HERE have you been?" King Harkinian exclaimed joyfully, hugging his daughter tightly.

"I was so afraid I would find you hurt, or worse!" The King's silver brows drew together alarmingly as he regarded Zelda, and he continued angrily, "How dare you do this to your poor father, you bad girl! Look at you! You look like a barbarian!" Zelda, surprised, examined herself. She had noticed changes in herself in the Simani camp, but had not understood how far they had gone until she had seen Hylians again with her own eyes. There was a weather-beaten look to her tanned skin, which no longer held the lily-pale hue of a Royal Princess but was now a warm brownish gold. A long and angry red mark graced her bare calf where the Leever had slashed her; it had not yet faded to the white of a scar. Grime coated both the skimpy Gerudo outfit she was wearing, and her sand-shredded hands, and her golden hair was greasy and tangled about her shoulders. The Princess grimaced involuntarily as she noticed for the first time how dirty she really was. "Yick! Sorry, daddy!" she exclaimed. Then, "Oh, there's so much to tell you! Please don't be angry!" The King looked down at her sternly. "Angry? I'm furious ! ...Tell me the truth, Zel. You didn't run off to marry that young blade, did you?" The princess blinked, and then her jaw fell open as she understood what her father had thought. "Link? Never!" she said, shocked. "Charmed," muttered Link, who stood by with Sofia and Galdenor. "But you haven't introduced me to these people," King Harkinian said suddenly, noticing the young warrior's presence alongside that of the two humans. He set Zelda down gently and took up the reins once more. "Isn't there anywhere that's quiet in this dismal place?" the King asked, frowning at the sea of people ebbing and flowing around his escort. "Don't they have a chieftain?" "My father's house," Sofia suggested. A few minutes later the Hylians' horses were being tended to, while Harkinian reclined uncomfortably in Thorkelin's tent, unused to desert hospitality. Zelda and Link, by now quite at home sitting cross-legged on a cushion or on the unsoftened sandy floor, were surprised to see how uncomfortable the Hylian ruler and his guards were without chairs. Sofia and Galdenor joined them in the royal tent. "I have come for my daughter," King Harkinian said plainly, getting straight to the point. He waited intently for Thorkelin's response, hands on his knees. The swarthy desert chieftain stroked his small, neatly trimmed beard for a while, regarding the Hylian King through slitted eyes. "She is not my responsibility," he said finally. "Of course you may take her. But I wish to have it explained why my warriors were killed in the canyon."

Harkinian's face grew blotched with anger. "You mean the dogs who set upon my rescue party!" he exclaimed loudly, and a few of the guards who had come with him shifted, glancing to the pile of discarded weapons beside the door flap. Zelda and Sofia exchanged worried glances, hoping that the two rulers would not end up locking horns over the accident. "Some rescue party," Thorkelin spat in his accented Hylian. "The curs were heavily armed, and they took my scouts by surprise!" "That's not what I heard!" Harkinian insisted. "The report was that your so-called scouts" -the word was heavy with irony- "shot at my troop and then attacked in force when my captain responded!" Thorkelin's face darkened, and he took in a breath. But before he could speak, Galdenor leaped to his feet. "Father, hear me!" the prince insisted. "Galdenor, be still!" "No, I won't." Galdenor scowled. The Hylians muttered uneasily and nudged each other, noting the tall young man's uncanny resemblance to the legendary Evil King. "Listen," the prince went on determinedly, ignoring the whispers from their guests; "fighting won't solve this. It is likely that we will never know for sure what happened in the pass, but someone probably got nervous and fired a shot by accident. Don't let a mistake come between us!" "Those are fine words, barbarian," King Harkinian snapped, "but the fact remains. Two of my men are dead, and another will never use his sword arm again." "And five of my party of six were killed," Thorkelin retorted. "It was an accident!" Zelda persisted, leaning forward. "Weren't you listening? Daddy, we've fought long enough, and we could learn so much from each other!" "You've already learned plenty," King Harkinian said angrily, turning upon his daughter. "You're practically one of them now!" The Princess bridled at his scornful tone. "And what's wrong with that?" she answered fiercely. "Who says we need to learn anything from you?" Thorkelin broke in, referring back to Zelda's earlier comment. "We do," Sofia retorted. "Father, look at us. If we four can get on with each other, then why can't the rest of our peoples?" She gestured to indicate herself, Galdenor, Zelda and Link. It was a powerful image indeed; the four teenagers could hardly have been more different from each other. Zelda with her comparatively pale skin and golden hair sat beside Sofia, who glowed darkly like an eastern jewel with her cinnamon tan and amber eyes. Slender Link, his gauntness a reminder of the cobra bite, was dwarfed by the muscular Galdenor. Sofia scooted forward on the sand to lay her hand lightly on Thorkelin's broad arm. "You have the power to stop this," she said softly in the Gerudo tongue. "How much blood have we spilt senselessly over the years? We could end it here and now." Zelda said nothing as she looked at her own father, but her appeal was plain in her eyes. King Harkinian cleared his throat nervously, glancing at his old adversary. "My people will not like this turn of events," he suggested doubtfully. "The Gerudo have always been our enemies."

"Nobody in Hyrule really cares any more," Zelda countered. "It's Ganon that we fight against, daddy. Not the Gerudo people; they had nothing to do with it. Or are you going to blame Galdenor now for Ganondorf then?" A slow smile spread across Thorkelin's sandburnt features. "A strange turn of events this is," the Desert King said in surprised amusement. "My own son, who for years urged me to make war on the long-eared ones, now speaks for peace! And you, King of the green land beyond the mountains, what will you say to your daughter's plea?" "Daddy, don't tell me that Link and I fried in the desert, killed a giant snake and nearly got eaten by plants just so you could declare war on our friends," Zelda added seriously. King Harkinian sighed softly, and then said: "My father and my grandfather both wasted their reigns wavering over the Gerudo question. Hyrule's monarchy has been plagued with weak rulers who could not make decisions. If I say peace, what guarantee will I have that peace will remain?" "Do not doubt my word," Thorkelin said darkly. "My people do not lie." "I meant no offence," Harkinian responded quickly, the closest he would come to an apology. "But your people do not live as long as ours. You may feel friendly to the Hylian people, but what of your successors? Will this truce last for all time or for a short generation?" The Desert King's teeth flashed white in his face as he smiled. "My son Galdenor inherits the leadership of all the human race after I. He governs all of my people save those that live beyond the far sea." Galdenor straightened up slightly as his father spoke of the responsibility he was due to inherit. Harkinian looked at him sharply, and the young prince met the King's eyes with no hesitation. The blue eyes met the yellow, and in a moment the King bowed his head slightly and turned back to Thorkelin. "We will have peace," he said. Link laughed and shook his fist in the air, while Zelda hugged her father so tightly that Harkinian gasped. Sofia and Galdenor exchanged high fives, grinning. "We're saved!" the red-haired woman whooped. "The quest can go on!" "What quest?" Harkinian asked, frowning. "Who said anything about a quest?" Zelda gulped. "Ah... that's another thing we have to talk about, daddy," she began. "But not yet, I hope," Thorkelin broke in. "We must speak of the terms of our peace--are there to be trade agreements, alliances?" The Desert King glanced at Link. "I already know much of your quest," he said quietly, "thanks to Mewla. I apologize for treating you in such a way, young knight. But you must understand that when you came, all my people feared an attack by your kind, and so we had to find out whether you truly came with good intent." "I understand," Link said, shrugging, though his face tightened with remembered suffering at the name of the dark dragon. Thorkelin stood up slowly, the leather armor he now wore creaking with the movement. "I will speak with your King," he said in a stronger tone, "and you shall occupy yourselves any way you wish in Gaelaidh. You may go."

The four teenagers leaped to their feet and made a break for the door, but were drawn up short by Harkinian's shout. "Wait, Zelda!" the Hylian ruler called. Fumbling at his belt he untied a small purse, and tossed it to the princess, who caught it automatically and then held it cupped in her hands, feeling the unfamiliar clinking of gold instead of rupees within. "Do try and get yourself some more extensive clothing," Harkinian said, but there was a faint smile on his face. "Sorry, daddy," Zelda laughed. She turned and followed the others out of Thorkelin's tent; as they left, she just overheard Harkinian saying, "...that four mere children should end a thousand years of feuding in just five minutes I find hard to believe..." but Thorkelin's growling response she could not make out. Zelda tucked the purse into the only place she had available in the pocketless clothes, and ran after the others, deciding that if Link made any comment about her now uneven bust she would slap him. Hard. Sofia led the little group down one of the alleyways, away from the bustle and noise of mainstream Gaelaidh. Here there were few people and little going on; just the scavenging chickens and an occasional tethered goat comfortably chewing on a bit of sandpapery marram grass. "Where are we going?" Link asked, hurrying to keep up with Sofia and the longer-legged Galdenor. "To get our possessions back," the red-haired woman answered. "We are going to find Yamia and find out where they have put all the things the Simani gave us. She had your kitten, Link." "My kitten!" the green-eyed warrior exclaimed. "Will it be all right?" "I am sure she would have been well looked after," Sofia reassured him. "Sand cats are very valuable animals, especially when they are still young and can be trained." Link looked thoughtful at the mention of training, wondering whether he could teach his kitten to fight the monsters which plagued Hyrule... when she was big enough, that was. At the moment, the only thing the kit could frighten would be a desert rabbit! "This one," Galdenor announced, indicating a larger tent that stood alone, colored a soft sandy gold with red horses galloping around and around the circular fabric. The animals' manes and tails streamed out behind them in a lifelike way, and the eye of each had a small green stone sewn onto the cloth. The young prince stepped up to the door flap and called loudly, "Yamia!" A rattle came from inside the tent, followed by footsteps. The door flap was pulled suddenly to one side and fastened there, and the thin face of the Gerudo huntress appeared in the open space. "Galdenor," she said by way of recognition, her voice scratched by the desert, and then her eyes widened as she saw that Link and Zelda stood free. "My Royal father has pardoned them," Galdenor explained formally, then, "You had the sand kitten, did you not? It belongs to Link." Yamia hesitated, staring at the young warrior with her slitted topaz eyes, and then she nodded slowly and turned away. "Come in, why don't you," she croaked, disappearing back inside her tent. Inside, it was cool, and the sandy floor was laid with woven rush mats. Tallow candles burned here and there and the single room was adorned with furniture; a carved wooden chest of drawers was placed beside what must have been Yamia's own low bed, and a big old trunk sat against the far wall. The elderly huntress took several cushions from a pile and scattered them on the floor, indicating that they should sit. Link, having spotted his beloved kitten asleep upon the pallet,

rushed to it and snatched the small animal up into his arms. The sleepy kit mewed in surprise but, recognizing the young warrior, it began to purr loudly and draped its padded paw over his forearm. Sofia smiled at the joyful reunion. "Yamia is an old friend," Galdenor said to Zelda. "She nursed my sister and I when we were children." "I am honoured to meet you," Zelda said to the older woman, bowing her head. "Will you tell me what happened this day?" Yamia asked, letting herself down slowly onto the cushions she had laid for herself; her knees cracked. "I heard Mewla was loosed." "That she was," Galdenor answered. "But everything is cleared up now, and more to the point, the Hylian king is here to talk of trade. Things may change for us soon. But we came to look for the belongings that were taken from Link and Zelda--do you know where they have been put?" "Ay," the older woman replied in her wheezing voice. "All are safe in the Stan-steall, save the horses which are stabled here." "Not the Stan-steall again," Link groaned. "Have faith," Sofia cautioned him with a smile. "At least you won't have to stay very long this time!" Turning to her brother, the red-haired woman cleared her throat. "Well, big brother, we will have to ride there. Are you coming with us?" Galdenor nodded solemnly. "I think so. You may still need my authority before the guards relinquish your possessions." He turned to the older woman, a smile on his dark features. "Hlæfdige Yamia, I am sorry that we had to burst in on you thus. There are urgent matters at stake. I promise that I will come back after we have finished our business, and then I will tell you everything." Yamia nodded gravely, accepting the prince's apology. "Come, then," Galdenor said, rising as he turned to the others. "We'll find horses and go straight to the Stan-steall." "There's no need for us all to go," Sofia suggested. "What if you and I went, Galdenor, and then Link and Zelda could have a look around Gaelaidh on their own?" "Good idea," Link agreed eagerly. "I have seen nothing of this town yet!" Zelda smiled, thinking of the money her father had given her and of the bustling markets they had passed through. "Why not?" Galdenor said. "Have fun." Red rock cliffs shimmered beneath a sky of brilliant amber. All was bare stone weather-worn, and drifting dust. In the noonday heat, nothing moved--not even the creeping things of the deep desert. A blistering wind whispered over the crests of the scorched dunes but it brought no breath of cool relief. The very air was dry and dead. At the edge of the Gerudo Valley pass, desert winds meeting the mountains had carved ancient stone into weird and marvellous shapes. They rose high above the dunes, commanding magnificent views: great pillars and projections, turreted spires that would put the greatest cathedral to shame. Upon one of these rocky outcroppings was a thing that did not belong.

