! You know what that means--we suffered the effects only a few years ago, are still suffering them in some cases!" He glared at the two Kings as he ticked off points on his fingers. "Famine, war, plague, pestilence, monsters. There are still dark places in Hyrule where nothing will grow, left over from the last time Ganon rose, and that was three hundred years ago! The land cannot take this abuse for ever. And what if the next Hero failed to be born? Or the one after that? Nobody can oppose Ganon with an army." The young warrior pushed his chair back. "If we fail to retrieve the Amulets of Legend," he said more quietly, "if we fail to take this chance, it will mean the eventual destruction of the world."
There was a grim silence after his speech. Harkinian stared at the mute pages of the Book of Mudora which lay discarded upon the table, and Thorkelin sat stroking his beard, a deep frown marking his forehead. Link and Zelda looked at each other with identical worried faces, and Sofia grabbed Galdenor's wrist under the table. The prince himself opened his mouth as if to speak, but then seemed to think better of it and sighed instead.
"Anyway," Link said finally, "the Hero of Time was only ten when he saved the world. I have a few years on him at least."
Harkinian raised his head and met the young warrior's eyes with a grave face. "Forgive me for saying so, Link," he remarked, "and I mean no disrespect, but you are not the Hero of Time. Hyrule has never birthed a warrior to equal him. After all, he was the son of Farore."
"As legend would have it," contradicted Zelda. "That's just a rumour."
"Look!" Galdenor snapped, seeing the conversation about to dissolve into nit-picking, "I appreciate that you Hylians take your heroes seriously, but this is no time or place for a theological debate. It does not matter whether Link First's mother was Farore, Din or the woman next door! What does matter is whether the quest to find the Amulets of Legend may continue. I suggest you both let them go. This is too important a chance to do otherwise." With a snort, he sat back in his chair and crossed his arms to indicate that his part in the debate was over.
Finally, Thorkelin sighed heavily and asked, "Where will you start, if I say Sofia may go?"
Zelda pressed a hand to her mouth. They had not planned beyond the Spirit Temple. "We... do not know," she admitted hesitantly. Then, struck by an idea, "We made no long-term plans because we knew that you might not let me go, daddy," she said brightly, turning to her father.
A wry smile crossed Harkinian's features. If he now said that long-term plans should have been made, he would be covertly permitting Zelda and Link to continue their quest. On the other hand, if he agreed that thinking ahead would have been useless, he would make himself look bad in front of Thorkelin. "You're a clever girl," the King remarked instead, an ambiguous answer which would neither agree nor disagree with Zelda's statement.
"So can we do it?" Zelda asked impatiently.
"Zelda," Harkinian sighed. "It is too dangerous. Like Thorkelin, I would not feel happy about sending you off into such danger. You are my only child... if anything were to happen to you I know not what I should do." The earnestness in his voice told them that he was speaking from the heart, but his very honesty as he spoke sounded like a death-knell for the hopes of resurrecting the knighthood.
The Princess took a deep breath and sat up, looking her father in the eye. "If you will not let me go," she said firmly, "I will just have to do it without your permission. I will run away again and disguise myself as the first Princess did."
"She will, you know," Link interjected.
"Enough talk!" Galdenor exploded suddenly. "All we have done today is sit around and chatter! For Goddess's sake, either say yea or nay, but waste no more time!"
Thorkelin shrugged, and reached out to take some of the food on his plate. "Well... I have some confidence in my own daughter's abilities," he remarked, breaking off a piece of cheese, "and I know that she is just as headstrong as your own young one seems to be, Harkinian. They pull and they pull at you and in the end they get their own way. What can we poor parents do but let them try?"
The Hylian King was silent for a long moment, and then he nodded slowly. "So you are set on carrying out this insane quest of yours, Zelda," he answered despairingly. "If the only way I can stop you is to lock you up, I suppose I shall have to let you go..."
Link smiled slowly in sheer joy. "The quest is on," he murmured, almost to himself. "I swear to Farore that I shall not rest until all the Amulets are found..."
"Link?" King Harkinian asked. The young warrior turned to face his liege lord and gulped under the fire of a true royal glare. "What is that thing you are holding?" the King demanded, scowling.
