The Tiger People
Link slowly awoke to find himself in a strange place. He was lying in a huge bed in a room that looked as if it had been hewn out of rock deep inside a mountain. A fat pillar candle sat on the table beside the bed. It dimly illuminated the ceiling, which sparkled with water frozen in patches across it.
Although his face was cold—the room had no source of heat—he was quite warm under layers of blankets—the topmost of which appeared to be made from two or three giant wolf pelts.
He spent several minutes trying to figure out if he was dreaming or not. His shoulder was aching, but that didn't mean anything; he often dreamed that he was in pain. And the surreal nature of the place was certainly consistent with his frequent weird dreams.
However, he finally decided that he wasn't dreaming simply because he questioned whether he was dreaming or not. When he was dreaming, he was never aware that he was doing so.
Once that was settled, he immediately turned to the next problem: he was alone.
"Princess?" he called out in a loud whisper. But the room was empty save him and the few pieces of furniture.
He pushed the covers aside and got up. He was woozy and he had to put his hand against the wall to steady himself. The stone was icy cold beneath his palm.
He lurched to the bedroom door and pulled it open—nearly running headlong into a massive white tiger on the other side.
Link staggered back, stumbled, then fell to the floor.
The tiger stood up on its hind legs, drawing itself up to its full height. Link—too terrified to even breathe—tried to scoot back.
"Little man-cub, what are you doing out of bed?" the tiger asked.
Link couldn't reply; he was too shocked to speak.
"You nearly died from exposure. And I smell blood on you; I know you are wounded. You should not even be out in the mountains in your condition."
The tiger scooped Link up with one large paw and deposited him back on the bed. He probably meant to be gentle, but Link was still rather roughly handled.
"Why are you traveling through our mountains, anyways? Few humans dare to venture here."
It took Link a few tries before he found his voice again. "Princess Zelda… where is she?" he asked.
"The girl who was with me. Where is she?"
"I don't know anything about a girl. You were the only one I was given to care for."
Link tumbled out of bed, barely able to stay on his feet. "She was with me when I went to sleep! I was lying right next to her. You couldn't have missed her!" he insisted, his voice rising in panic.
He tried to make it to the door on his weak, wobbly legs. He managed to grab the doorknob, but he fell before he could get the door open.
"What are you doing?" the tiger asked in alarm, looking at him as if he was having a fit of madness.
"We have to find her. We have to!" Link began to cry, his fever and brush with hypothermia making him completely irrational.
"Alright, alright," the tiger said, trying to placate him. "Let me go look for her; maybe someone else has her."
"We have to find her. I can't… I can't…."
"Shh," the tiger said, picking him up and placing him on the bed again. "I'll go look for her," he promised.
He looked down at Link with something close to compassion. "Is she your mate?" he asked quietly.
Link wasn't sure how to answer that. "Sort of," he replied.
The big tiger nodded knowingly, then headed out of the room.
Link rocked back and forth, trying to hold in his panic; tears ran freely down his face. What had happened to Zelda? Had she gone out alone to try to find food or wood, only to get lost in the blizzard? Or had the tigers simply left her behind because she had already frozen to death?
If only he had stayed awake and made sure she didn't attempt any heroics on his behalf! What if she had died trying to find supplies for them? Or, worse—what if she had sacrificed herself to keep him warm?
If she had died because of his weakness—his inability to take care of her—he would never forgive himself.
Somewhere in the middle of speculating and beating himself up over Zelda's fate, the tiger returned.
"She's here," he told Link. "She's just in a different room."
Link hurried to get out of the bed. "Take me to her. Please."
"I will if you'll be quiet; you're making yourself worse, you know."
Link managed to wait until the tiger came to pick him up. He hoisted Link up, carrying him upright in the crook of his arm as if he was a small child.
The hallway outside the bedroom was also carved out of stone and lit with candles. There were a number of doors set along either side of the hallway. The tiger opened one and took Link inside.
Inside, there was a bedroom almost exactly like the one they had left—only this one had another tiger in it, sitting beside the bed, and a blonde head lying on the pillow, barely visible for all the blankets heaped on top.
"Princess!" Link said with relief.
"She is still asleep," the other tiger said. It had a voice which was softer and kinder; Link thought it must be female.
As soon as the male tiger put him down beside the bed, Link reached out to touch Zelda's face, just to reassure himself that she was alive.
Her face was cool, but it had color and she was clearly breathing.
Link pulled back the covers and crawled into bed beside her. He gently kissed her forehead, a few tears leaking out of his eyes in relief.
"She is his mate," he heard the male tiger whisper to the other one.
As Link began to drift off to sleep, he didn't bother to correct him. Besides, it seemed as apt a description of their relationship as any.