The casual observer would have mistaken it for stone, so still was it. Wrapped from head to foot in shapeless sandy garments, the figure might have been a Gerudo. It crouched like a hunting beast with one fist planted squarely on the crumbling stone. The head was bent intently down, studying the desert far below. Searching. In the far distance, where amber sky met bleached white sand, there was a flicker of colour that danced through the rippling haze: a city of tents, seen upside-down, floating. Gerudo-style, the figure's head was wrapped and obscured, leaving only a strip through which eyes could see. Twin points of orange fire glittered in that deep shadow as the figure slowly stood; sand cascaded from the folds of the thick desert clothes. A man's form, broad-shouldered and massive, stretched out against the sky. The figure turned, and gestured with a hand that was covered by a heavy leather glove. " There ..." Other shapes began to rise from sand and stark shadow. The sand kitten hissed and arched her back, splaying her claws as the horny hands of the trader reached around her furry body. Link watched on anxiously as the old man gently buckled a strip of bright red leather around the kit's neck. "Sa, leo," the trader chuckled as the kit mewled at him. "Very smart!" Zelda said with approval. "What about it, Link?" "Are you sure the collar won't hurt her?" the young warrior asked dubiously, holding his hands out to take the kit back. She purred as she was placed back in Link's arms. "It's not too tight or anything, is it?" he went on, holding the kitten up to take a closer look. "Don't be so silly," the Princess smiled. "She's fine, Link! Besides, you'll need to tie her up at night or she may wander off and get hurt. Shall we get the red?" "I think so," he agreed reluctantly. He rubbed around the base of the kitten's ears, sending her into a paroxysm of delighted purring and pawing, while Zelda handed the leathersmith a brightly shining golden coin. With a huge grin, the old man took the money and then held his hand up to signal them to wait. Bending under his stand, he rummaged in boxes and drew out a long thong of leather in a similar shade of red. Coiling the lead, he pushed it into Zelda's hands and then with laughing shakes of his head refused to take the extra coin she offered him. "You've probably paid him twenty times too much already," Link laughed. "I don't think their gold coins work quite the same way as our rupees!" "Never mind," Zelda said with a smile. "He's a nice old man. Here, I'll fix the lead and then you won't have to carry her." "I like carrying her," Link said. But he let the Princess fasten the thong to the kit's new collar. The Simani tents had seemed esoteric with the variety of animals and objects that could be found there. But in Gaelaidh it seemed that you could buy anything you could dream of... at a price! Most beautiful were the sand sculptures, fantastically twisted and polished pieces of rock which the desert wind had made. One, which Link especially loved, seemed as a miniature replica of a fantasy castle with coiling serpentine spires, almost two feet tall. But it looked terribly fragile for the long journey back to Hyrule, and he settled for nothing more than a long and wistful look at it.

The Gaelaidh markets sold much more than ornaments; the thickly woven, embroidered cloth that draped some stands was like a rainbow of colors and beautiful designs. Clothes there were in plenty and Zelda spent almost an hour bothering one poor seamstress to find a perfectly fitting chemise in just that particular shade of aquamarine, with those tiny silver buttons etched with stars. The money King Harkinian had given them seemed to be more than sufficient for most purchases, and they shared a cup of sherbet from a sweet vendor's stand, using the change to buy two bags of sticky dates which seemed to have more in common with glue than with anything else. But they tasted wonderful. The sand kitten yowled so loudly that Link, against his better judgement, gave her one of the dates, and the sticky sweet instantly stuck the kit's jaws together. Her look of astonished outrage sent them both into fits of laughter. "Let's split the rest," Zelda suggested, opening the purse again as she tucked her folded chemise under her arm. "There's still a lot here." "Could you hold on to it a while longer?" Link asked. "I have nowhere to put it." "Neither have I," Zelda pointed out. "I'm using my initiative." "Is that what you call them?" he said wickedly. She slapped him. "Ow!" The green-eyed warrior put a hand to his stinging cheek and stared at her in astonishment. "What was that for?" "Something I promised myself I would do," Zelda said cryptically. "Is there anything else you needed to buy here? Otherwise, we could go back to Galdenor's tent and wait for them to come back from the Stan-steall." Link thought about it for a moment. "We do have other gifts from the Simani," he pointed out. "I had not looked at half of the things in my saddlebags before the Leevers attacked us. It would be foolish to buy too much and then find ourselves unable to cart it all home!" "Well, hopefully, we shall be riding with Daddy," Zelda pointed out. Her face grew worried after a moment. "Oh, Link, we still have to tell him about the quest!" she exclaimed. "How are we going to persuade him? I don't even know if he'll believe me about any of this..." "I'll put in a good word on your part," Link promised. "You have already proved your courage and your strength on this trek, and I do not think you will fold up when the going gets tough." Zelda winced, wondering what tough was if this was not! "Anyway," Link went on, "the King must want to be rid of Ganon just as much as we, and you can show him the Book as proof." The Princess nodded. "All right," she said. "Let's get some food." "Good idea," Link agreed eagerly, realizing that the last time he had eaten had been yesterday morning. "Are you truly going with them?" Galdenor asked bluntly as he rode with Sofia towards the Stansteall, a third riderless horse between them as transport for the bags they would be taking back. The prince let his gray gelding find its own way as he turned to his sister to hear her answer.

She sighed. "I think so," she answered reluctantly. "Goddess knows I don't want to just leave like this, but if we have a chance to destroy Ganon once and for all it would be a great thing for our people as well as the Ælfan-cynn. We have a common aim." "I don't want you to go," he said quietly. "You don't need me here," Sofia retorted. "You'll be King eventually, and I suppose I'll be married off to one or other of the lords." Sadness spread across her features, and she reached out to touch her brother's strong arm. "Brother, we really need to do this," she insisted. "You could come too, if you'd like. Come and help us--we could really use it." Galdenor laughed sharply, a bitter sound. "Goddess! You're joking, right? I'm the Crown Prince, I can't just up and leave! Father needs me around, especially when he's absent so much. He needs someone back here just to keep the nobles from getting ideas." "I'll come back to see you often," Sofia promised. "Maybe I'll even bring a few Legendary Knights along to meet the family!" He bust out laughing--real laughter this time. "As long as they don't cause the sort of stir Link and Zelda have!", he exclaimed. "I don't think anyone will stop talking about this affair for the next two seasons!" Growing serious again, Galdenor looked at Sofia with sad eyes. "I'll really miss you, Soph," he said softly. "It won't be the same without you around." "Yeah, you'll have to watch your own back for a change," Sofia said with a smile, slowing her horse to a walk. They had arrived at the Stan-steall, and already two of the guards were hurrying down the carved stone steps to formally receive the Crown Prince. Custom ruled Galdenor's life, as it had his father's. He dismounted quickly, handing his horse's reins to the first of the attendants, who bowed deeply. "Peace," Galdenor ordered as the other man knelt on the sand to begin a kowtow. "We don't need all that, I'm not here for any ceremony. I merely want to collect the belongings of the two foreigners; they were impounded here, if I am not mistaken." "They are, royal sir," the guard answered, bowing profusely. "Allow me to fetch them for you." "Do so," he said gravely, waving a hand at the packhorse they had brought. The man hurried off with the spare horse in tow, and Galdenor gestured to Sofia to sit on the lowest of the stone steps. He sat beside her and gently laid his hand on hers. "If you're set on going," he began quietly, "promise me you'll send word back as often as you can. The land beyond the mountains is very different from home, and so are its people. Link and Zelda may be upstanding examples of their kind, but not all the Ælfan-cynn are like that. You must remember that there has been a feud between our peoples for millennia... they may not be the kindest of people to you." Sofia smiled. "Of course I will write, big brother. And you'll write back to me too! I know it won't be the same as seeing each other every day, but we can keep each other updated on everything that's happening." "I won't always be in Gaelaidh to receive letters," Galdenor warned. "Father wants me to start taking on some of the King's duties already. I'm supposed to be halfway to Walid already, but there was all this trouble over Link and Zelda and so I never left." "We'll manage somehow," she sighed.

There was a silence for a few moments, and then Galdenor spoke up again. A new uneasiness tinged his voice as he asked, "Sofia, these amulets... are they powerful?" She shrugged and flicked her red braid over her shoulder. "I only know what Zelda told me, and she doesn't seem to know all that much herself. But from what she said, they are very powerful, yes. Why?" He clasped his strong hands in his lap as he stared out over the warm golden desert landscape. "I worry about many things," Galdenor admitted finally, "and this quest is the least of them. If the amulets are as magical as you three think, then you might not be the only ones interested!" He bent his head, closing his eyes; a lock of his red hair fell across his face as he heaved a long sigh and went on. "If only Father had been more careful about using Mewla," he said regretfully. "Hundreds of people heard what you intend to do. The news is probably all over the realm by now..." "We'll be careful," Sofia insisted. "None of us are expert warriors yet, though Link has possibly the most experience. There will be long training ahead. We won't do anything too dangerous yet!" "You already have," Galdenor said wryly. "Or have you forgotten the King Cobra?" She shuddered. "I'm sure Link won't forget in a hurry," she sighed. "He nearly died. The quest was nearly over before it had begun." "You told me," he said gravely. "I'm still astonished that the Goddess let him live after all that happened in the Temple. But then, she spared the Hero of Time, and he did much worse in the Spirit Temple. Maybe she still has a use for Link herself." "Do you think we can expect betrayal?" Sofia asked quietly, looking up into her brother's eyes. Galdenor waited a long time before he replied, and when he finally spoke he looked away from her, toward the west where in a few short hours the sun would sink into the sands. "I believe," he said with finality, "that from now on you should be very careful about trusting anyone... even those you are close to." "Like you?" Sofia asked lightly, smiling. "Like me," he answered quietly, and the smile faded from Sofia's face.

