Into The Woods

By Lyxie

Chapter 1: The Spring

Gray dawn light spread over the encampment, illuminating the smoldering remains of campfires and the occasional revelers asleep on the ground where they'd fallen. A few die-hard celebrants sat swaying in the morning dew, clinging to their goblets, bleary eyed.

Zelda stepped out of the royal pavilion, slippered footfalls silent on the damp grass. Her guards acknowledged her once with a nod of their heads, but remained at their post when they saw the half-moon of a double shadow clinging to the hem of Her Highness's cloak. She would be safe without them.

Zelda skirted around the occasional bodies littering the ground, drawing the hood of her cloak over her blinding golden hair. She breathed in the crisp, cool air, reveling in the scents: earth, summer grass, woodsmoke, the forest. She raised her eyes to the tree line, up ahead through the other side of camp. She'd been itching to explore the forest since they'd arrived yesterday afternoon, but there hadn't yet been time. She was weary from little sleep— the celebrations had run late, and she'd been up well past midnight— but she was determined to spend some time alone in the woods.

It was hardly her first Carrus Din, but it was the first time they'd had the celebration at the foothills of the Snow Spine mountains, and Zelda was curious about this wild land she'd never been to before. She'd never seen the famous twisted firs of the Snow Spine region, and had been fascinated by their nearly spectral appearance. It was a far cry from the beautiful beech trees of the sunny Ordon woodlands where Zelda had often spent her summers growing up, and though Ordon was beautiful, the Snow Spine region was breathtaking. And eerie.

Zelda stepped beyond the boundaries of camp and headed towards the edge of the woods, leaving the large, grassy expanse where the Carrus Din Festival was being held. When the royal augur had declared that the festival would take place in the taiga, there had been no small amount of surprise; it was well over a week's journey from the palace up to the base of the frigid Snow Spine. But the people dared not disobey the orders of the Goddesses, so the Carrus Din was planned accordingly. The festival lasted seven days and seven nights, and any resident of Hyrule who so wished could attend. It was the celebration of midsummer and of life; it was a celebration of sweet summer's promise and ripening and the turning of the seasons from warmth to cool as blossoms thickened and became fruit. It was a testament to the power of Din, keeper of the rich earth.

The Carrus Din festival was usually held closer to Death Mountain, the mountain that was said to be the living body of Din in Hyrule— just as Carrus Nayru was held by the icy shores of Lake Hylia in the dead of winter and Carrus Farore occurred in the fairy-lit glades of Ordon in spring. But the augur had spoken, and so for the first time in living memory the Royal family, and many of the nobles, and no small number of the peasantry journeyed north in a great caravan to revel for seven days and seven nights in the renewing power of Din. The festival would end with a midsummer celebration, where everyone would pray from dawn till dusk, and dance the night away around bonfires.

It was the first day of the festival today, and as soon as the sun was fully up, the celebrations would begin and Zelda would likely be unable to slip away again to explore the forest on her own. She reached the edge of the meadow and glanced over her shoulder at the colorful campground behind her. Small tendrils of smoke drifted skyward from woodfires. Tent tops sagged drunkenly this way and that. There was no movement in the camp in the silence of the early morning. The Princess turned and stepped forward into the foggy darkness.

It was dimmer below the tree lines, and a sudden shiver crawled up Zelda's spine as she stepped from light into darkness. Zelda's focus turned inward for a moment as her consciousness brushed at the sparkling shadow that she shared her life force with. It stirred once, sent a comforting wave of warmth out to her, and then was still. Reassured that her protector would keep her safe, Zelda returned her attention to the world around her.

A carpet of lichen padded her footsteps and low, spiny shrubs clung to the edges of her cloak and gown. Zelda stopped to gather a few ripe cloudberries that she spotted sprouting from the ground and popped one into her mouth, smiling at the sweet taste and creamy texture. She progressed on through the forest, keeping careful track of the position of the sun. She didn't want to get lost.

