!Important A/N: I edited all the previous chapters for various reasons, and it'd be worth it to go back and read the story again. Plus, I'd really appreciate it. For those of you who have this story on alert, I apologize if you've received an abundance of messages.
Disclaimer: They don't really start never not being not exactly mine in my imagination. Have fun with that. ;)
Chapter Four: Rigorous Training, Part I
Now I ain't afraid of living, and I ain't scared to die,
'Cause I feel this vibration that I can't deny.
I can feel it singing through me like a symphony,
And it tastes so sweet - like destiny.
I Shall be Free, Kid Beyond
"No, lower." Sheik ordered.
Malon fought to control her balance. She never thought that standing a certain way for long periods of time would create such a precarious situation. Although, it had more to do with how far she was from the ground than the actual length of time Sheik demanded she remain in varying odd positions. Her burning muscles begged to differ.
The red head merely grunted in response.
By the time her hair was plastered to her face and neck with sweat, the day had barely begun. Sheik told her to stand and ran her through a set of stretches she was beginning to feel familiar with. Then he crouched in another odd position and she did her best to match it. Both legs bent: check. Right leg over left: check. Knees facing the same direction: check. Arms perpendicular to the ground and bent: check. Fingers together and palms facing outward: check. If holding a weird stance wasn't bad enough, after Sheik felt she had ample time to copy him, he would walk around the pillar she stood on to survey her critically. She knew it was necessary, but his crimson orbs made her stiffen every time his gaze perused her posture.
"You're tensing too much again. Remember, you waste precious energy and strain the wrong muscles doing that."
Malon made a conscious effort to relax, hoping the man training her would remain oblivious to just how uncomfortable she was with him at times.
"Good. Now, back straight and feet further apart."
"How - "
"I thought we went through this already," Sheik stated pointedly. "Your questions need to cease."
The blonde man nodded his acceptance. "All right, feet further apart."
She slowly inched her bare feet closer to the opposite corners of the stone pillar's surface.
"That's better, but you're still slouching forward too much."
Malon found it difficult to not react in some negative way towards the large amount of critique Sheik was giving her. The rational part of the young woman understood that training required persistence over time, yet she had never dealt with such an attentive teacher. He definitely knew what he was talking about, but Malon was beginning to worry that perhaps she wasn't capable of reaching the level of competency she desired. Even if Sheik did his utmost to prepare her, maybe she would never amount to anything more than a simple farmer's daughter? How could she have hope for anything else, when she couldn't even protect herself against a drunkard?
She accidentally exaggerated the straightening of her spine in a physical attempt to drive away her doubts. Her arms shot out instinctively when her balance wavered. Looking down the several feet she would fall, panic began to take hold. When the red head attempted to stand straight to regain her balance Sheik objected immediately.
"Go ahead and fall."
"What?" Malon squawked.
"Fall," he commanded sternly.
Malon didn't have enough time to argue, as her balance was lost and no amount of suave body mechanics would save her any longer. With arms-a-flailing, she went down screaming. Her stomach quickly jumped into her throat as she descended backwards to the ground. One of her arms collided with something and then she landed on her back hard enough to have the breath knocked from her lungs. Despite the harsh landing, whatever she landed on was more giving and much warmer than she had expected for a dried lake bed. Matter of fact, when she drew in a deep breath she felt the ground move beneath her and some... hands?
The red head scrambled to her feet and quickly turned to see Sheik flat on the ground with his cowl an uneven mess around his throat. Fear and embarrassment fled in the face of Malon's awe. She couldn't help but rudely stare at his exposed face as he sat up. He lowered his cowl only when he ate, and even then he usually was turned away or it was too dark to truly see his features. She hadn't thought he was hiding an abnormality or anything, but after a month of traveling with him, she had become quite curious about what he looked like. Now, in the full light of day, there was no way to hide how young Sheik was.
It wasn't that the half of his face free to inquisitive eyes seemed worn, or overtly aged, but more that his attitude and abilities led the young woman to an incorrect conclusion. He also didn't make it a habit to speak unless necessary, and that might have made it seem like he knew much more than he did. Or perhaps he was just a reserved person with extraordinary skills? There was no way to deny that his movements appeared graceful to the point of perfection, and yet it was a male no more than five years her senior that stared back at her.