HE mighty huntress slinks across the smooth ground as soundless as a shadow, bellying on the sand to take advantage of every irregularity in the ground. Her eyes fix firmly on her prey, her mighty haunches ripple and her whole body shivers in an ecstasy of concentration. Her deadly, sharpened claws are at the ready as she crouches low, muscles like coiled springs of steel,

the one thing in her world the unsuspecting form of her unfortunate prey. Suddenly, with a bloodcurdling snarl, she leaps! But the beetle saw her coming, and, with a rattle of stiffened wings, shot up into the air, looping gracefully over the kit's head to land several feet behind her and resume its crawling search for food as if there had never been a sand kitten and a failed pounce. Snorting and shaking her head, the kitten pawed sand from her whiskers and then sat on her haunches and stared around, baffled as to the whereabouts of her vanished victim. "Well done!" cried Link, laughing. He and Zelda had returned to Galdenor's tent with a bagful of food, and they had intended to wait for Sofia and Galdenor before starting on their purchases. But five minutes of dutiful waiting had been enough to convince the young warrior that neither of the humans would be very hungry, and so he had eagerly started on the meal. Zelda grabbed a helping before everything edible they had bought disappeared either into Link or into the kitten, and now they were just finishing up. Bored already, the kit was play-hunting around Galdenor's tent, and had already attacked the unfortunate prince's precious wooden furniture with her sharp little claws. Link searched the bottom of the food bag and found a black olive; he tossed it to the kitten who leaped to catch it between her paws. She rolled the hard fruit around on the floor for a few moments, before she decided that it made a poor plaything and promptly ate it. This swiftly done, the kit began to crawl stealthily around the confines of the tent, rubbing her furry sides against the cloth walls. "She's so sweet," Zelda laughed. She sat cross-legged on the sand, watching the kitten at play. The red collar bought from the old leather-merchant looked well against the kit's sandy golden fur. She flicked the black tip of her stubby tail from side to side as she hunted imaginary prey. "I'm going to call her Prowl," Link decided. "Look how she prowls about! Here, Prowl! Come to Papa!" The young warrior held out the remainder of his dried meat, and the kit came bounding towards him at the sight of the food. He scooped her up and sat her on his lap to feed her the spiced beef; purring the kit rolled onto her back and let him stuff her mouth with food while he rubbed her round little stomach with his other hand. "She takes after you," Zelda remarked. "You can keep putting food in, but you can never fill it up!" Link mock-scowled at her. "Not funny, my Princess," he said, knowing what she hated above all else. Zelda sat back on the sand and shot him a cool look. "You want another slap?" she enquired lightly. "Not particularly," Link had to admit. "I'll be quiet." But he instantly broke his resolution by asking, "Do you think we will be able to leave for home tonight?" The Princess shook her head. "I really do not think so, Link," she answered thoughtfully. "Daddy will probably want to stay the night just so that he can talk with King Thorkelin. There are all sorts of things they will want to sort out before we go. It could be as much as a week before we can start off for Hyrule." "Oh no!" Link exclaimed. "I hope that it does not take that long!" Unconcerned, 'Prowl' grabbed his hand between her two front paws and mouthed at his fingers with sharp little teeth. He quickly pulled his fingers away from the kit, and tickled her under the jaw instead. She wriggled and mewled in sheer delight, pedaling her four paws madly in the air. "No offense to the Gerudo, my Princess," Link went on, stroking the kit, "but I want to get word to my parents in Calatia."

"If you don't stop calling me your Princess, you'll never get back to Calatia," Zelda threatened. "Sorry, my Princess." "I'm going to slap you really hard in a minute!" "Now now, that's not very nice," chided a deep voice. Galdenor pulled back the tent flap and entered, ducking low to avoid the low doorway. He held the flap back for Sofia, who looked very much smarter in a pair of deep violet trousers and a golden, tight-fitting top. Galdenor himself had combed his hair back into a short bob of a ponytail, and he wore tough black leather armor adorned with the Gerudo symbols of crescent moon and star. "What's this I hear about slapping?" the prince asked mildly, settling himself cross-legged on the sand. "Never mind, he's just being annoying," Zelda sighed. "Why are you two dressed up?" Sofia snapped her fingers. "Oh, of course, you don't know!" she exclaimed. "We have to attend at my father's tent tonight. There's going to be a banquet in honour of the Ælfan king." "Two questions," Link said quickly, breaking in before Sofia could explain any further. "Are we invited, and what's the food like?" Zelda was shocked. "Oh, Link! You can't be hungry again, you just can't! He's already eaten everything we bought," she explained for the benefit of the others. She sighed. "Prowl ate almost as much as I did!" the young warrior protested in an injured tone. "Erm, yes," Sofia said slowly. "Yes, you are both invited, along with your King Harkinian. And the food, I can promise you, will be excellent. But the real reason you are coming is to help me tell Thorkelin and your King about the quest. I want to come with you, but I am not sure how to explain that to my father. He will not like the idea, of that I am sure." "When is it?" Link asked. "Sunset," she told him. "So hurry up and get yourselves ready. You have less than an hour. If you come with me, Zelda, I will take you to where you can bathe and clean yourself up properly." Zelda laughed and nodded, cheered by the prospect of her first proper bath in days. "Link, go with Galdenor. Men and women have separate bathing-places here." "I should hope so," Link said in surprise. The red-haired woman looked at him with a faint smile on her dusky features. "South of the desert there is a hot fertile land we call Aili-Abay. The people who live there go naked all the time. Strange as it may seem to you, even we weste-folc are seen by some as cold and reserved." "Amazing," he murmured wistfully. "I should like to see some of these far lands. How much there is of the world that we do not know!" "Perhaps we could go and travel those places someday," Sofia said quietly. "Let us get hold of the Amulets of Legend first," Zelda insisted. "Who knows, the quest might even lead us to those lands before we are done!"

In the utter absence of light, darkness can be almost a living thing: a force that seeps out from crack and chasm to stifle all that is warm and bright. Creatures of night fear the golden sun above all things, but that sacred light had never touched this world beneath the green world. A world of infinite strangeness, silent, black, cold... but far from dead. A golden spark darted down stifling tunnels, through vast stone hallways cut by no mortal hand. Strange and fearful carvings glistened for a moment slick with running water as the little light passed by, and then faded once more into a shadow so complete that to look into it was to be blind. The spark flew on, hurrying, heedless of what its radiance revealed in the outer dark. At last it reached a gateway where the passage opened into a massive hall, lined with columns like the trunks of dead and ancient trees. A mosaic floor gleamed murkily like a shadow in deep water, masked by the dust of centuries. In the doorway of this black cathedral the little spark paused, hanging motionless like a dragonfly on the damp cold air. The iridescent wings buzzed, agitated. There was light here, light which should have been a welcome thing after the long dark journey, but the spark was afraid. Two spitting, smoking torches flanked a shadowy shape: a great throne carved from the living stone of the chamber floor. Beside this stood a figure cloaked and hooded, standing still as death. Now the hidden face lifted towards the light. "Pirrillip." It was a woman's voice. From the thick black folds of the cloak, a pale hand lifted, beckoning. Reluctantly the spark came towards the throne, wings whirring in the still air. It settled for a moment on the outstretched fingers whose nails were painted red as blood. "I wish to scry, Pirrillip. Find me my noble captain." A round steel basin had been placed upon the throne; as the woman turned, reflected light glittered in a dark still liquid that lay within. The fairy's wings closed and opened for a few seconds, then it took flight once more and swooped down to touch the water once, twice, thrice. Each time, ripples spread, and a little scatter of glowing dust settled on the surface. The hooded woman bent close, one slender hand resting on each arm of the throne, and watched the bowl intently. In a little while a thin pale light began to shine there. The picture that formed rippled and swam with the movement of the water: it showed a rocky desert landscape, and a figure wrapped and muffled in sandy-coloured rags. Of the face, nothing could be seen but a blackness, within which glittered two points of orange light. "How goes the hunt?" the woman said. The other bowed his head for a moment. When he spoke, the voice was a man's, deep and strong, yet oddly hollow. "We have found him, your ladyship. There is a city... I think you know of it." A chuckle. "It is curious. The Hero has taken refuge with our Master's own heirs." She started at that. Torchlight fell across the bottom half of her visage and revealed pure white skin, red lips, a perfect rosebud mouth now drawn down in surprise. "Why? What has Gaelaidh to do with Hyrule?" "It seemed strange to me too, Lady, at first," said the face in the pool. "But I have learned now what it is that brings him here. Six amulets of power that have been lost for a thousand years and more." The orange lights flared suddenly hot in the invisible face. "You know of what I speak."

"No..." she whispered, suddenly gleeful and yet unwilling to believe. "It is true. Old things begin to waken." Suddenly the woman turned from the pool, fixed her hidden gaze upon the spark that hovered a few paces away. "What do you know of these amulets, Pirrillip?" "N-nothing!" stuttered a thin high voice. Nervously the light darted back--but it was not swift enough, for the woman's hand shot out snake-quick and caught it by one sparkling wing. "You lie!" the woman hissed, bringing the spark close to cage it in her cupped hands. Buttercupyellow light illuminated her lovely mouth as it twisted in an expression of ugly hatred. "Who was it sent that first blond fool out of the forest, if not your kin? Who was it led this one's grandfather to Death Mountain? Your family has fawned over his since the end of the Age of Legends! Now tell me of the Medallions - are they real? Can they be found? Speak, moth!" "I know nothing, Lady - I swear it!" Terror put a squeak into the tiny voice. "Lie to me, Pirrillip," the woman whispered, "and you will die a slow death. This I promise you." Her hands opened; the spark darted away to hang, trembling, beside the torch's flame. In the momentary silence, the figure in the water spoke once more. "There is something else." The woman turned. "What? Tell all." "The Hylian king, your ladyship. He is here. Both he, and his only daughter. They are far from Hyrule, in the heart of the Haunted Wasteland, and our Master's power is strong in that country. Think of it! It would take but a single swoop." "You mean then to assail the city?" said the woman. "No. We are too few for that, and on foot, we are too slow to take them by surprise." There was a cold cunning in the hollow voice as he went on, "But had we horses..." "I understand," the woman said softly, and although her shadowed face could no longer be seen as the light in the bowl faded, her tone betrayed the smile upon her lips. This was more like it, Zelda thought with a rapturous sigh as she let herself sink into the steaming rose-scented water. She could feel the tiredness and grime seep away into the water to leave her pink, clean and refreshed. The Leever bite on her calf stung momentarily, woken by the water, but then it subsided and left only a pleasant tingling as the hot water acted to soothe the half-healed cut. The Princess stretched luxuriously and spread out her hair into the water, determined to soak every inch of her body in the perfumed bath. It was not hard to do. Even now that she had looked around the Gaelaidh markets and caught a glimpse of the diversity of the desert communities, she was shocked by the opulence of the bath house. The bath itself was circular, chest-deep and large enough for her to stretch out fully in the water. A ledge running all around the outer rim provided a submerged seat to rest upon while bathing. Rich dark stone trimmed with gold provided a setting for the polished tiles in the bath, and she ran her hand over the golden fishes that leaped and arched their backs upon every third tile. A soft greenish light covered all; many candles stood in the bath house, set into delicate lanterns of sea-green glass. Unlike all the other tent-buildings she had seen, the round bath house had walls and a roof of wood, although even this was decorated with the ubiquitous Gerudo

woven cloth, which draped over the exposed beams in a rainbow of deep cool colors and designs. In a place so parched for liquid, there was something guilty about immersing oneself in a pool of deliciously hot water. She was not alone in the bath house; Sofia had left two shy young Gerudo women as assistants, telling Zelda "If you want for anything, just command them. Don't be afraid to do so. It is their job and they are proud of it." The girls busied themselves with Zelda's clothes as she stepped naked into the readied bath, and she was surprised at her lack of embarrassment in front of them. It simply felt natural and right. She stretched out a hand sleepily and found a bar of soft white soap placed into it as if she had spoken her thought. The attendant kept her eyes respectfully on the ground. Zelda knew her hair needed a wash, but it was not until she started with the soap that she truly appreciated how bad it had become. Sand and filth made a scum upon the water as she rubbed the soap into a lather, submerging to try and work out the tangles underwater where it was easier. It took her almost twenty minutes before her long golden tresses were sufficiently sand-free for her to start on washing the rest of her, and by then the soap was over half gone. "Ugh," she muttered, feeling sand grate against her feet at the bottom of the bath. One of the bath girls poured more hot water, although she had not asked for it; the increased warmth sent a shiver of delight up her spine. She realised what Sofia had implied with her comment about the girls' job; they were uncannily skilled at judging what their charges wished. Clean enough to pass scrutiny, the Princess stood up in the bath and shook out her hair. It squeaked through her fingers. The gritty feeling had almost entirely gone from her scalp and so had most of the tangles that had infuriated her before. She ascended the steps cut into one end of the bath and accepted a thick green towel from one of the girls. A selection of new and freshly laundered clothes were held up for her scrutiny and, thinking of her father's request, she chose a rather more modest combination of a blue chemise with silver buttons, and soft suede trousers delicately embroidered--although she was tempted by Siman's red gauze and gold thread number with the strategically positioned garnets! The bath house girls helped her dress and then she found herself sitting on a cushion with one girl tenderly combing and braiding her hair, and the other trimming her damaged nails with an expert's touch. Neither of them had spoken a word throughout, and Zelda could not catch their shyly doe-eyed, dewy gazes. It was with something akin to regret that she slipped on a pair of leather sandals and left the bath house to join Sofia who had waited outside. Zelda felt so much more herself after the pampering that she greeted the red-haired woman with an exclamation; "I want one of those back in Hyrule!" "The bath?" Sofia smiled. "Perhaps your father will have one built for you." "I will try and persuade him to do that," Zelda laughed. "It is much nicer than having to wash your hair over an icy basin in the winter!" The other woman flicked her thick red braid over her shoulder; a gesture which seemed to characterise Sofia more than any other she made. "You look nice," she commented. "Not quite human... but not quite Ælfan, either. I cannot place you!" "I hope that is good," Zelda remarked dryly. "Where do we go?" "We should find Link and Galdenor, and go with them to the Feasthall," Sofia answered. "I am afraid that we may be late to the banquet, but it should not matter too much as long as we are not too late." She smiled wryly. "I think more of Link's insatiable appetite than of my father," she said with a laugh. "If he is bringing his kitten as well, you will have to guard your plate!"

