Taming the Tiger Chapter Four
"It is done," she said as she walked into his chambers and softly shut the door behind her. Her voice was quiet when she spoke and almost hesitant.
"What is, milady?" he said, not bothering to look up from a book he had managed to find hidden in the rooms. It was not particularly interesting, but he was not going to give her the pleasure of seeing how eager he was for her news or for her.
"You know what," she replied in a way that was supposed to convey anger but sounded mostly tired and worn out to his ears.
He snapped the book shut at the tone of her voice, looking up into her face. Her expression was serene and composed like a pool of still water, but Ganondorf knew that there were things swimming beneath it that he could not read or see. He signaled for her to have a seat across from him. "So you have somehow secured me a meeting with the King of Holodrum?"
She nodded heavily as if that simple act was almost too much for her to manage. "Yes, and believe me, it was a hard won battle." Her brow wrinkled slightly as she became momentarily lost in thought.
"What is the price they are demanding for this one allowance, and what excuse did you give them? I know they must have questioned you fiercely."
Her face lit up in bitter laughter at his words. "Fiercely, Gerudo, is an understatement. They all but verbally skinned me alive when I brought it before them. I told them that I thought it would be a good opportunity to show him Hyrule's strength. They know what he's after as well as I do. He's swimming through the waters like a shark smelling blood." Her lip curled in disgust. "It took me a long while to make them see how this could be a strong political advantage for us, but in the end, they backed it. Goddesses, if Hyrule were not so weakened from this last war I wouldn't need them at all. I could dispatch them as I pleased."
"But Hyrule is weak and so you must play to them. Now, what is it that they want out of this bargain?"
"You are to serve as entertainment for the king of Holodrum. You are to fight in a tournament against five men. That is your price," she said in flat and deadened voice.
"They're trying to kill me, aren't they?" he said calmly. It was no great surprise to him. He had known from the moment he entered the castle that he was alive by Zelda's whims alone, and that it was her influence and presence that kept him from dancing at the end of a hangman's noose.
Her eyes slid to his face and met his without flinching at the question. "To be honest about it, yes," she said without a faltering or quavering in her voice. "They would not be sad to see the sand drinking up your blood."
"And you allowed this? Do you wish to see me meet the same end as they do with a sword plunged hilt deep into my belly?" Had he finally outlived his usefulness to the queen? Had his demand to see the outside world been too much?
"I talked them down from their original proposal of twelve men. I did the best with what was given to me and that was not much."
He nodded towards her. It was the truth. They were being slowly driven into a corner. "How long until the tournament?"
"Three days from now," her voice dropped to a whisper, and he could almost see a storm brewing in her dark violet eyes that matched the circles underneath them.
"Three days? Well, then will I at least be given a proper sword and armor?"
"Yes, I shall try to secure something as close to a proper sword and armor for you as I can though I admit it is difficult with such short notice and your size," she replied with a tight, forced smile.
He gave her a more genuine one in return, his mood brightening at the thought of seeing the sun again and the prospect of a good fight. "There is always my old armor and sword that you confiscated if it hasn't all been melted down to make nails and horse shoes by now. You should really be much more concerned about the knights you send in to face me."
The smile on her face eased into one of the calm, patronizing smiles he imagined she used when in court facing some duke or marquis who was overly flattering. It was meant to soothe and reassure anyone who saw it. It must have taken her years to perfect it, or maybe she was just a natural.
"You doubt my skill?" the thief asked, his pride hurt beyond any reason he could offer up.
She shook her head in denial. "No, no, I just have many things to think about and plan. I have seen you fight. I know what you are capable of."
"Then you know something I don't." It was not a question. His eyes narrowed at her in sudden suspicion.
She stood up too quickly like a puppet pulled on a string. "I know many things that you do not," she laughed, refusing to meet his eyes.
"You're hiding something from me. I can tell. What is it? What should I know?" He rose from the couch and started to follow her to the door where she was retreating.
"There is nothing that you need to know. Now I must go. I have many things to attend to today." Her eyes finally focused on his face, and they were cold and distant in a way they hadn't been in a long time.
Taking advantage of the temporary pause between his strings of questions, she opened the door and left as quickly as she could manage. Ganondorf stood there for a moment after she was gone, the heavy slamming of the door still ringing in the air, contemplating attempting to go after her. There was something she was not telling him, something he needed to know, but he would never get to her now. Reluctantly, he turned away from the one entrance and exit to his chambers and resigned himself to waiting out those three days to find out what fate had dealt him now.
The night before the tournament was to begin as he was sitting in front of the fireplace thinking on what lay ahead of him he heard the door to his room open and shut softly. His eyes moved from the wavering flames of the fire to the deeper shadows of his room that clung to the doorway. His shoulders tensed under the silent scrutiny of an unseen pair of eyes, but he did not move. Surprise was the one advantage he had against whatever assassin the Council had finally decided to send against him. He waited anxiously with his ears perked to catch any sound.
