Shadowed Fate

By Farore769

Chapter 7: Riders


A bird’s chirp jarred Link awake, and he instantly sat upright, heart hammering. Pale predawn light filtered down into his hiding place, and he exhaled in relief as he realized he was not captured. Cursing himself for falling asleep--Burning great way to get yourself captured--he squirmed out beneath the fallen tree, rising and brushing his dirt-stained breeches off in a vain attempt to clean them. Glancing around, he pictured the camp, every detail he could remember, and, after examining the trees around him, struck off west through the sprawling wood.

            Minutes passed, the light increasing steadily and the animals awakening with bursts of angry chattering or warning shrieks as he passed them. At points, the bushes around him were broken and trampled, sometimes with blood sprinkled on them. He winced every time he saw those dark drops, wondering when he would stumble upon Ria’s body. Maybe I’ll finally get a look at her face.

            Quite suddenly, Link stumbled into the camp, and he stared about. There was his sword, its rose and green blade winking in the sunlight striking its bare surface. And there was the rest of his equipment, in a pile near the sword, some of the arrows spilling out of the quiver. The horses were awake, Phantom whickering softly, all seemingly unhurt. But, at the sight of his three remaining companions, he stopped dead before rushing forward.

            Pelayla lay on the ground, one wing beneath her and the others so crumpled and bent they seemed useless for flying. Her light flickered feebly, dying to reveal a tiny nude woman clothed only in her long black hair before guttering back to life and leaving only her ruined wings in sight. Link stumbled over and fell to his knees, lifting her carefully. Pelayla stirred feebly, moaned, and stilled again. Realizing he knew nothing about caring for fairies, he set her down and hurried over to Noah.

            Kneeling beside the man, Link gingerly lifted his upper body as the Karradaini groaned, his eyes opening slowly. A long gash ran diagonally across his chest, slashing through his garments and staining both coat and shirt with blood, while another spot of crimson blossomed on his shoulder. Slowly, Link removed the torn coat, setting it aside.

            “Don’t worry... ‘bout me, Link,” Noah panted hoarsely, green eyes glazed in pain. “Damn thing only--only scratched me.”

            Link shook his head as he tore the shirt along the seams before peeling it away from the blood-caked skin. “I’m surprised you didn’t bleed to death.” Even as those words left his mouth, the mottled scabs broke open, fresh blood fanning across the Karradaini’s front. Tearing a long strip from the ruined shirt, Link wrapped it around Noah’s chest like a bandolier, scarlet soaking through the wool almost immediately.

            Another piece of cloth wound around the man’s stabbed shoulder, but he seized Link’s wrist in a desperate grip and gasped out, “See to... to Ranchgirl.”

            Filled with trepidation, Link glanced over at Romani. She lay face-down in a sprawled heap, one arm stretched before her, her bow resting a few inches from her fingers. At a glance, she seemed in better shape than Noah, but Link still hurried as he stoked the fire, filling a traveling pot from Heartfire’s saddlebags with water before setting it on the coals. Once done, he made his way to the woman, her red hair covering her face like a curtain. Gently, he lifted a lock and swore.

            Romani’s face was white and drawn, dark lines beneath her eyes speaking of intense pain. Link flipped her over onto her back, watching the shallow, irregular rise and fall of her chest. A heavy crossbow bolt was buried in her right side, either lodged between two ribs or punched through one, and a whimper accompanied every breath, as though drawing air into her lungs hurt.

            I’m no healer! Walking back to Noah, Link picked up the torn shirt and returned to Romani, unsure how to draw the bolt out of her. A quick examination proved that, while the bolt was buried deep, it had somehow avoided any bone. But it was caught at an angle that caused its head to snag upon the lower of the two ribs; one slight tug was enough to prove that, with Romani flailing and convulsing but unable to regain consciousness. If I kill her.... Drawing a deep breath, Link pushed the metal shaft down, twisted it so it aligned with the hole, and yanked it out.

            A strangled scream came from Romani, and blood pulsed from the deep wound. Ripping a piece of cloth from the ragged shirt, Link tied it around her ribs, covering the puncture. Gently easing her to the ground, he covered her with her blanket, sighing with relief as her breathing improved, though it was still labored.

            “Is she--gonna live?” Noah asked, propping himself up on his elbows.

            “I hope so,” Link answered. Walking up to Phantom, Link dug through the waterproof rucksack lashed to the saddle, pulling out the mage oil and sack of fireroot. Returning to the fire, he pulled the pot off and, once again digging through the supplies on Heartfire’s back, procured two tin mugs. Pouring a stream of hot water into each cup, Link shook a few drops of mage oil in each and then crumbled some fireroot. He packed away the excess before walking to Noah and handing him a mug.

