This will be my last update in a while. I don't have time to write now that school is back in action, but I am proud of the fact that I got four chapters out over Christmas. That's an accomplishment. :-)
I was pleasantly surprised at the astute observations of several of you out in readerland after the last chapter. Madoju especially has obviously been reading closely, and was the only one to remember Alexander's prophecy in context.
And of course Garret was going to die! He's an Achilles after all. :-)
The next few chapter draw upon a number of threads from very early in this fic. Some of you may need to go back a little and refresh yourself, although that will make you realize just how painfully bad much of this fic is. If you have any questions feel free to PM me and I'll answer as best I can.
"Eternal peace is a dream, and not even a pleasant one."
-Moltke the Older
Malon measured the handful of grain carefully, weighing the few kernels with inordinate care. She was wary of wasting it upon their two surviving chickens, not with the harvest uncertain and the granary almost exhausted, but then again she wasn't sure how long the ranch would last either. Depending upon the news from the next patrol she might just slaughter them in celebration…or mourning.
Frowning, she scattered her handful on the earth and watched the two birds come clucking to their meal. They were strong now, almost plump compared to the miserable creatures who had just survived the long winter, but in Malon's mind they would always be connected with the grueling want of that season. When the first ice arrived she'd had several dozen birds in her coop, by the time the last ice melted she'd had only two. It would be almost a shame to slaughter them now, even if they were only chickens after all.
The ranch maid dusted her hand on the coarse linen of her dress, grasped her lantern, and stood up carefully to avoid colliding with the low eaves of the barn. In the lingering heat of the evening the charred wood still gave off the stink of smoke, an unpleasant reminder of violence that Malon chose not to dwell upon. Instead she looked off towards the first stars in the east and listened to the crickets sing their summer songs, wondering how Ralph was coming with the potatoes and whether she should milk the cow immediately or wait until dawn.
A bell rang and the peaceful moment was shattered.
Malon started, her red braid, dark in the twilight, shuddering at her back. There was no second ring, yet even so visitors after nightfall were hardly expected and rarely welcomed. Her face hardened as she felt for the hilt of a knife through a hidden opening in her skirt and turned to hurry towards the gate. There might be deserters from one side or the other, and both equally as bad. Or maybe another orphan from the castle, one she could ill-afford to feed. She'd turned away so many, yet they kept coming…not that they could be blamed.
A red-cheeked Trent met her halfway with the signal bell still clutched forgotten in his hand. The child, the second of Malon's three orphans, positively danced as he grabbed her hand and pulled her back in the direction he had come.
"I didn't see 'em coming," he gasped, "if it wasn't for the horses I wouldn't been warned at all!"
"Who?" Malon pulled the boy to a halt. "Not soldiers?"
Trent frowned, insulted. "There weren't no second ring, Malon! I know the rules best of anybody!"
"Then who?" the woman asked, trying to dig in her heels against the boy's pulling.
Trent smiled, his face beaming with the joy of a hidden secret. "I can't tell, you must see! Come, come, fast n' faster!"
Thoroughly bemused, Malon let her charge lead her between the ranch wall and the burned out hulk of the old farmhouse to the great arch and the flimsy gate which spanned it. The ruins of the old house dwarfed the unlovely addition which had been made to the barn, largely with wood scavenged from the ruin. For its part, the path was well trodden, yet bore none of the marks of the horses which had once given Lon Lon its fame.
Then they reached the gate, and Malon simply stopped.
She stared at the mounted, armored figure on the other side of the gate and her face turned as white as her hair was red.
"Zelda Harkinian," she said in awe, " it cannot be."
"Yet it is," Zelda replied as she dismounted wearily to the grass. "Hello, Malon."
"I heard you were dead," the ranch maid started as she unlocked the gate. Her words became faster, running together as she spoke. "Actually, I heard you were dead, then alive, then dead, then alive, then dead. Then I heard you'd ran off with a handsome foreign prince and that the winter ended the first time he kissed you!"
Zelda's face twisted slightly at the mention of the prince, yet she still embraced Malon with appreciable vigor when the woman approached. Her chin met Malon's shoulder with a solidness that finally convinced her of her friend's presence. "I'm alive," the princess said, "everything else was a lie."
"Alive," Malon repeated and drew back so Zelda could see the profound joy on her face. "Goddesses, Zelda, I hardly know what to say! Where did you come from? What a story you must have!" Yet her eyes danced towards the burgeoning darkness before Zelda could answer, and anxiety clouded them. "But inside," she continued softly, "inside where you cannot be seen. I can hardly describe the danger, Zelda! It is madness for you to be here!"
Yet the princess extricated her hand from Malon's grip and stayed firmly outside the gate. She searched her friend's green eyes with trepidation, trying to choose her words.