Link's much-needed sleep was rudely interrupted sometime later.
"Did you think I wouldn't find out, Anne-Marie!" someone was roaring.
Link's eyes flew open. There were two tigers standing next to the bed; one was noticeably larger than the other.
"Please, Tarsus…" the female tiger begged.
"You're harboring murderers!"
"Lord Long Fang told me to take care of them; that's what I'm doing. It's not for me to know any more than that," she said firmly.
Link glanced at Zelda and found her awake and staring wide-eyed at the feuding tigers; she had apparently not seen them before.
"Long Fang is a traitor to his people," Tarsus spit out.
Anne-Marie gasped. "That's treason, Tarsus."
"So be it."
He reached for Link with a massive paw. Link automatically went for his sword, but his entire sword belt was missing. He was unable to stop the large tiger from grabbing him by the shirt and jerking him roughly out of the bed like a bundle of washing.
"Link!" Zelda cried out, reaching for him. A moment later, though, another tiger stalked into the room and jerked Zelda out of the bed, causing her to scream.
"Please, Tarsus, they're just cubs," Anne-Marie pleaded, following him with her paws held out, begging for their return.
"They are murderers and they are going to pay for it." He glared at her. "You are either with me, or you're against me."
Anne-Marie pulled back a little, looking afraid. "I follow our leader," she said with a trembling voice.
"I will remember which side you chose when I am leader," he growled, before giving her a hard shove. She stumbled back and fell into the table beside the bed, snuffing out the candle, leaving the room dark but for the dim light from the hallway.
"How dare you touch my mate!" roared another tiger as he came onto the scene. Link wasn't sure—they all looked alike to him—but he thought that it was the tiger who had been taking care of him earlier.
"Get out of my way, Growder," Tarsus said, swaggering towards him. To his credit, Growder didn't flinch, blocking the doorway with his body.
"Not until you apologize to my mate and put those cubs back," Growder commanded. "Lord Long Fang gave them to us to care for, and we will do as he says until he tells us otherwise."
"I'm sorry," Tarsus said. "…Sorry that you picked a feeble old leader to follow."
He made a whistling-type noise. Suddenly three more tigers ran in from the hallway, shoving Growder into the room.
"Lock them both in here," Tarsus said. "We don't want them whining to Long Fang."
The next thing Link knew, he was on his back and being dragged briskly down the hallway by a foot.
"Princess?" he called out, trying to look behind him. Everything was upside down, but he saw a flash of blonde hair; it looked as if she was being carried under the other tiger's arm.
"Link, where are we?" she replied. "What's going on?"
"I don't know."
"You will soon know," Tarsus growled, a menacing smile on his face.
They were taken through a series of hallways until they came out on a balcony overlooking a large cavern full of more tiger-people—two hundred or more.
Tarsus dragged Link down the stairs. He cried out when his wounded shoulder jolted against the first stair, shooting a stabbing pain through his upper back and tingling down to his elbow. He strained to sit up enough to keep it from hitting every stair on the way down.
Tarsus pulled him into the center of the room, where there was a large clear area, and dropped his leg. A moment later, Zelda was unceremoniously dumped beside him.
"Link, are you alright?" she whispered, trying to help him sit up.
"Not really," he said through gritted teeth, cradling his arm.
"What's going on?"
"I don't know. The other tigers were kind; they were taking care of us."
"Sir Elgon told me that he had been saved by some tigers after he had gotten wounded in an ambush in the mountains. Why are some of them good and these are not?"
Link looked around as more and more tigers filed into the room. Their voices were dark and menacing; the room sounded like a hive of angry bees.
"I think we might be in the middle of some sort of power struggle," he whispered.
"What are we going to do?" she whispered, her eyes wide with fear.
"I don't know. My sword is gone."
"Mine, too. And my bow."
Link took a quick look around, but no one seemed to be watching them; all eyes were on Tarsus. He slid his hand down to his boot, but found that his knife was missing, too.
"I've got nothing," he told Zelda.
Tarsus held up his hands and, after a minute, the assembly quieted down. "Friends, you have no doubt heard why I have called this assembly," he announced.
"We have before us a simple case of murder. These two humans," he pointed a sharp claw at Link and Zelda, "were caught trespassing in our hunting range… with this!"
He held up a cloak so everyone could see the lining.
Link's eyes widened. He knew immediately it was his cloak, because it was made of white wool; Zelda's—which he had followed day after day as he climbed the trail behind her—was blue.
He had never paid any attention to the cloak—being more concerned with mustering the energy to continue moving; he had never noticed that the inside was lined with white tiger fur.
The assembly began to boo and hiss and a few even called out for death.
"Why don't we pay them back, hide for hide?" Tarsus asked.