The forest was beautiful. Striking mosses and unusual flowers grew in the dense shade of firs, birches, willows, and spruces; the occasional pine would rise up from the forest floor, gnarled and knotted and twisting its way skyward. Zelda found one blackened pine that had clearly been struck by lightning and had burned; she rested a palm flat against the trunk of the tree and, reaching out with her magic, felt the echo of that strike of white fire. Caressing the bark once, she moved on.

It wasn't long before she found a wide creek that was murmuring quietly in the dim and dappled sun. She knelt and dipped a finger into the water, inhaled sharply at how cold it was, and then stilled. She felt wild magic. Zelda shut her eyes briefly, tapping into the power source within her, and opened them again, examining the water. It was glinting golden, and Zelda's lips curved upward. Letting her power go and blinking as the water faded back to normal, Zelda rose and began to follow the creek up to its source.

She stopped and grabbed a second handful of tangerine-colored cloudberries as she walked, making her way carefully over the forest floor, not wanting to pierce her foot on a sharp stick or ruin her slippers on stones. It wasn't many minutes before Zelda found the source of the stream, though; a wide, shallow pool. She recognized it at once as a healing spring, and smiled again to herself as she stepped out of her shoes and rolled her stockings down. She pulled off her cloak and laid it on a tree branch, and then drew the layers of her gown over her shoulders until she stood only in her small chemise, bare-legged and shivering in the cool shade. Then, taking a deep breath, she removed her chemise, draped it over the tree branch, and waded naked into the water to receive the blessing of this holy spring's spirit.

The water was an icy shock to her system and Zelda gasped as it bit at her calves. By Nayru, it was cold. But she pressed on towards the center of the spring, carefully making her way over the slippery rocks on the bottom of the pond. She struggled to keep her balance as she waded deeper, sucking in a lungful of air as the water swept up from her knees, up her thighs, agonizingly higher, until she stood waist deep in the center of the spring, unbound hair running loose over her breasts, shoulders, and back. She balanced carefully on the slippery bottom of the spring, then took another pained breath in, shutting her eyes. She exhaled as she let the magic within her unfurl, spreading out of her body and through the water, sending out curious feelers and strengthening as the holy powers of the healing spring soaked into it.

She felt it the moment that the guardian of the spring became aware of her. A great consciousness swung upward from the darkness to focus upon her, and Zelda did her best not to quake in intimidation. This spring was older and wilder than any of the springs where she'd previously been. Though that wasn't many; wading naked into a spring was expected (and highly encouraged) behavior in sorceresses, but Zelda's royal status tended to complicate things. She'd bathed in the spring at Ordon, and again in the spring at Kakariko, and once in the spring at Zora's domain; though those spirits were old, they were familiar with the royal family, and used to human magicians. This one was not.

Well, thought Zelda, here goes nothing.

"I am Zelda, the Seventh Princess of Hyrule," she announced softly. "I have come to seek the blessing of the guardian of this spring."

She felt the spirit's consciousness studying her. It felt wild and untamed; she felt like she was standing on the edge of a cliff over a vast drop, face turned into the whirling fingers of the wind. She wondered how long it had been since a sorcerer or sorceress had come to this spring.

The spirit seemed to make up its' mind, and Zelda braced herself for the rushing warmth of a blessing. She wasn't, however, expecting what came next.

Welcome, Forest Queen.

The voice that spoke into her mind was beautiful and frozen and soft and sharp all at once- like snow on pine needles or the creaking of cold wood. Zelda gasped in surprise and lost her balance. Her feet slid straight out from under her on the algae-covered rocks and she found herself embraced by the frigid water. She came up spluttering, gasping in the cold, even as she felt the incredible power of a blessing fuse itself to her own magic. And like that, the consciousness of the spirit was gone. Teeth chattering, Zelda slipped and slid her way back out of the spring. She pushed her sodden hair out of her face and raised her eyes from the floor of the spring to look up— and spotted a wolf watching her from the shore.