Link, meanwhile, had enjoyed a less opulent, yet no less pleasant, experience. Galdenor led the way to a squat stone building with a sandy floor and a row of tiny windows; there a dark-eyed Gerudo boy of no more than eight years showed them to a large covered pool in the shape of a rounded crescent moon, filled with steaming water. The sand kitten, still in attendance, trotted up to the water's edge where she sniffed suspiciously, whiskers twitching in curiosity. Then, to Link's bemusement, she jumped straight in. He ran to catch her with a cry, but she surfaced paddling contentedly with her big fur-padded feet. "I thought cats were supposed to hate water," Link remarked, staring at the kit. "Not sand cats," Galdenor explained. The prince smiled slowly--the expression lit up his dark and naturally sullen face like sunlight on a rocky plain. "I wish I had one," he said, watching Prowl as she kicked nonchalantly to the edge of the pool, where a slight ridge made it possible for a small creature to clamber out dripping wet. "Can't you get one?" Link asked in surprise. The tall man shook his head as he knelt to rub Prowl's wet head. Her soaked fur stood up in spikes as she submitted to a rough caress. "Sand cats are very rare," Galdenor said, "and to catch a kitten is very difficult because of their protective parents. Most of the few sand cats which come to us are orphans." "Poor little Prowl," Link sighed. At that moment the kitten bounded over to him and rubbed her wet self up his legs. "Yick," he said thoughtfully, shifting his feet as Prowl transferred warm water off herself and into his thin Gerudo trousers. Galdenor straightened up and brushed his hands briskly. "Well, Link," he began, "I will leave you here to do whatever you must. You will find clean clothes laid out beside the door." Casting a last affectionate gaze at Prowl, the tall man turned and slipped out through the thick curtained doorway. It took only a moment for Link to strip and jump enthusiastically into the pool. Prowl, scenting more fun ahead, followed and fastened herself to his bare shoulder with needle-hooked claws, agitating his slowly healing wound. Patiently Link submitted to the kitten's excesses and started to work the grime from his skin, thinking with a slight wistfulness of things that were past. He would never have dreamed of such a luxury as a heated, scented bath when he had been a fisherman's son in Calatia--it was fresh lake water all the way! Perhaps those times had been easier for him... they had certainly been simpler. A three-roomed stone house beside the harbour had served for four people; a fisherman, his wife, their son and the memory of a daughter who had not survived. Life was quiet on the shores of Lake Lomere. Although traders came to the village of Haven to buy fish, in particular the great blue-finned sturgeon that bred only in the great Calatian lakes, the inhabitants of the community led peaceful and insular existences. The days were a hazy blend of sun, sails and fishing; there were always lines to be untangled and nets to mend, boats to tar and caulk. There had been little time to spend on training for war, but somehow Link had fit in the time, during the evenings or on stormy days when it was too rough to fish, to talk to his grandfather who lived alone in the house on the quay. He had sometimes been too tired to talk, but he was never too tired to listen to the stories that had fired his desire to be a Hero. His father disapproved of the old man and his stories, but Link loved to hear them and so eventually he had been allowed to go more or less when he desired. Grandfather had died quietly in the night when Link was only seven years old. The old man had kept to himself, had been surly and unsociable, and so his passing came without many tears for most of the people of Haven. But the legacy he had left to his young grandson was greater than it had seemed. Even as he worked on the boat with his taciturn father, nimbly ducking the boom to

fix anchors or check the salmon lines, the young Link entertained dreams of becoming one of the legendary Heroes of Hyrule and meeting the Princess herself. The call had come young, as it had for all the previous Heroes; when he was only fourteen years of age and barely big enough to swing a sword, a band of Moblins had broken into a farm near Haven and carried off five sheep. After this incident there seemed to be more storms and fewer sunny days when the fish rose to the bait, and uneasy whispers began to circulate; the name of Ganon was never spoken aloud but it seemed to be always upon everybody's lips and in their secret thoughts. Link knew it was time for him to leave the village of his birth and seek out the adventures of which he had always dreamed, and although he resisted Link's decision strongly, his father knew also that there was no other choice. And so the boy had put aside his sea-longing and his love for his home, and had packed some bread and a piece of cheese in a leather satchel. His mother cried for a while, but she made a set of tough green traveling clothes for him, and packed a change of socks as mothers were supposed to do. For protection he took only his beloved rosewood bow that his grandfather had left to him, and his father gave him a small bag of money--most of the summer's savings--for the purchase of a sword. He had looked back only once, as he toiled up the stony trail that led north over the heath. Sunlight shone on the glittering waters of the lake and bathed the red roofs of the village in translucent golden flame. Poor though Haven might be compared to the great Hyrulian castles, it was the only place he had ever known and in that fading afternoon light it looked more beautiful than any white city of dreams. A faint wind blew up from the shore, carrying with it a faint tang of salt as if to remind him of all he left behind on the journey. For a moment Link had been possessed by a homesickness so strong that it nearly robbed him of all desire to continue on his path. He even took an unsure step back down the path as if to return home. But then something else awoke in his heart, for he was descended from the Hero of Time and the adventurer's spirit was never far beneath the skin in that ancient line. Resolutely the fisherman's son shouldered his meager pack and turned his face from the place where he had been born. And so he came to Hyrule in the ancient way: a boy dressed in green, bearing a sword. Since then, Farore had led him far and wide over the lands that came under the sway of the kings of Hyrule. His struggles had established his own honourable status as a Hero and had shown him every bit as strong and courageous as his grandfather had been, even if his exploits had not been as visibly dashing. He had grown and matured in battle, and the blood of the Hero was strong within him. And yet, sometimes, so was the longing for home. Link sighed. The sea-longing, that ancient curse of mariners, troubled him now. Those who had once sailed the great waters, whether upon a lake or out onto the endless Ocean, never lost the feeling of wonder, the desire to return to that life. A peace lay out there for those who dared to seek it, somewhere upon the wave-tossed seas far from the sight of land. "Come on, Prowl," he said determinedly shaking off the pleasant, familiar melancholy. " You're clean enough anyway!" He picked the bedraggled kit from his shoulder and deposited her upon the floor of the bath house, where she licked at her wet fur as he clambered out and grabbed a towel. The feeling of water on his skin reminded him for a moment of the afternoons he had spent swimming in the lake, but that other water had been cold and salty. He could not help wondering what was going on in Calatia, the homeland he had hardly seen for two long years. Hopefully he would find an excuse to return there before too long. Clean pressed clothing was draped over a big old wooden chest. Link picked out the garments one by one and pulled them on, admiring himself in the full-length glass mirror that adorned the wall. The silken trousers were plain and perfectly white, and he loved the effect of the open leather vest. Now that his bruises were fading, his lean muscled chest and stomach looked impressive. Gerudo garb was certainly more flattering to the body than the practical tunics and hose worn in Hyrule... but such meager coverings would not be particularly pleasant to wear in the snows of the harsh

Hylian winter, he thought regretfully. Anyway, it would probably offend people back home if he walked around so skimpily dressed. He hoped that someone in the King's troop would be able to lend him a proper tunic for the return to Hyrule. He had some difficulty putting on the vest. His right hand was weak and unreliable and he found that he couldn't flex his shoulder enough to shrug the garment on properly. He cursed and tugged the vest up with his good hand. All of a sudden, that lingering weakness worried him. His right arm was his sword arm. The curtain swung open suddenly with a clink of beads, and Galdenor put his head around it. His red hair was wet and slicked back. "Link, are you ready yet?" he asked mildly. "You have been in here almost an hour." "Really?" Link said in surprise. "Yes, I am ready. Can Prowl come?" The tall man laughed. "I see she has had her bath too!" he exclaimed. "Pick her up, Link, she can sit on your lap." "She's not just going to be a pet," Link explained as he tucked the kit under his arm and hurried after Galdenor. "I want to train her to fight; then maybe she can help us in the quest. She could guard things, or maybe warn us of danger, or..." "Don't count your Cukkos before they're hatched," Galdenor admonished gently. "I have seen more killer instinct in a desert rabbit than in that little kit." Link laughed. "Oh, she'll be a real killer, I promise you! You did not see her at play today. She was hunting in your bedroom." "Hunting for what, I wonder?" Galdenor said with a wry smile. He tapped the kit on the nose, and she went cross-eyed to try and follow his finger. "Silly little thing," the prince said affectionately, rubbing Prowl's ears. Zelda and Sofia were nowhere to be seen outside, and Galdenor frowned thoughtfully. "Surely they would have finished by now," he muttered to Link. "They were going to meet us here." "Maybe Zelda took longer than I did to bathe," Link suggested, shrugging. "I doubt it," Galdenor teased. "Hey!" Smiling, the prince smoothed back his hair and turned to the young warrior. "We will wait here for a few minutes," he said lightly, "and if they have not come then I will go and look for them. We still have some time before the start of the celebrations, although if possible I would like to get there early. As Crown Prince I have a duty to be there. Doubtless your golden-haired princess feels the same way. She has missed her royal father, has she not?" he finished, eyebrows raised in question. "I don't know," Link had to admit. "I think so. Ah... if I'm to be honest, Zelda is a mystery to me, Galdenor. I feel that I shall never truly understand her." "Does she understand you?" Galdenor asked softly.