            “What’s this?” the Karradaini asked, peering suspiciously into the mug’s contents.

            “Drink,” Link ordered, propping him upright. “It will help.”

            Noah took a sip and gagged, spluttering while making faces that hinted at extreme distaste. “Stuff tastes bloody terrible. What’s in it?”

            “Water, mage oil, and fireroot.”

            Cautiously, he swallowed more, face twisting in revulsion. “Disgusting. Singularly disgusting.”

            “Drink it all,” Link commanded. “I need to give Romani some, too.”

            “Damn stuff tastes foul. No doubt you mixed in Keese entrails to give it this... memorable flavor.”

            Link ignored him and, after making sure he would be able to remain upright on his own, walked over to Romani. The redhead was beginning to stir, tossing about under the thin blanket, eyes roving sightlessly beneath their lids. Gently, he shook her, and her eyes fluttered open, locking onto him. “Grasshopper...?”

            “It’s me,” he assured her, donning what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “Hold still. There might be some internal damage, and moving might only increase it.”

            “I couldn’t let them take you,” she whispered, one hand wrapping around his scabbed wrist. “I tried... to save you.”

            “Hush,” he ordered gently, lifting her head a little. “Drink this. It will make you sleep and will repair some of the damage.” Bringing the cup to her lips, he tilted it slightly.

            Romani drank it without comment, and then Link helped make her as comfortable as possible, even removing his cloak and draping it over, though he tucked the pin from Malon in the pouch with ocarina and prophecy. Soon, she was asleep, breathing deeply, and he checked on Noah. The man also slumbered, and Link grabbed the man’s cloak and covered him with it. With nothing to do, Link returned to his equipment and put it all back on, his bare sword resting across his knees. Staring off, he wondered if he had done more harm than good. He had never been good at healing, preferring to let his wounds take their own course, and never before had he attempted to bandage or dose other people.

            Memories of healing swam within his mind, but he could thankfully tell these from his own--and Darmani’s, and Mikau’s; their remembrances were as good as his, now. These were of military officers, sometimes tending others, sometimes being sewn up themselves. Officers of a massive army of a bloodthirsty kingdom. The longest the army had gone with inactivity was twelve years.

            He clutched his head. Those were new, those memories of leading bloody battles, of outmaneuvering those inferiors from the plains, of striking fast and hard at Gerudo when they foolishly ventured inland, away from the seas and their ships, of harrying those jumped-up fish and rocks away from where civilization and proper order existed, of ruthlessly crushing rebellion after rebellion, more attacks and assaults than one man could ever see in one lifetime--

            Forcefully, Link dragged his mind from those recollections, and they faded away. He only hoped to spare himself from having those memories become twined indistinguishably with his own. For he remembered seeing such things, of judging off those memories to deal with things, when he wore the--

            “Oh, ow. My goddesses, I feel terrible.”

            Turning, Link watched Pelayla attempt to fly, her wings refusing to move. Light shivering and pulsing with the force of her life--now strong and bright, now fading and dimming--she dragged herself across the ground, heading toward him. Setting his sword beside him, Link picked her up in one hand, carefully bending her wings back to their former state. “Are you okay?”

            Her light became stronger, without as much difference between the strongest point and the weakest. “Ugh, I haven’t felt this bad since I drank a whole shot of Deathwhiskey. Ooh....”

            “You’ve had some?” Link asked incredulously.

            “Yes, and nasty, foul stuff it is, too,” Pelayla replied in obvious bad temper, though her voice remained weak. “How did you get away last night?”

            “The person holding me dropped me,” he explained. “Then Ria fought them before fighting with another person, and I managed to crawl away and wait the night out. How come you aren’t dead? That man crushed you!”

            “Besides taking her life force or placing her in a magically resistant prison, there is only one way to kill a fairy.”

            Trying to figure it out, Link asked, “And how’s that?”

            She paused, then said, “Remove her wings.”

            He was so startled he almost dropped her. “What?”

            “Remove her wings,” Pelayla repeated, sounding disgruntled. “Without wings, a fairy can’t live; they gather the magical winds that blow from the stars and moon and sun and everything else molded from Farore’s own hands and filter them to the fairy for nourishment and a revitalization of the magic that keeps the fairy alive.” She gave her wings an experimental twitch and sighed for, despite Link’s best efforts, deep creases remained in them, breaking through the delicate silver veins pulsing just beneath their gossamer surfaces. “I don’t believe my wings will work as well as they used to. Quite aside from keeping us alive, our wings help us get around. Unlike birds or insects or any other creature that can fly, fairies cannot walk.”