Feet shuffled lightly behind him as someone walked in his direction. Whoever the Council had sent they were sloppy that much was evident. When a hand landed on his shoulder, he grabbed it without thinking and twisted it. There was a sharp muffled gasp of pain from the intruder. He stood up and climbed over the low couch, turning the arm behind its owner and using the momentum to slam whoever it was face first into a wall. He pinned the neck with his other hand and was surprised to learn from the long hair that it was a woman. Then again, his own sisters were warriors despite their sex, and perhaps, the Council thought a woman might be less conspicuous.
For a moment, the air was filled only with the sound of harsh breathing as the anonymous figure struggled to draw breath. She fought for a moment against his hold, but he tightened his grip on her wrist and she stopped.
"Let me go, thief, or I'll blast you from here all the way back to your accursed desert," a familiar voice hissed, and the hand that he held twisted against her back crackled with magic.
"Zelda!? What are you doing here?" he whispered back fiercely as he let her go. He took several steps back just to be safe incase she did decide to unleash her attack on him anyways. What would bring the queen of Hyrule to his chambers in the middle of the night? If he had been able to see the stars he could have determined what time it was, but he knew it must have at least been after midnight.
"I believe Your Highness would be more appropriate given the circumstances," she retorted as she straightened out the length of her white nightgown and smoothed her hair back with her hands.
He frowned at her and gave a deep mocking bow. "Forgive me, Your Royal Highness, it seems I have forgotten myself upon finding the Royal Monarch sneaking into my room in the middle of the night like a teenage girl going out for a tumble in the hay behind her parents' backs. How did you even get in here? How did the guards not see you?"
Her expression soured at his words. "How dare you? I have every right to go anywhere I please. In case you've forgotten, this is my castle and my kingdom."
"You still haven't answered my questions," he shot back, crossing his arms over his chest and fighting to keep his eyes on her face. He hadn't noticed it earlier, but she was wearing only a thin white linen shift. She was standing directly in the firelight, and it was casting a silhouette of her body beneath the criminally light material. Thankfully, she didn't seem to notice it, and he was not about to tell her.
She took a ring of keys out of a pocket on the front of her nightgown and held it firmly in her hand. "The guards just changed so I decided to sneak in while I could."
For a moment, he forgot she had pointedly ignored answering his first question and allowed his eyes to focus on the dark iron keys dangling from her grasp. There, right there in front of him, were literally the keys to his freedom. The sight even managed to distract him from the outline of Zelda's form. If he could somehow take them from her without her causing a stir, but then he would have to incapacitate her . . .
"Do not even think of it," she said sharply, her words slicing through all the plans blooming in his head and turning them into smoke and fog.
He blinked slowly and met her face once again. "What? I don't know what you're talking about I was merely thinking."
She smirked and tucked the precious keys back into her pocket. She let out a low laugh, tossing her long hair that reflected molten honey in the firelight over her shoulder. "I have no doubt you were thinking. Thinking of taking these keys from me and fleeing."
He swallowed and tried to think of some sweet lie he could tell but knew from the expression on her face that it would be useless. He had been a king of thieves and liars but part of his rise to power had come from knowing who could be lied to and who could not. Queen Zelda had never struck him as one of those people who could easily be led astray even before he had met her face to face and seen that sharp cunning laying behind her beauty. He simply spread his hands wide in front of him and gave an apologetic smile. "What would you have me do?"
She shrugged carelessly and took a seat on one of the two settees in front of the fireplace. "Nothing," she said as she looked directly at him, the frantic firelight casting half of her face into liquid shadow. The visible side of her face glowed warm and golden. Her hair seemed to turn into something almost as insubstantial as light itself and her eyes were dark pools beneath her arched brows. "You are what you are, Ganondorf, and I can no more fault you for that than I can the water because it is wet or fire because it is hot. Those are intrinsic properties of the elements and so it is their nature as this is yours."
He took a step forward and rested his hands on the back of the couch in front of her. He cocked his head to the side, weighing her words in his mind. It seemed that they had come to some sort of strange and miraculous understanding. Just then he wondered what he must look like to her in the inconstant light cast by the fire. Was he ugly to her? Handsome? Familiar? Foreign? Did it really matter, and if it did then why? At last, he shook his head and returned to his original query. "I will ask you again, Your Majesty. Why are you here?"
She looked down at her lap before letting out a deep breath. "I have to come ask you for your help against the Gerudo."
"No," he said quickly, frowning at her.
"Hear me out," she raised a hand in supplication, "please. We are still fighting a small war against them, but we are winning, inch by inch, we are winning."
"Then I do not see why you have come to my chambers to disturb my rest with this, milady, if you are indeed winning as you claim you are," he answered angrily. He must have imagined that understanding he had seen moments ago. If she truly understood him then she wouldn't be asking such a ridiculous question.
