Link was in hell. Not literally, of course, though he imagined the climate was comparable. He stood between two great and angry forces, two metaphorical tidal waves, ready to crash and destroy everything in between them, namely, him. Before him, leading the pack across the arid desert, walked Nebekah and Sapphia, the twin Betas of the group, representing the Jaguar Pride and the Kodiak Pride respectively. These great titans, sworn enemies on principle, threw insults at each other faster than a game of bag mitten in the royal courtyard. At stake, however, was something more than a shuttlecock. It was a matter of honor to them.
“If the Kodiak had bothered to stand up to Dragmire,” Nebekah insisted, “then I imagine the Gerudo nation wouldn’t be so universally hated among the people of Hyrule.”
“Well, you’d know,” Sapphia snapped. “After all, only the Jaguar would deign to live so close to the filth that comes out of Hyrule.”
“We live in peace with our neighbors,” Nebekah declared.
“If by peace, you mean total submission. Tell me, when’s the last time the Jaguar won a battle?”
“When’s the last time the Kodiak refrained from violence?”
If that wasn’t bad enough, Link also had to contend with a second storm front, raging behind him with equal ferocity. Defending the rear came Mika and Tyro, the former Link’s estranged sister, the latter a boy Link had come to rescue from the clutches of the Gerudo at the behest of Talon. If anything, these two were far worse than Nebekah and Sapphia. At least they had something in common, a Gerudo upbringing, no matter how different the clans contended to be. Tyro and Mika had only one thing in common, a mutual hatred for the other’s ancestry.
“I told you,” Mika insisted, “the Orca do not kidnap women.”
“Of course you’d say that,” Tyro sneered. He had come to the
on his own, after reading his father’s diaries and discovering that his mother had, in fact, been taken by the Gerudo. He could not bring himself to see the difference between Prides. Gerudo Valley
“Typical man,” Mika hissed. “Convinced the world revolves around you and your conspiracies.” Mika, by contrast, had grown up among the Gerudo and could not bring herself to see men in any other light except the one she had been taught. To her Pride, the Orca Pride, they served two purposes, reproduction and initiation into the Pride by blood.
Link wouldn’t have minded the arguments so much, save for the fact that by this point, both sets of contenders had run out of new barbs and insults, therefore repeating the old ones and returning to the same arguments again and again. The journey to the territory of the Saber Tooth Pride had been consistently noisy. Link was only grateful that, by this point, it was unlikely that news of their quest had been far spread. They were traveling to the Saber Tooth to collect a second Shard, a piece of the shattered Gerudo Topaz which, according to myth, when assembled created a powerful magical stone that was apparently a weapon. It simply had to be one, because Twinrova was after it.
Over and over again, Link remembered the cryptic engraving he had found on the pedestal to for the first Shard, safely kept in Mika’s boot. …‘One thing stands between the stone and the grave…’ He did not like the sound of that. Perhaps he would have felt more comfortable, knowing what that one thing was. Sadly, that was the total extent of the information he had gleaned about the Topaz, other than the story of its initial separation which Nebekah had provided, being something of an expert on the Gerudo nation in general.
“Hey, Nebekah,” he called, realizing that her skills could be put to better use than a continued verbal spar with Sapphia.
“What?” she snapped. Immediately, she looked guilty. Nebekah had been Link’s friend for awhile now. They had met as children when he first ventured into the
, and then years later, during his quest to vanquish Ganondorf, an ordeal Link very much wished to forget, but knew that he never would. “Sorry, blondie,” she told him apologetically. Gerudo Valley
“How far are we from the Saber Tooth territory?” he asked, accepting her guilty look for an apology.
“We’re already in it,” she said.
Link immediately tensed, looking nervously around the seemingly deserted savannah. “So how come Tyro and I haven’t become arrow magnets yet?”
“Don’t worry,” Nebekah told him, a slight smile cracking her stoic face. “The Saber Tooth don’t kill men on sight.”
“Cowards,” Mika mumbled.
“Why not?” Link persisted.
“The Saber Tooth have a unique method of ensuring the continuation of their line,” Nebekah explained.
“Wait a second,” Tyro interrupted. “I think I’ve heard of them. Aren’t they supposed to be the most beautiful Gerudo out there?” Of course, Tyro would know, being a bit of a playboy back in the Hylian
where he had grown up. villageof New Kasuto
“Some people say so,” Nebekah answered.
“Oh yeah,” Tyro drawled. “I’ve heard of these girls.”
“They have the purest line of Gerudo blood,” Sapphia added.
Nebekah gave her a brief glare before continuing. “The Saber Tooth allow men to come to their fortress freely.”
Link screwed up his face. “Why?”
“Well, being the most beautiful of Gerudo,” she told him, “men often seek them for mates.”
“Naturally,” Tyro scoffed.
“Shut up,” Mika snapped at him.
“What happens when a man shows up?” Link cut in quickly before another argument could ensue.
“Well, they’re treated as honored guests,” Nebekah said. “And after spending a few days among the Saber Tooth, generally, they will have selected the one they wish to mate with.”
“Then what happens?”
“Then,” he said, “a fight happens.”
“A fight,” Link repeated uncertainly.
“The man challenges the woman he wishes to mate with to a fight. It’s held before the entire Pride. If the woman wins, then she cuts his throat and bathes in his blood. Apparently, that’s where the Saber Tooth believe they draw their unnatural beauty from.”
“That’s disgusting,” Tyro droned.
Nebekah nodded. “Yes. Although there is a basis for that kind of belief, actually.”
“A basis,” Link repeated. “What do you mean?”
“There are ancient spells, dating all the way back to the time of Gerudo unity, glamour spells, beauty spells. They all require blood.” Nebekah shrugged. “Which is probably how the Twinrova sisters managed to stay young so long. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Saber Tooth actually believed that blood restored beauty.”
“And what happens if the man wins the fight?” Tyro asked.
“If the man wins,” Nebekah said, “then he is allowed to mate with the woman he has defeated.”
“And then sent packing on his merry way?” Tyro scoffed.
“Well, as far as I understand it, there are a few things that may or may not happen to him.”
Nebekah frowned. “That depends very much on if the women he has defeated likes him.”
“Ladies choice,” Tyro mumbled.
“If she likes him,” Nebekah continued, “then once they produce a daughter, the Gerudo may leave the child in the care of the Pride and then return to Hyrule with her mate to be married.”
Link blinked. “And then return for the daughter, right?”
She shook her head. “No. The deal is, if a woman wants to marry, she has to leave the Pride. And if she wants to leave the Pride, she has to provide her own replacement.”
“And since all the Saber Tooth are full Gerudo, all their children will naturally be female. So the firstborn can serve as a replacement for anyone who wants to leave and marry.”
“That is so messed up,” Tyro muttered.
“For once I agree,” Mika said. “Who’d want to allow a man to –”
“Don’t knock it until you try it,” Tyro cut her off.
“What happens if she doesn’t like the guy?” Link wondered.
“Well,” Nebekah said with a shrug, “then after they mate, she sends him away, alive and well. She stays where she is. If a child happens to be produced, it is raised among the Gerudo and nothing really changes.”
Link scowled suddenly. “Nebekah, they aren’t going to expect me and Tyro to challenge a warrior, are they? I mean, once we arrive at the fortress?” He gestured ahead to the fortress which was now looming, a solid gray mass with very little decoration and no windows.
“I doubt it, blondie,” Nebekah said.
“I think I’m through fighting these insane girls,” Tyro said firmly. Although his tone was glib as ever, Link felt he could detect a certain resentment buried within. He had not learned all the details, but what he had managed to glean, so far, was that Tyro had been forced to fight a young Gerudo called Alcia, who had been a close friend to Mika and who had died, not by Tyro’s hand, but by accident. Link could still remember his first kill and rather wished he didn’t. It must have been even more difficult for Tyro. True, he hadn’t really killed Alcia, but she had been a person, not a monster.
“Good to know,” Link said.
“You two should be relatively safe,” Nebekah assured him. “The Saber Tooth are much more tolerant of men than any other Pride. They allow men free access to their stronghold, provided that they obey the rules, and such.”
“Well, that’ll make this easier.”
“Do you think the Alpha will be willing to hand over her Shard?” Sapphia mumbled.
Nebekah shrugged. “Well, her name is Nassan. I’ve met her a few times. She’s pretty reasonable.”
“Good,” Link said, feeling his heart lighten considerably. Given all the trouble within his little group, he didn’t much care to have to deal with a crazy Gerudo on top of that.
By this point, they had reached the entrance to the fortress, a polished cherry oak door with images of beautiful women burned in, flanking either side of the words ‘Saber Tooth Pride.’ “They want you to know who you’re dealing with,” Tyro observed, his eyes scanning the gold letters. From the other side of the doorway, they could hear sitar music, twanging lazily over the chatter of voices. “Sounds like they’re having fun in there.”
“We’re not staying that long,” Nebekah told him.
With a wry smile, Nebekah grabbed the handle and pulled the door open. Instantly, a wall of purple smoke came pouring out, causing the five of them to cough and fan it away from their faces. Link’s eyes stung, but he dared to open them, peering into the room as the fog thinned. The architecture seemed typical Gerudo: Stone walls and furniture, ample pillows of silk strewn about the room.
“This isn’t right,” Sapphia said.
“What?” Tyro asked.
As Link scanned the room though, he discovered it for himself. Although they had just been told that the Saber Tooth were decent toward men, there was clearly something amiss with the image before him. Lounging on the piles of pillows were dozens of men, mostly Hylian, most of them covered in scars and dressed in peasant garb. The Gerudo present were indeed as beautiful as they were rumored to be, most of them with long red hair and sharp blue eyes. They were dressed in skimpy, clinging dresses, not at all like the desert garb that Link was used to seeing on the Gerudo. There was something familiar about it, but Link couldn’t place it.
For a moment, he chalked the scantily clad women up to custom. He had never met the Saber Tooth before. Perhaps this was normal dress for them. But then he remembered that Nebekah had called them great warriors. Clearly they had to be if the only way to mate with one was to fight her. These dresses didn’t seem at all conducive to fighting. Nor did the many silver bangles adorning their wrists and ankles as they walked across the room, carrying trays filled with wine goblets and fresh fruit, the source of which Link could only guess at.
The women crossed the room, leaning over to offer various treats to the men resting on the pillows. But there was decidedly something amiss with this service. All of them seemed to be scowling, giving the men glares of pure hatred as if they would much rather plunge swords into their chests and serve them a snack. Even the sitar player, who Link spotted sitting on a pillow by the wall, seemed to be glaring hatefully at her instrument, as though she had absolutely no desire to continue playing it and would much rather use it to deliver a blow to the back of someone’s head.
Elsewhere in the room, Link noticed one of the men on a pillow pile had grabbed the arm of a passing girl, pulling her down onto his lap and kissing her. She looked ready to bite his face off, but instead, sat there, completely still, letting him have his way with her. Why didn’t she fight back? The man was going too far, his hand caressing her bottom as he deepened the kiss. Still, she remained completely still, compliant. Unlike any Gerudo Link had ever known.
“Nebekah,” he said quietly, unable to take his eyes off of the spectacle arrayed before him.
“Yeah?” she asked, equally shocked.
“Is this normal behavior for the Saber Tooth?”
“What do you think?”
“I think there’s something very wrong with this picture,” he said. And that’s when he realized what was so familiar about this scene. It didn’t look like a Gerudo fortress. It looked like a harem.
Koume paused to admire her work. At last, the new ice castle was complete. She had to admit, she had impressed even herself this time. Given how weak and addled the resurrection had made her, she was decidedly surprised that she had retained enough power to pull it off. True, the castle was nowhere near as grand as their dungeon had once been, but it would suffice until Ganondorf’s return. She had taken great pains to create a few separate rooms, in case unwanted visitors happened to show up. Also, she had made certain that the ice was frosted enough so that she could not see her own reflection in the surface. Old age was not something she looked upon with fondness and she had no desire to see her advanced state of decay. Hungrily, she thought of the great power she would wield again once Ganondorf was reborn. She would have her youth and so would Kotake.
She shivered bitterly. It was a bit unfair. While she was maintaining a new home base for them, Kotake was the one who was able to go out and oversee their operations. It was Kotake who had been the one to find their vessel, the Gerudo who would give birth to Ganondorf reborn and it was Kotake who arranged for the few amenities that Koume was unable to make out of ice for the fortress. Koume found herself feeling a bit stir crazy. She was spending far too much time on her own. After all, they hadn’t managed to procure so much as a Moblin. Not that Moblins were the greatest conversationalists, but still, Koume loathed being left to her own devices. All she would do is sit and brood over old age. And think. When she thought, dangerous little sparks of inspiration came to her.
A shimmering streak of orange appeared in the sky, descending as Kotake flew back through the open roof of the ice tower and down to the only remaining part of the old fortress, the floor. “You’re back early,” Koume told her, turning away from her work.
“It was much easier than expected,” Kotake replied haughtily as she dismounted from the broom.
“I’ve finished the fortress,” Koume said. She gestured grandly, raising both hands and sending small sparkles of ice from her fingertips in a silver shower of great triumph.
“Yes, I see that.”
“What do you think?”
Kotake took a grand total of five seconds to glance around at hours of painstaking work. “It will do,” she said.
Koume bristled. Typical of her sister. Taking no interest in the fine craftsmanship and the great care that had gone into the work. “It will do,” Koume repeated.
Kotake then produced a rumpled old satchel from the end of her broom. “And I have the finishing touch!” she said triumphantly.
“What is it?” she asked in a dry, dead tone, lowering her tired old arms, and pulling her ragged shawl tighter around her neck.
From the satchel, Kotake removed a slim, white slab of marble. “A telepathy tile,” she said proudly displaying it. The early morning sunlight glinted off of the smooth surface.
Her nearly invisible eyebrows inched higher as she leaned forward. “You got one? Is that it?”
“No,” Kotake said dryly. “This is just a fake one.” There was a brief pause. “Yes! I got one.”
She scanned the room for a moment, then walked over to one of the ice walls. Her hand glowing with fire, she pressed it into the ice. Water began running down to the floor as a small alcove was melted. A soft sizzle filled the air. Once Kotake was satisfied, shaping the new grove with her hand, then she thrust the telepathy tile directly into it. “There,” she said.
Wordlessly, Koume walked over, carefully icing up the edges around the tile again, biting her tongue to keep from complaining about the hours of work spoiled by Kotake’s little fire. It was hard enough using magic to protect the palace against the elements of the desert. She didn’t need her pyromaniac sister destroying their new home now. “It should stay,” was all she said.
Kotake seemed to accept this. “Good. Now we can speak to the vessel with relative ease. I’ve told her to seek out telepathy stones in the other Gerudo strongholds. They each have one, I’m sure. If not, I imagine we’ll still be able to get brief messages through. You know how these things are. The weak minded are easy to connect with, telepathically. All she’d need to do is think about it.”