            “You can’t?”

            In answer, her light became transparent, framing the small woman with the pure white skin, her black hair falling past her hips. Staring up at Link with dark eyes a touch larger than he would have expected, she lifted one slender leg, displaying her small foot. “Our feet are too small to support us and, honestly, are just dead weight.” Abruptly, her light became pink again, hiding her once more. “So, Ria essentially saved you? Where is she?”

            Link paused. “She... never came back.”

            A small gasp, a flutter of battered wings, and Pelayla managed to float a few inches above his palm. “Do you think she’s...?” She could not finish the question.

            “I don’t know,” Link answered truthfully. “I overheard a conversation between two of the people who had attacked us, one the man who had fought with Ria directly. He seemed to think he had mortally wounded her. But I do know that we can’t dwell on death. If I had, I would have gone mad long ago. We must press on and hope that Ria is in a better place.”

            “That’s a little harsh,” Pelayla commented, resting on his hand once again.

            “It’s the truth,” he replied. “If a commander stopped to mourn the loss of every soldier who died, he would never win. I speak from experience.”

            “Really?” The fairy sounded skeptical. “How?”

            “I am the captain of an army.”

            Captain?” she exclaimed. “You’re only nineteen!”

            “Eighteen, actually,” he corrected. “But I was eleven when the rank was passed on to me.”

            She still seemed doubtful. “Captain of what army?”

            “The army of the Ikana Kingdom of Termina.”

            “And you led this army in battle?” Pelayla asked.

            Those memories that were not his returned, brought on by the conversation. “No, but in a sense, I have. You see,” he explained, “one captain leads the army under the king, and that captain always wears a mask into battle, a mask that denotes his rank. When I first donned that mask, I found the soldiers would obey me without question. The more I wore it, though, the more I saw and remembered other things, things seen and experienced by those who had worn the mask before me. In the beginning, they were all memories of my predecessor, Captain Keeta, but then others from further back in time drifted up. And while I wore that mask, the memories were mine. Some of them are still in my head, though they rarely show up, and I can still distinguish them from my own.”

            “So it had felt like you had lived through those battles,” Pelayla said, seeming to understand. “There must be a great deal of magic in that mask.”

            “Yes,” Link replied, not paying attention to her words. Those memories washed over him, one he had seen more often than all the others combined standing out.

            He sat on a tall, fierce-eyed warhorse clad in black armor, over a hundred pounds of plate metal, and that did not include Link in his matching armor, so black it seemed to absorb all light, with vicious spikes at shoulder and elbow, and a heavy blade balanced across the pommel of his saddle, next to the raven-topped baton that went with his office. Yet despite the weight, Lancer bore it well, always dashing into battle and among stabbing pikes light as a spirited colt.

            Automatically, Link reached up and touched the Captain’s Hat, hoping to draw some insight from the skeletal mask. None of the previous captains had ever faced anything like this, however. Rebellion had cracked the kingdom countless times before, yet the rebels had never stooped so low as to seek aid from the lesser people of the realm. And those inferiors had never had the gall to provide it! Clenching his fist angrily, he erected the wall in his mind and shut off the memories, this first thing the captain-heir was taught.

            “Captain Keeta?” his first lieutenant-guard said.

            Link glanced at the armored man waiting at his side before twisting in his saddle and staring back at the soldiers. Five thousand loyal men, divided into many companies of horse and foot, with a reserve cavalry beyond the hill if things went badly--as they would this day--men who would follow him to death and beyond, men who would die this day, as they had been dying since the start of this cursed war.

            “Is the first unit of foot ready, Lieutenant Lyran?” Link asked.

            The man nodded. “Yes, Captain. They await your signal. And the other half of the army is ready to the west.”

            Nodding, Link faced forward. A simple plain, with a few small copses and hills that undoubtedly held all those ranks of Hylians and humans, Gerudo, Zoras, and Gorons, and, if he and his army were extremely unlucky, those mysterious Garo. It was because of those cloaked warriors that the war was going so badly for the kingdom; they were able to slip, unseen, among the castle and army camps and learn the battle plans. If not for them, the rebels would have been crushed long ago.

            “Lieutenant Lyran, if I fall, I want you to take the Captain’s Hat. Take it... and wear it.”