In shock, Zelda reacted instinctively. The sparkling shadow within her reared its' head and a red-eyed falcon materialized between Zelda and the wolf, flapping his wings and screeching protectively.

The wolf sat calmly, watching Zelda. She wrapped her arms over her chest and looked back. Zelda had seen sketches of wolves, of course, but this was the first wolf she'd actually laid eyes upon, and even with her lack of lupine experience there seemed to be something different about this one. His fur was charcoal grey, but he had white swirls of fur along his sides, and a marking on his forehead that looked, to Zelda's eyes, almost like a crown. His bright blue eyes remained trained on her, and there was terrifying intelligence in them. He bowed his head in an incline, then stood, shook himself once, and trotted into the forest. The Sheikah watched the wolf go, and then turned to Zelda, changing shape in midair until he took the form of a man.

"Don't even start in on me," she groused at him, wobbling her way up the slippery rocks and out of the spring. The Sheikah followed, watching Zelda as she got dressed.

Sheik was one of the shadow guardians that devoted themselves to defending the royals of Hyrule. The day Zelda had been born, Sheik had appeared by her cradle, sent by the Great Host to share her life force and defend her. He had been bound to her, and she to him, and Sheik was now as much a part of the youngest Princess as an arm or a leg.

"I wasn't going to lecture you," Sheik said, watching Zelda struggle into her clothes, the fabric sticking to her damp skin. His movements were vaguely birdlike as he swung his hands awkwardly. "I was going to apologize."

"For what?"

"Not being more watchful. It is my duty—"

"Forget it and hand me my shoes, bird. We were both knocked off balance."

"As you wish, Lady," responded Sheik, the corners of his mouth quirking up. He handed Zelda her slippers, then helped her tie her cloak around her shoulders.

"What was going on with that wolf, anyway?" she asked Sheik, pulling her cloak around her and over her head, shivering, as they set off through the woods in the direction of camp. Zelda's desire to explore had been thoroughly drained.

"I don't know, my Lady. It felt like no ordinary wolf, and had great power. None of my kind can recall encountering a creature like that before."

Zelda frowned. The Sheikah shared the knowledge and memories of all their generations on the Great Host, the spiritual center and life source of all the shadow beings. Sheik had never not known something before.

"What about the spring?" Zelda asked. "Did you hear it? It spoke to me, in my head."

"No, Lady," Sheik responded. "I heard nothing. Though the spirits of springs have spoken before, it occurs infrequently, and usually only to saviors or protectors— such as the Hero-In-Green of legend. What did this spirit say to you?"

"It welcomed me," Zelda responded, hopping over a log. "And called me the Forest Queen."

"My people have no knowledge of a forest queen," Sheik responded after a moment.

Zelda blew out her breath between her teeth. "Right," she said. "Tell Impa we're coming." Sheik nodded once, which Zelda knew meant that the message had been communicated. Impa was one of two rogue Sheikah- a Sheikah who wasn't bound to a Royal host, but instead served as a general guardian and guide, and as an anchor for the minds of all the Sheikah who served the Royal family. Impa was very, very old- older even than Sheik- and had been with the Royal family since Hyrule was only a dream, and might at least know what books to look in for answers to the strange situation, if nothing else.

As legend went- Zelda had never been able to get a straight answer out of anyone as to how truthful the legend was- the Sheikah once lived alongside the other inhabitants of Hyrule, and had taught the ways of magic to the people of the country. They guarded the secrets of the universe, protected the land, and served the King and the Goddesses. But a king rose among the Sheikah, and he was thirsty for power. He had the people hoard their knowledge and, eventually, they rebelled against the royal family and tried to take the kingdom of Hyrule for their own.