This perked Koume’s interest. “You’ve met with her?”
“Yes,” Kotake admitted. “Late last night, camping on the outskirts of Saber Tooth territory.”
“What have you learned?”
“There’s a fellowship of five traveling across the Valley to assemble the pieces of the Topaz before we do,” Kotake told her.
“Five? I thought it would just be the Hero.”
“A minor complication.”
“Who are the others?”
“The Betas of the Kodiak and the Jaguar, a young Orca trainee, and a boy from the Hylian village.”
Koume frowned. “Where do those last two come in?”
“Well,” Kotake muttered, “it seems that the Orca is actually the Hero’s long lost sister. Isn’t that just quaint?”
“She’s been charged with the task of assembling the Topaz for her rite of initiation. It’s too bad she’ll have to fail. She’s quite the little spitfire. Very impressive.”
“Do you suppose she could be of use to us?” Koume asked.
“It’s possible,” Kotake mumbled, shrugging her thin shoulders. “I certainly won’t rule it out just yet.”
“What about the village boy?”
Kotake laughed dryly. “Just someone in the wrong place at the wrong time. I imagine he’s nothing. Expendable. The girl is much more important right now. She has the first Shard.”
“Yes,” Kotake said, nodding gravely.
“Then we must see to it that our vessel gets a hold of the next one.”
“I have no doubt she will,” Kotake sighed. “Our little distraction with the Saber Tooth should keep everyone in that fellowship busy enough for her to sneak in and grab it.”
“I feel a bit guilty for what we did to them,” Koume admitted.
“Don’t,” Kotake snapped. “Guilt is a weakness and I won’t allow it. Besides, they deserve what they got. It serves them right for allowing men to come and go from a Gerudo fortress as they please.”
“Well, I suppose so,” she sighed.
“What shall we do now?”
“All we need to do now is wait.” With that, Kotake rolled up her ragged, smelly sleeve and pressed her palm to the telepathy tile. Turning to Koume, she jerked her head, indicating for her to do the same. Koume reached out, pressing her gnarled hand against the smooth white tile. Instantly, a warm, gentle feeling flooded her veins, making her feel as though her hand had become a part of the tile. She felt her mind expand, swelling to open up to the nature of Hyrule. She heard voices coming out of every village and town, every shack and stall, all the most intimate thoughts of Hylians everywhere. She would wait now, hoping to pick up on the voice of the vessel.
The five of them had not moved from the doorway in a good seven minutes. They stood there, staring in half horror, half fascination as the great female warriors of the Saber Tooth Pride catered to the whims of a few men, lying on their bottoms, most likely draining the supplies of the Pride. It was finally Sapphia who murmured, “We can’t just stand here.”
“What are we supposed to do?” Mika asked.
“Bring me a bowl of dates!” one of the men on a pillow shouted, holding his hand out to a Gerudo who seemed to be doing nothing but standing around. Instantly, as if someone had tied an invisible string to her navel, she jerked forward, like some kind of perverse puppet, picking up a tray of dates from a table and bringing it, most unwillingly, to the one who had given the command.
“Well, that’s odd,” Tyro deadpanned.
“Nebekah,” Link said, “Do you see the Alpha anywhere?”
Quickly, Nebekah’s bright blue eyes scanned the room. She shook her head. “No, I don’t.”
“Surely the Alpha would not approve of such behavior,” Mika said. “Catering to the demands of men.”
“Because it’s wrong to ever do a man a favor,” Tyro said.
Mika nodded. “Exactly.”
“That’s more than a favor,” Nebekah said.
Tyro rolled his eyes. He stepped forward, approaching a pretty young Saber Tooth, carrying a leather wine decanter to a stack of barrels, no doubt to refill it. “Hey,” he called out to her.
“What?” she snapped.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Serving these blokes.”
“Because they told me to,” she said angrily. “If I had my way, I assure you, I would gully you all.”
“Watch the way you throw around the word ‘you,’” he said. “You’re doing this because they told you to?”
Tyro smirked, a small chuckle escaping at this ridiculous explanation. “Get out,” he laughed.
She looked at him serenely. “How far?”
He blinked, uncertain what to make of this question. “What?”
“How far do you want me to get out?” she asked.
“Fine, I’ll decide for myself.” And with that, she whirled around, her hair spinning about her body, and marched out of the front door which Link and the others had left open.
For a moment, Tyro was silent, watching her go with a blank expression on his face. “Well,” he finally said, “That was unusual.”
“You think?” Nebekah droned.
“Wait a second,” Link said slowly. “You told her to get out and she got out. Literally.”
“Yeah,” Tyro said.
Link’s mind was racing now. “And that guy over there ordered the girl to bring him a bowl of dates…”
“And she brought him a bowl of dates,” Tyro finished, catching on very quickly. “Bit of an odd coincidence.”
“Odd or not, I think it has significance.”
“What are you thinking?” Sapphia murmured. “They’re obeying the commands given to them?”
“Let’s try a little experiment,” Tyro said. He turned to Mika. “Go up to one of them and order them to do something.”
“What?” Mika asked.
“I don’t know, something ridiculous. Go order one of them to hop up and down on one foot.”
“I will not,” Mika said indignantly.
“It’s for the sake of science,” Tyro replied.
“Absolutely not,” she insisted.
Nebekah sighed. “I’ll do it.” With that, she turned, waving over a nearby Saber Tooth girl.
“You’re strangers,” the girl said.
“Just arrived,” Nebekah muttered. “Hop up and down on one foot.”
The Saber Tooth stared at her blankly. “What?”
“Hop up and down on one foot,” Tyro said.
Instantly, the Saber Tooth girl began to hop up and down on one foot, glaring daggers at Tyro. “Man scum,” she hissed.
“You can stop now,” Link said quickly.
The girl stopped hopping. “That wasn’t funny,” she insisted, still directing her hatred at Tyro.
“Hit him if you like,” Link mumbled.
With that, the girl struck Tyro in the face, turned around, and stormed away before she could be given any additional commands. Tyro rubbed his jaw indignantly. “Thanks a lot, Link.”
“I found that rather enjoyable,” Mika declared. She folded her arms. “Well, as fun as that little exercise was…”
“It taught us something,” Nebekah said.
“It seems that the Saber Tooth women are obeying the commands of men,” Link told her.
“Whether they want to or not,” Sapphia added.
“What could cause that?” Mika asked.
“I doubt it’s a change of heart,” Tyro deadpanned.
“More likely, it’s a spell,” Link muttered.
“Who could cast a spell like that?” Nebekah wondered.
“That should be obvious,” Sapphia said. The others all turned to look at her. “Clearly, it’s the Twinrova sisters. They must know that we’re here.”
Link nodded. “She has a point.”
“Let’s have some music,” a rich, unusual voice said from across the room. “Play something.” At once, the sitar music began again. “Dance for us,” the man called and several of the nearby Gerudo began an exotic sand dance.
“I know that voice,” Tyro said. “And I don’t think I like it.”
The five of them turned to look across the room in the direction from which it came. Resting against an especially large stack of pillows was a slim man with rounded, Human ears. He appeared to be in his late twenties, quite tall, and quite muscular. His hair, long and chocolate brown, was pulled back in a ponytail, revealing a blackened burn, in the shape of a crescent moon, on his forehead. He sat, bare-chested, as an angry Saber Tooth massaged his back. Hungry eyes drank in the smooth curves of the warrior women as they danced unwillingly for him.
“Who is he?” Link asked.
“Ari Prospero,” Tyro supplied. “A local thug from the village. I’ve seen him before.”
“He’s not Hylian,” Nebekah noted.
“He’s a Risan,” Link said quietly.
Mika wrinkled up her forehead. “What’s a Risan?”
“There’s a small island kingdom to the west of Hyrule,” Link explained. “The people there are called Risans. They’re like Humans, only a bit stronger and faster and more aggressive.”
“How can you tell he’s not a Human?” Mika persisted.
“The symbol on his forehead,” Link said. “All Risans have a ritual at the age of fifteen. They get branded with a fire iron, a celestial shape on their forehead. They say it connects them to the lifeforce.” He glanced at Tyro. “I didn’t know that Risans were local thugs though.”
“No, not generally,” Tyro said. “He was banished from his homeland for stealing a priceless jewel or something. Now he runs a gang of bleeding lay-abouts. Always yammering about revenge.”
“What’s he doing here?” Sapphia whispered.
Tyro shrugged. “From what I understand, he fancies himself quite the lover. Probably thought he’d challenge a Saber Tooth.”
“How do you know this?”
“I know a courtesan named Darla very well.” Tyro scanned the room. “A lot of the other men are his thugs.”
“Well, he’s clearly made himself the alpha male,” Nebekah said.
“You know,” Sapphia added, “there aren’t a lot of Saber Tooth in here, relatively speaking.”
“You’re right,” Mika said.
“Where do you think the others are?”
Link didn’t know. “Either in the fortress or the territory, I guess.”
“Maybe we should find them,” Sapphia said. “See if they know anything more than we do.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Link said. “We’ll split up.”
“I’ll go looking for Nassan,” Nebekah said. “She’s got to be in the fortress somewhere.”
“I’ll go with you,” Sapphia said instantly.
“Why? You don’t trust me with the Alpha?”
“The Jaguar would benefit from a second Shard now, wouldn’t they?” Sapphia countered bitterly.
“Fine,” Link cut in. “You two go looking for Nassan.” He sighed heavily, realizing what this meant. “Tyro, Mika, go searching the outer territory, see if you can find any others.”
Mika glared at Tyro. “But –”
“You need to take a man with you,” Link said, “in case someone tries to attack. He might be able to order it off.”
“Fine,” Mika said sulkily.
“What are you going to do, blondie?” Nebekah asked.
“I’ll stay here. See if I can learn anything else about this Ari guy.”
Being saddled with Tyro on this highly important quest was unpleasant. Being sent to work with him, one on one was completely unsatisfactory. Just who had died and left Link in command, Mika wondered. Still, as she marched across the sandy terrain of the Saber Tooth Pride’s territory, she had to admit that since the very beginning, when they first set off away from her home, everyone had always looked to Link to make all the decisions. He was simply the natural leader. Mika was having a hard time adjusting to it, frankly. Her entire life had seen nothing but women in command and she found it difficult to accept that Link was so capable after everything she had been taught about men.
Of course, it was still quite startling to realize that he was actually her brother, the blood of her blood. Stories of the Hero of Time had reached even the Orca, but they had been vague, shadowy at best. All too suddenly, Mika had learned that not only were the stories true, but these great deeds had been performed by her own flesh. With all of this sudden and abrupt knowledge, she had come to appreciate Link, man though he was. Tyro, on the other hand, was a different story.
Mika found everything about him utterly distasteful. He hated the Gerudo, which was a bad beginning. Beyond that, though, he was a typical man, everything she had ever been told about them. He was rude, demanding, self centered, quite arrogant, and clearly viewed women as subservient. Every time she looked at his irritatingly handsome face, she was filled with the urge to punch him. Out of respect for Link and her Gerudo sister Nebekah, she had refrained. They had first come to protect Tyro, after all. But left alone with him, she feared her patience would soon run out.
The landscape was turning rockier. Like the Orca Pride, the Saber Tooth Gerudo lived among the rock formations of the
. It was only their front door that faced the sand. Mika was adept at scaling the rocks, using her arms and her fingers to propel herself forward onto the cliffs and plateaus. Tyro, by contrast, who had grown up in a wealthy suburb of Gerudo Valley , was having some difficulties. North Castle
“Slow down,” he whined.
“We’re on a mission, not a nature hike,” she said, neatly pulling herself onto a mesa of gray stone. She pulled an arrow out of her quiver and broke a single feather off of the shaft, resting it on the path to mark where they had been so they could find their way back.
“Tell me something,” Tyro droned as he hefted his carcass onto the flat. “Are you always this irritable?”
“I am not irritable,” she snapped.
“Oh, sure you’re not.” He slumped onto his heels, catching his breath, his shoulders heaving up and down. The pole arm, tied smartly to his back, stabbed up into the air with each breath.
“I need to rest.”
“We have to keep moving.”
“In a minute,” he said.
Mika folded her arms. “Are you always this lazy?” she countered him with a cruel smile.
“Yes, actually,” he replied.
“I thought so.”
“Never lift a finger unless I have to,” he continued. “I much prefer good company to good work.”
“You say that like you know the first thing about men.”
“I know everything I need to know about men,” she shot back.
“So you’re an expert on men?”
“I see.” Tyro glanced up at her. “Tell me something, exactly how many men have you ever had a conversation with?”
“How many men have you talked to?”
“Do you count as a man?”
“Let’s say I do.”
She paused. “Two,” she finally admitted.
“Then,” he said, “I submit that your earlier statement is false.”
“What do you mean?”
“You are not an expert on men.”
“How do you –”
“You cannot be an expert on men,” he continued, “if you’ve had such limited field experience.”
“Enough sophistry,” she sneered.
“Quite right. I’m well rested now.” With that, he rose to his feet, flinging his auburn ponytail back over his shoulder. “After you,” he said with a grand gesture forward.
“Hmmph,” she snorted, taking up the path once more.
“You know,” he said, following behind her. “I’ll admit that some men aren’t exactly wonderful. That Ari is a real sleaze. Believe me.”
“But you Gerudo aren’t exactly angels either.”
She whirled around so fast that the blue wraps around her hair flung around her neck. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean,” he said calmly, “you don’t have the best of habits. Kidnapping innocent women. Kidnapping my mother.”
“I told you before!” she snapped. “We don’t kidnap women.”
“Maybe your Pride doesn’t,” he said, “but some do. I know my mother was taken. I’ve read it.”
“That’s another Pride. You can’t blame me for that.”
“No more than you can blame me for the faults of all men. What Ari does isn’t what I do.”
“I have plenty to blame you for,” she hissed.
“And what is that?”
“You killed my sister,” she blurted out. The memory of Alcia’s death was still painfully fresh in her memory. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw it, her Gerudo sister with pale skin and a sweet smile, her eyes wide with shock as she realized that Tyro’s blade had impaled her directly through the middle.
“That wasn’t my fault,” Tyro insisted.
“You held the blade.”
“She ran onto it,” he declared coldly. “I had no desire to fight her at all. You know that.”
“Yes, you were a coward.”
“Maybe,” he answered. “But I didn’t take a single swing at her. What happened was her own doing.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that she should be here now instead of you. You don’t deserve to be alive.”
“You’re probably right, but I am alive now. And as far as her death is concerned, I’m blameless.”
“Fine, keep telling yourself that.”
“How about we make a deal,” he said.
“I stop blaming you for my mother’s kidnapping if you stop blaming me for what happened to Alcia.” For emphasis, he held out his hand.
