Chapter 12- Never Cry Wolf
Fall's brilliant auburn foliage ran its course all too quickly that year. The change in weather was sudden and stifling. The grasslands wilted to dull brown, fitting beneath a melancholy gray sky. Agrelonge's native creatures sank into a profound silence as they settled down for long winter hibernation.
Never a traditional morning person, Link grew to hate his daily awakenings. Especially when the nights became chilly, he never slept well while his body shivered underneath a pitifully thin blanket. Upon rising, his joints fused and ached while his eyes fogged over with exhaustion. Many nights occurred where he slept fully dressed to ward off the cold.
One day, as Link kneeled over the bank of a stream, he could spot tiny flakes of snow flying in the breeze. His torso was bare and exposed to the cold, while his blue-tinted fingers kneaded his shirt in the running water. With stiff shoulders, eyes shadowed with vague concentration, Link curtly acknowledged the presence of the snow, unwilling to move lest he should succumb to his discomfort.
Slowly he grew numb watching patches of dirt and sweat wash away from the threads of his shirt, amazed at the grime that had accumulated after a few weeks' worth of travel.
"Hey kid, hurry up!," came Leo's impatient call from camp.
With an irritable grunt, Link rose, wringing the excess water from his shirt by twisting it in a fierce knot. Not wanting to be subjected to another one of Leo's complaints about his idleness, Link quickly pulled the sopping wet fabric over his head, unsure of what else to do with it.
He yelped as the icy threads clung possessively to his skin, sending jolts of fire to his bones. Link bounded back up the hump of the hill to camp, to where Epona stood tacked and ready, and fumbled for his green tunic that lay spread across the saddle. He wrapped the frayed cloth around himself like a blanket, rocking slightly back and forth in an attempt to warm his damp clothes.
Leo looked up. "Water's a little cold, eh?"
"Sh-sh-shut up," Link's teeth chattered as he spat out the words. Leo laughed.
There were noticeably more trees as the pair continued their journey. The forest had no solid boundary, rather a sparse copse of firs that thickened with progress. The dreary weather had not improved.
Luckily, Link's clothes had dried, and he had grown numb to the cold. "Well, you certainly know your way around Hyrule," he commented dryly. "Do you think we lost those soldiers yet?"
"Not likely," Leo replied. He tapped Flash lightly with his heels, and the gelding broke into a quick trot. "Just because we can't see them doesn't mean they're not still nearby. They're probably skirting the forest to avoid being seen."
At that idea, Link shivered. "What will we do if they catch up to us?"
"They won't," Leo told him confidently.
"But what if-"
Link threw the man a sullen look of dismay. Reining in Flash briefly, Leo gazed squarely at him. "Would I lie to you?"
"How should I know?" Link asked him doubtfully.
Leo opened his mouth to respond, but paused, his eyes widening. "Oh no, behind you! There's a soldier now!"
Epona tossed her head and squealed as Link jerked his left rein, turning the mare on her hocks. He wildly glanced side to side. "Where?!"
There was nothing out of the ordinary to be seen. Only the occasional conifer tree dictated its presence before an audience of dying grass. Epona shifted on her own as Link searched the grove for activity. He heard a snicker behind him.
Link whirled to face Leo, brows furrowing crossly. "That wasn't funny!"
"Yes it was," chuckled Leo, wiping a tear from his eye. "You're wound tighter than a metal spring, kid."
"Let's just move on," Link snapped. He flicked his reins sharply and sent Epona into a hasty canter.
The lingering daylight dwindled as the riders ventured into a deeper maze of trees. All too quickly, any paths to the outside seemed to disappear, enclosing them the dark. Link felt distinctly claustrophobic, never having been in such a place as this. His imagination got the best of him, as black shapes fluttered between the trees and brush and looked suspiciously like wicked monsters.
They're probably just squirrels, he told himself firmly. Even so, he closed his eyes tightly and listened intently to the crunching of pine cones beneath the horses' feet.
"Stay close," Leo's voice was quiet, yet alert. "Don't get separated from me. This is a huge forest; it won't do you any good to get lost."
All around woodland embraced them. Link found himself getting pummeled constantly by thick needled branches. He wrinkled his nose at the pungent aroma of pine, an ordinarily pleasant smell when not quite so suffocating. Heeding Leo's advice, Link closed his legs firmly around Epona's sides, enough to encourage the horse to tailgate Flash. The mare seemed as stifled by the forest as he; her movements were stiff and careful, her ears strained and stretched to catch every faint sound.
Link lurched forward as the mare froze in place, neck straight and head angled slightly to the side. Her nostrils flared, making an alarmed fanning noise(1). Throwing his hand out on Epona's withers to rebalance himself, Link gathered his reins. "Steady, steady," he whispered, almost afraid to disturb the forest.
His quiet consolation did little justice. Epona ducked her head down and upward again, snorting and kicking up her heels. The only thing keeping her from bolting was Link's seesawing motion on the reins. "Whoa! Settle down!" he cried, trying to keep his seat.
Leo wheeled Flash around to face them, his face austere. "Contain your horse!" he barked. "We're not alone."
"What do you mean?"
He never received an answer. Instead of Leo's voice, Link heard a deep growl coming from niches of the surrounding brush. Suddenly the throaty noises resounded from every angle, sending Epona into a frenzy of rears and bucks, loosing Link from the saddle. Terrified, with two hands he grasped the mare's mane as they toppled backward, Epona flailing with her legs kicking the air, while Link landed in the dirt beside her. The chaos afflicted his ability to react; dumbly he thrashed his legs out to free them from the stirrups, but he had not been thrown clearly enough. As Epona dashed to her feet, Link yelled as he was yanked along by his ankles, still caught in the irons. Flashes of brown and green zipped by in a surreal blur as the horse bolted, and Link thought he heard Leo shout his name before the beastly snarling drowned it out.