"Listen, would you? Just listen before you make such a rash decision. We are winning, but it is a slow and painful process. If you would just help us then we could spare both our people's much pain and many lives," she said in a pleading voice he had never heard from her before.
"There is another reason for this offer at this moment. This discussion could have waited. Why now?"
She swallowed before speaking, looking almost ashamed, guilty. "Because if you agreed to help me in this endeavor . . . the Council would cancel the tournament tomorrow. You wouldn't have to fight anyone. You would have so much more freedom. You wouldn't be a prisoner or a criminal. You would be an ally."
"No," he sighed, feeling a weight drop onto his shoulders so that he sagged onto the back of the piece of furniture. She was hiding something from him. He was certain of it now. She would not be this worried if there was not something for her to fear.
"Please," she whispered as she stood up and moved to the couch supporting his upper body. "Please," she repeated, her hands grabbing onto his wrists and staring up into his face.
"Have I gone mad or are you actually begging?" he muttered, forcing his lips into a weak smile.
Her face took on a look of false indignity. "Begging? A queen does not beg. I am suggesting. I am asking. I am commanding, but I am not begging."
His eyebrows knit together even as he tried to keep his smile from crumbling at what he was about to say. "But you cannot command me because you are not my queen."
"I could be if you would just let me," she said so faintly he thought he might have imagined it if not for the desperate look creeping into her eyes.
"No," he said again with every bit of strength and finality he could muster. He stood and shook her hands from his wrists.
She stared up at him in shock as if he had slapped her. Then she rose and the pain was wiped from her face like it had never been there. Her face suddenly seemed like it was made from marble and ice for all the emotion that it showed. There was only a faint creasing between her eyebrows to show all the anger that she was bottling up. "Fine then," she said in a tone devoid of any feeling, cold as winter, "keep your pride and your loyalty but know that they will not keep you safe from a sword or an axe. They will not bind up your wounds, and they will not protect your back when knives and daggers are aimed at it."
"Zelda," he growled, moving a step towards as she got off of the couch and made her way to the door, the keys jingling against her thigh.
She stopped abruptly, her hair spinning out behind her. "That is Your Majesty or Your Highness. Goodnight, Sir Dragmire. I am sorry to have disturbed you with my foolish offer. I hope you sleep well. You will need all of the rest you can get before the morning." She bowed her head to him and continued her path to the exit.
He stepped in front of her, blocking her chance for escape. "Do not leave like this. You know this is not how you truly want it to be."
"Please get out of my way, sir, before I call the guards."
"Do you dare try me?" She raised an eyebrow at him.
He shook his head in anger at her, cursed quietly under his breath, and moved to the side.
"Thank you," she whispered as she moved past him to the door. Her hand gripped the knob as she turned to look at him over her shoulder. "Here take this. It may bring you some luck."
Then she was gone with a soft click and all that was left of her presence was something white fluttering to the floor. He stooped to pick it up, wondering how exactly she was going to get past the guards who he was certain were back by now. He scoffed when he realized what it was. He held a delicate lace handkerchief between his thumb and forefinger. He squinted in the dying light to see that her initials were stitched into the fabric. The Queen had given him her favor.
The morning dawned with Ganondorf sitting on the edge of his bed, his blood thrumming through his veins in a way it hadn't in months. He could almost feel the sun rising outside of the thick, stone walls like he used to when he lived in the vast, open desert. Despite Zelda's apprehension the night before he was almost looking forward to the tournament. It had been far too long since he had held a sword in his hand and faced a single opponent in battle. He breathed in deeply through his nose with his hands resting lightly on his knees. He saw the desert beneath him, wide and open as the sea. He could feel the sun burning down on his shoulders and back, the warm winds sending him rising and falling. The Spirit Temple rose on the horizon, ancient and implacable as time itself. The weathered and all-seeing eyes of the Goddess of the Sands watched him neutrally as he soared over her head and towards distant sand dunes.
His meditation was interrupted by the door opening and slamming. His heart rose in his chest until it was hammering against his ribcage. The breath in his lungs caught in his throat at the thought that it might be the queen coming to see him one last time before what she thought would be his death. It sunk when he saw five guards round the corner and eye him with something very close to distaste in their eyes.
"You are Ganondorf Dragmire I presume," said the captain, distinguished only by the short red cape he wore and a certain smugness about him that the Gerudo instantly disliked.
The former king of thieves stood and towered over the much smaller Hylian man. "Unless there are other desert warlords here being kept prisoner, then yes, I am he."
The captain's blue eyes narrowed at him, his jaw working as if he might reply with some quip of his own. "Well, if you will just come with us we will get you ready for the tournament."