The Goddesses, furious at the great injustice, had taken the Sheikah's human forms, and had banished the Sheikah to the Ghostly Ether, to dwell in the in-between in the forms of the animals they had failed to protect, until such time as they were ready to repent for their sins by binding their life fully and finally to that of a royal. Then- and only then- could they leave the Ghostly Ether, and take the two-legged forms that they had once held.

Zelda's eyes slid over to look at her protector. As always, he wore the traditional kusari garb of Sheikah warriors, though his face was not hidden behind the tenugui draped around his neck. His handsome, angular features were ageless— he appeared anywhere between twenty years old to fifty, though Zelda knew that, as a Sheikah, he was likely much older than that. Sheikah lived to be hundreds of years, and only bound themselves to a member of the Hylian Royal family when they were very, very old; the process of binding to a Hylian life force meant that a Sheikah had to detach him or herself from the Great Host, and that when the Royal died, so did the Sheikah tied to them.

When Zelda was young, she had asked Sheik why he came to her if it was just going to kill him.

"I've lived many years, my Lady, and done all that I may do with my life as a Sheikah," he responded. "There is nothing left for me but to use my knowledge in the most sacred way, so that I may pass on to the Goddesses and know that I have led a redeemed life."

Zelda grabbed Sheik's long braid and tugged on it once. They were nearing the edge of the woods, and Zelda could see the first hints of riotous color through the trees.

"You're dismissed, Sheik," she said simply. "Go back to sleep."

He inclined his head once. "As my Lady wishes," he responded, and vanished as suddenly as he had appeared. Within her, Zelda felt the shadow that was Sheik curl comfortably around her heart, and drop into a restful awareness.

Without the distraction of Sheik's physical presence, Zelda found herself suddenly colder in her sodden clothes, and hurried the rest of the way to the edge of the forest and out into the meadow. The campground appeared before her, and was slowly coming to life; she could see the sluggish bustle of hungover Hylians going about their morning routines.

Standing at the north end of the field, Zelda had an excellent view: the small tents of the lower classes laid on the outhernmost end of the meadow. Densely packed, they were nevertheless brightly colored, and their occupants seemed cheerful. They gave way to the more colorful tents of the nobles, which grew in size until the many peaks of the royal pavilion rose above the campground. There were ten tents in the royal pavilion in all: the King's tent, the tent of the Queen-Consort, the tent of the high prince, and one tent for each of the seven princesses. Zelda set off across the glade towards the Royal Pavilion, making towards the smallest of the ten tents— a pale pink one that she was happy to call her own.

She entered into the campsite and passed through the ring of nobles' tents arranged around the royal pavilion in a way that struck Zelda as part protectiveness and part sycophancy. Nobody was drinking now that she could see; those who had passed out on the ground had either been moved, or had managed to wake up long enough to drag themselves to their cots. Zelda brushed past one nobleman who was stumbling through the encampment with his hands pressed to his forehead, and hurried through the perimeter marking off the boundaries to the royal area. When she stepped past her guards and into her tent, she found Impa waiting for her.

The tall female Sheikah bowed once to Zelda and handed her the warmed towel she'd prepared. Zelda immediately began shucking her semi-damp clothing, peeling it away from her frozen skin.

"Well?" Zelda asked Impa as she stripped for the second time that day. She knew that everything she'd told Sheik would now be known by Impa, though this was hardly alarming. Both Sheikah had Zelda's full trust.

"The Forest Wife, or Huldra, is a creature of lore from north of the Snow Spine, in the ice wastes, who lures men into the forest to suck the life from them. There is also a tale from the north of the Snow Spine of a man who ventured into the forest to find a bride, and encountered a princess who had been enchanted to take the form of a mouse. There are no documented spiritual springs in the Peak Province. Additionally, the only unique holy creature known to inhabit the Peak Province is the yeti, which hasn't been sighted in seven hundred years."

"Does any of that help?" Zelda asked as she tucked the towel around herself and reached for a second blanket.

"We're dealing with a wholly unprecedented situation," Impa said. She'd forgotten to blink her red Sheikah eyes more than twice— a sure sign that she was thinking hard. "Please begin from your entrance into the woods."