"Er, this?" Link tucked the sand kitten firmly under his arm as he realised she had been eating the beautifully woven tablecloth while they all talked. "It's a cat," he explained, smiling hopefully at the irate monarch. "I was given her when we met up with some nomads on the way back from the Spirit Temple--they were really, really kind to us--"
"I can see it's a cat," Harkinian snapped. "What's it doing here?"
"Oh sire!" Link protested, hugging the kit protectively. "It would have been cruel to leave her behind!"
"Sand cat, is it?" Thorkelin asked in interest. "Pass it over here, young knight." He held his hands out for the kit and Link hesitantly handed her over. Prowl yowled as she was separated from her owner, and tried to scratch the human king into submission. "Ssh, pretty one," he murmured, taking little notice of the sharp claws that raked his bare forearms. He flipped the kitten over to look at her underside, then examined her ears and her overlarge feet, finally ruffling up her fur and glancing in her mouth. She hissed and swatted at his long nose. "Looks well," Thorkelin remarked in appreciation. "What do you feed her?"
The young warrior blushed. "Anything and everything really, m'lord," he explained. "She ate everything we offered her, anyway."
"Give her meat, raw and of the best quality," Thorkelin ordered, handing the kit back over the table. "I had a sand cat once. We grew up together..." The king's expression grew thoughtful as he relived those far-off days.
"That may be," Harkinian remarked, "but in my country we do not have animals to eat at table with us. Link, from now on you will leave your pet elsewhere when you enter my presence."
"Yes, sire," Link sighed.
Zelda changed the subject. "Daddy, when do we leave for Hyrule?" she asked hopefully. "We want to start searching for the Amulets as soon as we can."
"Steady on," Harkinian said, smiling at last.
"There's no rush, surely," Galdenor suggested. "You might as well stay here another day to get your strength back before going through the Verradan."
"The what?" Link asked.
"The Verradan--the valley that leads through the mountains to your land," explained the prince. "What do you call it, the deep pass?"
"We just call it Gerudo Valley," Zelda admitted.
"The pass will have been cleared by now," Harkinian remarked, sitting back in his chair. "I sent for stonemasons once I found that the valley was blocked." A faint smile crossed his stern features as he went on, "There is no way I am clambering over that rockfall again!"
"How did you get the horses across?" Link asked. "We had to set ours loose... sire!" he amended as the King turned a wrathful look on him. "Sorry, sire!"
"Have you got our horses?" Zelda queried eagerly.
The King sighed. "Yes, yes, I have your horses. They were wandering around in the valley looking for a way out. I think that since you will be running around Hyrule like a trio of Cukkos, I will have to make Link a gift of the red horse." Turning to Sofia, he smiled gallantly. "You may have your choice of the royal stables also, young princess, unless you would prefer to bring a horse of your own." Zelda's eyes widened slightly; despite her knowing that Sofia was Thorkelin's daughter, she had never really thought of her as a princess like herself. Sofia seemed uneasy at being called that, though she smiled and nodded her thanks.
"That horse is to be mine?" Link exclaimed in shock, overcome. "Thank you so much, sire! He's much faster than my own!"
"And has a greater lineage," Harkinian answered gravely. "You took one of the best when you ran off with my daughter, Link. That horse is, it is said, descended from the godly steed ridden by the Hero of Time. His name is Bolt."
"By the Goddess!" Thorkelin exclaimed in sudden anger, leaping to his feet. "What is that noise?"
The faint sounds of shouting had been getting steadily louder for the past few minutes, but only now was their attention drawn to it. Galdenor and Sofia looked at each other in surprise, and some of the Hylian guards in the room shifted nervously and fingered the hilts of their silvered swords.
With a set expression on his face, Thorkelin strode to the flap of the tent and jerked it wide open. A faint scent of smoke drifted in through the opening, and a faint orange glow added to the light from the gentle lamps within the tent. Thorkelin's eyes widened in shock and astonishment, and he muttered, "Goddess..!"
"What is it?" Galdenor asked anxiously, rising.