Mika glared at him. She would rather die than so much as touch his miserable, male skin. Still, for once, she would make an exception. With a sneer, she lashed out, knocking his hand away from her. “There are no accords between wolves and men,” she hissed.
“Oh, that’s very clever,” he drawled, lowering his arm. “Did you make that up all by yourself?”
She spat in his face. “Let’s go.” Without a second glance, she turned around, resuming her climb across the rocky Saber Tooth territory. She could hear Tyro wheezing behind her, attempting to keep up. Smiling wolfishly, she picked up the pace, moving as fast as she safely could over the stones. Perhaps he would fall to his death somewhere along the way. Mika would certainly lose no sleep over his demise and the others couldn’t possibly blame her for his fall, not if she didn’t push him, tempting though it was.
As she moved, she was disappointed to hear no further complaints, no further insults, and no falling sounds. In fact, when she looked down to take hold of a rock, she noticed his shadow, falling right over her hand. Perhaps, she mused vaguely, he was a little bit more than he seemed. If nothing else, the two men she had deigned to converse with were certainly full of surprises.
Link chewed on his thumb, looking around the smoke-filled room. His eyes watered and burned from the intense incense and a certain level of disgust. Perhaps he was a bit old fashioned, but he sensed something distinctly foul about these gentlemen beyond their suspicious faces. The way they looked at the Gerudo women made him sick. He tried as hard as he could not to let his imagination wander too wildly, but nevertheless, he could not escape certain smarmy images.
Carefully, he made his way through the room. None of the men seemed to pay him much attention. He supposed they took him for just another traveler who had stumbled upon their good fortune. The Gerudo women that took note of him merely glared and scurried away, perhaps before he could issue a command that was not to their liking. At the very least, this confirmed his theory about some kind of spell. Sapphia was probably right, too. It was probably the work of the Twinrova sisters. What didn’t make sense, as far as Link could tell, was that there didn’t seem to be any kind of motive. The sisters wanted the Topaz. Link did not see how this particular spell would get it for them. He could only assume, therefore, that the spell served another purpose. Was it a distraction?
“Well done, ladies,” Link mumbled under his breath. It seemed that Koume and Kotake knew him only too well. As hard as he tried to detach himself from his past heroics and from adventure, they had so brilliantly calculated that Link would feel honor bound to help, which he did, that he would put his quest for the other Shards aside to end the spell. He smiled grimly, half admiring their shrewd planning. Still, there remained a question. If this spell was the bait, where was the hook? Was it Ari? He was impressive, but Link was fairly certain he could easily take the street thug, if it came to fisticuffs.
Link turned around and immediately barreled into the person behind him. The two of them tumbled to the ground, accompanied by the clatter of silver and the splash of dark bloodwine. Disentangling himself from delicate purple silk, Link found himself on top of a Gerudo woman. She had dark hair for a Gerudo, interwoven with purple strips of linen. Her build was slim and powerful, her well toned muscles displaying several light purple tattoos of Gerudo design. Aside from her silk dress, she wore a purple headband around her forehead with a small, silver charm shaped like a crescent moon, which dangled between her eyes, immediately drawing attention to them. And they were perfectly lovely.
“Oh, sorry,” Link mumbled, quickly pulling himself up and away from her. Somehow, the distance did not make him feel any safer. She looked about ready to pounce.
“Watch where you’re going,” she hissed.
He leaned over and started picking up the fallen wine goblets, the bulk of the spilled wine being soaked up by his gauntlets. “The incense around here is a little strong. Is it always like that?”
She snatched a goblet out of his hand, giving him a glare. “No,” she said softly. “Nothing’s been the same since…”
Her eyes narrowed and Link feared, for a moment, that she would refuse to answer him. “Since the men took over,” she said finally.
“When was that?”
“A few days ago.”
Link frowned. “What happened?”
“We’re not exactly sure,” she told him, picking up the other flagons and arranging them on a silver platter engraved with the Gerudo symbol.
“One minute, it was business as usual. The next thing we knew, they were the ones giving the orders and we were obeying them.”
“And you don’t know what caused this?”
She shook her head, the linens in her hair giving off the faint scent of an exotic perfume that Link found particularly enjoyable. “It just happened,” she growled, standing up again.
He rose with her. “Well, it’s probably a spell.”
“A curse is more like it. I wish they’d leave us alone. I wish all pigs would leave us alone.”
“All men?” She didn’t reply, but only scowled. Link pressed on. “Look, my friends and I want to help you.”
“You don’t want to help,” she insisted.
“You’ll end up just like all the others, taking advantage of us. That’s what pigs do. Roll around in their own filth.”
“I’m not like that,” he said.
“Sure you’re not,” she hissed.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
She turned away from him. “Just forget it.”
“Tell me your name!”
A hand shot to her throat. When she spoke, her voice was tight and strained, as if she didn’t want to speak at all. “Kae’lee, daughter of Chava, first Beta of the Saber Tooth Pride.” She glared at him and he realized that despite his best intentions, he had just given her an order. “Satisfied?” she sneered.
“Sorry,” Link mumbled.
She was about to turn away from him again. “I’m Link,” he blurted out quickly. “Son of…someone. An honorary Delta warrior of the Dragon Pride.” He stepped carefully toward her. “I’m here to help.”
“Sure,” she said in a flat, dead tone.
“If you say so.”
“I’m here with friends.” He suddenly found himself babbling. “The Betas from the Jaguar and the Kodiak. They’re not here at the moment. They’re looking for your Alpha. And my other friends are out in the territory. We’re not sure what they’re looking for, but they’ll find it. That is, if they don’t kill each other first. For some reason the two of them don’t seem to get along. I think it’s because they’re harboring hostilities about their –”
Kae’lee clapped a hand over his mouth. “Now listen to me and listen good, piggy,” she said in a low, dangerous voice. “I don’t care what you have to say. I don’t care what any man has to say, think, hear, or smell. You’re all a tribe of greasy, fat pigs who prefer a good roll in the mud to kindness and consideration and I would like nothing better than to see the whole lot of you gutted and twirling on a spit over a roasting pit with an apple stuck in your mouth and chunks of pineapple dripping down your bloated, pink, hairy, sides.”
He blinked, completely stunned by this declaration. True, he had heard such utterances from Mika, but never quite in such a rapid succession or with such vehemence. He was spared the trouble of coming up with a reply, however. From across the room, Ari’s rich voice interrupted their conversation. “You there,” the local thug called, holding a hand out to Kae’lee. “You’re pretty. Come dance for me.”
Wordlessly, Kae’lee shoved the serving platter into Link’s chest and crossed to Ari as the sitar music began to play a wild, distinctively Gerudo folksong. Link followed after her, grabbing her arm and trying to pull her back. “Why are you obeying him?” he asked stupidly.
She wrenched her arm free with impressive force. “I don’t have a choice,” she growled.
“Come,” Ari called, opening his hand. “Dance for me.”
Link balled his hands up into fists on either side of his body. “Leave her alone!” he cried.
Ari raised a thin eyebrow. “And you are?”
“I don’t need you to fight my battles for me,” Kae’lee said at the exact same time.
He decided to hear her instead of Ari. “Well, you can’t do a very good job of fighting it in your condition,” he snapped.
“My condition?” she repeated.
“You’re under a spell.”
“Thank you so much for reminding me,” she droned.
“You can’t fight against him, but I can.”
“I don’t need your help.”
“Why are the Gerudo so stubborn?” Link exclaimed.
“Dance for me,” Ari demanded. Kae’lee seemed to be overcome by a great force. She clapped her palms together over her head and started to dance, her hips swaying slowly from side to side, her head lolling back as though she were having some kind of graceful seizure. Only her eyes seemed to remain within her own command and they glared angrily in all directions.
“Leave her alone,” Link shouted at Ari.
Ari pursed his lips together. He gestured vaguely with a gloved hand to a few of the other men who were enjoying the company of a young Delta swallowing fire. “Dispose of this annoyance,” he said lazily to them, never taking his eyes off of Kae’lee’s hips.
Begrudgingly, the men rose. There were three of them and they were all much larger than Link. He imagined that he could easily take them all though. None of them seemed to show any indication of formal training. They didn’t carry swords or poles or any visible weapons. Link was fairly certain he could easily dispatch of them. He squatted down, preparing to take full advantage of a lower center of gravity than these goons, but suddenly, he saw Ari reach out and run a hand down Kae’lee’s thigh. “Hey!” he cried indignantly, standing up again. At once, the thugs grabbed him under the arms. As Link kicked and screamed, he was helplessly dragged out of the smoky den by three men who should have proven no real threat.
Nebekah and Sapphia made their way silently through the hallways of the Saber Tooth fortress. At first, Nebekah had resented Sapphia’s unwanted company, but she decided to make the best of things. This was an occasion to learn quite a bit, after all. Nebekah used this opportunity to assess Sapphia’s skills. She certainly seemed a capable warrior, well versed in the art of stealth and obfuscation. Her skills even seemed comparable to Nebekah’s, she admitted bitterly. The two of them moved like twin shadows, sweeping through the corridors and avoiding detection without a hint of difficulty.
Not that there was much to avoid. They had not run into a single man since their quest for Nassan began. A few sour-faced Delta warriors had passed through, but other than that, the hallways had been remarkably empty. This could prove both a blessing and a curse, Nebekah thought as she moved alongside Sapphia. On the one hand, it might make their work here easier, on the other, it left her with a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach as she wondered where the other Delta warriors could possibly be. She hoped desperately they had fled before the spell could put them at the mercy of the men, but somehow, she doubted it.
“I’ve never met Nassan,” Sapphia whispered. “When I last visited the Saber Tooth, their Alpha was called Shaheen. She was young. What became of her? Did she fall in battle?”
“She had a daughter,” Nebekah answered tersely. “The Saber Tooth feel that once an Alpha has children, she should step down. The turnaround time is quite extraordinary. Almost like everyone in the Pride gets a chance at being Alpha, regardless of bloodlines.”
“Amazing how different we are,” Sapphia remarked.
“Amazing,” Nebekah repeated dryly. She glanced across the hall. “There. There’s the Alpha’s chambers.” She pointed to a set of double doors. Engraved in the stone was an image of an enormous tiger, setting on a pyramid of bones and wearing a crown. Inlaid into the tracery were precious jewels, purple, the Saber Tooth color, arranged like the Gerudo crescent.
Carefully, scanning from side to side in twin motions, the two Betas crept forward. Without consulting each other, Sapphia knew to keep watch while Nebekah carefully grabbed an ivory doorknob and turned it. She was gratified to hear a soft click. The two of them slipped inside and shut the door. The inside of the chamber was bathed in inky darkness, but they heard a raspy inhale at their arrival, followed by an all too still silence.
“Alpha Nassan?” Nebekah called tentatively.
“Who’s there?” a hoarse voice whispered.
“Friends,” Sapphia said.
“Are you alone?”
“No men are with us,” Nebekah assured the voice.
“I don’t know your voices,” it said.
“We’re not of your Pride,” Sapphia said.
“Who are you?”
“Sapphia, daughter of Alondra, first Beta of the Kodiak Pride,” Sapphia recited proudly.
“Yes, Alpha. And I travel with Nebekah, daughter of Elena, first Beta of the Jaguar Pride.”
There was a moment of silence before the voice spoke again. “There is a table beside the door. On it is a taper and flint. Light it so I can see you.”
Nebekah stumbled forward blindly, her hands groping in the darkness until they discovered the edge of the table. “We came on an urgent quest,” Nebekah explained as she searched for the flint.
“What sort of quest?”
“The Twinrova sisters have returned from the dead,” Sapphia explained. “They’re seeking to restore the Topaz.”
“Why would they want to do that?”
“We think it’s some kind of weapon,” Nebekah said.
“Alpha Medea of the Orca Pride has charged our fellowship with assembling the Topaz before they can,” Sapphia continued. “She believes that this weapon will be able to destroy the sisters.”
“I see,” the voice said as Nebekah found the flint. “And you’ve come to collect my Shard?”
“We were hoping to approach you about it in the traditional way,” Sapphia told her quickly. “But we see you have other problems at the moment.”
“I’m afraid you have not found the Saber Tooth Pride under the best of circumstances.”
Reaching out, Nebekah took hold of what had to be an oil lamp. Her fingers ran along the smooth metal surface, seeking the taper. “Well, of course, we want to help you,” she croaked.
“That is very kind of you.”
“We’re traveling with Medea’s Thin Blood daughter,” Sapphia said. “And the Hero of Time.”
“The Hero of Time?” the voice repeated.
“He’s a friend of mine,” Nebekah told her as her fingers found the taper at last. She began to strike the flint against it. “He feels an obligation to undo whatever has happened to you and your sisters. He’s quite noble and I assure you, will not cause any trouble like the other men.”
“I’m not so sure about Tyro,” Sapphia added in sotto.
A spark jumped from the flint to the taper and it immediately lit, filling the room with a soft, gold glow. Nebekah and Sapphia had to shield their eyes for a moment, blinking and allowing themselves to slowly adjust to the abrupt change in illumination. That done, they both turned and drew in identical gasps as they caught sight of Alpha Nassan.
Nebekah would never have taken her for an Alpha, had she not known better. The young woman had been stripped of all her finery, all indication of her rank and status. She was on her back, tied to a chaise. Two spears had been rammed into the ground on either side of her. Linen strips were tied around each spear’s shaft and then bound to Nassan’s wrists, forcing her arms into a painful and permanent spread. Her long red hair was matted and hard, sticking out at funny angles. Exposed and unprotected, her body boasted dozens of purple and blue bruises as well as an assortment of cuts and scrapes that had been left untended and now seemed to be oozing with yellow puss. Both of her knees were swollen and misshapen, perhaps broken, though it was impossible to tell. Worst of all, the chaise itself was covered in dark brown and red stains. Blood.
It was Sapphia who managed to compose herself first. “Alpha,” she whispered, “what happened?”
“I think,” Nassan said, “That should be very obvious.”
“Who did this?” Nebekah asked.
“Ari and his men. My mother warned me not to be so trusting of men…” Sapphia rushed over to Nassan’s side and reached out to untie the bounds holding her in place. “No,” Nassan said quickly. “Don’t untie me.”
“Ari will know you were here.”
“Alpha,” Nebekah said, “do you think that Ari was responsible for this spell that has you and your sisters obeying men?”
Nassan laughed at this. “No. He’s just a thug who felt a swell of power in his belly when he realized that he could take advantage of our hospitality. He and his men came here so he could attempt to win a Saber Tooth bride.”
“I told you,” Sapphia said impatiently, “this has to have been the work of Koume and Kotake.”
“Do you really think so?” Nassan asked.
The Alpha sighed. “To do such a thing to fellow Gerudo is animal,” she muttered.
“Well, regardless of who is responsible, we’re going to fix it,” Nebekah told her. “Somehow.”