Link frowned. "I don't know. I think not. She--I feel that if--she is special to me, but..." His voice trailed off as he foundered, hopelessly trying to express something for which there were no words. "I see," Galdenor said, thoughtful. "But there is nothing between you." The prince had instantly understood the situation, and Link was surprised into silence for a moment. "Yes," he said, recovering, "that is the way of it. I do care about her, very much so. But then again, there is something about her that keeps me at arm's length, always." "Give it time," Galdenor murmured, bending close that his words would not be overheard. Straightening up again suddenly, he looked out over the evening. "Look, there they are," he said, his voice suddenly light again. Just on the other side of the hill overlooking the city, a band of strangers gathered as the sun slid slowly down the western sky. Their appearance was strange--they wore heavy hooded cloaks which covered every inch of their bodies and heads. The garments were sand-stained, loose and shapeless, but their flapping folds could not conceal the bulky size of their occupants. A group of riderless horses stood bunched together beside the oasis: great black stallions with an evil red glint in their fierce eyes. Two of the hooded figures dropped to the ground and wormed their way up the slope, keeping low to avoid displaying themselves by their outlines against the sky. Together they peered over the edge of the sandhill, looking down upon the riotous colors of Gaelaidh. After a moment, by unspoken consent they slithered backwards and returned to the group. "That's the place she meant, is it?" the first growled, his voice a low and somehow echoing rumble that came from within his chest. Two orange sparks gleamed beneath his low hood, the only indication of either eyes or a face. His companion nodded, or at least the head of the thick cloak he wore seemed to dip. "Reckon so. Bloody 'ell, what a trek! She might've warned us about all the bloody sand." "Watch yer language, Marcus," warned the first, rubbing his gauntleted hands together as if cold. "You know what she's like." Another of the figures spoke up, snorting as if unimpressed with his comrade's dire pronouncement. "Yeah, right, we all know that. What I want to know is, if she's so bloody allpowerful, how come she needs us to do her dirty work? And anothing thing--why ain't the cap'n coming with us?" There were murmurs of assent from some of the others, and one or two looked at each other nodding as if to agree upon the rightness of the point. The first speaker, who seemed to be some sort of leader, coughed hollowly. "Now then, now then, boys," he growled. "We don't want any of that. You 'eard what the cap'n said! We're 'ere to do a job, and that's what we're bloody well going to do if I 'ave any say in it. Right, 'oo's got the itinerary-whatsit, then?" "Me, Julius," broke in one of the others, proffering a much-thumbed piece of parchment in his gauntleted hand. Julius took it and unfolded it, tearing it slightly in the process--his hands, covered by the thick leather gloves, were clumsy. The others hunched silently in their covering cloaks as their proclaimed leader read laboriously through the paper, spelling out some of the more difficult words. "Go to the desert city with all due speed. When the sun has set, take the... the steeds I have be... be-s-t... bestowed. Bestowed... upon thee, and enter the city. There you shall seek out a party of H-

y... Hylians. Your mission is to cap... captcher the boy and bring him to me. All the others must be killed. Upon com... com... c-o-m-p-l... completion! Completion of this mission, you shall re...ceive... that which you desire," he finished in a rush. "Well, boys, that sounds fair, dunnit?" He turned to the others and awaited response. "That which we desire! Not bad, is it?" His companions all agreed that it was not bad. The leader harrumphed and dusted his hands together, stuffing the paper into a fold of his cloak. "Right then, that's it," he said with finality. "You two, get them 'orses ready and we'll be gettin' down there in about 'arf an hour. Sun's just about set anyway, but cap'n said we'd better wait 'til it's full dark."

HE great hall of the King was filled with light and laughter, and as they walked past the entrance a wash of heat rolled over them, though the young night had already laid a chill upon the desert surface. Galdenor led them to another smaller tent, this one patterned in rich gold and turquoise thread. Although most of the population of Gaelaidh had turned out for the feast this night, the King and his generals sat apart from them in a private place where they could discuss the business of the coming year. It was here that they were to be, for Thorkelin had to be persuaded to let his daughter go back with the Hylians... and indeed, Harkinian would need to be persuaded too! "I hope Daddy's not too cross," Zelda whispered to Link as they approached the doorway. "I had no wish to cause all this trouble!" The young warrior shrugged. "There was nothing we could do, Princess. We had no way of knowing we would be kept in the deserts so long." He smiled crookedly, flashing his green eyes at her. "Besides, you had me to protect you, you were never in any danger--I'm sure the King will understand!" Zelda seethed. "Oh, so you meant to get bitten by the cobra and leave all the fighting to Sofia and me?" she demanded, her own eyes glinting daggers. "And then we had to race across the desert to save your life! Great job, Link! Some Hero you are!" Link frowned and folded his arms crossly, shaking his hair out of his eyes. That had stung him. "You would never have made it this far without me, so get used to it, Princess," he snapped. "I would so!" Sofia turned round and looked at them, eyebrows raised quizzically. "Is there a problem?" she asked mildly. "Yes," Link muttered, "and it's called Zelda."

Galdenor moved in between them fast enough to catch Zelda's wrist before she could deliver another stinging slap. "Stop it, you two!" the prince ordered, scowling at each of them in turn. "Act your ages!" Zelda yanked ineffectually at her trapped wrist but Galdenor refused to release her, holding her gently yet firmly in his powerful hands. "Stop," he said, and though his voice was quiet it carried such a weight of authority that she did stop. Galdenor waited until she was quite still, and then he let her go. "Now listen to me," he insisted. "Both of you. This quest you have chosen will not be easy... and if you insist on acting like bickering children, you will fail. I am afraid you will both have to grow up quickly if you wish to become true Knights." He glanced at his sister, who looked on in some amusement. "Even you have a lot to learn, Sofia," Galdenor remarked. "You can't tell me what to do," Zelda snapped. The prince sighed heavily. "No, but I can advise you to work together, not against each other," he answered, looking into her eyes. "Trust me, it is the only way you will succeed. It is a dangerous world... dangerous for even a skilled warrior like Link to navigate alone. Is that not true, Link?" Surprised by the question, Link glanced towards Zelda. "Yes... that's true," he answered reluctantly. "Many times during my first quest I was almost overwhelmed by the evil monsters Ganon sent to fight me." "Exactly," Galdenor agreed. "Not that I am any expert on what you mean to do, but I strongly advise you to learn from each other and stick together." He looked away, toward the hills which surrounded the city. "I wish I could come with you," he said quietly. "Father needs you here, big brother," Sofia said, touching his arm gently. "We'll be all right." Galdenor smiled weakly. "I know," he answered. Link's stomach rumbled. He blushed as everybody looked at him with barely concealed amusement. "Okay, okay," Link huffed defensively, folding his arms again and scowling. "Can we get some food now?" A warm golden light bathed the interior of the tent, emanating from tiny delicate shell-shaped lamps placed the length of the great stone table. Soldiers both Hylian and Gerudo stood against the walls, more or less at ease in the genial atmosphere of friendship. The contrast between the slim blonde elves with their silver armor and the heavyset dark-skinned humans in their sandstained silks, was a strong, but a strangely pleasant one. The two kings were sitting together at one end of the table, talking with great animation of their past exploits. It was evident that in the space of one day Harkinian and Thorkelin had become friends; the realisation boded well for the future of the Gerudo-Hylian peace. Link blushed shyly as he took his chair next to Zelda, at Harkinian's right hand; although he had spoken with the Hylian King before, when he had come to Hyrule to drive out Ganon, he was still very much in awe of the ruler of his homeland. King Harkinian glanced up. "Ah, Link," he acknowledged gravely. "You have certainly gone native since I saw you last. You look quite at home in those clothes." "Er, yes, Sire," Link stuttered. "That is... I mean... yes, Sire, sorry Sire," he finished lamely.

"Link, are you feeling all right?" Zelda asked sweetly. Sofia stifled a giggle as she sat down. Food was set before them by silent attendants, but nobody made a start on the hot roasted meat, cheese and fruit... not even Link. Harkinian folded his hands on the table and leaned forward slightly to speak to Link. "We were just speaking about you," he began in more friendly terms. "You proved your courage once again this morning, I hear? I am impressed!" Link's cheeks reddened. "I did very little, really, Your Highness," he explained modestly, recovering some of his poise. "It was Sofia and Galdenor who really saved our lives. Sofia has been our protector ever since we came here." The Hylian King's eyes settled on the red-haired woman and he looked thoughtful as he said quietly, "I thank you for looking after them, young lady. We make no secret of the fact that my daughter and this young man are important to Hyrule. You will be rewarded." "Oh, I want no reward," Sofia said in surprise. "In truth, there is just one thing that we all three need." She looked at Zelda with a faintly anxious expression. "I think the time is now," she murmured. Zelda nodded slowly. The moment she had been dreading... she had to convince her father to let her go with Link on the quest to find the Amulets. There was no way around it, it seemed; Zelda might be the heir to the throne and the beloved Princess Royal, darling of the realm, but she was needed as a Legendary Knight. "Daddy, this wasn't just a childish adventure," she began, and lifted an object onto the table; the battered Book of Mudora, proof of the quest. "Zelda..." began Harkinian sternly. "No, daddy, hear me out," she interrupted. "I was studying the Book when a reference to the Knights of Hyrule caught my eye. The Knights were guardians of six medallions that were also keys to the Sacred Realm. People thought that the Amulets and their powers were lost, but we think we can find them and regain the Triforce for Hyrule!" She pushed the open book over to the King so that he could examine the reference himself. Leaning forward, her eyes alight, Zelda continued, "When we spoke to the Goddess of the Sand in the Spirit Temple, she told us that Link was going to be the first of the Knights, but Sofia and I also have a part in the quest. If we can get all six medallions back together, we could open the way to the Sacred Realm and bring back the Triforce--all of it, including the Power that Ganon now holds." Harkinian read several pages carefully; the others watched the King's expression intently, alert for any change that might signify either his acceptance of the quest or his refusal. Finally he sighed and pushed the aged tome aside. "Zelda," he said sadly. "You should have told me." "But you would have stopped us going!" Zelda cried in despair. "Daddy, please don't say no! Imagine if we can get the Triforce back! We would have the power to destroy Ganon forever! We would be free!" "I need to go with them," Sofia broke in. "We three are going to be the first of the Knights, if we can find the Amulets. Destiny brought us together..." She looked appealingly at Harkinian, and then at her own father. It was Thorkelin who spoke next. "You are very young to be riding off on such a quest," the Desert King growled. "Sofia, I do not feel happy about this scheme. Neither are you, Link and Zelda, ready for the enemies you would face before you could complete a task like this. It is too dangerous for children."

"Zelda, you simply cannot run off and become a warrior," Harkinian said. "You have responsibilities as the heir to the throne of Hyrule." Link scowled and slammed his fist onto the table, making the others jump. "Listen, everyone!" he insisted loudly. "If we do not do this, in three hundred years Ganon will return and devastate the world once again! You know what that means--we suffered the effects only a few years ago, are still suffering them in some cases!" He glared at the two Kings as he ticked off points on his fingers. "Famine, war, plague, pestilence, monsters. There are still dark places in Hyrule where nothing will grow, left over from the last time Ganon rose, and that was three hundred years ago! The land cannot take this abuse for ever. And what if the next Hero failed to be born? Or the one after that? Nobody can oppose Ganon with an army." The young warrior pushed his chair back. "If we fail to retrieve the Amulets of Legend," he said more quietly, "if we fail to take this chance, it will mean the eventual destruction of the world." There was a grim silence after his speech. Harkinian stared at the mute pages of the Book of Mudora which lay discarded upon the table, and Thorkelin sat stroking his beard, a deep frown marking his forehead. Link and Zelda looked at each other with identical worried faces, and Sofia grabbed Galdenor's wrist under the table. The prince himself opened his mouth as if to speak, but then seemed to think better of it and sighed instead. "Anyway," Link said finally, "the Hero of Time was only ten when he saved the world. I have a few years on him at least." Harkinian raised his head and met the young warrior's eyes with a grave face. "Forgive me for saying so, Link," he remarked, "and I mean no disrespect, but you are not the Hero of Time. Hyrule has never birthed a warrior to equal him. After all, he was the son of Farore." "As legend would have it," contradicted Zelda. "That's just a rumour." "Look!" Galdenor snapped, seeing the conversation about to dissolve into nit-picking, "I appreciate that you Hylians take your heroes seriously, but this is no time or place for a theological debate. It does not matter whether Link First's mother was Farore, Din or the woman next door! What does matter is whether the quest to find the Amulets of Legend may continue. I suggest you both let them go. This is too important a chance to do otherwise." With a snort, he sat back in his chair and crossed his arms to indicate that his part in the debate was over. Finally, Thorkelin sighed heavily and asked, "Where will you start, if I say Sofia may go?" Zelda pressed a hand to her mouth. They had not planned beyond the Spirit Temple. "We... do not know," she admitted hesitantly. Then, struck by an idea, "We made no long-term plans because we knew that you might not let me go, daddy," she said brightly, turning to her father. A wry smile crossed Harkinian's features. If he now said that long-term plans should have been made, he would be covertly permitting Zelda and Link to continue their quest. On the other hand, if he agreed that thinking ahead would have been useless, he would make himself look bad in front of Thorkelin. "You're a clever girl," the King remarked instead, an ambiguous answer which would neither agree nor disagree with Zelda's statement. "So can we do it?" Zelda asked impatiently. "Zelda," Harkinian sighed. "It is too dangerous. Like Thorkelin, I would not feel happy about sending you off into such danger. You are my only child... if anything were to happen to you I know not what I should do." The earnestness in his voice told them that he was speaking from the

