Chapter V: Chance Meetings
When day came again to the caravan fog covered the ground, thick and damp, clouds blown down from off the White. The night’s chill clung to everyone as they ate the morning meal and prepared to move out, joints stiff with cold.
Link reflected there was something ethereal about the shapes of people and horses moving through the mist, the way sound seemed muted and hushed. A few meadowlarks began to sing as they broke camp and moved out, night-stiff bodies finally beginning to thaw as the sun melted away the fog.
The two missing men from yesterday were still not to be found. After some deliberation it was decided that moving on ahead would probably be best; the roads were too dangerous now to delay for too long.
About an hour into the day’s march, Link took Epona out ahead, scouting the road towards Kakoriko gorge.
He reined in Epona near a copse of trees bordering the road where the undergrowth obscured anything that might be hidden beneath. In the distance he could see the fire mountains, smoke curling about Death Mountain like the morning fog had to their camp.
Something nagged at him from the back of his mind, the same suspicion and unease that had kept him from sleep the night before. He had felt it once before, more than a year ago. Hounded and harried constantly by the power of a wizard, Link had developed a good sense of when he was being hunted. Feral instincts, long unused, prickled along his spine, hackles that were no longer there rose on the back of his neck; Epona whinnied and stopped, pawing the ground nervously.
Something moved nearby, merely a rustle of leaves, but it was enough. Link moved in the saddle, looking into the long grass by his side.
A shape exploded from the grass, a bolt of tawny fur. Epona jolted, but Link had ridden her in the war of Twilight and it was on her that he did battle with Ganondorf on the Hyrule plains; there was a reason Link had brought her. She turned and reared, bringing her hooves down on the skull of the largest wolf Link had ever seen.
The creature jumped back, then snapped at Epona’s flank. Epona neighed in anger and reared again, dancing towards the wolf, hazarding it with her hooves.
From his place on Epona’s back Link saw the wolf, a ragged hungry creature. Paint covered its hide, red and blue, and jagged feathers stood in its shaggy mane like spines. Blood ran down its muzzle where Epona’s hooves had opened the skin.
There was a sudden movement to his left. He turned just in time to see a figure running towards them, leaping towards him. His sword, good Ordonian steel, came out of its sheath and down in a wide arc. Then the man’s foot met his ribs and he was in the air, falling.
They hit the ground together, rolling in a confused tangle of limbs. The scent of woodfire and furs. Link felt his elbow hit a rock and his shield-arm went numb.
Then they came to rest, his attacker straddling him. A knife went for his throat, and barely stopped short on the hilt of his sword.
Ordonian steel sparked as the knife turned; the impact sent a shiver down Link’s arm. He whipped the sword back and into his opponent’s ribs and met only air - his opponent was moving now, rolling away from his counterattack.
There was a snag and the smell of fresh blood, hot and tangy, in Link’s nostrils. The man rolled away, holding his arm, red seeping between his fingers.
He crouched down and leaped back at Link, but this time he was ready; he dropped the sword and drew his hunting knife. His shoulder went to the man’s gut, his body stooped low to the ground; with a mighty shove he sent him sprawling.
The man stared at Link for a moment, an odd expression in his face, then looked down to where the Ordonian had driven the knife into this thigh. He stared.
Link realized his lip was curling in a habitual snarl, a growl rumbling in his chest; amazing how things return in a blink like that. The knife moved in his grip, impatiently. He felt a surge of feral energy, wild and free, and just as sweet. It felt like running low over the grass, of blood on his muzzle, of summer rain.
It felt like coming home.
The man suddenly turned and dashed off towards his wolf, leaping up onto its back with a sharp cry. The wolf immediately spun away from Epona and loped off across the grass, into the trees. It lifted its snout and gave a long, mournful howl.
Any sense of accomplishment in this victory was short-lived. Off in the foothills -less than twenty miles away Link guessed- dozens of voices rose to meet it.
Link rounded the bend at a gallop; below him he could see the caravan as it made steady progress down the road. Faces looked up in alarm as he rounded the bend, pushing Epona to the max.
“Raiders! We’re under attack!” he shouted, passing wagon after wagon, looking frantically for Ashei.
He found her at the end of the column, speaking with the caravan master.
“Ashei, raiders!” he shouted before wheeling and galloping towards the front of the caravan without a moment’s pause.
“Turn around, turn around, head for the east pass! We’ll try to lead them off the scent!” he shouted. A few of the drivers hesitated, but Ashei, riding up behind Link, put a quick end to that.
“You heard him, get your arses in gear and head for the east pass!” She started to follow Link.