“Do that,” Nassan said, “and I will give you my Shard.”
“Thank you, Alpha,” Nebekah said with a bow, crossing her wrists in front of her chest.
“He’ll be easily disposed of,” Sapphia added.
“Do not be so quick to believe that,” Nassan warned them. “You may have noticed that many of my sisters are absent from the fortress.”
Nebekah frowned. “We did notice, actually.”
Nassan nodded. “Ari has sent them deep into our territory to the silver mines.”
“He’s using them as slave labor?” Sapphia choked, clearly shocked by this development.
“Wealth,” Nebekah spat, shaking her head angrily. “Men are always seeking more wealth.”
“You misunderstand me,” Nassan said. “The silver in these mines is valuable, yes, but that is not why Ari wants it.”
Sapphia wrinkled up her nose. “Why does he want it?”
“It’s not ordinary silver. It’s Din Silver. Once forged, it never breaks. In the ancient days, the Hylians used this silver to forge gloves or gauntlets. If someone wore these silver instruments, their strength was increased tenfold.”
“Nabooru’s silver gauntlets,” Nebekah whispered softly.
“Even in an unprocessed state, the silver can increase a person’s strength significantly.”
“So Ari isn’t seeking wealth,” Sapphia sighed. “He’s seeking power. A way to get revenge on…someone.”
“And judging by how long he’s had my sisters digging in the mines,” Nassan said, “my guess is that he already has it.”
Link was thrown to the ground, landing on his tailbone. A shock of pain ran through his spine, causing him to cringe. The three goons laughed uproariously, standing around Link and enjoying his pain. If nothing else, the pain had served as a sharp reminder, snapping Link back into focus. As he looked up at his stupid, bloated captors, his mind began to form strategies for dispatching of them. He angrily cursed himself for becoming distracted, but he would have to dwell on that some other time. For now, he had to get back inside.
“Yes, yes,” he said, slowly climbing to his feet and rubbing his sore bottom. “I fell on my backside. Let’s all have a good laugh about it.”
“Oooh, this one likes to talk back,” one of the goons chuckled.
“Do he?” a second scoffed.
“Why don’t you show him what we do to punks who like to talk back, Joachim,” the third sneered.
The first one, evidently named Joachim, stepped forward, pounding a meaty fist into his hand. “I could do that,” he said.
“Oh, please,” Link groaned, rolling his eyes. “Could you be more of a walking cliché?”
“I’ll get you for that,” Joachim snapped.
“Get him, Joachim!” one of his companions shouted.
“What’s a cliché?” the other, a skinny make with a narrow face, asked, scratching his head.
“Put them up!” Joachim barked, holding his meaty fists in front of his body and swaying back and forth on the balls of his feet.
Link took a step back, planting his hands on his hips and taking a wide stance. “Come and get me,” he taunted the lackey.
Joachim roared, leading forward and leading with his head as he charged at Link. This was exactly what Link had been hoping for. Easily, with the grace of a dancer, Link spun out of Joachim’s path. The goon was running blind and completely unaware that Link had even moved. He continued raging forward, cracking his skull loudly against the side of the fortress. Link and the other thugs involuntarily cringed as they watched Joachim straighten out and dizzily stumble to one side, his eyes out of focus and spinning in his big, ugly head.
Like a tree, Joachim tipped over and crashed to the ground, sending a cloud of dust up into the air around him. After that, he was perfectly still, except for the steady, unconscious breathing that caused his gut to bob up and down, sagging out from underneath his filthy, wine soaked shirt. Link raised an eyebrow. “I guess he showed me,” he said.
The skinnier lackey’s jaw fell open. “You little…” But the indignant lackey seemed to be at a loss for words. He balled his hands up into fists, his face turning beet red.
“Little what?” Link asked, genuinely curious to see what kind of barb this individual could come up with.
“I’ll get you for what you did to him!”
“I didn’t do anything,” Link said calmly.
The second lackey charged, this time keeping his head up and his eyes trained on Link. Unlike Joachim, who was bull-like and meaty, this particular goon seemed wirier and certainly smaller. Link reached out, planting a hand on his opponent’s head. The minion growl and barked, swinging his arms uselessly, out of range of Link. Under normal circumstances, Link probably could have held out, waiting for him to wear himself out, but Link reminded himself that there was still a third to contend with and that he couldn’t become immobile for that length of time.
“Let me at him! Let me at him!” the raging goon cried.
“This,” Link said instructively, “is a cliché.” And with that, he released his hold on the other man’s head. The goon fell over, face first into the dust. Link swiveled around and planted a foot on his backside, grabbing one arm and pulling it into a half nelson behind his back. Still, his opponent squirmed and writhed, determined to somehow get revenge on Link for felling Joachim. He gnashed his teeth and wriggled, craning his neck to try and bite Link’s ankle. Link delivered a swift kick to a particular soft spot on the back of his skull. Instantly, the second thug fell unconscious, getting a face full of dust.
Link turned around and immediately felt dismay. He had hoped that the third minion would be just as stupid as the other two, but he quickly was disillusioned. The third, a rather good looking Human with red hair, had drawn a pair of knives from the depths of his long, ostentatious jacket. “It’s just you and me now,” he said, grinning gleefully.
“Great,” Link replied, reaching over his shoulder and drawing his own blade which had mercifully remained in the sheath throughout the ordeal.
The flunky surged forward, both of his knives pointed at Link’s chest. Link batted them to one side with his sword then swung back at the enemy’s shoulder. Quickly, the goon crossed his knives, catching the blade in the V they formed. He grinned, clearly pleased with himself for managing to render Link’s sword temporarily useless. Link shrugged and kicked his foot forward, slamming the bottom of his boot into the other man’s chest. Instantly, he dropped the knives and fell over. He tried to roll over and climb to his feet, but Link kicked him down again, planting a foot on his back and placing the tip of his sword directly behind his neck.
“I wouldn’t,” he told him fiercely.
Suddenly, the sound of clapping rang out sharply across the lawn. Link turned and saw Ari standing in the doorway to the fortress, clapping his gloved hands with a look of decided admiration. “Well done,” he said serenely.
“Are these your best men?” Link asked coldly.
“They were,” Ari admitted mournfully, “but I’m in the market for something a little better.”
“Really?” Link snorted.
“Kindly get off of him.”
Reluctantly, Link removed his foot from the third lackey’s back and stepped away. The dusty man growled, pulling himself to his feet. “Why I ought to –”
“That will be all, Henrik,” Ari interrupted, dismissing the angry goon with a wave of his hand. “See to the others.” Begrudgingly, the other man, apparently named Henrik, obeyed. Ari turned his full attention on Link now. “Tell me, my friend, what is your –”
Link cut him off. “I’m not your friend.”
“Not yet,” Ari said, apparently completely nonplussed by the interruption. “But you can never have too many friends.”
“I prefer quality to quantity.”
“And you certainly are high quality, my friend,” Ari purred.
“If you say so.”
“What’s your name?”
“Link.” He knew it was a risk, giving his real name. Link, however, was banking on the fact that Ari was a foreigner to Hyrule. There was a chance that he didn’t know the Hero of Time.
“I see,” Ari repeated, apparently confirming Link’s suspicions. “Well, Link, you’ve managed to dispose of my three best men.”
“It wasn’t that difficult.”
“I noticed. Your skill far exceeds theirs. Tell me, would you be interested in a job?”
He blinked. “A job?”
“I’m in need of guards with your superior skills. I would like to take you on as one of my own.”
“You think that I’d want to work for you?”
“I think,” Ari said, “that you have come here to the Saber Tooth fortress. There are only two kinds of men who come here. Sex fiends and men who have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Something tells me you are not a sex fiend. No, you came here seeking a Saber Tooth bride. Or your own death, perhaps. Therefore, I think you have much to gain.”
“That’s what you say.”
“It is.” Ari smiled. “Join me. I can make it well worth your while.”
Link had to admit, this was going far better than expected. If he could join Ari’s inner circle, perhaps he could learn Ari’s purposes, perhaps even find the source of the spell, assuming that Sapphia was wrong and Twinrova wasn’t responsible. At the very least, joining up with Ari would assure Link of not being thrown bodily from the fortress again. Still, instinct told him to play it cool. After all, if he were the destitute Ari took him for, he would be skeptical. “Suppose I were to join you,” he said.
“What’s in it for me?”
“Besides a purpose in life?”
Ari shrugged. “I could not help but notice your interest in my pretty little dancer,” he said casually. “Kae’lee, was it?”
The other man smiled. “Join me, Link, and I will give her to you to attend your bed.” He leaned his head to one side. “I assure you, she will be the first of many rewards given to my new lieutenant. What do you say?”
This was the opportunity. Time to accept and get in on Ari’s plans. Link nodded. He could feel heat rising into his cheeks. He knew he would have to say something eventually, but suddenly, his throat had gone dry. Luckily, Ari seemed to accept this nod as ascent, because he then clapped Link on the shoulder and, without another thought to his fallen comrades, led him back into the fortress.
The last half hour had been mercifully silent, so silent, that from time to time, Mika would be surprised to realize that Tyro was still following behind her. After reaching the farthest border of Saber Tooth territory, the two of them had turned around and headed back to the fortress, taking a different route than before, through a choppy rock quarry that was clearly a frequent bypass for the Saber Tooth, due to the relatively smooth stone corridor worn in the rock. So far, the new route had been just as disappointing as the old one. There was no sign of life anywhere, other than a few buzzards flying overhead.
To be honest, the silence was starting to get on Mika’s nerves. She couldn’t explain why, really. It wasn’t as if Tyro had anything of value to say. Nevertheless, she felt very uncomfortable and relished the opportunity to speak again when she noticed a pick ax lying on the ground. “There must be mines around here,” she said, leaning over and picking it up.
“What do you think they mine?” Tyro asked. She thought she detected a hint of relief in his voice, as if he hated the awkward silences too.
“I’m not sure,” she admitted. Orca Pride had never had need to mine. Most of the things they made were constructed out of leather and stone. When they needed metal, they generally bartered with the Kodiak Pride for gold or ore.
“Sounds like something Ari would be interested in,” Tyro said.
“What do you mean?”
Tyro shrugged. “He likes money.”
“Should we investigate?”
She was a bit surprised by his sudden deference. “I imagine we’re on the way,” she said.
For a moment, she stood there, watching him expectantly. Tyro said nothing, but instead stood still, looking back at her. Finally, with a small sigh, she turned around and began walking again. Behind her, she heard Tyro follow. “It’s stupid,” she said angrily.
“Man’s pathetic quest for wealth.”
He chuckled. “Sometimes. Although I will say, it’s nice having a few coins to rub together.”
“Still,” he continued, “if I were suddenly king of a Gerudo Pride, I don’t think money would be the first thing on my mind.”
“You’d still be after revenge for your mother.”
“Well, if you had approached me about that a week ago then yes, revenge would have been on my mind. But, if what Nebekah says is true, then I don’t think these girls kidnapped my mother.”
“So what would be the first thing on your mind?” she asked.
“Do you really have to ask? Come on, you saw those women. They’re gorgeous. I’d want what any man would want with them.”
Mika whirled around, looking at him in disgust. “You’re repulsive.”
“No, I’m not,” he said breezily. “I’m just a warm blooded man. And those girls looked pretty warm blooded to me.”
“Do men think of anything other than reproduction?” she sneered.
Tyro held up his hands quickly. “Woah, woah, woah. Time out. Who said anything about reproduction? I do not want kids. Ever.”
“You’re sick.” She turned around and started walking again.
“You know, there are some men who aren’t obsessed with a woman’s touch. I’ll bet your brother’s never –”
She held up a hand suddenly. “Shhh…”
“Shut up,” she hissed. She strained her ears, she was certain that she had heard something. Tyro mercifully shut up and together, they stood completely still. And there it was again! Somewhere, in the near distance, she could hear the sound of a cracking whip.
“Sounds like someone’s in pain,” Tyro mumbled. “Or in fun.”
“Come on,” she hissed, choosing to ignore the remark. Silently, the two of them crept along the stone corridor. Up ahead, the rocks gave way on the right hand side. Mika was certain that whatever was making the noise, it would appear once they managed to peek around that corner. The whip was getting louder, now companied by a scream. Mika felt her throat tighten. Someone was hurting a sister Gerudo, she was sure of it.
Carefully, Mika and Tyro placed their hands on the rock. Mika stood up on her tip toes and peered around the side while Tyro squatted below her to look on the other side. The rock formations gave way to a steep decline, leading down into a ravine. Within the ravine, dozens of small holes led down into mine shafts. Some of the shafts had silver tracks leading in with carts rolling along the rails, while others were so small, that Mika doubted more than two or three people could fit inside at a time.
Lines and lines of soot-covered Gerudo were moving in and out of the larger shafts, carrying pick axes and lanterns, pushing carts, hauling buckets filled with a dark metallic rock. Directing the traffic were about half a dozen ruddy, ugly men, each carrying a whip in one hand and a chain in the other hand. The chains were binding three young Deltas who sat on stones. Two of them looked young, possibly recent initiates while the third looked a bit older, and sat hunched over, shielding her swollen, pregnant stomach from the world. The three of them looked bloody and beaten, showing clear indication of whip lashes on their faces.
“Keep working!” one of the men shouted. “Keep working or I kill them.” To emphasize his point, he whipped one of the three girls. The lash caught her across the shoulder, sending a thread of blood into her silk dress. The Gerudos in line nearest to her, on the way down into the mine, gave the man angry glares. One of them moved forward to try and comfort the girl. The taskmaster kicked her in the shin. “Back into line!” he ordered.
“Animals,” Mika hissed.
“I know that man,” Tyro said thoughtfully.
“Who is he?”
“He’s one of Ari’s cronies. I’ve seen him around town. What’s his name? Lucien? No, that’s the Risan with a thing for redheads. Maybe it’s Lionel?
? Something with an L…” Lawrence
“Whoever he is,” Mika swore, “he will die.”
“Now that isn’t very nice at all, duckie.” Tyro and Mika looked up to find another man with a whip standing over them, cruel smile on his face. “Then again,” he said, “What can we expect from a couple of spies?”
Mika fumed, “You miserable –”
Tyro stepped forward suddenly. “I think there’s been a slight misunderstanding. We’re not spies, Ari sent me.”
“No, he didn’t,” the guard said.
“Worth a shot,” Tyro muttered with a shrug. “Run!” He grabbed Mika’s arm and took off. There was no real thought, no time for schemes. The two of them raced forward, running up the rocks and toward the mines, the tubby guard huffing and puffing behind them. The Gerudo miners and their captors all stopped, momentarily forgetting their toils as they watched the odd duo fleeing their pursuer. Tyro shot straight for one of the smaller mine shafts. “Quick!” he shouted to Mika. “Inside.”