So Zelda recounted the tale in as much detail as she could— the lichen, the cloudberries, discovering the creek and following it to the spring, and entering the water. She relayed the seeming immensity of the guardian of the spring, and the warmth of the blessing, and- finally- the odd wolf.

Impa blinked twice slowly. "Tales of benevolent wolves are abundant in this region," she said at last. "Geri and Freki, the divine wolves. The legend of the wolf mother who reared a hero called Sparks-Of-Steel. The fable of the prince, the wolf, and the golden bird may have roots in a similar situation to what you encountered this morning. The origin of the children's story of the Beast King who took the form of a wolf also comes from this region. There is also the occurrence of the Hero's Shade during the Second Great Imprisonment nine hundred years ago, but that wolf was gold, and appeared only to the Hero-In-Green, and moreover is not specific to the Snow Spine."

"So how much of that folklore is actually real history?" Zelda asked, curious. Impa narrowed red eyes at the princess and chose not to answer. This was hardly unexpected; the female Sheikah was notoriously closemouthed about what myths were real and what myths were just myths.

"Likely, you are dealing with a deity or set of deities," Impa continued. "This region has not produced any notable sorcerers or sorceresses in more than three hundred years; only the occasional hedge witch, witch, or low-level magician. Your dip into the spring would be expected behavior of a sorceress towards regional guardians in a more magically abundant area; most probably, however, you've awoken something that laid dormant for a while."

"Is that a bad thing?" Zelda asked, chewing on her lip.

"Bad and good are both relative terms," responded Impa. "Certainly your actions will have negative repercussions somewhere in the balance of the world, but also positive ones I'm sure. It's impossible to say for now what effects will arise of this situation, so we shall merely wait and see."

Zelda resisted the urge to groan.

That evening, Zelda sat on her cushioned stool by the campfire, watching the flames pensively as people all around her reveled. She was clothed in the traditional First Night garb; blue gown, mask, blue cloak. Tonight, Zelda's eldest sister Lulu would sing. She was a favorite of the people of the kingdom with her beauty and gentleness, and her pale skin and her long, dark hair. She'd been wed to a Zora prince for more than ten years, and had borne him two princes and a princess.

"What's got you in a mood?" asked Aveil, Zelda's fifth sister. Her riotous red hair had been pulled into a loose chignon and the look suited her; Aveil's bright coloring reflected her short temper, and the windswept look complemented the wildness in her eyes.

"Nothing," Zelda responded, glad that she had her mask to hide her expression. Aveil quirked a brow from behind her own mask, but didn't push the point. Instead, she turned to Saria, the third princess, and began to gossip about some of the nobles who were in the camp. Zelda sighed and looked out across the fire again. It would be time for Lulu's performance soon.

The augur had hailed it as a holy omen that the King had produced seven daughters from his two wives, and had sung of the fabled seven wise men of legend. So, somehow, the Princesses had all been roped into learning a different skill to perform on holiday nights. Lulu, the oldest, sang like an angel. The second princess, Julietta, wrote and recited poetry, while the third princess, Saria, played flute. The fourth princess, Ashei, would sword fight; her twin, Aveil, would demonstrate sleight of hand tricks that she often used to infuriate the palace staff. The sixth princess, Zelda's favorite sister Tetra, would dance. Zelda, the seventh and youngest princess, would finish out the celebrations with a showing of sorcery and a short performance on her harp.

Zelda always dreaded her turn to perform.

Lulu, however, didn't, and it was evident as the beautiful woman strode out into the firelight. All around, the crowds quieted; they'd arranged themselves on a gently sloping hill in the enormous meadow where the camp was, and Lulu stood at the bottom, calm and cool. Without any accompaniment, she opened her mouth and began to sing. The hillside was silent and still as Lulu's song washed over them. Zelda shut her eyes and let the sound of her eldest sister's voice sooth her.