            The man gasped. No one could just put on the Captain's Hat without training. The second-in-command could pick it up if the captain fell, could use it like a banner to rally the soldiers, but to put it on was to court madness and death.

            “But Captain Keeta, sir, the captain-heir--”

            “Died in the ambush yesterday,” Link said bluntly. That ambush had cost him nearly two thousand men. How did those blasted Garo learn about our location? The Garo were undoubtedly some elite group of rebels, or else the cause of the rebellion. The kingdom had split after the prince died so suddenly and his grief-stricken wife had fled. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more it seemed the Garo were probably behind the prince’s murder and the abduction of the princess.

            Movement out on the plain caught his eye. Staring, Link watched rank upon rank of Gerudo march forward, unwilling to trust horses and thus carrying long pikes. Behind them, light cavalry moved, flanked by Gorons wielding huge spiked axes and massive war hammers, also serving to protect the Zoras among them. Zoras were a pacific people for the most part, the majority of their warriors long dead, but they served as healers. Those that chose to fight wore strange armor that resembled sheets of ice untouched by the burning sun overhead. Heavy cavalry brought up the rear, surrounded by crossbowmen and archers with longbows as tall as them.

            Is Igos mad? Link wondered, lip curling as he stared at the humans--he did not care that many bore long pointed ears; no true Hylians would join the rebels, meaning that those had to be impostors--mingling with the lesser races as though they were equals. We cannot win here, and he knows it. I think he might just want to kill as many as he can. Perhaps he wants me out of the way; perhaps he sees me as too intelligent, a threat. Ever since his son died--before, actually--evil and darkness have consumed the hearts of all in the kingdom, destroying us from the inside.

            “Raise the banners,” Link ordered.

            Among the ranks, dozens of tall standards rose, the raven dark against the snowy white field it flew across. At the same time, a horn’s cry rang out, echoed by others. The rebel army shifted in their direction, those originally of the Ikana Kingdom--well, everyone was a part of the Ikana Kingdom; these had just accepted that fact, before the madness of rebellion seized them--undoubtedly goading the others on to crush them. Swallowing, Link thought, Keep all their attention focused on us. The others might manage to break and scatter them, but death will come to us.

            “Lieutenant Lyran, remember, don the Captain’s Hat if I fall,” Link ordered, gripping the baton before fitting it in a hole at the front of his saddle, so it stood upright. He wrapped a hand around his heavy blade, scratched and marked from previous battles, and sighed.

            “Yes, Captain Keeta,” the man answered finally.

            Link nodded, and then someone winded a sharp blast from a horn. Ranks of pikemen trotted forward, armor rattling as they arranged themselves into a square with crossbowmen in their midst, directed by an officer on a horse armored so lightly it would hardly serve to protect it, though the minimal protection did result in greater speed. The rebels lurched forward, one side swinging to their left, the other staying to the right, to see what the cavalry and remaining foot would do, with their heavy cavalry in the middle to slam down on the pikes. Link allowed himself one brief smile as things turned out how he had thought they would--as brilliant a strategist as their general was, he was rather predictable--and raised his sword, pointing it at the army.

            He dug his heels into Lancer’s sides, one hand gripping the reins, and the charger sprang forward. “Ikaaaaaanaaaaaaaaaaa!”

            Behind him, the soldiers followed, voicing the battlecry, perhaps for the last time. “Ikaaaaaanaaaaaaaaaaa!”

            The right arm of the rebel’s pincer swung toward them, the Gerudo arranging themselves with their pikes aimed at the horses’ chests. Behind them, Zoras raised strange bows and fired arrows that seemed... cold. One struck a man in the gap between helm and breastplate, and he froze instantly before shattering. So. Now they were using magic openly, and not for healing. “Ikaaaaaanaaaaaaaaaaa!”

            Beyond a hill to the right, Link watched for a flicker of movement, the movement that would signify the other part of his army moving in to snap up the rebels. He and the soldiers with him were truly only the bait of the trap, an idiotic charge to distract them. And all the while, the space between the two forces closed.

            Suddenly, he spotted it. He stared at the peak of the hill hopefully, waiting to see the raven banner flying in the wind. And he cursed openly as a person in violet robes stood on the crest, a slim blade in either unseen hand. More Garo lined the top, all robed and hooded, and then they charged downward in a flood, perfectly silent. Link faced forward again, his heart suddenly dull within his breast, truly at a loss for the first time in his life. They--the kingdom of Ikana, and everything the noble raven banner stood for--was lost. Everything was lost. Reaching up, he hooked his fingers under the Captain’s Hat and pulled it off a moment before the armies crashed together.