Without argument, she ducked into the low opening and disappeared into the darkness, Tyro hot on her heels. Immediately, once he was inside, he pushed Mika back against the wall. It turned out that the cavern was about the size of a shower stall, so it wasn’t far to go. Tyro turned around, examining the surroundings. He spotted a shelf of rubble, meticulously arranged over the entrance to the doorway, probably decades ago by the Gerudo. Pulling his pole off his back, he rammed it straight up into the shelf. Instantly, a tumble of rocks fell, closing over the opening of the chamber.
“What are you doing?” Mika cried, grabbing Tyro’s arm and pulling him away from the cave in.
“Shutting them out,” he explained, catching his breath.
“You idiot!” she yelled.
“You’ve just trapped us inside.”
“I know,” he said. “But inside is better than outside right now. Outside means angry men with whips.”
“Who will clear away the rubble and slaughter us.”
“I don’t think they’ll waste the effort,” Tyro shrugged.
Outside, they heard the heavy wheezing of the guard who had been chasing them. “Feel like playing hide and seek?” the guard called.
“Yes, actually,” Tyro replied smugly.
“Hide all you like,” the guard shot back. “We’ll be waiting right here for you when you get out.”
“You see?” Tyro said triumphantly. “They’re not going to bother digging in here to get us.”
“No,” she said. “They’re just going to starve us.”
“Come now,” he said, settling down against the wall and folding his hands behind his neck. “Don’t be so gloomy. Link will come and rescue us eventually.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“It’s his thing.”
It was amazing how a room filled with so much noise and debauchery could seem so lonely. Ari had indeed made Link his guest of honor, settling him down on Joachim’s pillows and ordering a few Gerudo women to serve him fruit and wine in excess. True to his word, he had also sent Kae’lee to Link’s side, where she now sat, glowering in silence. Try as he could, Link was unsure of what to say to her. He was caught in the double blind of wanting to be himself while at the same time deceiving Ari, who rested a few paces away, getting a bit too familiar with a Gerudo woman in his lap.
Link looked at Kae’lee, just sitting there in silence. “Say something,” he begged her softly.
Kae’lee made a few strained, choking noises before her throat finally surrendered. “What do you want me to say, pig?” she snapped.
“Oh!” Immediate guilt flooded through Link as he realized that he had just given her an order. “I didn’t mean that to be an order. I’m sorry, I…” Sound like an idiot, was what he wanted to say. “I’ll find a way to break this spell, really.”
“Oh, you seem to be doing a good job of it so far,” she droned.
“This is part of a plan,” he said quickly. “I’m not really working for Ari. It’s a trick.”
“You seem to be enjoying the benefits of it well enough.”
“Hey, if I were enjoying the benefits, I’d look more like him.” Link jerked his head in Ari’s direction. “I’m not like that.”
“So you say.”
“You still don’t believe me?”
“Why should I?”
“I guess that’s fair. You’re not exactly catching me at my best.”
“Oh, I think this is a man doing what he does best.”
Link rolled his eyes. “Shut up.” Immediately, Kae’lee’s lips seemed to take on a life of their own. They clamped shut and try as she might, she could not open them. She gasped, pulling at her mouth to no avail, looking rather panicked. “Gah!” Link blurted, realizing his own error. “Sorry! Sorry, I take it back! Undo that! Uh…unshut up. Talk again.”
Kae’lee caught her breath as her lips opened again. “That was very unpleasant,” she hissed.
“I’m so sorry. It wasn’t on purpose.”
She glared at him for a moment. Much to his surprise, she said, “All right.”
“All right what?”
“So this is all part of some elaborate plan to trick Ari and free my sisters?” she said.
“What happens next? You’ve successfully infiltrated his inner circle. His very own private pig pen. Now what, big shot? What do you do? Aside from rolling around in his muck.”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I need to wait for my friends to get back and tell me what they’ve learned.”
“And in the meantime?”
“I just need to lay low and keep convincing Ari that I’m in his corner.” He glanced at her. “And I could really use your help with that.”
“Me? What do you need me to do?”
“Well, you’re just sitting there glowering. I think Ari expects me to be giving your orders or something.”
“Well, are you going to?”
“Then what am I supposed to do?”
“Make it look convincing.”
Kae’lee’s upper torso slowly began to jerk forward, toward Link as if she had no control and imaginary strings were pulling her. Before Link knew what was happening, she was pressing her lips against his. He could feel her warm breath on his cheek. Her mouth was enticing and tasted like wine. Against all his better instincts, Link found himself kissing her back. He had kissed a girl before, several in fact, but it had never been quite like this. Link felt something inside of him he had never felt before, a sort of hunger in the pit of his stomach which roared and flooded his body at all at once. There was no name he could assign to it, but instantly, he knew that he wanted it and that it drove him to kiss her deeper.
She pulled away abruptly, looking completely shocked. The hunger in Link’s stomach began to ache and for a split second, he wanted nothing but to appease it. Then he realized again who he was and what he had just done. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “That wasn’t supposed to be an order. I really didn’t mean to.”
For a moment, Kae’lee was silent. “You really didn’t, did you?”
“You’re genuinely sorry for all these orders you keep giving me.”
Link shrugged. “I’m not a pig,” he said simply.
“You’re not like other men.”
“I’m really not.”
“Link!” called someone from across the room. Link sat up and caught sight of Nebekah and Sapphia, just entering the room and scanning for sign of him. He was a bit grateful that they had not seen him in such a compromising position.
“Over here!” he beckoned, picking up a pillow and dropping into his lap. They two of them spotted him and quickly made their way over. “Sit down on the pillows,” he told them quietly.
“Who are they?” Kae’lee asked as Nebekah and Sapphia settled themselves on the floor.
“These are my friends,” Link explained, “Nebekah and –”
“Sapphia,” Sapphia said for herself. “Daughter of Alondra, first Beta of the Kodiak Pride.”
“This is Kae’lee,” Link said, gesturing to her.
“First Beta of the Saber Tooth Pride,” Kae’lee said, crossing her wrists in front of her chest. The other two returned the gesture.
Nebekah examined Link curiously. “What, exactly, are you doing there, blondie?” she murmured.
“Ari has initiated me into his gang,” he explained. “What have you learned?”
“We found Nassan,” Nebekah said. “And the news is not good. Ari has most of the Saber Tooth warriors mining silver.”
“Din Silver,” Sapphia added.
Link frowned. “What’s Din Silver?”
“Apparently, it enhances physical strength,” she explained.
And suddenly, a nightmarish memory laughed at Link. “Nabooru’s gauntlets,” he said. “They were made out of silver.”
Nebekah nodded. “Exactly. We think that Ari is going to try and get as much of it as he can to get revenge for his banishment.”
“Revenge on who?”
The door to the fortress was flung open suddenly. A large, burly man with a bad sunburn and a whip marched in, looking annoyed. “Ah,” Ari called cheerfully, “Cyrus, my friend. How are operations coming?”
“There’s trouble at the mines,” Cyrus said gruffly.
Ari sat up, casting the Gerudo on his lap aside. “Trouble?”
“We caught a couple of spies watching operations. A man and a woman,” Cyrus explained.
“Mika and Tyro,” Sapphia muttered softly.
“We tried to intercept them, but they got away,” Cyrus finished. “They’ve trapped themselves in a cave in.”
“I see.” Ari stroked his chin. He turned to look over in Link’s direction. “Link,” he said. “I want you to go deal with this.”
“Now?” Link asked, playing his part a bit.
“Yes. The mines are in the northwest part of the territory. Go there and dispose of the spies.”
“You still haven’t told me what kind of operation this is that you’re running,” Link said.
“Dispose of them and I will tell you,” Ari said.
“All right,” Link replied, rising to his feet.
“I assure you,” Ari added with a lewd chuckle, “your lady friends will be waiting for you when you get back.”
“Right,” Link said.
This seemed to be good enough for Ari. He turned his attention back to more pleasurable things. Meanwhile, Cyrus sat down, helping himself to a flagon of wine and a Delta girl. Link leaned over to address the girls. “Be very careful, Link,” Nebekah warned him.
“I always am,” he said with a smile. “I’ll go take care of Mika and Tyro. Get them to safety then I’ll be back.”
“And listen to me,” he said urgently, examining the three of them. “You have to go with the flow.” He turned, directly to Nebekah and Sapphia. “You two have to pretend that you’re under the spell, just like everyone else.”
“What?” Sapphia said indignantly.
“Never,” Nebekah insisted.
“You have to,” Link implored. “If Ari or any of his men find out that there are women who aren’t obeying their commands, something terrible could happen. They could kill you. Or worse, they could think the spell was broken entirely.”
“If it were broken entirely, we’d slaughter the whole lot of them,” Kae’lee said bitterly.
“Exactly,” Link said. “And they might want to beat you to it, before you all realized the spell was off.” He looked at Nebekah and Sapphia again. “Behave yourselves until I get back, okay?” Without waiting for an answer, Link began to walk to the door. There was a bit of a wobble in his step he could not exactly account for, but he had the feeling it had something to do with the hunger of kissing Kae’lee.
The mine shaft was cramped and crowded, resulting in an endless array of knocking elbows, knees, and heads as Mika and Tyro attempted to make themselves comfortable for what might well be a long haul. Tyro was sure, of course, that Link would come to rescue them. He wasn’t the least bit afraid of dying at the hands of some anonymous thugs he had seen countless times in the taverns and dance halls of the village. What concerned him more was Mika, who continually eyed him with that distasteful stare the Gerudo seemed to reserve for a pile of rotting codfish. She might well be the end of him.
Some time had passed. How much, Tyro was uncertain. His pocket watch had been taken from him by the Orca warriors who first captured him in the Valley. In the rush to charge off in search of the missing pieces of the Topaz, Tyro had not been afforded much time to regain his precious few possessions. He didn’t mind the loss of the watch for sentiment, but rather just for the inability to tell the time. At least it would have given him something to do. He could compulsively check the time every few minutes. Anything was better than sitting there, trapped with a thoroughly unpleasant Gerudo.
“He’s back again,” Mika muttered, breaking the silence after some time. Tyro glanced at the cave in he had created. Sure enough, on the other side of the rock pile, he could hear the wheezy breathing of the man who had chased them into hiding in the first place.
“He’s nothing if not persistent,” Tyro mumbled.
“My mother used to say, ‘persistence is great in the ally but deadly in the foe.’” Mika frowned, contemplating the words. “I guess I should call her my adoptive mother now.”
“What? She didn’t tell you that you were adopted?”
“Oh, she told me,” Mika sighed. “It was fairly obvious, anyway.”
“My hair,” she said vaguely, gesturing to the long locks, wrapped tightly in blue threads.
“What about it?”
“It’s blond,” she said.
“Ah,” he chirped. “I understand. Gerudo have red hair.”
“Blood Gerudo, anyway.”
“My cousin has red hair,” Tyro told her fondly, thinking about Malon, back on the ranch, far away from the squalor of this scenario. “I always hated it.”
“Because it made her look like a Gerudo?”
“Because it made all the boys in the village look at her,” he countered. “And it made her look like a Gerudo.”
“So you hated us even before you found your father’s diaries?”
“They’ve never really been the most popular people in the world to the villagers,” he said. “They burned it to the ground when I was four. That’s why they call it New Kasuto. The old one is gone.”
“That was probably the Kodiak,” Mika murmured.
“It was a long time ago,” he said. “I don’t remember what flags they flew, what their colors were. I only remember little bits and pieces. I remember my father waking me in the night and telling me we had to run. We stayed with my Uncle Talon for nearly three years after. I learned how to bail hay with the best of them. Unnecessarily tiring work, I must say.”
“What about your mother?” Mika asked.
Tyro blinked. In truth, he was surprised that she had brought up such a touchy subject, especially given his respectful silence on the matter of Alcia and his innocence in her death. “What about her?”
Mika shrugged. “Do you remember her?”
He shook his head. “No. She was gone when I was just a baby. Only a few weeks old, I think. I’ve seen pictures of her though. There was this picture that my father kept above the fireplace. He had an artist paint it on their wedding day. She was beautiful. For years, my father told me that she had died giving birth to me. I believed it.”
“It’s plausible. That happened to a few of my Orca sisters.”
“Well, unfortunately for yours truly, plausible lies are often the most believable. I never really questioned it. And then he died. And I found his diaries. There it was in black ink ‘The Gerudo have taken my wife.’ Only entry for nearly a year. The next one was about my first tooth.”
“She’s been gone for nineteen years?”
“Why are you looking for her after all this time?”
“What?” he asked. “You think because I’m a man I have no interest in my maternal parent?”
“I didn’t say that.”
He scoffed. “You’re predictable, Mika.”
“And you’re evading the question.”
Tyro frowned. “It’s complicated.”
“You think your life is complicated?” she laughed. “I’ve just met an estranged brother, who as it turns out, is a great Hero and it was because of him that my birth and identity were concealed from me for nearly seventeen years and that now, I don’t even know if my name is my real name.”
Tyro dipped his head. “Point taken.”
“Why are you doing it?” she persisted, tilting her head to one side. “Why are you looking for her after all this time?”
He sighed. “I guess it’s as a favor to my father.”
“Your father is dead.”
“We didn’t really part on the best terms.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I know this might surprise you giving my roguish good looks and my charming personality, but I’m not exactly the kind of son he was hoping for. My father was hoping for an heir, someone to take over his shop when he retired. Someone like him, I suppose. Quiet. Kind. Mild mannered. Overflowing with good qualities and virtues. Instead, he got me.”
“And what are you?”
“Let’s just say,” he said slowly, “a less than worthwhile person. I’m not Link. I’m not a Hero. Never have been, never will be.”
“That’s how you feel?”
“Then why are you going on a quest?”
“To find your mother. That’s something only Heroes do, quests. Seems to me that you’re trying to be one.”
Tyro chuckled. “Are you trying to find my one redeeming virtue?”
“Of course not,” Mika said quickly.
“Because I don’t have any.”
“Certainly not,” she agreed. “You’re a man.”
“And men don’t have any redeeming qualities.”
“And now, this is the part of the argument where you call me a Moblin, I call you a harpy, and we spend the next twenty minutes glaring at each other.”
“Fine by me,” he snorted.
And with that, they lapsed into an all too familiar silence. Tyro gave Mika a good glare for a few minutes, but then, slowly, his gaze turned inward and he reflected on her rather innocent question. Why was he looking for his mother? He certainly knew that finding her wouldn’t change anything. He would still be Tyro when he did, a handsome, carefree, drifter with charm and no sincerity. That was the path he had chosen for himself. Then why was it that he was so desperate to find her? Would she somehow change him? And stranger yet, was that the very reason this whole, what had Mika called it, quest, had begun? Did he want to change who he was?