Lulu was twelve years older than Zelda, and had often sung Zelda to sleep when she was young. As a child, Zelda had always looked up to Lulu; her distant oldest sister was a fountain of gentleness and serenity that Zelda strove to emulate.

"Lu sure has a set of pipes," Ashei said, leaning over to whisper in Zelda's ear as Lulu paused for breath. Aveil hissed and elbowed her twin in the side, and for a moment it looked as though Ashei would retaliate, but Lulu began to sing again and the two calmed down.

Lulu sang three songs, each five minutes long; at the end of the quarter hour, Zelda was feeling more peaceful than she had all day. After she and Impa had consulted on the matter of the wolf, the Sheikah had vanished to investigate, and Zelda had been swept up by her sisters in a frenzy of prayer, celebration, more prayer, more celebration, and the occasional meal. The worry over what had happened in the spring that morning was a constant burning spark in the back of Zelda's brain, nagging away; several times that day, she'd felt the soothing stir of Sheik alongside her soul as he tried to comfort her. After dinner, there hadn't been time to speak with Impa before Lulu's recital, and as the Royal family stood and filed away from the hillside toward the packed ground that had been designated the "dance floor" and the musicians in the camp struck up a lively tune, Zelda doubted that she'd be able to speak to Impa until the next morning.

"Look at the King go," Tetra whispered to Zelda as their father drew their mother into a dance. The two crown royals danced alone for a moment before the high prince and heir apparent, Daphnes VI, took to the floor with his wife. Lulu followed with one of the masked members of the nobility- her husband couldn't stay out of water long enough to attend the celebrations- and slowly, one by one, the princesses were each claimed and trickled out onto the dance floor.

Zelda danced first an obnoxious nobleman whose name she couldn't care to recall; after that, she danced with Daphnes, then a baron, then one of her father's advisors, then her sister Julietta's husband. She was standing to the side, breathing the sweet night air and cooling down when a voice came from behind her.

"Highness, may I have this dance?"

Zelda turned to see a bowing man of medium height wearing a wolf mask. Zelda didn't recognize him on first glance, but inwardly shrugged it off. There were many members of the nobility she would not instantly recognize— Zelda tended to be more interested in her studies of sorcery than in the peerage. And she felt like she knew him.

"Of course," she responded, and reached out to take the hand that was offered to her.

Unfamiliar magic sizzled across her skin. Zelda inhaled sharply in surprise, her eyes jerking up to the man's face. She couldn't read his expression from behind his wolf's mask, but his blue eyes cut straight through her. She was glad for her own porcelain mask, which had been painted into a coy smile. There was no polite way for her to withdraw her hand, so she let the man lead her out into the part of the meadow that had become a dance floor.

He was easily the best partner she'd ever danced with; his movements were swift, graceful, and sure, and he guided her with an expert hand. Still, he watched her with a light in his eyes that reminded Zelda of a predator ready to pounce. Finally, she couldn't help her curiosity any longer.

"Forgive my rudeness. My Lord seems familiar, though I can't recall when we've met." Zelda said simply.

"We've met before, yes," he responded noncommittally.

"Would my Lord care to refresh my memory?"

"Ah," his voice was teasing, "There's no fun in that, my Lady."

Zelda wasn't sure how to interpret his response. She chanced a look at his face and was met with a very nice view of the place where the mask clung to the man's jaw. It was a strong jaw, and his skin was honey-colored; not too tan from being out in the fields all day, but not the sickly pale of many of the nobles. Zelda was surprised to find it attractive.

Another spark of that weird magic shot from his hands through her.

"There's magic on you. I can feel it. It's like no magic I've ever encountered."

"I am not a traditionally trained sorcerer," the man responded. He must have been able to read the expression of fear in her eyes because he was quick to soothe her. "I'm hardly a rogue or a black magician, my Lady, and I am trained. Just not as you have been, in dull stone towers surrounded by dusty tomes."