He shrugged, the thrill of the upcoming fights temporarily doused by Zelda's absence. He made a gesture telling them to lead the way. The leader made a quick hand signal and two others stepped forward bearing shackles. Ganondorf stared calmly at the wall above their heads as they went about their work. Within several minutes, his hands and feet were chained. He grimaced as they locked manacles around his wrists. It was a feeling he would never forget or grow accustomed to.
With that done, they formed a tight perimeter around him and ushered him out of his rooms and down the hall. He ignored the jingling of his chains as he walked along and the baleful glances cast by the gentry and servants they passed. He simply breathed and focused. He tried to find that one calm place buried so deep inside of him it was a wonder that it even existed. It was there with the memories of his mother and sisters and aunts. It was watching the sun rise over the desert and turning the sky pink and purple and orange. It was riding a horse so fast and wild that the land blurred around him and the wind stole the breath from his lungs and the words from his tongue.
They walked for what felt like a good half hour before coming to a flight of steps heading down. The men walked him down the stone stairs and into a darkness that the watery grey light of dawn did not penetrate through the narrow windows. The landing at the bottom ended in a single wooden door barred from the outside. The captain gave a nod to one of his underlings, and the obstruction was removed. Ganondorf was marched through the doorway, ducking his head as he passed under the lintel, into a wide and sparsely furnished room. It held two long benches that ran along its opposite sides and several whet stones and cloths used for oiling and cleaning armor.
The guards around him dispersed immediately like he suddenly smelled foul as their leader stepped in front of the taller Gerudo. The man cleared his throat as he prepared to speak. "Your armor is in the far corner," he pointed in the direction where a breast gleamed darkly in the dim light, "along with your sword. When you are done readying yourself for battle, exit out of the door closest to you. The door we came through will be barred to you as I am sure you know. There should be someone waiting outside to lead you to the courtyard where the tournament will be held." The man cleared his throat a second time, his jaw working as if he felt he was supposed to say something but wasn't quite sure what. What did you say to a man who was about to face combat and whose death you wished for? Ganondorf only smiled down at the man, amplifying the tension in the room.
The captain's blue eyes dodged around underneath his iron helmet as he sought some escape from his current predicament. At last, he ordered his men out and soon trailed behind them. The door boomed after them followed by the bar being slid into place. He sighed wearily, stiffly walking over to the armor leaning against the wall. Much to his disappointment, it was not his original armor but a beat-up, worn out breastplate with so many dings and dents in it it looked like it had been used for target practice. He grimaced at the thought. It probably had. There was also a pair of vambraces that looked to be in no better shape than the breastplate. He turned in a circle once just to be sure he had not missed anything. Nothing. Those were the only things resembling any kind of defensive gear to be seen in the room There wasn't even a small shield. Well, he thought, they certainly made it clear which side they're on. He wondered if Zelda had anything to do with the sorry state of the armor provided to him. He shook his head at the idea. It didn't matter now.
With slow fingers, he buckled the breastplate on and then the vambraces, drawing out the process as much as possible. Donning armor was a ceremony and ritual in the Gerudo tribes. Since it was so rarely worn by the warriors, it was considered to be a grave occasion when it was put on. The king of his people was always dressed and blessed by his mother and sisters before going into battle. They sang hymns as they buckled and tied every piece into place. Incense was lit and special oils were smeared across his forehead and the backs of his hands. It was done so that the Great Mother might recognize him as one of their own during battle and spare him from her terrible rage. The Gerudo believed that when they went into battle their goddess went with them and because he was the only male she might mistake him for an enemy and strike him down by accident. What he was doing now was a far colder and more detached affair than he was used to.
When that was done, he found the sword intended for him leaning carelessly in a corner. It was heavy and crude with several notches along the side to suggest someone might have used it more than once to chop firewood or some other homely chore. He reached for it and found that it had a surprisingly good and steady grip. It didn't fit his hand quite as well as his own had, but it was certainly better than what he had expected to be given.
There was only one thing left to do. The door stood in front of him, waiting for him to go through. He hung his head in indecision. Part of him yearned to go charging out underneath an open sky and meet whatever it was those Hylians had in store for him. Another part of him, the far more sensible part, valued his skin and life just a little too much to go out there so eagerly. Ganondorf's feral instincts had always been tempered by his pragmatism and desire to survive. His mother had once said that if the world were to end in fire only he and cock roaches would survive. He smiled at the memory.
His hand reached for the knob without him realizing and twisted it opening the door. A slender figure was waiting for him in the light falling through the stone arches along the right side. Several heavier figures flanked it as it separated itself from them.
A man in his mid-thirties with graying brown hair and small blue-green eyes took a haughty step towards Ganondorf. His expression was not of fear or hatred like the Gerudo was accustomed to. It was one of morbid curiosity and even playful malice.
"It is so good to finally meet you," he said warmly, though his eyes remained cold. "I am Fillepus, King of Holodrum."