heart, but his very honesty as he spoke sounded like a death-knell for the hopes of resurrecting the knighthood. The Princess took a deep breath and sat up, looking her father in the eye. "If you will not let me go," she said firmly, "I will just have to do it without your permission. I will run away again and disguise myself as the first Princess did." "She will, you know," Link interjected. "Enough talk!" Galdenor exploded suddenly. "All we have done today is sit around and chatter! For Goddess's sake, either say yea or nay, but waste no more time!" Thorkelin shrugged, and reached out to take some of the food on his plate. "Well... I have some confidence in my own daughter's abilities," he remarked, breaking off a piece of cheese, "and I know that she is just as headstrong as your own young one seems to be, Harkinian. They pull and they pull at you and in the end they get their own way. What can we poor parents do but let them try?" The Hylian King was silent for a long moment, and then he nodded slowly. "So you are set on carrying out this insane quest of yours, Zelda," he answered despairingly. "If the only way I can stop you is to lock you up, I suppose I shall have to let you go..." Link smiled slowly in sheer joy. "The quest is on," he murmured, almost to himself. "I swear to Farore that I shall not rest until all the Amulets are found..." "Link?" King Harkinian asked. The young warrior turned to face his liege lord and gulped under the fire of a true royal glare. "What is that thing you are holding?" the King demanded, scowling. "Er, this?" Link tucked the sand kitten firmly under his arm as he realised she had been eating the beautifully woven tablecloth while they all talked. "It's a cat," he explained, smiling hopefully at the irate monarch. "I was given her when we met up with some nomads on the way back from the Spirit Temple--they were really, really kind to us--" "I can see it's a cat," Harkinian snapped. "What's it doing here?" "Oh sire!" Link protested, hugging the kit protectively. "It would have been cruel to leave her behind!" "Sand cat, is it?" Thorkelin asked in interest. "Pass it over here, young knight." He held his hands out for the kit and Link hesitantly handed her over. Prowl yowled as she was separated from her owner, and tried to scratch the human king into submission. "Ssh, pretty one," he murmured, taking little notice of the sharp claws that raked his bare forearms. He flipped the kitten over to look at her underside, then examined her ears and her overlarge feet, finally ruffling up her fur and glancing in her mouth. She hissed and swatted at his long nose. "Looks well," Thorkelin remarked in appreciation. "What do you feed her?" The young warrior blushed. "Anything and everything really, m'lord," he explained. "She ate everything we offered her, anyway." "Give her meat, raw and of the best quality," Thorkelin ordered, handing the kit back over the table. "I had a sand cat once. We grew up together..." The king's expression grew thoughtful as he relived those far-off days.

"That may be," Harkinian remarked, "but in my country we do not have animals to eat at table with us. Link, from now on you will leave your pet elsewhere when you enter my presence." "Yes, sire," Link sighed. Zelda changed the subject. "Daddy, when do we leave for Hyrule?" she asked hopefully. "We want to start searching for the Amulets as soon as we can." "Steady on," Harkinian said, smiling at last. "There's no rush, surely," Galdenor suggested. "You might as well stay here another day to get your strength back before going through the Verradan." "The what?" Link asked. "The Verradan--the valley that leads through the mountains to your land," explained the prince. "What do you call it, the deep pass?" "We just call it Gerudo Valley," Zelda admitted. "The pass will have been cleared by now," Harkinian remarked, sitting back in his chair. "I sent for stonemasons once I found that the valley was blocked." A faint smile crossed his stern features as he went on, "There is no way I am clambering over that rockfall again!" "How did you get the horses across?" Link asked. "We had to set ours loose... sire!" he amended as the King turned a wrathful look on him. "Sorry, sire!" "Have you got our horses?" Zelda queried eagerly. The King sighed. "Yes, yes, I have your horses. They were wandering around in the valley looking for a way out. I think that since you will be running around Hyrule like a trio of Cukkos, I will have to make Link a gift of the red horse." Turning to Sofia, he smiled gallantly. "You may have your choice of the royal stables also, young princess, unless you would prefer to bring a horse of your own." Zelda's eyes widened slightly; despite her knowing that Sofia was Thorkelin's daughter, she had never really thought of her as a princess like herself. Sofia seemed uneasy at being called that, though she smiled and nodded her thanks. "That horse is to be mine?" Link exclaimed in shock, overcome. "Thank you so much, sire! He's much faster than my own!" "And has a greater lineage," Harkinian answered gravely. "You took one of the best when you ran off with my daughter, Link. That horse is, it is said, descended from the godly steed ridden by the Hero of Time. His name is Bolt." "By the Goddess!" Thorkelin exclaimed in sudden anger, leaping to his feet. "What is that noise?" The faint sounds of shouting had been getting steadily louder for the past few minutes, but only now was their attention drawn to it. Galdenor and Sofia looked at each other in surprise, and some of the Hylian guards in the room shifted nervously and fingered the hilts of their silvered swords. With a set expression on his face, Thorkelin strode to the flap of the tent and jerked it wide open. A faint scent of smoke drifted in through the opening, and a faint orange glow added to the light

from the gentle lamps within the tent. Thorkelin's eyes widened in shock and astonishment, and he muttered, "Goddess..!" "What is it?" Galdenor asked anxiously, rising. The black horse reared and plunged as a young Gerudo woman ran past almost beneath its nose. Screaming in fury the hellish animal galloped after the terrified woman, its black-cloaked rider brandishing a huge hooked sword in his gauntleted hand. Terror clung to him in a tangible cloud, for his hood had blown back as he rode and now his face was visible. Or rather, his lack of a face. Nothing more than a grinning skull sat atop the dark rider's neck; the black eyesockets were alight with a flaming glow that was mirrored in the smoking eyes of his evil mount. Rolling laughter, impossibly deep, came from somewhere within the flapping confines of the cloak as he raised his viciously hooked blade high above him to bring it down on the woman's unprotected body. Two of his comrades held burning torches in their bony fingers, and they rode through the streets of the city in a blaze, setting light to homes as they flew past on their horrible steeds. Others terrorized the fleeing inhabitants, lashing at them from behind as they turned to run. Forcing his horse back under control the skeleton leader fixed his blazing glare upon a tenage boy who lay in the sand clutching a deep gash upon his hip. "Where are the Hylians?" the creature demanded in a thunderous voice, urging his mount up to the fallen boy. He received no answer, for the lad took one look at the apparition before him and fell back unconscious. The skeletal warrior dug his boots into the sides of his horse, making the beast rear and paw the air with its sparking hooves. "Give us the Hylians or we'll kill you all!" he roared, sweeping the frightened crowds with his fiery gaze. The great sword he held was already stained with blood. "'Ere, Julius," muttered one of his companions, trotting his animal up to his leader. "I don't think they understand Hylian." "Shut up," Julius said evenly. Turning his attention back to the Gerudo, he tried once again. "Give us the Hylians!" he boomed, stabbing out at them with his sword. Only baffled stares met him in answer. "Bloody 'ell, this lot are dim," he remarked thoughtfully to his companion. "Let's kill 'em all," the other warrior suggested eagerly. "'Ave some fun." His bare jawbones clicked as he spoke. Julius sighed. "Lissen, you," he began. "We're doing a job 'ere, we're not 'ere to 'ave fun. So shut up and go burn some more of them tents. We'll flush 'em out soon enough." "Right, Julie," the other warrior exclaimed, wheeling his horse about. "And don't call me Julie!" Julius shouted after him, but he had already gone. "Bloody 'ell," he muttered again, and fell back on simple, understandable language for the benefit of the idiots in front of him. "Right, you lot! Hand over the Hylians or be squished!" "You want Hylians?" came a familiar voice--oh, so familiar. "Come and get them!" Julius flinched visibly as he turned. "You!" he exclaimed, lifting his great sword up as his mount prepared to charge. "Me!" Link agreed, scowling as he drew the serpentine dagger from his belt. The great dark horse charged.

"What are Stalfos doing here?" Zelda cried, staring at the monsters from the doorway of the tent. "You've seen these things before?" Sofia asked her in shock. "Get out of the way!" roared King Harkinian, pulling both princesses back inside the tent as the evil steed raced past in pursuit of Link. The young warrior knew he had no chance of outrunning the black horse, so he did the next best thing--dived to the ground and rolled out of the way. The Stalfos's sword missed him by an inch as the horse pranced and skidded to a halt in a cloud of sand. "She's been looking for you," Julius snarled, leaping from his horse's back to meet the Hero of Hyrule on more even ground. "Who's she , the cat's mother?" Link asked, and dodged as the Stalfos commander swung. "I thought you guys only worked for Ganon!" "Times 'ave changed, see," Julius grunted, taking a blow full in the chest. The serpentine dagger clattered between the bony spars of his ribs, doing him little real harm. He retaliated with a heavy overhand swing, which Link only just managed to evade. "Dunno what she wants with you, Mr. Hero, but s'long as she pays us we don't ask no questions!" Zelda had watched this far, but now she was filled with the same battle-rage she had experienced in the Spirit Temple. She snatched a sword from one of the Hylian guards and raced forward into the fray, just a little too fast for her father to grab her and drag her back. "Zelda!" King Harkinian shouted, and gestured fiercely at the soldiers who stood by. "Get her to safety!" "No, fight the Stalfos!" the Princess shouted back, racing towards where Julius and Link circled warily in the sand. Before she could reach them a darkly sparking body came between her and the fight; Julius's nightmare horse reared, shrilling a stallion's war cry, and struck out with its iron hooves. Sofia and Galdenor looked at each other in unspoken communication, and then they both flung caution to the winds and raced to the defense of their friends. More Stalfos were riding up all the time and if some of them were not dispatched soon then, even with the help of Harkinian's guards and Thorkelin's soldiers, the defenders would be outnumbered. Link, though he fought not to show it, was in trouble. He had known that the loss of sensation in his right hand would cause problems when he came to fight again, but he had not understood at the time how much the muscles in his right side had been weakened. He couldn't lift his trembling arm enough to swing the sword. His deadened fingers could barely hang on to it. He switched the serpentine dagger to his left hand and attempted to present his stronger left side to the Stalfos's attacks. He was barely trained to fight with his left. Julius's speech might be crude, but the Stalfos commander was no fool in battle and he saw his opponent's weakness clearly. His flaming eyes seemed to glow with anticipation as he circled, his intention being to wear Link out before moving in for the kill. Zelda was finding the black steed just as tough to fight as the Stalfos themselves. In truth the horse was no mortal animal but a nightmare from another plane of existence, summoned to Hyrule by magic. Locking eyes with the evil beast the Princess used all her skill to duck the creature's deadly hooves, ever ready to use the soldier's silver sword against it--should she ever get the chance! She wished she had a bow or something which would allow her to try and attack the nightmare from a distance; the sword would force her to get right up to the creature before injuring it.