Could this Sheikah, the very one who defended her so easily from the poe, really be so young? Stunned, she continued to regard Sheik's features. His face was thin, the childhood softness lost long ago and angular planes were left in its wake. A straight nose came to a point that was strong, yet not prominent within the map of his face. Below his dry, full lips was a sharp chin and strong jawline. Even without the cowl, Malon had difficulty seeing through Sheik's thick hair, but she was quite positive that his earlobes were pierced.
Crimson eyes watched the young woman inspect his face. From his experience with the opposite sex he knew he was attractive. That knowledge came along with what looks meant approval - dilated pupils and parted lips specifically came to mind. The Hyrulian's gaze was more like a very persistent, curious poke than a sensual caress. It was obvious that Malon's intent was innocent, but such blatant regard made his blood quicken. Determinedly, Sheik squashed the sexual thoughts he was formulating. He had a deal with the young woman to honor, and it had nothing to do with lust. Sheik grabbed the thick material piled on his chest and pulled it back up to cover the lower half of his face again.
Once his face was covered, Malon immediately lowered her eyes and blinked repeatedly. She didn't have to look Sheik in the eye to know he witnessed her ogling him. She felt ashamed of herself for treating Sheik in such a disrespectful manner. He'd taken the brunt of her fall, and there she was gawking at his damn face! Cheeks burning red, the young woman offered her hand to the Sheikah.
"Why did I have to fall?" The red head fumed as soon as Sheik was standing, eager to direct the attention from the previous happenings to something manageable.
Off balance from the quick change in Malon's demeanor, the blonde took a moment to reply. "For the same reason I have you doing your exercises up there."
It was apparent to the Sheikah that his answer was considered unsatisfactory to Malon, but he felt confident she could figure it out by herself in time.
"Okay," she drawled. "What's next?"
"More endurance training."
Malon was about to ask him to be more specific, but Sheik had already began jogging away. "Hey, wait!"
"Keep up," he called over his shoulder.
She quickly caught up, and Sheik began lecturing her on the basics of breathing habits, posture, and pacing oneself. After their second lap around the lake, Sheik began changing the pace to force different muscles to work. Or so he claimed.
Malon groaned. Her clothes were soaked with sweat and her body ached, but she'd be damned before she gave up. Forcing her muscles to continue carrying her - right foot, then left, then right again - the exhausted young woman distracted herself by thinking back to the beginning of her day.
She'd woken up right as the sun peaked over the horizon like normal. She'd been crying again, unfortunately. Rubbing the residue from her eyes, Malon worried yet again that her traveling companion might find out about her nightmares. He hadn't mentioned anything, but he didn't really mention much at all. Then the red head realized she was naked besides her tent around her. A fear induced adrenaline rush later, and she recalled that her clothing was by the fire to dry through the night.
Getting dressed was an awkward ordeal where Malon, keeping her eyes on the sleeping man a few feet from her, felt around for her clothing and then tried to put them on beneath the cover of the tent wrapped around her. Eventually, Sheik's eyes snapped open and then focused quickly on the main point of movement in the camp - Malon. She froze under his keen gaze, leggings halfway on under the tent.
"Um, could you... ?" Malon trailed off. She desperately hoped Sheik wouldn't need her to spell out what she wanted.
"I'll check the area," Sheik mumbled and then disappeared.
She sighed thankfully.
Malon was dressed and organizing the camp when Sheik returned. He stopped her as she was preparing her pack to move as per usual. He offered no explanation for his actions, even after the young woman waited for one. The red head, still unsure as to why Sheik stopped her, decided that perhaps breakfast was in order.
"Are you hungry?" She asked neutrally.
"Eat a handful of seeds and nuts, but nothing else."
"You're beginning your training today," he reminded her.
Of course, Malon thought. How could I forget?