“Ashei, stay with the train!”
“Forget about it, I’m not letting you have all the fun!” Ashei shot back.
The wagon train was turned around and moving east in a surprisingly short time, but Link and Ashei were not there to see it; they were flying north and west, back towards the howls growing nearer by the second.
Epona pounded across the field, the dark line of the forest eves growing nearer and nearer. All at once he could hear them, baying sounds like hunting hounds on the scent. Howls rent the air with otherworldly horror; Epona’s eyes rolling nervously, she pulled away, struggling for her head.
He turned, searching for what had drawn such a note of fear from Ashei.
Then he saw.
The trees were full of dozens of tawny shapes pushing through. Savage war-cries, guttural and cruel, floated on the breeze. Wolves, giants that almost defied being labeled such for their size, their tremendous riders dwarfed by the size of their beasts. War-paint and feathers covered them, both wolf and rider.
They poured from the woods, wave after wave. Link felt his heart skip. The back of his neck stood up with hackles that were no longer there.
There must be hundreds.
Then they saw the two lone figures on horseback; with a huge, collective roar, they began the hunt.
He wheeled in Epona and aimed her away over the fields north, then gave Epona her head. Drawing his bow, he nocked an arrow. Ashei was urging her mount to still greater speed as she tried to draw her rapier.
The wolves gained.
The whistle of arrows filled the air, Link jerked the reins, arrows peppering the air where they had been moments before. He twisted around and let fly, his bolt striking a warrior in the chest, throwing him from his mount. He fired over his other shoulder; yet again he nocked a third and fired, knocking an enemy’s arrow from the air. Some corner of his mind registered that Ashei had cried out.
The Wolves were too close now; Link shouldered his bow and drew his sword.
It was over so quickly.
A wolf drove its shoulder into Epona’s side, she stumbled but remained upright. The rider raised a spear; Link caught the point on his shield and ran his blade up the shaft, shearing off two of the man’s fingers.
A second wolf slammed into Epona from the other side, trapping her between them. Link caught this new warrior’s halberd on his hilt, shoving him away. Out of nowhere an arrow stuck his leg. He cried out, almost falling from Epona’s back. A second swipe from the halberd hissed above his head and his shield arm shuddered with the weapon’s impact. Link punched out with the polished metal plate, the sudden force taking the savage by surprise; with a cry he tumbled off his mount, clinging on to its shaggy mane. He heard a roar, looking up just in time to see a wolf poised in the air, leaping over the other two. It hung above him for a moment, then the vast animal struck him like a small mountain.
He was thrown from Epona, tumbling through the air, and all he could think was ‘stupid, you’re supposed to be getting home to Ilia.’ A sword flashed out and sliced his side open, blood spurting out onto the grass. The coppery tang of blood flooded his senses.
Link rolled, coming to a stop some thirty feet away. The wolf that had unhorsed him waited, growling with raised hackles. Brown hair glinted, touched with gold in the sun.
Its rider dismounted. He was more than huge, and his musculature was incredible. He wore skins and leathers, and woven leather bands on his arms that held feathers and teeth, probably from past kills. Red and blue war paint covered his face. He had hawk feathers in his raven-black hair.
Wolves encircled him; Epona was exhausted, trembling in terror a few feet away under the hungry eyes of a dozen wolves with riders. Link could feel his life spilling from his side; the saber had given him a gash almost a foot in length. He knew enough of injuries to know he needed medical attention. Immediately.
Lights danced before Link’s eyes as he stared at the wolf. Have I lost too much blood already? Or did that wolf speak?
The warriors began to murmur. “He cannot rise, the right is clear!” “Your half must eat him!” “Eat his heart!”
Darkness clouded Link’s vision as the warrior and his wolf closed in, the pack all about then howling for blood. The irony was not lost on Link. To think, after all I have done, defeating Zant and Gannondorf, to be killed by a pack of wolves and savages…
Useless, like baggage, Ashei thought grumpily.
She was pinned under a wolf, a sharp pain in her arm- it was broken, she could feel the bone move when she breathed, pinned across her chest by the huge paw that had batted her from her horse without any effort. She tried to move but the paw simply settled a little more solidly on her chest until breathing was difficult. Ashei managed to twist her good arm free and gave the wolf and its rider a rude gesture.
The rider, a youth with snowy hair and a bandaged leg, laughed. Ashei cursed in reply.
She could feel bleeding somewhere, a pulsing torrent from her leg, her thigh, where an arrow’d gotten her. The shaft had broken and splintered, wood driving up through her skin. She was bleeding to death and from the feel of things it wasn’t going to take long..