Without warning there was a buzz and a white-feathered Hylian arrow struck the nightmare in the haunch; the monster screamed and whirled, distracted for a moment into fighting another nonexistent enemy. Zelda seized the opportunity and leaped at the creature, grabbing the saddle horn and pulling herself up onto the monster's back! It bucked and reared furiously to throw her off but Zelda had been riding spirited horses from an early age. She stayed atop the creature despite all its struggles, forcing it under control. Galdenor had wrested a sword from one of the Stalfos, splintering its bony limbs with his bare hands as he wrestled with it. Throwing the broken skeleton down the prince raised the great sword to block a blow by yet another Stalfos, and the collision of the two weapons shed sparks onto the sand. Now that the first moment of shock and horror had passed, the Gerudo were fighting back with fury. "We're winning!" Sofia yelled, and then saw Link falter. She drew her own little dagger. "Don't give up, I'm coming!" Julius laughed at the young warrior and swept his foot out to trip him up. Link's foot caught on the Stalfos's boot, and he fell headlong. Sofia swore and sprinted to the rescue. Now Gerudo men and women were racing to the rescue. Scimitars swept out on all sides. The tide of battle was turning against the monsters. Suddenly the dark horses disappeared in a shower of sparks; whatever evil magic had held them to the world was ended and they vanished like shadows in sunlight. The two kings' troops pulled together as if they had been on the same side all their lives, and closed in on the stranded monsters. Zelda tumbled to the ground in a heap as the nightmare disappeared from under her. Sitting up, the princess found the silver sword at her side and looked for any further enemies to kill. There was only Julius. He was prevented from landing the fatal blow upon Link's body by Sofia's knife, which smashed down on his forearm and shattered chips from the bone. Outnumbered now, the Stalfos commander backed away but he was surrounded in moments by armed Hylians and Gerudo. He crouched at bay in the center of a ring of steel. Link got clumsily to his feet, sticking his serpentine dagger through his belt; Sofia laid her hand on his shoulder. "Are you hurt?" she asked quietly. "No," the young warrior muttered, breathing heavily. He wiped sand off his brow. Thorkelin strode forward into the circle that had formed around the last surviving Stalfos. "Why have you come here?" the King demanded in ringing tones. "I'll say nothin'," Julius growled, shaking his sword. "Come an' get me!" His flaming eyes challenged all who stood around him as he waited for someone to attack. "Who were you working for?" Link insisted. The Stalfos laughed hollowly. "You'll find out!" he roared. And with that, he swung his heavy sword up and cut off his own head. The bones, suddenly free of the magical animation that had brought them to life, clattered to the ground in a pile which dissolved to ancient dust even as it lay. There was silence. Glancing around, Link saw that the fires set in the tents had been brought under control. Whatever heinous plot had been hatched, it had failed here. He looked at Zelda with worry visible in his eyes. The Hylian Princess bit her lip as she looked at the remains of the Stalfos. "We have to get back to Hyrule," she said eventually, speaking to King Harkinian. "They came here because we were here. Someone else is already interested in the medallions."

"And for once, it's not Ganon," muttered Link. The King nodded slowly. "We'll leave first thing in the morning," he said.

T WAS a subdued party that assembled at first light. The desert sun, not yet fully over the horizon, had already tinged the cloudless sky golden and a faint hot breeze from the east stirred hair and ruffled loose garments. The armor of the Hylian troops glinted with sunlight and seemed to flicker as if a fire burned in the heart of the bright silver. Sofia gave her brother a strong hug before mounting her own gray horse. The shaggy desert animal seemed somehow awkward in comparison to the tall clean-limbed Hylian horses... much like the Gerudo seemed strange and odd when compared to the elegant Hylians. She sighed and looked wistfully to her brother, who smiled bravely. They were going to miss each other a lot. "Good luck," Galdenor mouthed, stepping back as one of the Hylian troops led his horse between them to take his place in the company. Link appeared out of the tent where he had slept, looking rumpled and sleepy-eyed. Once more he was dressed in Hylian style, wearing a tough white linen tunic over hose and a light shirt; the heraldric garments he had borrowed from one of the soldiers were slightly too big, but he chose to wear them instead of the Gerudo gear since they were returning home. He was sure that he had overworked his damaged shoulder in the fight last night, and it twinged and made him wince as he mounted the spare horse Harkinian had found for him. Two of the Royal guards had been killed in the battle against the Stalfos, and sad to say they were the reason that Link and Zelda could ride. Two long bundles lay on a low wagon drawn by packhorses. The young warrior touched the hilt of the serpentine dagger by his side and loosened it slightly in his belt; he hoped that he would not have to use it in the canyon pass but he did not intend to be caught unawares. The fine blade shifted in his belt to catch the sunlight and a shiver of fire ran up and down its copper-coloured edge. The Gerudo had been very kind to all of them after the attack; there was a common enemy now which must be fought together. The irony was that, unwittingly, Link and Zelda had brought the attack on the humankind by staying in Gaelaidh; it weighed heavily on Link's heart that they had not left earlier. If they had, the Stalfos might never have come to the city. People had died last night, innocent people who had had nothing to do with two foreigners in their land, and in his heart the young warrior blamed himself for every death. Clenching his fists in the darkness of the tent, he had vowed to find out who had sent the skeletal warriors and to track the culprit down... somehow. Sofia glanced across and caught his eye; she smiled as if to comfort him. She was smartly dressed in the traditional Gerudo garb: white silk trousers, cropped sleeveless top and hair tied into a high ponytail with a fine silken sash.

Zelda guided her horse through the assembly with a gentle hand. The Hylian Princess took her place beside Link without saying a word; there was little need for words between them. They felt comfortable together after spending long days on the road in each other's company. Link turned slightly and grinned at her, and she smiled back, her eyes sparkling in the dawn light. King Harkinian, behind them on his aged white stallion, felt a sadness as he saw his beautiful child so suddenly maturing before him. One of the soldiers sensed his liege's mood and turned towards the King with concern in his eyes. Covering up his momentary lapse, the King nodded briefly at the soldier and rode quickly to the head of the company. Thorkelin had come to see them off, as had many of the Gerudo. Gravely the bearded man lifted a callused hand to the little company in a gesture of farewell; he was richly turned out in black leather armor and a long blue cloak, as a gesture of honour to new friends and allies. "Hæl abiett!" cried Galdenor, waving to them as the King's company began to move out. "Good fortune, Link and Zelda! Write back, sister!" Laughing, Link turned in the saddle to wave goodbye to the tall prince. Galdenor stood beside Thorkelin in the dawning day, father and son the image of a young, strong race. In Galdenor, it could be seen what Ganondorf might have become... "What is happening to me?" Link muttered crossly. Such strange thoughts he was having recently! These matters of Amulets and quests were too high for a simple fisherman's son such as he... all of a sudden the young warrior was afflicted with a spasm of homesickness that made yesterday's seem a mere eyeblink. He sighed heavily and thought of Lake Lomere. "Link, are you unwell?" Sofia asked, concerned. Her amber eyes were worried as she gazed at him, her hands slack on the neck of her horse. "Well enough," he said softly. "Never mind me." The journey through the desert was an easy one, almost as if now that their task was done the Goddess cared only to hasten their departure. The sun shone with reduced radiance through the haze of sand that cloaked the upper airs, and a soft cool breeze blew constantly from the east, bringing with it a soft scent of the green fields and forests of home. Ahead the dark flanks of the mountains grew steadily in their sight, soft in the golden mists. Link yawned and adjusted the strap of the leather satchel he wore over his shoulder; Prowl was asleep in the bag. All around him were the sounds of other people now; the jingle of a harness, the thudding of hooves on sand. He did not like traveling with such a large group. "Those are the Shadowed Mountains, young Hero," said a voice quite close to him. Link shook himself out of the reverie and glanced left to meet the gaze of the King. Harkinian's eyes were the same shade of blue as Zelda's and at the moment they held a warm glitter. "Sire?" he answered, surprised that the King should bother to talk with him. Harkinian nodded, gazing towards the ancient peaks. "They have been called that ever since the Age of Legend," the King elaborated softly. "There are two great mountain ranges in Hyrule, the granite Celcardens in the East of Hyrule where Death Mountain stands alone, and the black marble Shadows in the West. Hylians rarely traveled in the Shadows, even in times of old when the passage was clear, and we have never explored them or mapped their extent. There are legends--ancient stories of Hyrule--that tell of dark creatures in these mountains." "Do you mean like dragons?" Link asked. The King looked astonished. "Why, what do you know of dragons?" he demanded, paying close attention to the green-eyed warrior for perhaps the first time since they had met.

"We met one!" Link explained, gesturing earnestly back to Gaelaidh. "King Thorkelin had one imprisoned, sire! You did not see her?" "That cannot be," Harkinian insisted, his white brows drawing together. "The dragons have slept for countless years. Gleeok was the last of them." "I assure you, my lord, there was a dragon," Link insisted defensively, meeting the King's eyes. "A black one, the like of which I never heard tell. She was called Mewla; she had great dark wings and a body that was more like a lizard's than a serpent's. The Gerudo kept her bound." He warmed to his theme. "Sire, she was magnificent!" he exclaimed. "Horrible, but beautiful at the same time. She... I know not what happened when..." Suddenly confused by a shifting haze of memories, Link faltered to a stop, unable to suppress a strange shudder. The King looked intently at the young warrior, his blue eyes for a moment hard and cold. "You do speak the truth," he said finally. "You have seen a dragon--you have that air about you. Did you look into its eyes?" "I did," Link owned. "Gods! I hope I never shall again." But Harkinian, once more, was not listening. "A winged drake," he murmured quietly. "And after so many centuries of peace..." "Sire, will you tell me about dragons?" Link asked. He loved to hear stories, and if one could be solicited from the Hylian monarch he would certainly not stint Harkinian of a willing ear. Indeed, the King was not unwilling to share his thoughts. "Dragons used to roam these lands, young Hero," he began, "but the last of them disappeared many years ago. It was said that they were made of dreams and belonged to the Age of Legends, and when those times drew to an end with the birth of the Hero of Time, the dragons fell into a deep sleep in their mountain lairs, never to rise again. Beneath Death Mountain Ganon resurrected the greatest of the wingless serpents, Volvagia Darkflight, to slay the Hero of Time, but he fought and defeated the dragon with the great hammer of the Gorons..." "But why did Ganondorf choose a wingless wyrm?" Link asked, interrupting shamelessly. "Surely if he had chosen a creature like Mewla he would have had more chance of winning." The King nodded. "That is true, young Hero. But even Ganon's powers were limited then, and it is probable that he could not command the winged drakes. They were said to be the greatest and most terrible." Harkinian sighed heavily. "This sighting of a winged wyrm, even a young one held captive, is a bad omen," he remarked softly. "Hyrule may need your services once again, young Hero." Link smiled. "Do not concern yourself, my lord. I have faith in this quest! Once we have found the Amulets of Legend, not even a horde of dragons will stand against us." "I like your confidence," Harkinian said. "But do not fool yourself that it will be that easy. With complacency comes defeat." "Yes, sire," Link answered. He did not fully agree with what the King was trying to say, but he understood that the advice was given in a spirit of kindness and was determined to look grateful. "What did you two talk about?" Sofia asked curiously when the company paused to rest. The spot they had chosen, in the shade of a great wind-etched stone, was similar to the one at which Link and Zelda had stopped with their Gerudo escort on the outward journey. The red-haired woman