Excited about training, Malon held back from questioning the man's logic further. They ate in silence, but when Malon went to pack up camp Sheik stopped her once again. Frustrated, the red head finally demanded that he explain his reasoning.
"We'll be staying within the area for at least the first few months of your training."
"Why?" The red head asked, aghast. Malon could only assume that to become as great a fighter as Sheik she'd have to do some crazy things, and staying in one place wasn't exactly what she'd consider to be on the 'crazy' list.
"There's plenty to train with here," the man said simply.
It was irritating at times, the way that Sheik communicated. He stated things as if they were obvious, and the young woman figured they were to him, but not to her. She had considered pointing this out to him several times, but her insecurities always flared up and whispered that maybe she was just too stupid to see what others easily noticed. Regardless, her main reason for following this man around in the first place was to learn, and since Sheik had yet to act violently, as Ingo would if she "pestered" him, there shouldn't be anything holding her back from attempting to fully grasp what the blonde was saying.
He's not Ingo, she told herself firmly. Ask for him to explain further!
Still, would Sheik be annoyed if she asked any more questions? Malon did her best to glance over at the man surreptitiously. She was so tempted to ask about his training plan for her, but her fear of any kind of repercussion was like an unbreakable vise around her neck.
"Go ahead and ask."
"Ah! Um... how did you know?"
Sheik chuckled softly. "You get this look on your face."
Malon's cheeks flushed with embarrassment. Was she that transparent?
"You had a question?"
"Erm, yes," she answered lamely, "I do."
"And it is?" Sheik prompted.
"Do you think I'm stupid?" Malon blurted out unintentionally.
Crimson eyes widened, and if not for the red head's humiliation, she would have found the sight comical. "No?"
"Because there's a lot that I don't know, and I do know that, but I... well, I just worry you'll think I'm stupid and get angry if I ask too many questions."
Nonplussed, one of the last remaining protectors of the royal family just stared at the young woman before him as she rambled on.
"I'm a fast learner, my father always said so! But, well, I never went to Early School," Malon finally confessed in shame.
Most Hyrulian children attended what was called Early School, which covered the basics of their history, culture, and language. Those striving to become scholars would move on to studying varying advanced subjects at the Institute of Scholarly Affairs in Castle Town. At the end of their studying, scholars focused on a specific calling and then earned an apprenticeship under the tutelage of a master in their chosen calling.
"I'm not saying that I know nothing at all," she went on, "it's just - are you okay if I don't get everything on my first try?"
Sheik was puzzled as to why Malon received no official schooling in her younger years. Although, it wasn't a huge disservice considering how biased the Hyrulian's history lessons were, in his opinion, but it was becoming apparent that her lack of education largely affected her confidence. He briefly thought about teaching her subjects beyond their original deal before coming to his senses. The Sheikah had only so much spare time, and in all honesty he shouldn't even have agreed to help the young woman in the beginning.
"I'd be surprised if you grasped everything on your first try," the blonde finally admitted.
The red head seemed to fall into herself, which left Sheik at a loss since his comment had been aimed at assuaging her doubt.
"Mastering something takes time. Whether or not you do well on your first try doesn't matter to me," the Sheikah stated plainly.
After a moment, her blue eyes hesitantly glanced up. She could see his patience with the situation was evaporating, and yet he didn't look angry per se, merely resigned to deal with it - with her. Immediately her gut burnt with shame.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have made such a fuss. Let's just forget about it."
"I said I'm sorry," Malon said quickly. Fearfully.
Sheik felt his temper test the strength of his mental barricades. "If you run from a conversation, then how will you be a capable fighter?"
The red head felt a crushing wave of doubt roll over her, before a memory of Ingo's drunk face reminded her of why she put herself in the hands of the Sheikah in the first place.
"Fine," she snapped, "I'm scared that I'll ask too many questions! There, I said it!"
"Well... yes," she answered quietly, then set her spine straight and met the Sheikah's crimson eyes. "Yes, it is."
"Malon, I will tell you when your questions are not welcome."
"Really?" The look of restrained hope on her face shocked Sheik. For as stubborn a face as the young woman put on, she was startlingly fragile sometimes.