"Hm." Zelda let him lead her in a circle, thinking. "What type of magic is it that you practice, then?"

His eyes crinkled as he smiled below the mask. His voice became rough. "The wildest kind, my Lady."

His answer intrigued her. She was about to open her mouth to ask him another question when the dance ended. He bowed to her and she curtseyed low. When she rose from her dip, she took the arm he offered. They walked from the floor.

"Might I have a name for my Lord?" she asked him.

"Perhaps, but a name is a rather large secret," he responded. "Ask me again later tonight, and maybe I will tell you. Good evening, my Lady." He bowed, and Zelda blinked in surprise. He was gone.

Zelda felt heat rise up her neck even as she spun to look for the man. But he had vanished, as swiftly and silently as the wind.

She was more shaken than she would admit. Zelda moved over to the refreshments table, only to have one of the royal attendants scamper up to her, bearing a tray with drink and food options. Zelda selected a goblet of honey wine and sank into a stool beside her sister, Tetra. At twenty-one, Tetra was only a year older than Zelda, and the two looked similar enough that they might be mistaken for twins. But Tetra's skin was a little more golden than Zelda's, and her hair had been bleached by the sun; the sixth Princess was an avid adventurer, and spent much time sailing on Lake Hylia with Aveil, or riding horses, or sword fighting with Ashei. The King had long ago given up hope on taming the sixth Princess and molding her into a proper lady; Tetra was just as high-spirited as the twins, Aveil and Ashei, and was equally determined to forge her own path. The King, though at first infuriated with the antics of what had been termed "the Trio," had eventually shrugged off his daughters' unladylike behavior.

"With seven daughters," he'd concluded, "at least I still have four who are suitably marriageable."

Though Tetra's behavior was often wild, she was still as beautiful as any of her sisters, and lately more and more suitors had been coming to the castle in pursuit of her. She had the same coy and mischievous smile as Aveil, set below inky black eyes that she'd inherited from their father.

"What's up with you?" Tetra asked her sister as Zelda pushed up her mask and tossed back a generous portion of her wine. "Got slime on you?"

"Men," muttered Zelda darkly into her goblet.

"I noticed you were dancing with a nice, strong one," said Tetra, bumping her sister with her shoulder. "Did he break your heart?"

Zelda turned to look at her sister. Even with her mask on, Zelda could read the amusement in her elder sister's eyes.

"You're awful," Zelda responded. Tetra's eyes crinkled, and Zelda was quite sure that the sixth princess was wearing the same self-satisfied smirk that had been painted on the outside of her mask— the same smirk she wore when she'd successfully irritated someone, or executed some stupid stunt in her sailboat.

"I'm so afraid," teased Tetra. "You might use one of your Words of Power and light me on fire."

"Don't tempt me," Zelda fired back, tossing back the rest of her wine and pulling her mask back over her face. "And anyway, what about you? Weren't you dancing with that very handsome lord? You know, that one that begged father for your hand in marriage because you'd… how did he put it… 'bear him a passel 'o healthy bairns'?"

"If you don't shut up," Tetra said serenely, smoothing her silken blue skirts around her, "I will make you regret it every single day until we get back to the palace, at which point I will start putting frogs in your bed."

"I'll turn them into butterflies," responded Zelda, unperturbed.

"Oh, Goddesses," murmured Tetra, her eyes focusing on someone headed their way. "Zelda, loan me Sheik. I need a dance partner— that mandolin guy is coming my way."

"Lord Freedle?" asked Zelda, peering around in interest.

"Just loan me Sheik," ground out Tetra between her teeth.

Zelda shrugged and sent the request to her Sheikah. Reluctantly, he appeared, standing before Tetra in a Sheikah mask.

"Thank you, Sheik," squeaked Tetra in relief, grabbing Sheik's hand and rushing off to the dance floor. Zelda shook her head, sighing behind her mask, and shut her eyes.