            Abruptly, the memory ended. Link swayed a little, shaking his head, and then he erected those barriers around the memories, as Skull Keeta had done. Surprisingly, it worked.

            “Sounds like you’ve been through a lot,” Pelayla commented.

            He pressed a hand to his forehead. “I’m not the same person who left the forest eight years ago.”

            “Well, it’s a good thing you did leave. Otherwise, you never would’ve met me.”

            Chuckling, Link made his way toward Phantom and dug some food from the saddlebags, carrying the fairy in his right hand. “Why do the Kokiri have guardian fairies?” he asked as he sat down and crossed his legs. It was an idle question, intended to occupy his mind while he waited for Romani and Noah to regain consciousness--there was only enough fireroot in that concoction for about an hour of sleep--but he listened intently as Pelayla began.

            “Well, I myself don’t know all the details, considering I turned down my assignment to a forest shrimp. Kokiri and fairies have a... symbiotic relationship. The Kokiri are more closely related to fairies than Hylians, or humans, or Gerudo, or any of the other races, meaning that they are beings of spirit, though they do have flesh and physical substance. They need magical nourishment like a fairy on top of food like the other races; the only place they can get enough magic is Kokiri Forest. Beneath those trees is enough magic to destroy the world, though it can only be used for the good of the denizens, which can be for the bad of the intruders. For a fairy, being near a creature as magical as a Kokiri is like having a feast placed before her. There is also a certain link between fairy and child; without it, without the fairy to give back some of what she takes from her Kokiri, the forest child would be unable to maintain the form of a Hylian child, because that form takes more magic than they can use on their own. The fairy will also help keep the child alive if he or she wanders out of the forest, though it can only be kept up for three days at the most. Aside from the survival of the child, though, the fairy must be the voice of reason, the guiding friend, the nudge toward the responsibility his or her childish nature would shy from, the conscience, if you will. That part, along with staying in the same location for who knows how long, was what turned me away from being a guardian fairy.”

            Link laughed, but almost instantly sobered, brows drawing together as he thought. “But what about Saria?”

            Twisting around, Pelayla attempted flight again and managed a little height. “What about her?”

            “She’s the Sage of Forest,” he explained. “She’s in the Sacred Realm right now, not Kokiri Forest, and she doesn’t have her fairy anymore.”

            “Ah.” Sinking back to his palm, she shook her wings. “Well, you see, Saria is... an exception. She always sensed that there was a future for her not bounded by the forest, and I heard that she frequently took short excursions outside the safety of the trees. She is more closely linked to the flesh than the spirit, and because of that, she will survive outside. But she is sundered from the other Kokiri, will never be able to return to them.”

            “I’m somewhat sundered myself,” Link said under his breath.

            Romani moaned, tossing beneath the blanket and cloak. Still holding Pelayla, Link hurried to the redhead’s side, helping her sit up. Some color had returned to her face, and a little tightness had dissipated from around her eyes, though she was still drawn and wan. The fairy fluttered into the air unsteadily, hovering over his shoulder as he untied the bandage and peeled the cloth away.

            “How do you feel?” Link asked, studying the round scab on her side, about as big as her eye.

            “Weak,” she answered. “And I think if I tried to eat I would be sick.”

            “You should probably change your blouse,” he said. “You don’t exactly want to ride around with a bloody hole in your shirt, now do you?”

            Smiling, she shook her head. “No, I don’t. There’s an extra blouse in the left saddlebags.”

            Lowering her to the ground carefully, he stood and approached Storm. As he rummaged in the saddlebags, something... tugged... at him from the ones to the right of the saddle. Frowning, he paused, trying to understand the peculiar feeling. He resumed his search almost immediately, extracting a snowy blouse of soft linen, and then he returned, kneeling beside Romani, who sat upright slowly.

            “Can you... roll the edge of your blouse up?” Link asked, tearing another piece from the remains of Noah’s shirt.

            Romani obliged, and he bandaged her wound again. After a moment of staring first at the woman, then at the clean blouse draped over his arm, then back at Romani, he cleared his throat. Pelayla fluttered near his ear, hissing, Now is no time for modesty! She needs a clean shirt and you know it!”

            “It’s not my modesty, it’s hers!” he whispered fiercely through clenched teeth. “Um, Romani? Are you able to... change on your own?”

            “I’m not sure,” she answered. “I think I might need a little support.”