He nodded in a delayed response.
A small smile curved her lips briefly before she finally was able to ask the stranger-turned-teacher to better communicate his plans. He had looked slightly pained, but tried his best nonetheless.
As it was, Sheik planned to use the surroundings to their advantage. Since Lake Hylia was mostly protected by the bordering mountains, they could worry less about wondering enemies and focus on her training. The major down side to staying in one place was that they would use up their supplies quickly, but the crimson eyed man told Malon not to worry about it. The young Hyrulian felt dubious about just 'not worrying' over something important like supplies, but she did her best to brush it off as simply another thing she was trusting Sheik to handle.
When Malon inquired about what kind of surroundings could be used, the Sheikah had instructed her to follow him. They stopped at some aged pillars, the likes of which Malon had never seen before. One pillar had collapsed off to the side, and Malon reached down to feel its strange surface. The stone was cool and smooth to the touch. Looking back at the other columns, she realized they all had the same designs, both simple and intricate, carved into them. The red head gathered that it wasn't the work of a novice she was admiring.
Despite her desire to ask Sheik who built such beautiful stone work, there was another question burning even brighter in her mind.
"How exactly would we use these for training?"
Evidently, they were great for balance and sensory training, for whatever that meant. Sheik had tried to explain how going beyond one's comfort zone challenged your senses when you needed to focus, and the first thing Malon had to learn was to focus. And also apparently how to climb things besides trees, which was not as easy as she thought it would be.
The red head had sworn up a storm, to the great surprise and amusement of the Sheikah watching, as she continually slid painfully back down the pillar time and again. After a few more failed attempts, Sheik offered his advice with the caveat that Malon had to do as he said without any further questions.
Before Malon even realized it, her first official lesson had begun.
"All right, that's enough."
Malon sagged to the ground, her legs useless once her forward momentum ended. She felt something grab her forearm and tug. Sluggishly, the young woman opened her eyes and saw Sheik trying to pull her back up on her feet. Her brows furrowed in agitation. He said that is was enough, so what was his deal?
"Your muscles will seize up if you don't move them after exerting so much energy," the Sheikah stated. The red head was about to blow him off, but then she belatedly noted the worry written across his exposed face.
Hey, his face!
"I'm up, I'm up," she grumbled while relying heavily upon his strength to regain her feet.
Once her legs began to hold her weight again, she waved him off. She felt disappointed in herself. Sheik may have broken a sweat, but he wasn't even breathing hard. Despite her background of practically slaving away at the ranch, she was still ill prepared for a single day of the Sheikah's basic training. Grabbing on to the thought of disappointment and hurt pride, Malon forced her body to work beyond its limits.
Sheik observed the change in the young woman, her determination making her eyes and face harden, and felt his respect for her raise.
Malon slept like a dodongo during her first week of training, much to the relief of Sheik. He knew he had pushed her harder than he should have, but the silent nights he'd earned himself was worth the twinge of guilt he felt every time she lost her stomach.
Besides, he rationalized to himself, she's sleeping better now as well.
Surprisingly, she never complained, and she actually seemed to strive off of being challenged. Every time Sheik had expected her to balk, she'd blown him away with her enthusiasm. It was only during moments where her modesty was threatened where she'd freeze up, which they both did their best to avoid. Though it was becoming obvious that Malon was fed up with having only one set of clothing. A solution to that issue would be nice, as Sheik wouldn't mind having a spare suit himself. Resting his head back on his interlaced fingers, the Sheikah pondered on the subject a bit longer as the sun rose.
When he felt Malon had slept long enough, he prepared a simple, yet nutritious breakfast before collapsing her tent. At her answering grunt, Sheik's lips twitched into a small smile.
As unexpected as this path was to both Malon and Sheik, the two fell into their new routine easily enough.
Once they ate, they moved on to stretches and the stances on top of a pillar. Sometimes Sheik would climb a column himself and they'd go through the stances together, other times he'd call out the stance's name he wanted her to do. Considering the painful work out she'd face if she slid into the wrong posture, Malon learned the names quickly and did her utmost not to make a mistake.
