Chapter IV: All are Prey
Ilia awoke to a feeling of absence. Link’s place beside her was empty of his comforting warmth. At first she was puzzled, then dismissed the feeling; he must have gotten up early to help Fado at the ranch…
Then the events of the previous day returned in a rush. Ilia’s breath froze in her throat for an instant, her heart aching in her chest.
She sat straight up in bed, throwing away the blankets. The garden would need tending, and there were a myriad of other tasks that needed minding. She needed to be busy, to distract herself before the loneliness began to take root. Link would be home soon enough, and then she would have time to be emotional.
He would be home soon; until then she would need to be patient.
Hyrule plains were truly stunning in early spring; the rolling hills of brilliant green flowing away, trees in copses scattered along the dells. They were still in the foothills, of course, and snow still clung to the shadows of rocks and trees. Winter’s sting lingered on the breeze, but only lightly, and the sun made it quite comfortable.
The sky seemed to stretch on forever, not a cloud to be seen. All was vibrant and blue. The scent of flowers was thick on the breeze; the blooms had just reached their peak and everything was bathed in red, or submerged in vibrant blue, or shone with yellow as flowers waved gently in the wind. Dazzling both the eyes, and overwhelming some with the heady strength of their perfume.
It was one of those days that made for quiet reflection, and a profound gratitude for life in all its beauty. Sorrows fled from the heavy heart.
Link felt marginally better the second day of riding, falling into the familiar rhythm as if he had never left it. There was some comfort in this, he supposed.
He took a deep breath, casting his gaze over the rich expanse of color. He remembered the last time he’d left. It’d been a bit later in the year than this; summer had been treading on the horizon, and its heat was already felt even in their little village in the mountains. By the time he’d returned the chill of autumn had whistled in the trees as leaves carpeted the road home.
Link snapped the reins, prompting Epona into a trot. He returned friendly greetings as he moved up the train, threading in and out of the column of wagons. He emerged at the head of the train and reined in alongside Ashei.
“Bored with the tail already?” Ashei asked blandly, referring to the tail end of the convoy.
Link shrugged in response. There followed a companionable silence.
“So… what was it like?”
Link turned and gave her a questioning look.
Ashei rolled her eyes. “Coming home, after it all.”
Link looked back over the merchant wagons once quickly, then returned his attention to the ground ahead.
The deference of Bo and Rusl, the quiet awe of Jaggle and Sara, those who he had thought his elders and his betters. A different shade in Ilia’s blush when he spoke to her. The voice that called to him every time he looked down the road; he knew where it led now. His innocence was lost.
“I don’t know...” he said slowly. “Things seemed the same… but also not the same. It was like… It was like I was looking into a mirror of my life, before; everything seems the same until you notice that one detail that’s switched places…”
Ashei watched him out of the corner of her eyes. “You looked as miserable as a bathed cat when I walked into that bar, yeah?” she said bluntly.
This surprised Link; he hadn’t felt miserable…
“… How so?”
Ashei shrugged. “I don’t know, yeah. Oh, you were smiling, and you had the cute little Missus, but it was like you’d lost your old energy. You looked like you’d just stopped… Stagnating, just a little bit, see?”
Link pondered that, looking away across the wild fields.
Was it true? He’d be the first to admit; some part of him felt much better being on the move once again. The wind on his face was like an old friend, long missed. But unhappy?
No, not unhappy.
Perhaps it was logical, from Ashei’s point of view, raised as the son her father never had; she wasn’t the type to grow fond of some place enough to settle. Wanderlust ran wild and free in her blood, and had for generations.
Link sighed, looking up at that gorgeous blue sky. The sun gazed down, shining merrily in reply.
No, not unhappy.
But he admitted, with a wan smile, that there was some truth to Ashei’s sentiment.
Enough of this… He pulled himself back to the present.
They would reach Kakariko in two days; from there, it was only another two to Hyrule Castle Town. He would separate from the Caravan later. Traveling alone was much faster.
Two horsemen from the merchant caravan lagged a little behind, talking and laughing loudly. They were old friends who had only just gotten back together after many years on the roads, and had much to talk about.
Their minds were far away from the rocky landscape about them. They lagged still further.
It was underneath a small cliff overhanging the road that suddenly their horses stopped, neighing anxiously, their eyes rolling in fear.
“What is it?” one of the horsemen asked uneasily.
“I’m not sure…” his fellow replied.
It was the scent that had tipped the skittish animals off; they would have bolted, but by now it was all around them-there was nowhere to run to. The two men could feel it too now; the cold prickling along their spines, that taste of fear experienced by the hunted.
And hunted they were.
The predator crouched on the cliff above them, feet padding along the rim, eyes hungrily followed the nervous horses as they shied away and neighed.
Then with a rush it leaped down, feet contacting the cliff wall for an instant, then pushed off, launched itself at the horses at a nearly vertical angle.
The next moment was a haze of confusion; a weight struck the nearer horse’s flank hard, bowling it over. Both rider and animal were thrown to the ground, rolling with the force of the blow.
The other rider’s mount bucked. For an instant the rider was treated to the sight of his fellow pinned heavily beneath his own horse; above it all crouched the largest, most powerfully built wolf he’d ever seen. If it hadn’t been so close he could have mistaken it for a bear.
An equally huge man sat astride the beast, somehow still mounted despite the impact and confusion of the wolf’s tackle.
With a single fluid motion it lunged forward over the stricken horse and seized its neck in its jaws. There was a splintering crack and the poor beast went limp.