            Sighing heavily, Link positioned himself behind her, one hand on her back and his eyes fixed somewhere above her head. He briefly lifted his palm as her blouse brushed his fingers as she brought it over her head, and then once more as the clean shirt came down her back. Once sure she was decently covered, Link sat back and said, “I’m gonna check on Noah. Pelayla, can you watch Romani?”

            “Yes, Captain, sir,” she said dryly, perching on the woman’s shoulder.

            He grimaced. “Please don’t call me that. My soldiers are all dead. They were never alive for me to begin with.”

            “Oh, a touch of necromancy, eh? I hate and despise death magic.”

            Suddenly, the undergrowth rustled. Whipping around, Link leaped to his feet and scooped the Great Fairy’s Sword up from the ground, holding it before him. “Who’s there?” he called out.

            Ria entered the clearing, gray cloak swaying yet remaining as concealing as ever. “Only me, Hero of Time,” she responded calmly, standing fully upright. Link had never truly registered how tall she was, nearly a hand taller than himself.

            Sighing with relief, he sheathed the sword in one smooth motion. “Thank the goddesses. I thought you had perhaps, you know....”

            “Died?” she finished, in a tone that suggested he had voiced a most rational choice of garments and she was setting him right. “A logical assumption. But here I am, as hale as before.”

            “I overheard the man who attacked you,” Link insisted. “He said he had mortally wounded you!”

            “Sometimes, certain bluffs are necessary. I acted as though he had landed a deep blow, but after you managed to slip away and hide yourself, I confronted him again, to him nothing more than a dying woman attempting to distract him, with nothing to lose.”

            “Who were those--those people?” Romani asked.

             Before Ria could answer, Noah groaned and sat up laboriously, clutching at his bandaged chest. “Oh, flaming dragons, this hurts.” Suddenly noticing the cloaked figure, he grinned. “Oh, Ria. You made it. Did you get that damned lizard-thing that hurt me?”

            “The Lizalfos? No. But I did see it run off with the others when their leader called the hunt off.”

            “Wait a minute, Lizalfos?” Link stared at her in disbelief. “What’s a Lizalfos doing here?”

            “That is a very good question,” Ria replied. “Lizalfos live in the desert, not damper locales such as this location. Still, what is a Lizalfos doing in the company of a Hylian, a human, and an Iron Knuckle?”

            Link choked in surprise. “There was an Iron Knuckle?” he exclaimed. “Where? Here?”

            “She was the one who nearly succeeded in capturing you,” she explained. “However, when Romani’s arrow hit her, she dropped you, allowing me to distract her for a moment, enough to assure her that you would not be going anywhere, as well as to heat her blood so that she wanted to partake in the fight.”

            “So, you fought the Hylian?” Romani asked, rising unsteadily to her feet, the cloak and blanket falling to the ground. She stumbled and grabbed a branch. “Did you kill him?”

            “No, but I wounded him severely,” Ria answered. “Not enough to kill him, but enough to slow him down. I also got a good look at his face, so I will be able to recognize him if he does decide to follow us.”

            Hand straying to the pouch on his belt, Link licked his lips, drew a deep breath, and said, “They were after the... the Ocarina of Time.”

            Pelayla’s light flickered uneasily, Romani and Noah shared questioning glances--neither had grown up in Hyrule, where the legend of the Ocarina of Time was known among all Hylian children--but Ria nodded thoughtfully. “A double-sided sword, that sacred instrument,” she commented.

            “Sacred?” Noah picked up one of his swords from the ground, idly running a finger along the flat of the blade and following it to the slightly curved tip. “I thought all gods and religions were wishful thinking, people who wanted to dump their troubles on some ‘higher power.’ ”

            “The three golden goddesses are real,” Link said flatly. “I know this for a fact. But we should move on now, to put as much distance between us and this wood as possible. That is if you and Romani can stay in a saddle, of course.”

            “I can’t say anything for Ranchgirl, but I can ride,” Noah proclaimed, grimacing as he rose to his feet. “And Naran’s location is in our favor, as we have to angle more to the east now. But I will need a new shirt. I can’t believe my coat is ruined! It’s very subdued compared to my others, but I still liked it.”

            Eyeing the slashed garment, with its thick embroidery and tiny gems, Link wondered how anyone could call that thing subdued. Rummaging in his rucksack, he pulled out his spare tunic. “Here,” he said, throwing it to the Karradaini. “You can wear that, but I want it back.”

            Snagging it out of the air, Noah dropped it over his head, fastidiously adjusting the lapels before buckling his belt around his middle. “It’ll do, I suppose,” he said, eyeing the garment critically and obviously finding it lacking. “Though how you can stand to wear something without even a hint of embroidery, I’ll never....” Donning his bird-embroidered gloves, he sheathed his swords and strapped them across his back by means of some strange clips and hooks that he fastened swiftly, fingers flashing. “So, Ranchgirl, are you able to ride?”