She tried to turn to see where Link had gone down. There was a Wolf in the way. She swore again.
The warriors fell silent on an unspoken signal, turning to give room as the great black one pushed its way through the mass of bodies.
“Wait.” Its voice was harsh as it flowed past the broken stubs of its teeth. Ashei craned her head to see.
Its rider dismounted, striding up to Link’s form lying crumpled on the ground. His eyes seemed to glow as he cast his eyes about. Long white scars crossed his body, an especially prominent one following his neck up over his jaw and disappearing under his scalp. Ashei shivered; there was something about him that felt… Just wrong.
He knelt by Link’s side and with care inspected the top of the fallen man’s hand. The mark of courage glimmered faintly.
“It is the one.” The chief laughed. “We have not been in this land a moon’s-life and he is already vanquished!” He laughed, long, cold and cruel.
The man with black hair and his wolf approached, bowing respectfully; “Hail, chief Baal-Gilia. I was about to take the heart of this honorable warrior.”
“And I.” His wolf spoke.
Baal-Gilia cast a withering glance at the two warriors, “I will take this one’s heart. The mighty spirit that has led us here has named his heart as the price for this new home for our people.”
The two shrank back.
“But it is the way of the pack!”
“Yes, just as it was once the way of the pack to be driven, starving and hungry from place to place like vermin,” the black wolf spat. “That, among other things, is a thing of the past.”
There was a murmuring among the warriors. Baal-Gilia narrowed his eyes; “After all this you question me?” he roared. “My spirit has preserved us, taken us from the barren wastes and given us fresh new lands! Let any who dispute this step forward and give their challenge!”
Suddenly a flash of light tossed a half-dozen warriors and wolves aside, a silhouette leaping from within the smoke. A torn shape moved, like a bloody shadow, twisting like a wraith. Two warriors tried to hack it with axes, falling back screaming with charred fingers.
Ashei winced as… something... washed past; there was a sensation of moving, like a current of water was dragging her downstream; someone had her leg, pain lancing up through her body…
And then she blacked out.
Baal was thrown to the ground; with a snarl he drew a cruel bone knife, crawling towards Link where he lay prone. The bloody shadow flew overhead, black smoke everywhere, smelling of sulfur and things that made their eyes stream and the wolves flee howling with noses in agony. He reached the body, only to have a huge iron-soled shoe clamp down on his hand.
A hulking shape lifted Link away easily.
“All right, I have him! Let’s go!” a gravely voice shouted.
The shadow jerked away from the warriors jabbing at it with pikes, enfolding the bulky form and its burden. The smoke sucked in towards the center, vanishing along with the forms it concealed. In an instant the only thing left on the plain was a knot of confused warriors standing in a ring.
It was some hours later Link groaned and opened his eyes. Sunlight spilled over him gently in dappled shadows, yellowed slightly with the approach of evening… for an instant he was back in Ordon.
Then he remembered.
His hand moved up his side, feeling smooth swathes of new bandages. He clenched his teeth and tried to sit up; he made it to his elbows before the pain stopped him.
"You should take it easy." A tired voice spoke somewhere off to his left.
A man sat there, about ten yards away, leaning against the tree's trunk. He was thin and wiry as a whip, all tough muscle and sinews. He wore a leather cuirass and woodsman's breeches of undyed wool, his arms were covered from midway down his upper arms to his hands in linen wrappings. His face was shrouded in a long scarf that wound back over his head, leaving only his eyes exposed.
He had that worn, haggard look of someone who hasn't slept in days, his eyes dulled and unfocused. "You cracked a rib." The speaker's voice dripped with sarcasm. It had an odd quality as well, something he couldn’t quite place, shades of accent that hissed and steamed like water in a kettle.
He smelled strongly of magic; the rich, spicy scent wafted from him. He reeked of it. Link hadn’t smelled anything like it since…
Link shook his head, trying to clear it of old memories.
"Ashei," he croaked.
“Ashei?” - it came out ‘Asahi’- “the girl? Over there." The man waved his hand vaguely across the camp. Link craned his neck and spotted her lying near the fire, a piece of red cloth thrown over most of her still form. Her face was pale, paler than it ought to be, and much too still. "She got it even worse than you."
"Will she be all right?"
The man snorted. "She'll live." He dropped his gaze to the grass at his feet, eyes half closed. "Bulbin, he's awake."
A great figure moved at the edge of the camp, pushing aside the underbrush, twigs snapping with every step. With a grunt, Bulbin, the king of the boar tribes, emerged into the clearing.
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