"I'm not alone," she admitted, and Malon jerked as another horse whickered from near the wall. She turned, her face already anticipating what her gaze had not seen, and cried out at Demon's shadowed form. He was slumped, nearly falling, and her voice raised no response.
"It is a happiness unlooked for to find you here, Malon," Zelda began, "yet we came only because we are desperate for shelter. I-"
"So this is he, princess?" Malon snapped and one hand slipped to her skirt. "This is the one who murdered Nathan?"
Zelda uttered a command and her horse moved between Malon and the assassin. Demon had not moved, indeed he hardly seemed to be aware that Zelda was in conversation. "This is not the man," she said, "or it is the same face, but not the same soul. Nathan's murderer is dead."
"There was another rumour," Malon accused in an ugly voice, "a rumour that you had given yourself to a murderer with a honeyed tongue." She retreated a step even as she used her slim forearm to force Trent back into the ranch.
"Malon," Zelda pled with sob that caused the woman to pause in spite of herself. "The Aratians are searching for us towards the mountains, yet the net is tightening. By morning, this man will be unable to ride, and they will find us easily upon the field. I beg you!"
The ranch maid peered at her friend as terrible emotions struggled across her features. She gripped Trent's coat with a fierceness that made the poor boy squirm, evidence of the surprising strength in her sun-browned arms. Slowly, at first almost imperceptibly, she removed her other hand from the hilt buried in her skirt.
"If I told you to leave him, to give his horse a slap and let it wander where it would…" she suggested.
"I could not," Zelda refused without hesitation. She walked forward and leaned up to grab Demon's reigns from his slumped form. "Goddesses, Malon, he almost died a dozen times today defending me from the Aratians!"
Malon winced, and the princess saw a familiar pity spring to her emerald eyes. Almost persuaded, yet clinging to her long-remembered hatred, she struggled between the two forces.
"He must leave his weapons outside," she ordered.
"He is unarmed," Zelda replied, and realized that she was as well, having lost her sword while unleashing the power of the Triforce. She looked to the empty scabbard at her waist, and was surprised to feel unease at the loss.
Malon's lips tightened. "He will stay in the barn," she decided finally, "and I wish to neither see him nor hear him. You are my friend and my princess, Zelda, but you cannot ask for more."
"Thank you," The gratitude was obvious in Zelda's strained voice. "You are the only blessing in a cursed day, Malon. I had almost given up hope…"
The princess swayed and the creak of her armor sounded forbidding in the darkness. Grasping Demon's mount more for her own steadiness then anything else, she managed to find her balance.
The ranch maid studied her friend with renewed concern. Zelda watched her look out into the night, blind to any watching eyes, and turn herself to the urgent task of getting the two refugees out of sight as fast as possible. The relief renewed the princess's dizziness, but this time Malon intervened.
"Help the princess, Trent," she began, all business as she grabbed the bridles of both horses. Behind her the orphan grunted as Zelda leaned upon him, but both paused to watch Malon with the animals she knew best.
"You're both very handsome," the woman soothed the two beasts, "and I do wish I could keep you. But we can't have two such beautiful gentleman appearing in my stable without explanation, can we?"
The pale ear of Zelda's mount twitched as Malon leaned towards it and whispered a series of flowing syllables. Carefully she pulled the beast around until it faced west towards Death Mountain, then uttered a sharp command which sent it trotting off into the shadow.
All three Hylians watched the horse go with a mixture of acceptance and regret. They knew what awaited it out on the field, but were equally aware of the necessity of its departure. They watched until it was only a grey blur, a fluff of cotton on the surface of the deep, until Malon turned back to her two companions.
"We'll need this one," she patted the remaining mount, "to carry his burden up to the barn, then I'll loose him as well. Like as not there will be soldiers by in the morning."
"Then you will hide us," Zelda ventured.
"I'll hide you, of course," the ranch maid said, "your friend will sit lighter on my conscience."
Demon stirred, his pale blood-stained face turning towards the sound of voices until he was staring at his rescuer. Sunken eyes squinted at the unfamiliar face until her features jumped in recognition. "You lost my horse, didn't you?" he accused in a laboured whisper.
"Your horse?" Malon replied warily. "You're sitting on your horse!"
But Demon's head had dropped once more to loll against the neck of his mount. Malon looked warily to Zelda, who shrugged. The ranch maid stared at her a moment longer, then began to lead them both through the gate and into the ranch.
"Wind and fire!" Malon exclaimed. "You sure he'll survive till morning?"
Zelda paused in the act of cutting away Demon's soiled shirt, careful not to raise her head into the bottom of the low ceiling. Instead she turned gingerly upon the straw and lifted a cloth and basin from the first stair of the hidden cellar. The water sloshed and steamed in the bowl as she tried awkwardly to keep it steady but the cramped space and the darkness mocked her effort.