            “Shut up, Crow,” she snapped, returning her arrows to her quiver and hanging it at her hip. After strapping her bow across her back, she folded her arms beneath her bosom. “I bet you ten Rupees you fall off your horse today.”

            He grinned at her. “Make it twenty and you’ve got a deal.”


“Okay, Crow, pay up.”

            Noah glowered at Romani, clutching the pommel of his saddle as though to deny what had happened. “There was a patch of mud, and Arzosi slipped.”

            “Right.” Tossing some of her hair over her shoulder, she winked at him. “Just be sure to pay me.”

            “Where are we?” Link asked, eyeing the large town perched atop the crest of the hill. Neat houses and shops lined the one paved street visible through the open gates with narrow strips of grass and flowers running down the middle, only a few buildings rising above a single story and only one with three. The roofs were thatched or tiled or shingled in slate, and all the buildings sat snugly behind seven-foot walls of worn stone. From the tallest peaked roof--it had to belong to an inn--waved a dark green banner bearing a copper and black dragon and a black bird like the ones on Noah’s gloves.

            “Naran,” Noah grumbled, casting Romani a sour look. “We’ll stay at one of the inns tonight. We could make it to Morda, if we pushed ourselves, but this town is more... welcoming. Let’s go.”

            “Perhaps Pelayla should conceal herself?” Ria suggested.

            The fairy spluttered wordlessly, indignant, but Link said, “You really should. We want to attract as little attention as possible, especially since it appears there are people hunting me.”

            Sighing, she fluttered a tad unsteadily to his saddlebags and slipped into one, taking extreme care with her damaged wings. “I’m not staying in here all day, you realize,” she informed him crossly, voice muffled.

            “Tomorrow, we’ll take the road east,” Noah said, urging his mount forward. “From Morda, we’ll take the road south to New Crescent, and if you can’t find your woman there, we’ll continue south to the capital, Crystal City.”

            Link carefully traveled through the connection between his mind and Zelda, and he felt a certain clarity in her southeast location that had been lacking before, as if he was honing in on her. Again, he ran into the obstruction, but it seemed... clearer than before, like the bars of a prison. He pressed against it lightly and instantly retreated as the pain once again seized him. So. She isn’t shutting me out; someone else is creating the barrier. But are they trying to imprison me, or Zelda?

            As Arzosi carefully picked his way up the hill, the others followed, Ria sitting with an elegant grace that only emphasized Romani’s tightfisted bracing, as though expecting to tumble off Storm at any moment. The murmur of the town drifted toward them, and Link watched as Hylians and humans went about their daily lives, garbed properly like Hyrulians or more scandalously than any woman in The Smiling Vixen, though most fit somewhere in the middle. And everyone, even people in worn clothes, sported embroidery, and the more thickly the colorful threads concealed the hue of the actual material, the higher the people held their heads, the more regal they were in their demeanor.

            Just as the group passed through the open gates, Noah clenched his reins in his gloved hands, staring straight ahead. “Oh no,” he breathed, eyes widening. Frantically, he dug in his saddlebags and pulled out a broad-brimmed hat with a long crimson plume, placing it on his head so his face was cast in shadow. “Oh no.”

            “What?” Link asked, urging Phantom directly beside Arzosi. He soon had his answer.

            Further up the street, the crowd rippled and parted, a woman almost completely covered in embroidery curtsying so deep her knees must have touched the street. The people ahead of them parted for a pair of creatures Link had never seen before. Two great birds built like hawks but with long legs headed toward him with a crow-like swagger, their glossy black feathers shining in the sunlight and their scarlet crests of plumes rising slightly. A person strode beside each bird, an old man and a more than pretty woman, both clad in spotless white shirts with billowy sleeves gathered at the cuffs, leather gloves, black jerkins, black breeches, and short black boots polished till they practically shone. Black helms topped with a crimson crest each, shaped like the crests on the birds, were tucked under their arms, and a sword in a black scabbard hung from their left hips, though the woman also bore an impressive longbow and a quiver containing arrows like short spears.

            “Who are they?” Link whispered.

            “Riders,” Noah hissed. He ducked his head as they neared, as though hoping to avoid notice.

            “Mother Tala shelter you,” the woman intoned in a severely pious voice, halting before them. The bird beside her clacked its fearsome beak.