The black horse reared and plunged as a young Gerudo woman ran past almost beneath its nose. Screaming in fury the hellish animal galloped after the terrified woman, its black-cloaked rider brandishing a huge hooked sword in his gauntleted hand. Terror clung to him in a tangible cloud, for his hood had blown back as he rode and now his face was visible. Or rather, his lack of a face. Nothing more than a grinning skull sat atop the dark rider's neck; the black eyesockets were alight with a flaming glow that was mirrored in the smoking eyes of his evil mount. Rolling laughter, impossibly deep, came from somewhere within the flapping confines of the cloak as he raised his viciously hooked blade high above him to bring it down on the woman's unprotected body. Two of his comrades held burning torches in their bony fingers, and they rode through the streets of the city in a blaze, setting light to homes as they flew past on their horrible steeds. Others terrorized the fleeing inhabitants, lashing at them from behind as they turned to run.
Forcing his horse back under control the skeleton leader fixed his blazing glare upon a tenage boy who lay in the sand clutching a deep gash upon his hip. "Where are the Hylians?" the creature demanded in a thunderous voice, urging his mount up to the fallen boy. He received no answer, for the lad took one look at the apparition before him and fell back unconscious.
The skeletal warrior dug his boots into the sides of his horse, making the beast rear and paw the air with its sparking hooves. "Give us the Hylians or we'll kill you all!" he roared, sweeping the frightened crowds with his fiery gaze. The great sword he held was already stained with blood.
"'Ere, Julius," muttered one of his companions, trotting his animal up to his leader. "I don't think they understand Hylian."
"Shut up," Julius said evenly. Turning his attention back to the Gerudo, he tried once again. "Give us the Hylians!" he boomed, stabbing out at them with his sword. Only baffled stares met him in answer. "Bloody 'ell, this lot are dim," he remarked thoughtfully to his companion.
"Let's kill 'em all," the other warrior suggested eagerly. "'Ave some fun." His bare jawbones clicked as he spoke.
Julius sighed. "Lissen, you," he began. "We're doing a job 'ere, we're not 'ere to 'ave fun. So shut up and go burn some more of them tents. We'll flush 'em out soon enough."
"Right, Julie," the other warrior exclaimed, wheeling his horse about.
"And don't call me Julie!" Julius shouted after him, but he had already gone. "Bloody 'ell," he muttered again, and fell back on simple, understandable language for the benefit of the idiots in front of him. "Right, you lot! Hand over the Hylians or be squished!"
"You want Hylians?" came a familiar voice--oh, so familiar. "Come and get them!"
Julius flinched visibly as he turned. "You!" he exclaimed, lifting his great sword up as his mount prepared to charge.
"Me!" Link agreed, scowling as he drew the serpentine dagger from his belt. The great dark horse charged.
"What are Stalfos doing here?" Zelda cried, staring at the monsters from the doorway of the tent.
"You've seen these things before?" Sofia asked her in shock.
"Get out of the way!" roared King Harkinian, pulling both princesses back inside the tent as the evil steed raced past in pursuit of Link. The young warrior knew he had no chance of outrunning the black horse, so he did the next best thing--dived to the ground and rolled out of the way. The Stalfos's sword missed him by an inch as the horse pranced and skidded to a halt in a cloud of sand.
"She's been looking for you," Julius snarled, leaping from his horse's back to meet the Hero of Hyrule on more even ground.
"Who's she, the cat's mother?" Link asked, and dodged as the Stalfos commander swung. "I thought you guys only worked for Ganon!"
"Times 'ave changed, see," Julius grunted, taking a blow full in the chest. The serpentine dagger clattered between the bony spars of his ribs, doing him little real harm. He retaliated with a heavy overhand swing, which Link only just managed to evade. "Dunno what she wants with you, Mr. Hero, but s'long as she pays us we don't ask no questions!"
Zelda had watched this far, but now she was filled with the same battle-rage she had experienced in the Spirit Temple. She snatched a sword from one of the Hylian guards and raced forward into the fray, just a little too fast for her father to grab her and drag her back. "Zelda!" King Harkinian shouted, and gestured fiercely at the soldiers who stood by. "Get her to safety!"
"No, fight the Stalfos!" the Princess shouted back, racing towards where Julius and Link circled warily in the sand. Before she could reach them a darkly sparking body came between her and the fight; Julius's nightmare horse reared, shrilling a stallion's war cry, and struck out with its iron hooves.
Sofia and Galdenor looked at each other in unspoken communication, and then they both flung caution to the winds and raced to the defense of their friends. More Stalfos were riding up all the time and if some of them were not dispatched soon then, even with the help of Harkinian's guards and Thorkelin's soldiers, the defenders would be outnumbered.