"He'll survive," she replied, studying a crusted, brown line across the meat of the assassin's shoulder.
"But there's so much blood," Malon wondered, a note of ill-concealed hope evident in her words. She was sitting at the top of the four stairs that allowed descent to Zelda's position, intimidated by Demon's presence yet unwilling to leave her friend. The wood upon which she sat had been almost untouched by the fire which had consumed much of the barn, yet the cellar beneath was rife with ash trickled down from the main floor.
It wasn't an ideal spot for keeping an injured man but it was easily concealed from the prying eyes of Aratian soldiers.
"Most of the blood isn't his," Zelda said bluntly, "besides, I've seen him survive far worse."
The princess could not see the strange look her friend sent her, nor the way Malon shivered as she drew her knees up underneath her chin. "You've fought together often?" the woman asked.
Demon shifted, muttering, and Zelda cursed as the combination of her ministrations and his movement brought fresh blood to a wound. "Not often," she said, "but enough. I got him stabbed in Kakariko. That was a lot of blood."
"I don't have the right herbs," Malon said suddenly, "for the pain or for infection. The prices at the alchemists in Castletown are ten times what they were before the winter. I couldn't afford them, not without the livestock."
Silently, Zelda reviewed the story her friend had told her about the torching of the ranch by Aratian troops in the first days of the blizzard, the death of her father Talon, and Malon's escape into the storm. The princess had seen the charred remains of the farm house as she'd entered the ranch, and suddenly her mind spun with questions she feared to ask. For a moment she decided that she could suffer no more despair in one day, but her fear could not be denied.
Zelda wrung out the rag over the straw and dipped it once more into the basin. She did not remove it but instead remained hunched over the rough earthenware. "What have the Aratians done to Castletown," she breathed. "What has become of my city?"
A shadow passed over Malon's face. "You have been gone a long time, princess. It's not your city any more."
"I had no choice." Zelda said, and her jerking movement splashed water from the bowl.
The ranch maid was silent, and for a long time only the sound of Zelda's work could be heard. It was only once the princess had determined that Demon's main ailment was exhaustion rather than a wound that she turned back to her friend.
"I needed an army," she said, "I had to leave Hyrule."
"Doesn't seem like the army helped much," Malon said, blunt as ever.
The princess stiffened, raw pain coursing through her. She had told her friend about the disaster of the Terminian defeat but she hadn't expected such callousness. Hot words sprang to her lips, but she refused to let them out.
"A lot of people in Castletown were depending upon that army," Malon muttered, and suddenly Zelda perceived that her friend had spoken in worry, not malice. "'When the princess returns' they said. They hoped…"
Both women flinched as Demon stirred. His fingers twitched spasmodically, and muscles rippled across his bare abdomen. "Where's my bloody horse?" he hissed, and collapsed back into the straw.
"Why do you bloody care?" Malon fired back without a moment's hesitation. She continued to stare at the assassin warily even after Zelda had turned back to face her.
The princess's eyes hardened. "The Aratians are weakened," she said, "perhaps weak enough that-"
Shaking her head wearily, the ranch maid cut Zelda off. "Forgive me, princess, but you have not seen the suffering your people have endured. There's not much fight left in them, even if they did have weapons."
"But the guard!" Zelda objected.
"The guard are dead," said Malon, "or fled too far for your purpose. This is a dying land, maybe dead after today. The Terminians were…" She shivered rather than finish her sentence.
"I won't give up." Zelda crossed her arms over her chest.
Malon sighed and grabbed her braid in one pale hand. "Forgive me again princess, but you were not here during the long winter. My father is dead, my horses are gone, I am alone. We who are left are simply trying to stay alive."
"So am I, Malon," Zelda replied, "can you not tell? There is no life for us while the Aratian king remains!"
"And there's no life for Trent, Ralph, and Lyra without me here." Rising to her feet, the ranch maid brushed the ash from her skirt, and gave one last perturbed glance to the unconscious assassin.
Zelda made to rise as well, only catching herself at the last minute. Gingerly she placed a hand against the floorboard above and clambered to the foot of the stairs. Behind her the assassin stirred and she paused to ensure that the pitcher of water, lamp, and chunk of bread sat undisturbed at his bedside.
"I hate leaving him like this," she said as she ascended the stairs, "it feels like a betrayal."
"He's not allowed in the house." Malon strained against the heavy trapdoor, then lowered it carefully into place. "He's already closer than he should be." She straightened and concern clouded her eyes. "You need food, princess, and then sleep. You'll be falling over soon if we don't do something."
Zelda yawned, fatigue rushing over her as soon as it was mentioned. "You used to offer a bath as well," she muttered, "Lon Lon hospitality isn't what it was."