Then came the endurance training, which always consisted of jogging and sprinting. Usually some form of physical conditioning, like lightly striking oneself repeatedly to desensitize ones nerves, would follow. There was a mysterious, dead tree across a couple rickety bridges that Sheik would take her to for her to practice different striking techniques. She always knew when they were visiting the tree because the Sheikah would wrap her knuckles. Admittedly, the young Hyrulian hated visiting the tree. Not only did she feel bad for hitting a tree, dead or not, but it always rained when they went.
Malon's favorite exercise thus far was to climb the mountainside. It was unbelievably steep and she always came away with a new injury, but the thrill of accomplishment when Sheik acknowledged her hard work was a potent thing she discovered.
Throughout the day they would stop by their camp to snack and hydrate. Sheik was very strict with their rations. Time and again he'd tell her how she'd have to be careful on her own not to indulge her hunger if she wanted to survive. Sheik's argument was that if she planned to live a life full of the unexpected then she'd always have to be ready, and one was not ready for anything when they were tired with a full gut. Instead of stuffing her face, she was taught other methods - tricks in which to make her stomach feel full, like eating slowly or drinking more water.
At the end of the day, they would take turns bathing and washing their clothes in the small waterfall created by the Gerudo River's runoff.
After nearly three months of continuous training, Malon could hardly recognize her own body. Her skin was tight over hard, lean muscles. Her hands had a completely different set of calluses now. She supposed she looked more like a male now, but she didn't care. She was truly proud of herself for once. It wasn't so much the physical changes she was proud of, though she was indeed, but it was the changes she felt on the inside that she was the most proud of. By taking her life into her own hands and following through with her choice to learn to fight she felt strong again. It made her feel in control.
It was a good feeling to have.
Though that feeling was threatened when Sheik broke their routine after their morning stretches.
"Today you're going to Kakariko Village."
"I thought it would be good practice for you."
Malon narrowed her eyes skeptically. "Going to a village... would be good practice?"
"Did you want new clothing, or not?"
"Oh! What a great idea!"
"That's what I was thinking. So, I've written a list of things we'll need. Do you remember where I went to get your supplies before we left the village?"
"I'm going by myself?"
"I have things to tend to, but I'm positive you can do this yourself."
"You're right, sorry."
"No worries. The place is not too hard to find. Just go up the stairs on the left of the village, then some more stairs, and then its the house with the red roof," he said casually.
Too casually, which made Malon's don't-mess-up-or-you'll-have-some-crazy-exercise-to-do-as-punishment senses tingle.
"All right," she said hesitantly, "I'll do that." Her senses told her she was quickly failing whatever test was happening, so she did what she did best and asked a question. "What was the guy's name again?"
"Lee," he responded, and the pressure eased off of her senses.
Phew, she thought, that was a close call.
"Woah, wait a second. Lee?"
"Yes. Do you remember now?"
"Not exactly, but... could I maybe stay the night at Kakariko?"
Sheik was quiet for a moment. "Honestly, I had envisioned you dealing with the stalchildren as part of your training, but I suppose that would give me more time... Yes, I will meet you back here in a day's time."
Malon nodded her agreement, and then they were quickly dissembling their camp. It didn't take long, as they didn't have much. When they'd left Lake Hylia behind, Sheik gave the red head some brief directions to get her to Kakariko Village. There was an awkward moment of silence, and then Sheik simply began walking away.
Definitely not one for goodbyes, Malon thought with a wry twist to her lips.
She watched the Sheikah's back for a moment longer before she made sure her pack was firmly settled on her back and beginning her own journey.
A/N: Phew! I've been working on this part of the story for so long. I wanted to make sure that I included everything I had planned correctly, which ended up giving me more of a training arch than I expected. Definitely not a bad thing, not at all. In fact, I've fallen even more in love with the story. On a side note, in the middle of writing this chapter I got the great idea to go back and edit all of my previous chapters. It took some time, but I think it's much better now. Hopefully you think so as well. :)
Huge thanks goes to those who inspired me and pushed for me to keep going. That definitely includes you, Music Watch. Thanks.