There was a moment's pause when it seemed every breath in the place was held—Link and Zelda's in fear, everyone else's in anticipation.
"Strip them and string them up!" Tarsus declared.
The assembly cheered as half-a-dozen of Tarsus's henchmen bore down on Link and Zelda. They tried to struggle, but they were no match for the strength of the big cats, and Zelda was dragged off to a spot about twenty feet away. Link was left surrounded by three cats.
"Princess!" Link called out, trying to see around the tigers.
The tigers around him roughly tore off the sling and canvas strip that had been holding his left arm in place, causing him to grunt in pain.
A moment later, Zelda began to shriek and, through a momentary gap between two of the tigers, he caught a glimpse of another tiger ripping the front of Zelda's gambeson open, sending buttons flying through the air.
"Leave her alone!" Link shouted, but he was only met with a shove in the back that nearly sent him face-first onto the floor.
The tiger in front of him grabbed his maile shirt by the shoulders and jerked it off him. He screamed and fell to his knees as a red-hot, searing pain flashed down the left side of his body.
But the tigers were indifferent to his suffering and he was grabbed by the arms and jerked back up to his feet.
He must have blacked out from the pain, because when his vision began to fade back in, his gambeson was gone and he was being pushed to Tarsus.
They stopped and tied a rope around his hands. Another shriek snapped Link's attention to the left. Zelda had also been stripped out of her gambeson and she was wearing nothing but a cloth band around her chest. Her hands were also tied together and the end the rope had been thrown up over the chandelier that hung in the middle of the assembly hall. A tiger was holding the end of the rope, pulling on it until the tips of Zelda's toes were barely touching the floor.
Link began to tremble with fear as they tossed the end of his rope over the chandelier. Then, with a hard jerk, he was pulled off his feet. His scream echoed around the cavernous room, drowning out the gleeful shouts.
They were going to pull his arm off. It was barely attached anyway—at least that's what it felt like—and they were going to rip it off completely.
He wished they would just get on with it, because surely it couldn't hurt any more, and there was a small chance that it would hurt less.
"Please," Zelda begged, "someone gave that cloak to us; we don't know where it came from."
"A likely story," Tarsus mocked. The audience booed and hissed again.
"We have never harmed any of your people," Zelda continued to plead. "We had never even heard of your people before we came to Erenrue a few weeks ago. We are from Hyrule, far to the west."
"Nonetheless, you have benefited from this murder. That makes you just as guilty as the person or persons who committed it," Tarsus replied.
He slowly stalked around Zelda.
"It's mine!" Link shouted, as he watched Tarsus ready himself for an attack. "It's mine. I was wearing it. She had nothing to do with it. Let her go. Please!"
"She is your mate," Tarsus said, looking at Zelda with hungry eyes. "Therefore, there is no difference between you both; what you do, she does also."
"No, please, for the love of the gods, let her go! I will bear whatever punishment you want to inflict—kill me, if that's what you want. But, please, don't harm her."
"Justice demands equal punishment," Tarsus proclaimed. Then, before Link could beg again, he swiped his claws across Zelda's back, shredding the cloth band and leaving deep, red cuts from her shoulder to her waist.
She screamed loudly, but her cry was drowned out by the roar of approval from the crowd.
Tarsus dropped to all fours and moved over to Link with all the fluid grace of a snake slithering through the grass. And when he stood up and looked at Link with a cruel smile, that's exactly what he reminded Link of: a snake preparing to strike.
"It looks like someone has already used you as a pincushion," Tarsus chuckled. Link's chest was covered in old, dried blood, but fresh blood was steadily running down his chest and back from the re-opened wound.
Tarsus held out a single claw, and Link watched in horror as he slowly moved his big claw towards the wound. Ever so slowly, he poked his claw into the hole made by the arrow, then steadily pushed it in.
Link screamed until his throat was raw and he was left coughing and gasping for breath. He must have lost consciousness again, because the next thing he knew, water was being splashed on his face and Tarsus was standing back a few paces, smiling cruelly.
He could hear Zelda crying and calling his name, but her voice seemed very far away. His vision was dark around the edges and he couldn't see or hear much beyond Tarsus. He hoped that he would pass out again and stay out.
But he wasn't that lucky. Instead, Tarsus stepped up again and put his paw against the left side of Link's face. In an ironic twist, his paw actually felt soft.
Then he flexed his claws and slashed Link's face open from the corner of his left eye to his throat.
Link cried out hoarsely, then began coughing and choking again.
Tarsus turned back to the cheering crowd. "I still see flesh on their bones, don't you?"
The crowd roared.
"Let's take a little more, shall we?"
Zelda's crying became louder; Link could just make her out squirming at the end of her rope, trying desperately to get away. But a tiger in front held her still while another positioned himself behind her, ready to make another swipe at her back.