Malon snorted. "Of course princess. Hot water, almond cake, and then a big, fluffy featherbed. How could I have forgotten?" She steadied Zelda with a gentle touch that belied the roughness in her voice. "I'll let you sleep on my mattress. It has fewer lice than any of the others."
"I'm grateful," Zelda sighed, "but I smell so horrid I don't think lice will be a problem."
The two women drifted from the barn, the lamplight departing with them. Above them the moon sailed toward the horizon, and behind the darkness embraced their path. Beneath the floorboards Demon tossed and turned, dreaming of battles unfought and hosts unvanquished. Another man might have succumbed to infection, exhaustion ... perhaps despair. Demon slept, and dreamed of blood.
The body yelped as a boot connected with its midriff, then rolled to snuggle closer to the moblin corpse which lay beside it. Leon grimaced as he watched the soldier bury his face in a moblin armpit, and pulled back his foot for another strike.
"Snap out of it, soldier!" he growled, "you're consorting with the enemy!"
Something burbled past the vocal chords of the fallen man, but most of it was absorbed into the juicy flesh of the monster beside him. Shifting again, he drew the corpse's arm over his shoulder, looking, for all the world, as if he were lost in a moblin embrace.
A howl echoed in the darkness and Leon threw himself down beside the entwined combatants. His eyes searched the night unceasingly, yet it hid all from his sight. The shadowed mounds of the fallen stretched across the field, some groaning, some still, yet the howl had not been human…and it had been close.
"Look, mate," Leon began in a conversational whisper, "I'm sorry I kicked you, I really am. The world is a hard, cruel place, more so than usual, but I swear it's still better than a moblin's pit."
After a moment's hesitation the captain drew the moblin's arm over himself as well, and pressed back against his fallen comrade. "Garret's dead," his whispered, "he must be. I think I fell from my horse and knocked myself out, at least I don't remember much. If they searched for survivors we would be dead as well, but they didn't. Why?"
The other soldier mumbled something again, still too muffled to make sense.
Cursing, Leon grabbed the man's face and pulled it away from its harbor. "Breath the free air again! Or at least don't poison yourself," the captain ordered.
The soldier groaned loudly, causing Leon to curse once more. He pressed a hand over his comrade's mouth in a motion that seemed to contradict his order, yet he could not withdraw the sound from the night.
This time a chorus of howls echoed over the field, and Leon could just make out dark shapes slinking between the macabre piles. Red eyes stared back him, a dozen wolfos at least, and Leon knew there was no more use in hiding.
"Well Garret," he muttered as he clambered to his feet, "it looks like maybe I can keep some honour after all." Letting his eyes slide back down to the fallen soldier at his feet, he gave the man one final nudge. "Up soldier! You don't want to die cuddling a moblin!" Yet the man didn't move, and so Leon's sword was alone in the dark.
Alone. That was the appropriate word, Leon knew, although it had felt so alien earlier in the day when marching among thousands of comrades. Garret was gone, dead Leon was sure, although he hadn't found the body. Russ he had found, punctured by a dozen weapons and barely recognizable under the stain of his own blood. The only man he had found in hopeful condition was this new recruit, Omar, and he was refusing to return to ugly reality.
The wolfos slowed, spreading out around their prey with dark purpose. Leon crouched, his training telling him to use his peripherals and watch the enemy in front for cues, yet his frustration made it hard to care about his training. He never should have revealed his position, never should have tried to save this idiot beside him.
A sound at his back made him whirl, yet his sword hit only air instead of flesh. Indeed the wolves themselves had turned and were staring off into the shadow, staring at three shapes rising from among the slain.
Never one to miss an opportunity, Leon lunged forward and hamstrung the nearest of his attackers. He spun again as the creature collapsed, yipping to the ground, and then continued to turn in a slow circle.
"Away with you!" one of the shapes cried, "go back to your master!"
As if in perfect obedience the wolves melted back, disappearing into the night.
Leon grunted, and wiped his nose with the back of a gauntleted hand. No alone after all, I guess. Another near miss, another inexplicable prolongation of his useless life. I'm doing pretty well for a man who only rolls snake eyes, he thought.
He turned and saw his rescuers slow as they approached, acting more wary then Leon could understand until he made out the foreign shape of their mail and the strange length of their weapons. One man, the last, was limping and using his spear simply as support.
Leon stared as they halted in front of him just as dirty as he, yet still the enemy. Suddenly he choked back laughter and sheathed his sword in a vicious movement that belied his mirth.
"Thanks for saving my life, you Aratian dogs," he said, and then stomped on the skull of the wounded wolfos before him in a single vicious movement that ended its story forever.
Author's Notes: Plot chapter really, but after the last two what do you expect? I don't have much to say about this one except that Demon really does seem to miss Epona. Sometimes characters say things you don't expect them to, that was one of those times.