sat herself down on the stony ground beside her two friends, already at ease among the Hylians who were so different from her. "Mm?" Link asked, distracted. He was feeding Prowl and she, half-starved from a whole three hours without food, kept play-biting his fingers. "Oh, you mean the King and I?" That sounded good, and he mouthed it again to himself, smiling. "The King and I... the King and I." "Link!" Sofia snapped, reaching the end of her tether. "What?" He blinked. "Oh, sorry, Sofia! I was dreaming." "I can tell," she remarked. "What did you talk about with Harkinian?" Link shrugged. "Dragons," he said. "Dragons?" Sofia frowned. Zelda ignored both of them, refreshing herself from a water bottle passed to her from one of the faithful soldiers. "Dragons," Link re-iterated. "Apparently there used to be a lot of dragons in these mountains, but they all disappeared except for Volvagia, who got killed by the Hero of Time. But then I told him about Mewla and he got a little upset." He frowned. "There was something about dragons waking up and my services being needed. I did not understand much of what he said." "Perhaps you should pay more attention," Sofia remarked acidly. "Well, excuse me!" Link huffed. Then, "Ow!" Prowl had sunk her over-eager teeth into the ball of his thumb. He flapped his injured hand in the air to take the sting away, and then examined the four neat punctures welling blood. "Thank you so much," he snapped at the unconcerned kitten. She rolled on her back and purred at him. Sofia looked concerned. "Did she bite deeply?" she asked, already rummaging through her satchel for a leather flask of water and clean bandages. "It might get infected." Taking his hand in hers she gently bathed the injury with cool water from the flask and then tied a strip of white cloth around the wounds, working fast and competently. "Better?" she said smiling. Link flexed his hand. "Thank you, Sofia," he said. Turning to the kit he waved the bandage in front of her nose to demonstrate the effects of her clumsiness. "See that, Prowl?" he mock-scolded her. "I shall be crippled for life!" The kit made another lazy snap at his hand and he whisked it away with more practiced swiftness. "'Once bitten, twice shy'," quoted Sofia with a laugh. "Anything in the Book of Mudora about dragons, my Princess?" Link asked, turning to Zelda as he scooped the kitten into his lap. His eyes were mischievous as he waited for her response. Deliberately she ignored his teasing, shaking her golden hair back and tilting her face into the sun that shone so brightly. Link, seeing the tactic would not work this time, smiled appealingly. "Come on, Zelda, tell!" "That's better," she remarked, and reached into her pack to draw out the Book. She tossed it at him and it hit him in the chest with a thud. Link fell backwards onto the sand. "Look through it yourself," Zelda told him mildly, and found a wooden comb with which to tidy her hair.

Sofia plucked the ancient tome from the fallen warrior's arms, and opened it. The ancient Hylian script, darkly gleaming as if still wet, appeared cabbalistic and mysterious to eyes unfamiliar with it. The red-haired woman stared at the words in fascination, her eyes wide. "What does this all say?" she asked Link. "Is it some kind of magic book?" He shrugged lightly. "Not as such. It tells things that have happened in the past and will happen in the future, but it never lets all its secrets go. Things are never in the same place twice." "Can you read it?" she questioned, awe-struck. "Unfortunately, not very well," Link answered with a laugh. "I can spell out a few words here and there, but I never learned much of the old tongues. Zelda knows them all back to front, although I know not what use it will be to speak Zora nowadays." "The Zoras died out, did they?" Sofia asked softly. "We think so," Zelda answered, getting up. "Nobody has ever seen one. Look, everyone is ready to move. Take the Book with you, Link, I am tired of carrying it. It keeps poking me in the leg." "Well, excuse me, Princess," Link muttered, rather put out by her terse order. He hefted the heavy volume and stuffed it without ceremony into a saddlebag. It had been a short stop, long enough to refresh parched mouths from waterskins and to rest the feet of the horses from the hot sand, but too short for any real rest to have taken place. The King was eager to return to Hyrule Town. The company plodded on through the ever-drifting sands. Ahead, the sand-haze began to clear and the mountains appeared in stronger, darker detail, growing greater with each step until they towered above the little group. It was good to enter the pass and get beneath the shade of the mountains' bulk, but Link found himself glancing uneasily at the great stony slopes surrounding them and thinking how suitable the place would be for an ambush. So many times so far he had thought himself safe, and then some new danger had reared its head to force him to fight; he did not intend to let his guard down until they trod once more upon the green ground of Hyrule. But, though there was certainly an odd and frightening atmosphere within the mountain pass, no creature struck against the company and they finally rounded the bend which brought them within sight of the rockfall that separated Hyrule from the West. The Hyrulian stonemasons had been hard at work upon the blockage. A great hole had been dug into the flank of the rockslide, and now a beaten path wound up its sloping sides and through the dip newly created in the middle. Makeshift cottages had been constructed from stones quarried from the fall, and even now there were people at work clearing the pass, balancing on earthen dams and wooden scaffolds as they chiseled busily at the tough stone. "They must have been working in shifts to have got this far in a few days," Link murmured to Zelda as they rode up to the gap. Work stopped and the labourers turned to cheer as the party trotted swiftly over the path; the King raised a hand majestically to acknowledge his subjects. For some, it would be the first and only time they saw their golden princess, and they cried her name joyfully. "What news, my lord?" cried someone daringly, and an expectant silence fell. The King lifted his head and looked around the quarry site, his proud eyes searching for the speaker. "Peace!" Harkinian announced, his voice echoing between the canyon walls. The walls of the valley pass were almost sheer. From the lofty height of a clifftop ledge, the party making its way along the winding road looked no larger than a collection of toy soldiers. Sunlight

glinted off silver helms and the brightly polished breastplates of a company of Hylian knights. One tiny figure stood out in particular: an older white-haired man, riding at the head of the wellordered column. The road was clear and the air still, and Harkinian's guard was down. It would have been a perfect vantage point. If only the figures were within bowshot! The shrouded form, wrapped tight in sand-coloured rags, knelt on the very edge of oblivion as he watched the soldiers pass beneath. It was a much reduced company that this one led back: a mere handful of bulky muffled figures, who crouched or leaned against the cliffs to take shelter in the meager shade. There was much to consider. Failure was not an unexpected outcome. It was more important to test the strength of our foes, to evaluate the dangers posed. The leader of the group was well aware of what had occurred in Gaelaidh, when the dragon Mewla had been summoned; he had been there in the crowd, unseen and unnoticed, while his underlings slogged towards the city across the desert sands. That night he stood in the shadow of the king's tent and watched the battle move towards its inevitable conclusion. He had seen Hylians and Gerudos fighting--unthinkable!--as a team, and stranger than that he had seen the golden-haired girl, Zelda's heir, take up a weapon of her own. She could fight, then. This was something new. Never before had they taken the initiative. At least we know what is planned, he thought, leaning back; the stiff, tightly wound fabrics creaked in protest at the movement. There, we still have the advantage. "Cap'n!" A sepulchral rumble of a voice. His hooded head turned. Two of the lesser ones knelt beside an open leather sack, their flaring gazes fixed upon him. "It's herself, cap'n, wants to speak to you," one of them said, lifting out the mirror. He crouched with the others in the inadequate shade of an overhang, perched like some great carrion bird on a ledge less than a foot wide. The day's heat lay over everything like a stifling blanket as he took the mirror and tilted it out of the sunlight. In the glass, mists swirled and sparkled and swiftly cleared to show a very different place: a dark underground chamber, lit by flickering torchlight. She was a a silhouette hunched over the mirror's view, cloaked in shadow like a hunting cat. A golden spark hovered at her shoulder. "Explain yourself." He paused before replying. "I judged the risk to be acceptable, Lady, given the circumstances. We learned much--" "And they have learned much of us! Fool! I should have known you creatures would mess up a simple little task like that, if there was anything of importance in it. Next time I shall take care to resurrect something intelligent." "As you wish," he said gruffly. "But first, your ladyship, know this. This Hero is not like the others. He does not fight alone. The girl... Zelda's heir..." "Do not make excuses, Maximus. You failed. I don't care how many of them there were--you could still have at least killed the boy. There was only one of him."

In the background, someone muttered, "'E's the Hero, there only needs to be one of 'im..." "What was that?" The voice from the mirror lashed out sharp and deadly. Nobody answered. There was a long pause, and finally a sigh. "Very well. Return with due speed. I want you here, Max--we will begin our own search for these amulets, at once. They must not have them." The mirror's image began to fade. Before the swirling mists occluded all, the watchers caught a last glimpse of her turning to the hovering spark. Far in the distance, the dark honeyed voice echoed like a whisper in a graveyard: "Summon Poe..." "Home at last!" Link exclaimed, his green eyes sparkling with joy as he gazed at the rolling downs that stretched out toward the horizon. A silvery river wended its way from the distant darkness of the forest, through green hills and patchwork meadows. The western desert had been almost devoid of color, possessing only the warm golds of the sand and the deep earthy tones of the heavy stone, and in contrast the blue and green of Hyrule seemed as a rainbow. It overwhelmed the eye. Sofia, who had never before seen so much green life in one place, halted her horse to stare wonderstruck. "Not far now," one of the soldiers agreed, slowing his horse to keep pace with the two teenagers. "The city is maybe half a day's ride, maybe a little less. We'll make it by nightfall if we push on." "Ooh, food," the young warrior sighed rapturously. A ripple of laughter passed through the company at that comment and Zelda rolled her eyes dramatically, though she refrained from making a comment. Link yawned, unmindful of the attention he had drawn. "By Farore, I am tired," he sighed, releasing the reins to rub sleepily at his eyes. "Rooms and hot water await at the castle," King Harkinian remarked over his shoulder. "We are all of us weary." Sofia rode her horse through the ranks until she was again level with Link, and touching his shoulder gently she breathed, "A word with you." Momentarily surprised, Link nodded his assent and dropped back with her until they could speak without being overheard. "Do you have any clues about where the Amulets are?" she asked quietly, looking earnestly into his eyes. "We should begin our search as soon as possible, if those monsters were truly sent to Gaelaidh to find them." Link's eyes widened. "So soon?" he remarked, raising an eyebrow quizzically. "I hoped that we could rest for a while before we went on another long adventure. The last seven days have been tougher than any of the adventures I had on my own." He held back a smirk as he finished, "I wonder if that was something to do with Zelda's coming along!" "I heard that!" Zelda snapped. He stuck his tongue out at her. "Well, 'tis your own fault for listening, my Princess!" "I say, that's my daughter you're speaking to," the King called back mildly. Sofia burst into unrestrained laughter as Link gave a groan of utter despair. Zelda slowed her own horse and came to ride beside them; her hair which had been tied neatly in a ponytail was coming loose from the constant jogging of the ride and now wisps of fine gold curled around her face. Her blue eyes glowed in the deep afternoon light, a light that in quality seemed to match her shining hair. Link felt his heart swell as he looked at her. "Well met, Princess," he said softly, teasing again, but there was a softness in his voice that had not been there before.

"I will ignore that as befits my station and dignity," Zelda remarked coolly. "What are you two whispering about? You've neglected me all day." "Not intentionally, I assure you," Sofia answered earnestly. "I was asking Link whether either of you knew where to start looking for the Amulets of Legend. It seems very important that we find them quickly, or at least find some of them." "Those Stalfos," the Princess muttered, thinking out loud. "It means something..." "Oh, does it matter what it means?" Link groaned. "Let us just get home! I want to sleep!" "You want to eat," Zelda contradicted. "As soon as we get back to the castle you are going to find the kitchens and start pestering the cooks for scraps." Link looked injured. "Why, my Princess, you slander me!" he protested. "I would not do such a thing!" The look of innocence upon his face was so fake that both the girls laughed. Link frowned for a moment, but the corner of his mouth tugged up into a crooked smile at being found out. Zelda cleared her throat quietly. "Sofia, I believe I have an answer to your question," she said softly. "About the searching. As yet we have little idea where the Amulets might be; I thought they might be hidden within the ancient elemental Temples, but since the Goddess of the Sand said not, we must look for another solution. All we can do at the moment is ask around and analyse the legends of the Amulets. Doubtless there will be some clue within the Book of Mudora if we look hard enough." "Correction: if you look hard enough!" Link interjected with a laugh. "Sofia cannot read the Book and I can barely spell out a full sentence." He yawned again suddenly and remarked sleepily, "By Farore, I shall sleep for a week after this." "It was fun, though," Sofia said suddenly, and smiled.

Here endeth Prologue...