Link, though he fought not to show it, was in trouble. He had known that the loss of sensation in his right hand would cause problems when he came to fight again, but he had not understood at the time how much the muscles in his right side had been weakened. He couldn't lift his trembling arm enough to swing the sword. His deadened fingers could barely hang on to it. He switched the serpentine dagger to his left hand and attempted to present his stronger left side to the Stalfos's attacks. He was barely trained to fight with his left.
Julius's speech might be crude, but the Stalfos commander was no fool in battle and he saw his opponent's weakness clearly. His flaming eyes seemed to glow with anticipation as he circled, his intention being to wear Link out before moving in for the kill.
Zelda was finding the black steed just as tough to fight as the Stalfos themselves. In truth the horse was no mortal animal but a nightmare from another plane of existence, summoned to Hyrule by magic. Locking eyes with the evil beast the Princess used all her skill to duck the creature's deadly hooves, ever ready to use the soldier's silver sword against it--should she ever get the chance! She wished she had a bow or something which would allow her to try and attack the nightmare from a distance; the sword would force her to get right up to the creature before injuring it.
Without warning there was a buzz and a white-feathered Hylian arrow struck the nightmare in the haunch; the monster screamed and whirled, distracted for a moment into fighting another nonexistent enemy. Zelda seized the opportunity and leaped at the creature, grabbing the saddle horn and pulling herself up onto the monster's back! It bucked and reared furiously to throw her off but Zelda had been riding spirited horses from an early age. She stayed atop the creature despite all its struggles, forcing it under control.
Galdenor had wrested a sword from one of the Stalfos, splintering its bony limbs with his bare hands as he wrestled with it. Throwing the broken skeleton down the prince raised the great sword to block a blow by yet another Stalfos, and the collision of the two weapons shed sparks onto the sand. Now that the first moment of shock and horror had passed, the Gerudo were fighting back with fury.
"We're winning!" Sofia yelled, and then saw Link falter. She drew her own little dagger. "Don't give up, I'm coming!" Julius laughed at the young warrior and swept his foot out to trip him up. Link's foot caught on the Stalfos's boot, and he fell headlong. Sofia swore and sprinted to the rescue.
Now Gerudo men and women were racing to the rescue. Scimitars swept out on all sides. The tide of battle was turning against the monsters. Suddenly the dark horses disappeared in a shower of sparks; whatever evil magic had held them to the world was ended and they vanished like shadows in sunlight. The two kings' troops pulled together as if they had been on the same side all their lives, and closed in on the stranded monsters. Zelda tumbled to the ground in a heap as the nightmare disappeared from under her. Sitting up, the princess found the silver sword at her side and looked for any further enemies to kill.
There was only Julius. He was prevented from landing the fatal blow upon Link's body by Sofia's knife, which smashed down on his forearm and shattered chips from the bone. Outnumbered now, the Stalfos commander backed away but he was surrounded in moments by armed Hylians and Gerudo. He crouched at bay in the center of a ring of steel. Link got clumsily to his feet, sticking his serpentine dagger through his belt; Sofia laid her hand on his shoulder. "Are you hurt?" she asked quietly.
"No," the young warrior muttered, breathing heavily. He wiped sand off his brow.
Thorkelin strode forward into the circle that had formed around the last surviving Stalfos. "Why have you come here?" the King demanded in ringing tones.
"I'll say nothin'," Julius growled, shaking his sword. "Come an' get me!" His flaming eyes challenged all who stood around him as he waited for someone to attack.
"Who were you working for?" Link insisted.
The Stalfos laughed hollowly. "You'll find out!" he roared. And with that, he swung his heavy sword up and cut off his own head. The bones, suddenly free of the magical animation that had brought them to life, clattered to the ground in a pile which dissolved to ancient dust even as it lay.
There was silence. Glancing around, Link saw that the fires set in the tents had been brought under control. Whatever heinous plot had been hatched, it had failed here. He looked at Zelda with worry visible in his eyes. The Hylian Princess bit her lip as she looked at the remains of the Stalfos. "We have to get back to Hyrule," she said eventually, speaking to King Harkinian. "They came here because we were here. Someone else is already interested in the medallions."
"And for once, it's not Ganon," muttered Link.
The King nodded slowly. "We'll leave first thing in the morning," he said.
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