            “May she guard your life,” Noah responded, voice gruff and pitched so low Link did not recognize it.

            The man raked his watery blue eyes over all of them, finally latching onto Link and practically boring into him. “The women dress like country folk come to the city, but neither you nor that other man dress like a Karradaini. Where are you from? Who are you?”

            Mindful of Noah’s warning about his name, Link said, “I am Link, sir Rider, and I come from Hyrule.”

            The woman’s zealous gaze pierced him like a javelin. “Hyrule? A country of heathens and pagans who do not simply choose to deny Mother Tala but know nothing of her! I keep telling His Majesty that we must send Riders north, to bring them the true religion, but he says that will be for later years. His son, Jendrick, is very true and firm in his beliefs of Mother Tala, however. When he is king, I am sure he will agree to convert that kingdom.”

            “Peace, Lesin,” the man said, raising a hand. “The people of Hyrule cannot help if they follow a false religion. They have never heard of the one true goddess before, after all. Why do you think no Talar ever chooses a Hyrulian?”

            Lesin peered up at Link with her head tilted to one side, a feverish light in her dark eyes. “She must have sent you,” she murmured, half to herself. Suddenly, she exclaimed, “Mother Tala must have sent you! You have come to learn the truth and bring it back to your home!”

            Blinking in surprise, he swallowed. “Uh....”

            “Blessed are you, Link,” the Rider said, making a strange gesture, twisting her middle three fingers into a braid and sweeping it before her. “In the Great Dragon’s infinite wisdom, she knew that Hyrule would never listen to a Rider, so she denied you that privilege for a greater purpose. You will bring the truth to Hyrule as Mother Tala’s chosen messenger!”

            “Really, Lesin,” the other Rider cut in, frowning at her and crossing his arms. “Aren’t you taking this a bit too far? He is just an ordinary lad, he and the other one. If he truly followed Mother Tala and was destined to be her voice in Hyrule, he would be the first Rider from that country.”

            “Kand, can you not see?” she demanded, rounding on him. “This man was chosen by Mother Tala! There is a touch of fate about him, as though he has touched a higher power, brushed with dragons. He will bring about change!”

            “I can’t argue with the fate part,” Link muttered, fiddling with one of his earrings. Romani cast him a worried glance, while Noah seemed intent on sinking even lower in his saddle.

            Neither Rider had apparently heard him. White-haired Kand rounded on vulpine Lesin, demanding, “Do you mean to speak blasphemy? All dragons left the world long ago, to punish us! To suggest this man has had encounters with them....” He shook his head. “Your heart is in the right place, Lesin, but your spirit and zeal are too great yet, as you are still very young. You are looking for signs of the Mother Tala’s presence in the world, yet what more sign do you need than this?” His gesture somehow took in his outfit and bird, then added in her mount and garb.

            “We must be moving on,” Ria insisted suddenly.

            Both Riders regarded her with suspicion, which melted in Kand’s face and only hardened in Lesin’s. “Of course,” the man said.

            “I still believe you are Mother Tala’s chosen messenger, Link,” Lesin assured him, something close to awe blooming on her attractive features. “I will spread word of your arrival.”

            “No!” he cried out. If she did such a thing, whoever was after the Ocarina of Time would have no trouble finding him. “I mean, I’d rather keep my presence--and mission--hidden.”

            “Of course,” she murmured. “How wise. Mother Tala wishes her work to be done in secret. Of course.” Inclining her head, she strode off, followed by Kand and the two swaggering birds.

            Exhaling slowly, Link relaxed his grip on the reins. “Are all Riders like that?” he muttered, watching them continue on amid deep bows and curtsies.          

            “Worse,” Noah replied, sitting up a little. “I always thought a person had to be mad to be a Rider and lap up all that religious dung. Well, I might have wanted to be a Rider as a child, but that’s long past. Now let’s get going before they decide to come back for ‘Mother Tala’s chosen messenger.’ ”

            He grimaced. “Oh goddesses, don’t call me that. I’m already chosen by Farore. I don’t need to be chosen by some foreign goddess, too!”

            Sighing, Romani stared at him. “We truly must conceal what we believe in while in this country,” she said sadly. Glancing around, she inquired, “What inn are we staying at?”

            “We’re not staying in a place with Riders, at least not one this small,” Noah said, tugging the brim of his hat down further. “We have a lot of ground to cover if we’re gonna reach Morda by nightfall.”

            “But what if we run into Riders there?” Romani asked.

            “We won’t,” he said with conviction, heeling his black stallion forward. “Now come on.”


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