This was too much for the second horse, and it took off, galloping as if hell’s hounds were on its tail. Perhaps they were. It was all its rider could do to keep from falling off as it careened across the hilly land. Two more wolves darted out of the rocks, riders giving wild cries and war-whoops, and gave chase. Hunter and prey vanished into the thicket of stone amid snarls and the terrified screams of the horse.
The sounds of pursuit faded into the distance, leaving the first with its kill.
Underneath both horse and wolf, the rider struggled feebly. All feeling below his waist was gone, his legs and spine crushed. One of his arms hung at an odd angle. He pushed vainly at the bulk atop him, desperate to alleviate the pressure on his abdomen, the agony.
A shadow fell across him. He opened his eyes.
In his bleary vision he could just make out the wolf rider standing over him, gazing down at the helpless Hylian.
The man squatted down, studying the injured man with a clear, intelligent gaze. He was dressed in skins, tanned leather and some fabric that might have been wool. He bore a light breastplate of rawhide armor.
Colored glass beads decorated his white hair, holding it in two loose braids down either side of his head. A kind of queue or knotted ponytail was gathered behind his head. Blue paint shadowed his eyes and a single red line crossed the bridge of his nose. His skin was a rich coppery color, darkened by the sun. His eyes were a strange shade of violet.
The Hylian, with his brown hair and fair skin, must have seemed equally alien. The wolf-rider reached out hesitantly, touching the collar of the Hylian’s shirt.
The man tried to speak, but it emerged a cough, tinged with blood. The wolf rider started at that, then drew a long steel knife; with practiced movements he slit the wounded man’s throat and let him bleed out. When the blood stopped coming he tugged the body free, laying it out for his mount’s portion.
As his wolf ate, the rider set about skinning the horse and preparing it for transportation back to the pack. There were young ones that needed to be fed, and there was little enough meat as there was.
Link reined in Epona.
“Hey did you hear that?”
Ashei stopped, listening.
Link paused, listening. A stiff breeze ruffled his hair, whistled in the rocks, moaned in the crags.
Something, just a moment ago… he could have sworn…
But now, nothing more than an empty stillness, the wind howling across the grass. Not a thing stirred, all was dead silent.
“Never mind… must have been the wind…”
The mountains were dark and silent with the depths of night.
A group of a dozen shaggy shapes slipped past, making less noise then the breeze in the trees. Bright eyes glowed in the darkness, seeing by the light of the moon overhead. Beside the wolves ran man-shapes, silent as ghosts, equal in stealth and predatory grace to their wolf brethren.
They ran higher and higher, the air growing chill and the trees sparse. High above the forest they passed over the mountains, going down again into the desolation of the highlands. They paused midway down the other side, waiting by a sharp rock outcrop. A few minutes later a wolf sentry and its rider emerged, shrouded in shadow. The moon’s light didn’t penetrate the mountain crags; they recognized each other by smell. Once identified the pack was allowed through, passing more hidden watchers as they descended still farther.
They rounded a bend and below them, the lights of thirty campfires filled the dell. The hunt-pack stopped to howl their greetings; they were answered by many times their number.
Pups, both wolf and human, darted in and out of tents playfully as the scouts loped in, sweating and steaming in the frosty air with the exertion of their run. The smell of wood-smoke and the scent of fresh skins permeated the camp, a collection of hide tents and lean-to’s. Old men, women, and young wolves emerged to greet the returning hunters; they were a fierce, wild people, sunburned and strong. They wore hides and furs, beads of bone and colorful glass adorned rawhide armor and the tassels of their clothing. Weapons hung by their sides, bearing the well polished and sharpened look of tools often used.
The riders with their wolves were greeted by mates and pups, and for a full minute they frolicked, nuzzling and licking in greeting.
“What have you brought us?” a woman asked her mate.
One of the riders reached up and -with difficulty- hefted a horse carcass off his wolf.
“They will be quite tough, I fear.” The man’s wolf growled. He was a fine specimen, standing nine feet tall at the shoulder and weighing more than a thousand pounds. His pelt was a lovely grizzled brown, silver in the moonlight and gold in the fire.
His man smiled ruefully, “Yes, but the moon favored us tonight. There will be food enough for all to have a portion…”
His wife stepped away to examine the fresh pile of skins, mainly deer, being unloaded from one of the wolves.
“Women…all their eyes are for fine pelts…” the warrior sighed.
The wolf panted, laughing. “Ours are no exception!” Beside him his mate turned away bashfully, her tail wagging in an amused manner.
The man laughed at the she-wolf’s reaction but sobered quickly enough. “There is too little meat in these foothills; the pack will eat in bare in a matter of days.”
“Indeed.” The wolf replied soberly. “Though the land is greener than any we have seen in many weeks, perhaps Baal-Gilia is correct. Could this be the new home he spoke of?”
The man shrugged, and didn’t reply at once; he was thinking of the caravan. The people those beasts belonged to would doubtless be furious for their deaths. He had argued against such a raid, but meat was so badly needed back at camp…hunger had won out.
“We are fortunate…”
They watched as the meat was distributed among the pack’s families and the furs among those of the hunters. With so many mouths to feed, there would still be empty stomachs that night, but on the morrow none of that would matter anymore; for the packs would descend into the valley and the cries of hungry pups would become a thing of the past.
They smiled with the cracking of a bone as a hungry Man-half bit into it. Their wolf-halves had already eaten their fill while on the hunt.
Just another thing of the past.
Far away Ilia watched the sun rise again.
Once more the space beside her was empty, and a hollow was growing in her chest as well.
Back to Story Menu
Note: Don't forget to read and review more of Racheakt's excellent writing over at Fanfiction.Net.