Of course not, he told himself. His life was fine, far greater than Link’s, he imagined. Who wanted to live as a selfless slave to honor and chivalry when there were mouths to be kissed and songs to be sung? There was no benefit to being a hero. And Tyro decided that he certainly wasn’t trying to be one. Mika was a fool. This search for his mother was only to satisfy an ancient curiosity, a question that had always haunted him since his early childhood, nothing more.
Or was he only fooling himself? Tyro, so accustomed to taking things in stride and taking pleasures for granted, suddenly found himself asking questions that he couldn’t answer. Questions that scared him more than he was truly willing to admit to anyone, least of all the unpleasant girl trapped in the mine shaft with him. Determined, he gave her another glare.
“The Hero of Time?” Kae’lee repeated incredulously.
Nebekah nodded. “Yup.”
“He’s the Hero of Time?”
“I see you’ve heard of him.”
“Of course,” Kae’lee replied. “We all have. The Saber Tooth are on good relations with the Dragons. Our Alpha has a common bloodline with them. Her predecessor Shaheen took command of their Pride when their Alpha went rogue. I just never expected the Hero of Time to be so…”
Kae’lee shrugged. “Pretty.”
“He doesn’t look like a warrior. He looks like a…I don’t know. Like one of those statues of Din in the Dragon courtyard…only with shorter hair.”
“Well, Link is full of surprises,” Nebekah said with a shrug.
“Is it true what they say about him? That no weapon forged by mortal hands can defeat him?”
She laughed. “That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Link is a decent fighter, I’ll give him that, but he’s not invincible.”
“Is he really an honorary Delta warrior of the Dragon Pride?”
“Now that one is true,” Nebekah told her.
Kae’lee hugged a deep violet pillow to her chest. “I said some perfectly awful things to him,” she admitted.
“I really thought he was with the other men.”
“It happens,” Nebekah said with a shrug. “I wasn’t entirely trusting of him the first time we met either.”
“When was that?”
“Well, we were both around ten years old. He wandered into Jaguar territory by accident. He was the first boy I had ever seen. Jaguar trainees aren’t permitted to interact with men until the initiation at fifteen.”
“I took him to my mother and she directed him to where he wanted to be. I didn’t learn until later that he was starting his Hero’s quest, even at that age.” Nebekah frowned. “We met again during the Dark Times. He was stumbling, wounded through the Valley.”
“It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year since the Dark Times ended,” Kae’lee muttered.
“Was it hard on the Saber Tooth?”
She shrugged. “Fewer men came to call, so the birthrate dropped. Personally, I don’t see it as a great loss. Men are pigs.”
“Not all of them,” Nebekah said quietly.
Kae’lee sighed. “No, I guess not all of them.” She leaned her head to one side. “What about the Jaguar?”
“What about us?”
“Where the Dark Times hard on you?”
A dark scowl played on Nebekah’s lips. She absently twirled one of her dreadlocks around her finger. “The Kodiak, under the direction of their Alpha Male, attacked the Jaguar compound and slaughtered anyone not fast enough to run away. We lost our Alpha, the healers, a visiting priestess, and my mother.”
“Why did they do that?”
“We refused to join them in persecuting the Hero of Time.”
“They didn’t even approach us about that.”
“I imagine that was only an excuse. The Kodiak and the Jaguar have had strained relations for a long time.”
“Well,” Nebekah said, “The Jaguar live close to the Hylian population. We’re peaceful. We do trade. We interact. We allow them to, as the Kodiak would say, delude the purity of our culture.”
“The Kodiak see the villagers as nothing more than parasites to be raided from time to time for wealth and for baby girls. That’s how they keep their population going. Kidnapped Thin Bloods. Although seven years with Ganondorf as Alpha males did wonders for their numbers too.”
Kae’lee nodded. “I hear he impregnated nearly every Kodiak over the age of fifteen. And some of the Dragons too.”
“That’s probably only a slight exaggeration. They have a whole new generation of healthy young girls. And there’s even a rumor of a son in the mix.”
Suddenly, Kae’lee’s face drained of color. “Oh no,” she whispered.
“What? What is it?”
She didn’t respond. Instead, her eyes fixed on something over Nebekah’s shoulder. Nebekah swiveled around and saw Ari standing behind her. He was an impressive figure, for a man. There was something about his gaze that was absolutely piercing. It didn’t help that he dressed all in black. His long brown hair, framing his thin and pale face, made him look like some kind of specter, a head floating in mid-air. Worst of all, however, was his cruel smile, the one that told the entire room that he was the one in charge.
“Lonely for your friend?” he asked. “I’m sure he’ll be back soon. Given the way he disposed of my men, I’m sure a single man and woman will not delay him long.” He squatted down, examining Nebekah curiously. “I have not seen you before.” A thousand insults instantly found their way to the tip of Nebekah’s tongue, but she swallowed them all and continued to look up at Ari silently. Unfortunately, he reached out with one of his gloved hands and ran a finger along her cheek. “You are quite beautiful, aren’t you?”
“When will Link be back?” Kae’lee asked suddenly.
Mercifully, Ari momentarily turned his attention away from Nebekah. “Soon. I said soon.”
“He has to hurry. He told me not to move until he came back,” she lied skillfully, assuming a slightly more rigid stance.
“Relax,” he told her and with that, he turned his attention back to Nebekah. “And who are you?”
“Nebekah,” she said softly.
Ari ran the back of his hand down her cheek. “Nebekah. A pretty name. Kiss me, Nebekah.”
She knew what Link said. She knew it was wise to play along with the spell and avoid blowing their cover. She knew what the smart thing to do was. Instead, she slapped him across the face. “No.”
He pulled back sharply, staring at her in disbelief. She was satisfied to see his cheek turn bright pink where she struck him. “I don’t understand. I said kiss me.”
“And I said no.”
“How are you able to do this?” Nebekah was silent. Ari turned to Kae’lee sharply. “You, quack like a duck.” Kae’lee visibly fought against it, but at once, she began quacking. “Stop.” Kae’lee stopped. “Tell me how she is able to resist me,” he barked.
Kae’lee put up even more of a fight this time, but she simply couldn’t help it. “She’s not a Saber Tooth,” she told Ari in a strained voice.
“Leave her alone,” Nebekah growled.
“Who is she, then?” Ari continued, ignoring her.
“The Beta of the Jaguar Pride,” Kae’lee said weakly.
“Tell me why she is here.”
Quickly, Kae’lee clapped her hands over her mouth. She began fighting with all of her strength, her face turning bright pink. She squeezed her eyes shut and tear began to fall from the corners. Still, Nebekah knew it was a losing battle. “She…” Kae’lee croaked in between her fingers.
“Tell me why she is here!” Ari roared. The chatter in the room stilled. Even the sitar music stopped for a brief moment.
“She’s here with the Hero of Time to retrieve my Alpha’s Shard,” Kae’lee said, giving Nebekah an apologetic look.
Ari’s eyebrows raised sharply. “The Hero of Time?” he repeated. “Who is the Hero of Time? Tell me who he is.”
“Link,” Kae’lee said with a sigh.
“So…” Ari mused. “Link came here with a purpose after all.” He glanced seriously at Kae’lee. “Tell me if Link is loyal to me,” he ordered her.
“No,” Kae’lee said. “He is seeking to find a way to break the curse on me and my sisters.”
A cruel smile spread across Ari’s lips. He stood up, turning to address the room. “May I have everyone’s attention?” The music died completely and the chatter halted. “I have instructions for all the Gerudo in the room.” Around the room, the Gerudo made indignant noises, some of them attempting to cover their ears, others just groaning in anticipation of something unpleasant. “Kae’lee here is going to lead you all in an attack. You are going to track down and kill the one called Link.”
“No,” Kae’lee gasped, even as her body lost control and she began to rise to her feet.
“All of you will follow her and you will kill him by any means necessary,” Ari said coldly. “He won’t be hard to find. He wears green and has light hair. Go. Find him. Destroy him.”
The Gerudo in the room rose, jerking like puppets to the door. Some of the men groaned in protest, while others look curiously at Ari, uncertain of what this strange order meant. Nebekah rose herself, standing toe to toe with Ari. “Why are you doing this?” she hissed.
Ari touched her chin lightly. “Because I like being king. And I’m not giving it up for anything.”
“That’s precisely what Ganondorf Dragmire said,” Nebekah told him. “And Link managed to dethrone him. You’re a small man by comparison.”
“You will soon find, my dear,” Ari promised softly, “that I am nothing of the sort.” He reached out abruptly, grabbing her throat in a vice-like grip. “There is nothing small about me,” he hissed, pulling her closer, up against his chest. Nebekah turned her face away in disgust. Growling, Ari threw her down onto the pillows. “I’ll deal with you later.” He turned to look at the other men in the room. “There’s trouble at the mines. Since Link will not be dealing with it, I think we should.”
Kotake smiled. “I hear her,” she said to Koume aloud. “Listen carefully, she’s calling out to us.”
“She is?” Koume asked.
“Just listen.” The two of them stood, their minds opened wide to all of Hyrule. Slowly, by sheer force of will, Kotake had managed to weed away the pitiful nightmares and idle daydreams of the villagers. Now, she could hear the vessel calling to them, loud and clear as if the other voices didn’t exist. She knew it would take Koume another moment. Her younger sister had never possessed quite the same discipline. Fortunately, Kotake was patient. For now.
“I hear her,” Koume said slowly, with enough uncertainty that Kotake gave her another moment before she began to project her own thoughts.
*We hear you, vessel,* Kotake thought.
*Hail to you, Twinrova sisters,* the vessel’s voice whispered into their heads from miles away.
*What is the scene like in the Saber Tooth stronghold?* Kotake asked.
*One of chaos, of course. As you predicted, the fellowship has shifted its focus from the Shard to helping the poor Saber Tooth break the spell.*
Kotake smiled at this. *Do you think you’ll be able to find the Shard on your own in the midst?*
*I am searching now,* the vessel replied.
“That spell is all too easy to break,” Koume muttered aloud.
“It doesn’t matter,” Kotake told her. “As long as the vessel gets to the Shard before it does.”
The vessel, of course, was unaware of this dialogue. She continued to project her thoughts to the sisters. *My only fear is that the Hero will be killed before I can get to him.*
*You must not let that happen!* Kotake’s mind screamed. *He must not die until the Topaz is assembled. He must not die by another’s hand, only by yours, only by the might of the Topaz.*
*He is in some mortal danger here,* the vessel admitted.
*Men were in the fortress when the spell was cast. They’ve taken over and are intent on keeping it. They will try to kill the boy if he attempts to break the spell. And Ari himself, that’s the man in charge, he has resources that I did not anticipate.*
*What sort of resources?*
*Din Silver,* the vessel explained.
*See to the boy’s safety,* Kotake instructed her.
*But even if he lives, I fear, the men will still possess the Gerudo silver.*
*Let it be,* Kotake told her.
*But, great one, do you think it wise to allow a man to possess such a treasure?* the vessel asked.
*In the long run, it is of no concern,* Kotake answered.
*Worry about the boy. The silver will be dealt with in good time.*
*As you say, great one.*
*In the long run,* Kotake continued in a reassuring tone, *The silver will be restored to its proper place.* She gave a meaningful look to Koume. *As will the Gerudo nation. Remember that. You are serving the greater good of our people. If some sacrifices have to be made, so be it. In the end, your glory shall be everlasting.*
*Go now. Find the Shard.*
The vessel’s voice fell silent. Kotake waited another moment or two before removing her hand from the telepathy tile. The change was instant, like a candle being blown out. Suddenly, her mind was clear again and she found herself securely back in the ice castle, rather than between worlds. Beside her, Koume removed her hand as well and leaned against the wall, catching her ragged breath.
“I hate those things!” Koume declared bitterly.
“Well, we can’t very well fly off and show our faces in the Saber Tooth fortress,” Kotake sneered.
“I know, I know.”
Kotake sighed. “It is a bit uncomfortable.”
“That’s all I’m saying!”
Slowly, Kotake crossed the room away from the tile, as if somehow putting a bit of distance between them would ease her transition back into the reality of the ice castle. She ran a hand through what little remained of her hair, feeling the smooth bald spots. There had been a time when those hadn’t existed. She only hoped that once their task was accomplished, her beauty would be as it once was. “I worry,” she murmured, mostly to herself.
Koume heard of course. “Worry about what?”
“About the vessel,” Kotake muttered.
“What about her?”
“She sounded hesitant, didn’t she?”
“A little,” Koume admitted. “At least, when it came to the men obtaining the silver and ruling over the Saber Tooth.”
“She longs for the glory and the power of the Gerudo nation, but I’m not sure she has the constitution to make the compromises necessary.”
“Why can’t we just brainwash her?” Koume asked.
“If we did, we’d be showing our hand too soon,” Kotake said. “We have to wait. We can’t be so rash.”
“Wait until what?”
“Until the point of no return.”
“When is that?”
“I’ll tell you when,” was all Kotake said.
“I hate it when you do that,” Koume muttered.
“Bear with me, sister.”
“I always do. Sometimes I feel like I have no choice but to bear with you, Kotake.”
Kotake laughed. “That is our fate,” she said. “Forever intertwined, you and I. Not that I mind.”
“Nor I,” Koume admitted. “All reason says that we should have died hundreds of years ago.”
“Let the vessel be for now. Once she has accomplished what is necessary, we may do with her as we please. Until then, we just have to wait and hope her constitution is strong enough to carry out her duties.”
“All right,” Koume agreed.
“After that, we’ll see to it that she forgets such petty things as regret and uncertainty.”
Satisfied with the accord, Koume sat down and busied herself, trying to wrap her frail shoulders with a blue shawl. Kotake turned away from her, staring up at the sky. Vaguely, she admitted to herself that the point of no return seemed distant at the moment. There was a lot of work to be done, a lot of pieces of the puzzle still missing. The Topaz had to be assembled. An Alpha’s son had to be found. And something would have to be done about the expendable members of the fellowship. Still, Kotake refused to allow herself to become overwhelmed with doubt of any kind. After all, she and Koume had survived far worse circumstances. They had survived death itself. A little problem solving would hardly slow them down.
“I think,” she said softly, “that now is the time for us to begin restoring ourselves.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know about you, Koume,” she hissed, “but I think I’m ready to be beautiful again. What do you say?”
Link had been on the way to the mines about twenty minutes when he thought he heard a low rumble coming from the path behind him. He turned around, trying to see if something was amiss, but the rocks were high on either side of the path which turned sharply from side to side. Vaguely, he recalled the horrifying images of collapsing dams sending floods of water into ravines such as the one he was crossing. He shivered. The last thing he wanted to do was swim for his life. Frankly, Link had never been much of a swimmer, owing largely to the fact that he had grown up in the secluded forest, where large bodies of water were somewhat scarce. In all honesty, the first time Link had really ever been near the sea was his first voyage to
. Zora Harbor
A small shiver ran up his spine. Again, the painful memory of his quest to rid the realm of Ganondorf came to the forefront of his mind. “I saved the kingdom,” he reminded himself sharply. But he had been reminding himself for nearly a year. It was all simply too hard to reconcile. The good he had done simply wouldn’t blot out the painful, precious cost; his innocence, his friends, and his childhood. This last was the most difficult. In the year since his defeat of Ganondorf, Link had done his utmost to catch up on all the growing up he had missed, all the rites of passage he had had to forego. Still, he felt like he was missing something, a small, intangible part of life that he would never fully grasp.