Tarsus put his paw against the other side of Link's face.
Link steeled himself for the next slice, but before Tarsus could mark him again, a single roar echoed through the cavern, silencing the spectators and causing them to cow down as the noise vibrated painfully on everyone's eardrums.
A moment later, a tiger stalked into the room. Link could see that his black stripes had faded slightly into gray. Behind him came two anxious-looking tigers; Link thought they might be Growder and Anne-Marie.
"What is the meaning of this?" the older tiger demanded, his powerful voice clearly angry. As he stalked through the crowd, tigers cowered before him until their bellies were on the ground. A few slunk out of the room once he had passed them by—clearly too scared to stay.
"Do you know who these humans are?" the older tiger asked.
"Yes, murderers," Tarsus replied, holding up Link's cloak.
The older tiger stood up on his hind legs. "Wrong. He is the Hero who has been foretold," he said, pointing at Link, "and she is the Queen of Hyrule," he pointed to Zelda. "I know you think you will be the next leader of this streak, Tarsus, but is this really the foreign policy you want to set? To attack the sovereign of the largest nation in the world and to cut up a boy favored by the gods themselves?"
"They have done murder!" Tarsus said, shaking the cloak in the other tiger's face.
The leader—presumably he was Lord Long Fang—jerked the cloak away from Tarsus. "Then they must stand trial for it. Since when have we ever punished someone who has not been convicted of a crime?"
"The crime is right under your nose, old one," Tarsus said with contempt. "Perhaps you are beginning to lose your eyesight."
"That is what you think," the Long Fang replied, casually tossing the cloak aside. "You think I haven't seen you whispering in ears and gathering the young males to your cause, but I can see farther than you can imagine. The stars not only tell me the future, but they allow me to see into the hearts of others. And I do not like the blackness I see in yours."
Tarsus lowered himself to the ground—not in fear, but in preparation for an attack. His tail twitched angrily back and forth.
Long Fang got into the same crouch and the two of them began to slowly circle one another, waiting for one to get distracted or flinch.
A few more tigers took the opportunity to run out of the room, but most stayed, watching the fight anxiously.
The two tigers who followed Long Fang into the room managed to get around the crowd and they came to Link and Zelda.
Zelda began to struggle, pulling against the rope and crying again, but the tiger who sat down beside her whispered reassurances. "Shh, it's me," Anne-Marie said. "I won't hurt you."
"Princess, it's alright," Link whispered, his voice nearly gone from all the screaming. "These are the ones I told you about. They were taking care of us."
"I fear you have been the catalyst for a coup that's been coming for some time," Growder whispered, sitting beside Link. "Tarsus has been gathering power for a while with the intention of dethroning Lord Long Fang."
"Can you get us down?" Link begged. His left arm was tingling all over with little pricks of pain, but, overall, it was steadily growing number—which meant it was getting little or no blood circulation. Given a little time to think about it, he had changed his mind about losing his arm; he definitely did want to keep it.
"I'm sorry, little man-cub; I cannot," Growder apologized. "We are forbidden to interfere in any way with a challenge for succession. Taking you down might be viewed as a distraction. We are only here to make sure that no one for the other side takes advantage of the distraction to de-hide you a few more times."
"And if Tarsus wins, we will put you out of your misery before he can make you suffer anymore," Anne-Marie whispered.
"Thank you… I think," Link replied.
"It will be quick and painless, little man-cub," Growder promised.
They were interrupted by a sudden cry from the combatants, followed by a gasp from the crowd. Tarsus sprang onto Long Fang, and the two rolled around on the floor, tufts of white fur floating through the air as they bit and scratched and kicked each other.
After a minute, they separated, but it wasn't clear—at least to Link—which one was winning; they both got into their crouches and stared at one another, making wild noises in the back of their throats that sounded like a child screaming.
Then Tarsus flicked an ear and Long Fang pounced and they proceeded to roll around on the floor in an indistinguishable mass for several more minutes.
When they separated again, they were both looking worse for wear. Tarsus had a bloody, half-chewed ear. Long Fang's fur was standing up in all directions and there were a few obvious bald spots.
And so they continued—lunging together, fighting viciously, then taking a short break to stare at one another and growl.
Link began to feel light-headed and his vision started to fade in and out. By the time the fight was over with, he couldn't see more than a foot or two in front of him. He had no idea who had won and he didn't much care. He only hoped that if Tarsus had won, Anne-Marie and Growder would keep their promise to finish him and Zelda both before Tarsus could devise any new tortures.
"Release them!" a voice shouted.
Suddenly the pressure on Link's arms was released. But he wasn't able to stand on his feet, and he fell forward, into the strong arms of a large tiger, before everything went completely black.