One of their pursuers sprinted alongside them; a hulking brute of a wolf ambled easily along on stilt-like legs, its thickly furred hump of a back rocking in rhythm. Saliva bubbled from the animal's teeth as it snapped at Epona's heels.
With a yell, Link kicked his foot fiercely, desperate to pull free before he became a meal. He could feel the forest floor ripping and tearing at his tunic as he was pulled mercilessly along. He howled as his back burned from the friction, as his knees creaked with the force inflicted from this quandary of an incident.
Without enough time for Link to feel truly afraid for his life, everything stopped. The world abruptly came to a halt, though colors and blurry shapes still swam before Link's eyes as his aching head adjusted to the change. Under sufficient pressure, the billet strap of the saddle had mercifully snapped, sending the fallen rider sprawled upon the ground as Epona continued to flee, with three or four of those gigantic wolf-like creatures on the hunt. The beasts' eerie calls faded as quickly as the mare's hoof-beats, leaving Link alone in a stadium of solitude.
Goddesses, that hurts, Link groaned as he fought throbbing muscles in order to sit up. Falls from horseback had never treated him too kindly in the past, but this one had cost him dearly. It hurt to move, to breathe…with one small intake of breath a terrible pain constricted his lungs. It took several gasps of air before Link could think clearly.
The ghostly silence now claimed a nearly deafening quality all its own. Not even a cricket chirped in the vicinity. Despite the protests of his body, Link stood up unsteadily, eyes warily searching for any sign of life. It seemed that Leo had disappeared along with Epona, and now the forest refused to show him the proper way to go. The trees closed in malevolently around him, while tendrils of mist began to creep between the trunks, adding a superficial stillness to complement the scene. Something's not right, Link thought, although that much was obvious. The way those wolf…things just ambushed them upon their entrance to the forest was too convenient to be an accident. Link felt the urge to call out, to see if Leo could hear him somewhere nearby, but he was afraid to attract attention. His own paranoia told him there were soldiers lurking in the shadows, hidden in the mist, plotting his capture.
It became deathly cold. Link rubbed his hands vigorously together, relishing the tiny traces of heat he could produce. Hugging himself tightly, he dared to take a few steps, wincing as sharp pain flared up in his knees.
SNAP! Link balked at the unexpected noise, freezing in place. He glanced over his shoulder, and forward again. He waited.
SNAP! When the noise came again, Link' s breathing quickened, but he remained motionless. "Leo? Is that you?" he asked hesitantly. He tried to convince himself that the sounds were merely twigs snapping beneath horse hooves, preferably Epona's or Flash's.
Then he could see a cloaked figure, treading swiftly several trees away without making a sound. With no horse, the figure darted between shadows at naught but a graceful, fluid walk. Link strained to see in the shade of the canopy; his heart hammered with interest. He and Leo were not the only people in the forest. And this certainly was no soldier. "Hey, you!" he called, setting off at a brisk walk to catch up.
The figure balked, turning its hood sharply. Link thought he heard a soft gasp from the dark cavity of its hood, but the person's face was indiscernible. Silently, but purposefully, the stranger flew away, bounding through the woods with the ease of a gazelle. Link caught a glimpse of leather boots from under the frayed edges of the cloak.
"Wait! Come back!"As Link started to run, the mysterious figure did also, darting nimbly between bushes and logs. "Where are you going?"
No answer. Link grew restless and picked up speed, feeling heavy-footed and clumsy on the trail compared to the other's dignified gallop. "Wait, talk to me, who are you? Stop!" At last he was just a step behind, and in a desperate plea he threw his hand out and grasped the gray cloak hood with the tips of his fingers. A muffled cry of alarm came from within the hood as it was wrenched away, revealing a mess of ebony curls.
It was a young woman, black eyes large with fear, glaring suspiciously back at Link while crouched defensively to the side. Her body froze awkwardly underneath the cloak and she remained still as a statue, her triangle face angled upward stiffly. Her long, wavy black hair was tied back in a hasty manner, although scraggly bangs hung over solid, dark eyebrows.
Though her expression and posture were both severe, her voice came out as a willowy whisper. "What…what do you want?"
Link drew away, eyebrows raised. This was the least of his expectations. "I…I didn't know…I just wanted to know who you were..."
The woman said nothing. Her face twitched slightly, as if resisting the urge to cry out, but her expression stayed the same.
"I'm…sorry if I frightened you," Link said quickly. He meant it. "It's just…I did not expect to see anyone else here, that's all."
"Nor I," the woman said quietly, finally straightening herself and relaxing. "My friends warned me of strangers, though…they said there are creatures in this forest unseen for hundreds of years, full of anger, malevolence…I thought, at first, your voice was trying to deceive me."
Link studied her smooth, pale face, noticing how she seemed to illuminate an otherwise foreboding forest. "So you're not here alone."
"No…I am not quite so foolhardy." A hint of a smile crept into her features. "What about you? Are you lost?"
Link found himself smiling too, in spite of himself, and replied, "Ah…no, I've just become separated from my own companion, and now I have no idea where I am."
"…I see," said the girl, mildly amused. "I'm afraid I am in the same situation. Perhaps it would be safer, with those Wolfoses running around, if we stay together?"
"Is that what they are? Wolfoses?" Link had known those beasts were unnatural. "Well, if you trust me enough, then we can comb the forests for our friends. Oh…" he paused, suddenly hesitant. "I'm Link."
"Karana," came the girl's unguarded response. "Nice to meet you."
(1) This is a very distinct noise my horse makes when she is frightened; it resembles the sound that a card makes when you stick it in the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Unfortunately, my lack of more effective adjectives stymied my ability to express it properly in the story. xP