Dimly, he remembered an offer Zelda had made. She had promised that she could take it all away, that she could restore him to what he was meant to be. Link had seriously considered taking her up on the offer, but some small part of him knew to refuse. Now that he knew all the dreadful things that went bump in the night, he found that he didn’t want to forget. No matter what, forgetting would never make it untrue. So why bother to pretend? Anyway, the offer was always open to him, Zelda had assured him of that much.
Of course, it was a package deal. Forgetting the painful part of his quest went hand in hand with forgetting the good parts too, and despite his nightmares, Link had to admit there had been a few. He had made new friends, discovered new possibilities, and pushed himself beyond what he thought were the limits for an ordinary boy. Not to mention the fact that he had now regained a sister he wasn’t anxious to lose, not while there was still so much to learn and appreciate about her. He might wish to forget from time to time, but the last thing he wanted to do was sacrifice any more. This much he knew in his heart of hearts.
And it didn’t hurt that he had met Kae’lee. Link couldn’t put a finger on it, but there was something about her that stirred his insides, making him feel delightfully warm and comfortable, while at the same time leaving him unnaturally ill at ease. He rather liked the combination. Duality had its advantages. Although he would never admit it to another living soul, Link couldn’t help but long to kiss her again, if only to feel so alive and uncomfortable.
Again, the rumblings came from behind. Link turned to look over his shoulder, but there was nothing to see. Perhaps his imagination was just playing tricks on him. Anyway, he had to prepare himself. He would arrive at the mines soon. Somehow, he would have to free Mika and Tyro without arousing the suspicion of Ari’s men. It had been nearly a year since he had last attempted any magic. Link wondered if he would be able to pull off Farore’s Wind with so little practice.
A purple blur suddenly dropped from the top of the ravine, down into the path in front of Link. A proud Saber Tooth warrior stood up, holding two curved blades in front of her. “What the…” Link choked, his heart jumping up into his throat. He took a step back and nearly crashed into a second Gerudo.
Link spun around and backed away from her. He looked up to the top of the ravine. There, he spotted nearly two dozen Gerudo women, lining either side of the opening and jumping down, one by one. Each of them carried two blades. He realized, almost at once, that they were all in the silk harem dresses he had seen earlier in the fortress. These had to be the same women who had been catering to the whims of Ari and his men. His heart sank, but he was not about to calm down. Every instinct immediately told him that something had gone terribly wrong.
With a rush of air, another Gerudo landed to his side. “End of the line, Link,” she said. It was Kae’lee, brandishing her blades.
“What’s going on?” Link asked.
“You have to die,” Kae’lee told him quietly.
“What?!” Link cried.
The first Gerudo who had jumped into the ravine before him let out a war cry and lunged forward, spinning her blades rapidly. They caught the reflection of the sun, casting bright spots all over the walls of the ravine. Link was forced to take a step back, shielding his eyes. Immediately, he realized his mistake as he heard the soft whooshing of a blade through the air. The Gerudo behind him took a swing at his head. Link just barely had enough time to duck as the sword went whirring over his head. The blow missed, but the Gerudo promptly grabbed the hilt of his own sword and drew it from his sheath, effectively leaving him completely unarmed and helpless. He looked over at Kae’lee. Several more Gerudo had landed behind her, all of them slowly advancing on him.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” he said.
“I’m sorry, Link,” she replied. “I don’t want to hurt you.” And from her tone of voice, Link was almost certain she was telling the truth. Now, however, was not the time to assess how that fact made him feel.
The Gerudo behind him plunged her sword down, aiming to ram it through the top of his head. Link rolled out of the way and the blade struck rock, snapping in half like kindling. The Gerudo was thrown off her feet and Link was certain he heard something crack from the impact. Vaguely, he hoped she was all right, but he knew he had more serious matters to concern himself with. The first Gerudo sent a kick at his face. Link reached up and caught her ankle in both of his hands, throwing her leg upward. She fell over, landing on her back, her swords clattering to the ground. Link grabbed one.
“Why are you doing this?” Link implored.
“Ari ordered it,” Kae’lee told him. And with that, she began her attack against him. “Ya!”
Kae’lee’s skills were impressive, by far better than Link’s himself, although that only made sense given that she had been trained since birth to be a great warrior. Besides having that on her side, she was also much better with the curved blades than Link would ever be, favoring his own sword which was currently lying on the ground behind him somewhere. She moved effortlessly, sending dozens of thrusts at him in the blink of an eye. Link did his best to parry them, but found himself ducking more than anything else, jumping from side to side and occasionally up into the air.
She swung her blades in opposite directions, both aiming at his neck. Link just barely managed to get his own sword in between, jamming them from cutting his head off like a daisy. Another Gerudo, however, had managed to squirm behind him. She knocked her hilt into the crook of his neck. Link groaned in pain, his face contorting. His grip on the blade trembled, but he managed to hang on. Angrily, he kicked behind him, like a horse, ramming his boot into the other warrior’s middle. She grunted and fell back, but it did him little good as yet another had dropped from the top of the ravine. This one swung her blade at Link’s shoulder and managed to give him a fairly deep cut which immediately sent blood trickling down his arm.
Feeling his strength give out, Link dropped to the ground, allowing Kae’lee’s blades to squeeze shut, safely over his head. His shoulder was throbbing, sending shooting pains down his arm and into his wrist and fingers. Kae’lee took advantage of his momentary weakness and kicked him in the face. With a crack, her foot hit him in the jaw. Link fell onto his back, tasting blood in his mouth. Kae’lee put a foot on his chest, but he quickly grabbed her ankle before she could get her balance and threw it to one side. Kae’lee knocked into a few of her companions, effectively clearing the way for Link.
He jumped to his feet, tightening his grip on the sword. Kae’lee and her companions had manages to regain their balances. Link slowly turned in a circle, realizing that he was effectively surrounded. Somehow, he had the sinking suspicion that the Gerudo would not be polite enough to attack him one by one. Better to fall back on another form of combat.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said, a small thread of blood trickling out of the corner of his mouth.
“We have no choice,” Kae’lee said.
And abruptly, it came to Link. It was so simple, so brilliant, he was amazed he hadn’t thought of it before. “Yes, you do!” Link cried.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Kae’lee, all of you Saber Tooth Delta Warriors, listen to me.” And much to Link’s satisfaction, they stopped inching forward and seemed to turn their ears to him. So far so good. “I have an order for you,” he said. “I order you not to take any more orders from Ari.” As he looked around, he was pleased to see that their grips on the swords relaxed visibly. “Further,” he continued, “I order you not to take any more orders from men unless you choose to.”
Slowly, the Gerudo women began to look around at each other. “I think he’s done something,” one of them finally said.
Another frowned. “I don’t want to kill him any more,” she said. “I want to kill Ari.”
“I think,” Kae’lee said slowly, “he’s done it. He’s broken the spell somehow. We’re free.”
At once, a great cry arose from the warriors. They raised their arms into the air, pumping their swords which flashed sunlight in a million different directions. “Glad it worked,” Link muttered, turning his attention to the impressive wound on his shoulder which was gushing blood.
“Tend to his wounds,” Kae’lee ordered the warriors. “And see to our sisters,” she added, gesturing to the Gerudo Link had managed to fell.
Instantly, several Gerudo women descended on Link, this time carefully pulling away his tunic and moping up the blood on his skin with surprisingly tender hands for warriors who had just tried to kill him. “Thanks,” Link mumbled, nodding to them politely.
“You can help us free our other sisters,” Kae’lee said.
“Sure,” Link replied.
“Starting with the ones in the mine.”
“That’s a good idea. I have to rescue my friends from that area anyway.” Link paused, examining her curiously.
“What?” she asked.
“You didn’t want to hurt me.”
“Well, I’d say that’s an improvement from our earlier encounters.”
Kae’lee shrugged. “You’re not…” she hesitated.
“Not what?” he prompted her.
She sighed in a long suffering manner. “You’re not a pig,” she finally admitted at last.
Link smiled slightly. “Thanks.”
“More of a fluffy pink bunny,” she declared.
He laughed genuinely. “I can live with that.”
“Sapphia!” Nebekah hissed, marching down the deserted hallways of the Saber Tooth fortress. “Sapphia!” For the life of her, she couldn’t imagine where the dreadful Kodiak could have wandered off to. Perhaps snooping, looking for precious Saber Tooth secrets to report back to her Alpha, the woman who had so readily catered to the demands of Ganondorf Dragmire. Nebekah sucked in her cheeks, a bitter taste in her mouth as she thought of the Kodiak with their dishonorable ways.
With the situation entirely out of her control, hunting down Sapphia was just about the only contribution Nebekah could make. Kae’lee and her sisters had left to track Link down. Nebekah had no idea which direction they had taken due to her extended confrontation with Ari. Once he and his men left, Nebekah did her best to try and track the Gerudo, but the Saber Tooth women clearly had superior marching patterns to those of the Kodiak, which were easily tracked. Nebekah had to admit that she was in a bit over her head. Therefore, she retreated back into the fortress and started to look for Sapphia.
She had expected it to take awhile, being unfamiliar with the Saber Tooth fortress, but she found Sapphia fairly quickly, sitting on the floor of Nassan’s greeting chamber, hugging her legs to her chest and resting her chin on one knee. She looked so small, so pathetic, that Nebekah was unsure she had found the right person for a second. “What are you doing?” she demanded.
“Just trying to help,” Sapphia muttered in a delicate voice, devoid of her usual, haughty tones.
“The Saber Tooth Pride,” she mumbled.
Nebekah rolled her eyes. “If you want to help, help me find the mines,” she said.
“Mines?” Sapphia repeated vaguely.
“Mika and Tyro are trapped, remember? Link was sent to rescue them? You were there.”
“Ari’s sent Kae’lee and her sisters to kill Link.” She decided not to mention her role in blowing their cover. “Get off your useless Kodiak bottom and help me find them.”
“Listen,” Sapphia snapped suddenly, her demeanor shifting instantly and without warning, “I am sick and tired of hearing you say things like that.”
“Like what?” Nebekah challenged her.
“You know perfectly well. ‘Useless Kodiak bottom.’ That’s enough already. Our conflict with the Jaguar has been over for some time.”
“Words. Words won’t bring my mother back from the dead.”
“Neither will hating me.”
“Your Pride slaughtered us.”
“First of all,” Sapphia said, “That was done under the influence of Dragmire. Secondly, I’m not my Pride. Don’t blame me for things that were done without my approval.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t approve of all this infighting,” Sapphia said. “It’s all so pointless. It’s stupid. The blood feuds, the grudges. They’re not worth holding. They’re not worth tearing apart the Gerudo nation.”
“So I should forget the fact that my mother was killed?”
“No,” Sapphia said. “Certainly not. Never forget. But you know, hate is just another type of murder. You kill her again by hating her demise rather than celebrating her life.”
“Don’t lecture me about hate,” Nebekah snapped. “I come from a peaceful Pride.”
“Oh, is this what peace looks like?” Sapphia sneered. “The hatred in your eyes, the restless, continual need to assert your superiority over me?”
“Stay out of my head.”
“You make it so obvious, Nebekah. Your hatred. Your disdain. It’s time you admitted something.”
Sapphia touched her chest. “I didn’t kill your mother.”
“I don’t know that.”
Nebekah covered her mouth, gasping in embarrassment. She hadn’t meant to say that, but now, she knew she couldn’t take it back. “Never mind,” she said weakly.
“No,” Sapphia said slowly. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
“You don’t know who killed your mother. You weren’t there, were you?”
“Stop,” Nebekah demanded. “Leave it alone.”
“That’s it. You don’t know who to blame. There’s no one individual you can accuse, so you blame the entire Pride. Your hatred for me isn’t about the fact that the Kodiak attacked your Pride, it’s about the fact that you don’t have someone you can point a finger at.”
“Don’t try to understand me.”
“But I do,” Sapphia insisted. “I do because I understand only too well. I know that need to blame someone for your own misfortunes.”
She could feel heat rising in her throat. “My misfortunes? Is it a misfortune that someone snuck up behind my mother and cut her throat? She was a peaceful woman. She devoted her life to bringing people together, not tearing them apart. She taught all the trainees to appreciate everyone.”
“And I see her lessons haven’t sunk in.”
“You don’t appreciate the Kodiak very much.” A heavy silence followed. Sapphia pursed her lips. “I think it’s dreadful, the way the Gerudo nation has been torn apart. We were once a great, proud people. Before the Prides, before the division of the Topaz. Isn’t now our chance? It seems symbolic, doesn’t it? Reassembling the Shard. Shouldn’t we use this as an opportunity to begin mending fences? To restoring the Gerudo to what we once were?”
“I…” Nebekah hesitated. She hated to admit it, but much of what Sapphia said made sense to her. But she was still a Kodiak! How could she accept the olive branch from a member of that Pride that had caused so much devastation? Yet, at the same time, now, she thought of the peaceful teachings of the Jaguar. Wasn’t it proper to try? “I suppose…” she said slowly.
“I’m not hoping for a miracle,” Sapphia said. “I know I can’t just change your opinion of my Pride like that. And I know that we committed horrible wrongs to the other Prides, especially the Jaguar.”
“All I’m asking,” Sapphia said, “is for you to give me, personally, a chance. Don’t just hate me on principle.” She laughed softly. “If you must hate me, there are many reasons, which I’m sure you’ll find. Just, don’t let the fact that I was born Kodiak be one of them.”
“Well…” Nebekah said slowly. “I suppose…I suppose we are on one mission together.”
“A quest that could potentially reunite the Gerudo nation. Isn’t that worth something?”
“Yes, it is.”
Sapphia offered her a wry smile. “A Kodiak befriending a Jaguar might be the first step to ending all the strife, all the bitter feelings and hostilities.”
“All right. All right.”
“All right what?”
Nebekah took a deep breath. “I suppose I can lay aside my hate, for now,” she said.
“Peace is something to be desired.”
“It’s time the Gerudo were one again,” Sapphia said. “We can bring peace for our people.”
“And with the Hylians?”
“In good time,” Sapphia told her. She held out a hand. “Peace?” Nebekah was slow. She hesitated once more, but at last, she reached out, taking hold of Sapphia’s wrist. Sapphia rapped her fingers around Nebekah’s wrist and shook her briskly. “That’s it,” she said with a small. “One small step.”
Nebekah was only uneasy as she shook her enemy’s hand. Perhaps Sapphia was right. Perhaps it was time for her to lay aside her hate on principle. Yet at the same time, in the back of her memory, she could hear her mother’s screams of agony bubble to the surface. She knew what she had to do. She had to give Sapphia a chance. It was the only way this quest would succeed after all. But what about afterwards? Could she honestly call a Kodiak a friend?
Kae’lee leaned over, peering around the ridge and into the mines. Link had to admit, the sight was appalling. He could not imagine that Kae’lee would take it well and was therefore unsurprised when she pulled back and hissed to her sisters, “On my signal, we attack.”
“Wait!” Link cried, grabbing her arms to keep her from signaling.
“For what?” she asked.
Now that she had her liberty back, Link could only hope she would listen to good reason. “My friends are trapped in those mines,” he explained urgently. “I don’t want them hurt.”
“We’re not attacking them, we’re attacking the foremen.”
“You could cause another cave in,” he told her.
“Listen, help me get them out, then you can have a field day on the foremen, for all I care. Tyro and I will go around to all the other captive Gerudo and order them not to take orders. Just help me free them first.”
“I don’t –”
“My sister is trapped in the caves,” he interrupted. “She’s a Gerudo warrior of the Orca Pride. I just found her again. I really don’t want to lose her before I get to know her.”
She examined his earnest face for a moment. After giving the matter some thought, she pulled his hands away from her arms, her fingers momentarily brushing against Link’s palms, which sent two shivers of joy down his spine. “All right,” she said. “We’ll dig your friends out first.”
“But then we attack.”
“By all means.”
Kae’lee turned to look up at the mines. “Where are they?”
Carefully, Link scanned the rock wall, his blue eyes traveling across the numerous holes that made the entire complex look like some sort of airy cheese. After a moment or two, he spotted a collapsed opening nearby. “That’s got to be it,” he said, pointing. “They’re in there.”
“Let’s move,” Kae’lee ordered her Gerudo sisters.
With that, the group slowly began to move forward, making their way to the opening indirectly. Link led the pack, bounding over the rocks and stones with greater agility than he had previously thought himself to possess. He was a bit surprised with the urgency tugging at his throat. After all, Mika was still a relative stranger, but he was compelled to save her. And Tyro. Well, Link couldn’t admit to thinking of Tyro as a friend, but he had promised Talon he would rescue the playboy. If nothing else, Link wanted to be a man of his word.
Unfortunately, right as Link arrived at the collapsed cave, so did a tubby guard with a disgruntled expression. “Who are you?”
“Link,” he replied. “I work for Ari. He sent me here to deal with the two problems in this cave.”
“Someone’s already used that one on me today. How do I know you work for Ari?”
“Well…” Link floundered for a moment. He turned over his shoulder and saw the Saber Tooth warriors arrayed behind him. “Ask them,” he said. “Order them to tell you who sent me.”
The guard narrowed his eyes and, for a moment, Link was afraid that he wouldn’t take the bait. Much to his relief, however, he turned to Kae’lee. “Tell me truthfully, who sent this boy here?”
Without missing a beat, Kae’lee replied, “Ari.”
“Tell me truthfully, duckie, why did Ari send him here?”
“To deal with the prisoners you have caught in the cave.”
The guard scratched the back of his head, wrinkling up his already ugly face into a virtual prune. “I wouldn’t imagine Ari sending a boy to do a man’s work,” he muttered dully.
“Well, I’m here,” Link replied dryly. “Return to your duties.”
“You be careful. That woman in there is feisty.”
“I think I can manage,” Link told him.
“Right then.” And without further ado, the guard turned around and sloped away, back into the mines.
“Men are so stupid,” Kae’lee hissed.
“Hey,” Link shot back, “I believe that plan was my idea.”
“Some men,” Kae’lee amended quickly.
Carefully, Link crept over the unsteady rocks on the ground, inching his way to the collapsed entrance to the mine. “Mika?” he called softly to the rocks. “Tyro? Can you hear me?”
For a painful moment, there was no response and then, “Link?” It was definitely Mika’s voice.
“It’s me. We’re going to dig you out.”
“I’m so glad you came,” Tyro’s voice called.
“Just hold tight,” Link told them.
He continued. “You have no idea how glad I am you came. I am so, so glad that you…ow!”
“Don’t hurt him, Mika,” Link sighed. He turned to face the Gerudo. “Help me, please.”
They all turned and looked to Kae’lee. She nodded. “Come on, let’s help him get them out.” At once, the warriors descended on the mouth of the cave, slowly removing rocks in a joint effort to rescue Mika and Tyro.
Link grabbed hold of a rock. He gathered his strength and tried to heft it up, but despite the strain on his shoulders, he could not lift it. There was a soft pop and he was fairly certain that his new wound had opened again. Cringing, he pressed a hand to his shoulder, feeling the throb. Yet, with his other hand, he continued to tug on the stone fruitlessly. Kae’lee walked over. She picked up the stone with both hands and together, the two of them managed to roll it off the pile. It tumbled across the ground, coming to a stop right at a pair of black boots.
“Well, this is most interesting.” In unison, both Link and Kae’lee looked up to find Ari standing a few paces away, his arms folded across his chest. “You failed to kill him. Although not for lack of trying, I see.”
Kae’lee lifted her chin. “Link ordered us to –”
“So,” Ari interrupted. “My order was countermanded? Unfortunate. I was hoping this could be done quickly.”
“Try doing your own work for a change,” Link sneered.
“It seems I shall have to,” Ari said. With a flourish, he removed his long, billowing cape, setting it down on the rocks.
Link stepped forward, but Kae’lee grabbed his elbow. “You’re injured,” she whispered. “You can’t fight him.”
“I’ve been in worse shape than this,” Link replied. He gently pried his arm loose from her grasp and stepped forward. Ari appeared to be unarmed, so Link slowly removed his sword, which he had recovered, from its sheath and set it down on the ground.
Ruefully, Ari smiled. He reached into his pocket and removed two small chunks of silver metal. Link thought he would cast them aside, but much to his surprise, he wrapped each fist around the chunks and stepped forward. With an authoritative punch, Ari hit Link square in the chest. Link flew back, hitting the rocks with a loud crash, sending the Gerudo scattering. The air was completely knocked out of his lungs and for a second, Link flailed there, certain that he was dead. His breath returned, but with it came a sharp pain in his chest, a severe throb from where Ari had hit him.
Ari leaned over the rock at his feet. With complete ease, he managed to lift the stone that Link and Kae’lee had struggled with. And then, Link realized what was happening. It was Din Silver in Ari’s hands, enhancing his strength tenfold. As though he were throwing nothing more than a child’s rubber ball, Ari hurled the stone at Link. Link just barely managed to roll out of the way, the blood from his shoulder wound smearing across the rocks. The stone hit beside him and shattered. Large chunks of it impacted his torso, a few of the smaller pieces embedding themselves painfully into his skin.
Link tried to push himself up to his feet, but found that he could not. His strength had completely waned, tortured and cut up by the attack from Ari. He lay there, wheezing and doing his best to ignore the pain wracking his body. “It’s time to die,” Ari said dramatically.
He just barely managed to conjure up enough air to laugh. “So that’s it?” he asked. “With an overly melodramatic and overused cliché, you kill me?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Ari replied. “I don’t want to just kill you. You lied to me and I don’t tolerate that. No, I want to hurt you. I want your last moments of life to be humiliating.”
“And turning me into cheese wasn’t what you had in mind?”
“I think I can do better than that.” He turned to look at Kae’lee. “You’ve always fancied her. I think she’ll do it. You,” he called, beckoning to Kae’lee. “I order you to kill Link.”
Kae’lee folded her arms across her chest. “No.”
“I…” Ari blinked in surprise. “I order you to kill Link.”
“And I said no,” Kae’lee answered.
“What? You can’t do that. I gave you a direct order.”
“Sorry,” Kae’lee told him. “I’m not taking orders any more. This time, I’m giving them.” She turned to look at the other Gerudo warriors. “Attack!” she shouted at the top of her lungs.
“Ya!” Instantly, a swarm of very angry Saber Tooth women fell upon Ari. He was swept away from the scene, like a man drowning in the current of a river, his screams echoing throughout the mines, half drowned out by the repeated cries of the Gerudo “Ya!”
Link gasped, collapsing against the rocks, his breath ragged and strained. He felt a hand press into his. Weakly, he turned his head to one side and saw a hand reaching out from in between the rocks. “Link?” Mika called, her hand fumbling to find his pulse. Straining his eyes, he could just barely make out her face peering through the rocks.
Gently, he squeezed her hand. “I’m okay,” he promised, feeling as though that were a bit of an exaggeration. Still, in spite of all the pain and stone piercing his body, Link could not help but smile, lifting his head to watch as Kae’lee skillfully led her sisters in taking back the mines. Vaguely, he wondered what they would do to Ari, but at the moment, he didn’t care enough to ask.
Fortunately, the Saber Tooth healer and her apprentice were highly skilled. Within a few days, Link had made an excellent recovery. As had Nassan. Back on her feet again, the Saber Tooth Alpha, who turned out to be a radiant woman once she was cleaned up, assembled the entire Pride to publicly thank Link and his companions for rescuing them from Twinrova’s spell and Ari’s tyranny. The entry hall that had been transformed into a harem was restored to a beautiful throne room. Nassan, dressed as a warrior once more, her long red hair falling over her shoulder in gentle waves, stood up on a purple dais. The fellowship stood in a line before her. Behind them, the entire Saber Tooth Pride assembled.
“Today we honor these great heroes who have saved us from the hands of the Twinrova sisters,” Nassan announced. There was something about her that was hauntingly familiar, yet Link couldn’t quite place it. He felt as though he had met her before. “We honor Nebekah of the Jaguar Pride.” Nebekah stood forward. “Sapphia of the Kodiak Pride.” Sapphia stepped beside Nebekah. “Mika of the Orca Pride.” Mika joined them. “Link of the Dragon Pride,” she said with a slight smile as Link stood beside his sister. “And Tyro.”
“I’d be more than willing to join this Pride,” Tyro said, joining the others with a smarmy smile and wink in the direction of the beautiful Alpha.
“Pervert,” Mika mumbled.
“Thanks to you,” Nassan said, “our Pride has been restored. We are forever in your debt and you will always be welcome here.”
“Thank you, Alpha,” Nebekah said, crossing her wrists in front of her chest and bowing.
“As a token of our appreciation, we offer you this gift.” Nassan turned to Kae’lee, who stood at her side. Kae’lee, in Link’s opinion, looked even lovelier in her warrior gear than in the silk dress Ari had forced her to wear. She proudly stepped forward, handing Nassan a small, wooden box. Nassan, in turn, handed the box down to Link.
He looked down at the lid, which was engraved with Gerudo runes and symbols. Directly in the middle of it all, though, he caught a glimpse of Hylian writing. “…it cannot be held, yet it can fill the air…” he read quietly.
“Go on,” Nassan told him. “Open it.”
Obediently, Link opened the box. From inside he produced a small sliver of dark amber glass, glowing slightly of its own volition. “Your Shard?” he asked.
Nassan nodded. “It is yours,” she told him. “I know of your quest. Far be it for me to make it more difficult by denying you that which you seek.”
“Thank you, Alpha,” he said.
“Know always that the Saber Tooth Pride is your friend,” Nassan said. She raised her arms and from behind, the Gerudo warriors let out a single, united war cry of “Ya!”, scaring Link out of his skin. He turned around, along with his companions, and saw all of them, their right fists pumping in the air as they cheered.
There was a certain exhilaration that filled Link’s chest. Everything was so exciting that he forgot about the quest as festivities were held in his honor. It wasn’t until much later in the night, when most of the warriors began to drift away to bed, that Link remembered the wooden box with its cryptic message. As the last celebrants dwindled, he sat down on a pillow and took out the box, examining it. “…it cannot be held, yet it can fill the air…” What did that mean, exactly?
“How are you feeling?” Mika asked, plopping down next to him.
“Glad not to be fighting Ari any more,” Link told her. “What did they do to him anyway?”
“I think,” she said, “we shouldn’t ask. It might be insulting.”
“Okay,” he agreed. He found that he wasn’t nearly as concerned about it as he should have been.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m just trying to figure this out,” he said, pointing to the inscription on the box.
“You can read that?”
“What does it say?”
“‘…it cannot be held, yet it can fill the air…’”
Mika frowned. “What does that mean?”
“Well, I’m not sure,” Link explained, “but I think it’s part of a massive riddle.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I remember back on the pedestal for the Orca Shard, it said, ‘One thing stands between the stone and the grave…’”
Link nodded. “Also in ancient Hylian.”
“And you think the messages are connected?”
“Exactly. Like, this is some kind of hint. …‘One thing stands between the stone and the grave…’ and ‘…it cannot be held, yet it can fill the air…’”
She scowled. “Like some kind of force field?”
“I’m not sure,” Link admitted.
“Well, there will probably be more clues, won’t there?”
“One would assume.”
Mika shrugged. “Then, we’ll just have to wait and fit the pieces together when we have them.”
“I guess so.”
Across the room, Tyro was celebrating a bit more than the others. He had already consumed a massive quantity of wine and was currently working on another flagon, which wobbled as he loudly crooned a raunchy tavern song to a pretty Saber Tooth who seemed absolutely fascinated with him. “Unbelievable,” Mika muttered, glaring daggers at them from across the room.
“I know,” Link said with a slight laugh. “He’s a good singer.”
Giving him a slightly dirty look, Mika stood up. “He’s going to be in no condition to travel tomorrow.”
“I think he’ll be all right. Something tells me he’s done worse damage to himself in the past.”
With a soft, “Hmph,” Mika walked away, marching across the room in the direction of the debauchery.
Link smiled absently and leaned back on his elbows. He had only had one goblet of wine, but he could feel the pleasant warmth of drink beginning to take effect. Lazily, he watched as Mika pulled Tyro away from his Saber Tooth conquest, angrily berating him for his drunkenness and his bad singing. She was surprisingly shrill, but other than the Gerudo who she had tossed aside, no one else really seemed to take much notice of the scene.
“You know,” a voice said from behind. “We never really got to finish our fight.” Link sat up and saw Kae’lee sit down beside him. “I would have really beaten the snot out of you.”
“Why?” he asked. “Because I’m a fluffy pink bunny?”
“No,” she replied. “I’m just better than you.”
“I guess we’ll never know,” he said.
Kae’lee shrugged. “I don’t know about that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” she said slowly, “you could always come back some time.”
“Challenge me to a fight.”
He stared at her blankly for a moment. “Challenge you to a…” And then it hit him. He remembered the Saber Tooth traditions that Nebekah had explained to him only a few days ago, though it felt like a few years ago. “Yeah,” he said slowly.
“I’d like that.”
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