Tetra had never said anything, but Zelda knew why the princess spent so much time out on the lake. There was a young man who lived on the shore and kept her boat in top order. Zelda had met the man once when she and Tetra had gone out sailing together, and she'd seen the way that her sister looked at the young sailor— and she saw the way that the young sailor looked back. Zelda only hoped that the two could find happiness, somehow; though the second Princess, Julietta, had married a knight, the young man on the lake was of low rank and had no fortune. He hadn't been able to come along to the Carrus Din, either, and Zelda knew it was upsetting Tetra.

A presence in front of her caused her to open her eyes.

"So sorry," said the man. "My apologies, Princess; I didn't see that your eyes were shut. I merely thought to ask you for a dance, but if you are busy resting…"

"Not at all," said Zelda, rising gracefully to her feet, well aware that she'd been sitting alone for far longer than was appropriate for a woman of her rank. "I would be pleased to dance with you, Lord….?"

"Makivelo," responded the man. He was well-dressed in the blues of the evening, his fiery red hair combed neatly back from his smiling mask. He extended a gloved hand to Zelda, which she took, and allowed him to lead her out to the dance clearing.

"Forgive me, Princess, for being so terribly forward with you," said the man once they'd begun a slow promenade. "We've met before, you see— I am the Chancellor of this province, though I rarely make it to the Castle. I was at your coming of age ball, though."

"Yes, and I stepped on your toes horribly," responded Zelda warmly as the memory came back to her. "I do hope to prove myself a more worthy partner this time around, sir."

"It was no trouble at all, Princess— I believe the fault was all mine, for leading you so poorly," the man said humbly. Zelda laughed lightly.

The Chancellor led her masterfully through the steps of the dance, lightly coaxing small talk from her. When the dance was done, Zelda was feeling pleasantly lightheaded from the exertion and the wine. She took her leave of the Chancellor, and stood to the side of the dance floor long enough for Sheik to return to her, then allowed herself to be swept into another series of dances with lords, barons, and her father.

The hours passed in a blur, and every moment Zelda felt herself growing more and more tired with each dance. At last, the end of the night was close. Standing under the cover of a grove of trees, Zelda yawned into the back of her hand and looked longingly in the direction of the royal pavilion. The dance was almost over; after the formal dances were through, a number of smaller informal dances and general revelry would continue throughout the night and early into the morning. Zelda didn't know if she would be able to last through the end of the formal dances, let alone make it through any of the informal ones; she felt herself flagging, tired out from her long and eventful day.

A sudden, strong presence to her left had her jerking her head around. There before her stood the same masked man from earlier that night— the one with the wild magic.

"Dance with me, Princess," he said to her in his growling baritone. Zelda found she could not refuse, nor did she want to; obediently, she placed her hand in his outstretched one and allowed him to lead her out into the clearing. A slow waltz began to play.

His eyes narrowed on her and his arms tightened on her as she put her hand in his.

"You're tired," he said simply as more of that strange magic shot through his palm to hers.

"It's been a long day," she responded.

"You're too tired," he growled.

"I'm fine," snapped Zelda, feeling a little annoyed. The man's taut muscles relaxed a little and his grip on her loosened.

"My apologies, Princess," he said quietly. "I was merely concerned."

"Your concern is appreciated, but unwarranted," Zelda responded stiffly. "I don't even know your name, Sir."

"I think you do," he responded, a grin in his voice. Zelda looked up at him, furrowing her brows.

"I'm sure I don't," she said. Blue eyes crinkled behind his wolf's mask.

"I'm sure you do," he responded. "But you may call me Link, if you would like."

"I can't call you by your given name," hissed Zelda. "That's scandalous! What's your title, sir?"

The infuriating man was laughing now.

"You may guess, and I will tell you if you are correct or incorrect," he said simply.

"That's ridiculous," Zelda scoffed.

Laughing blue eyes drilled a hole straight through her. "Afraid you won't know?"

"No," responded Zelda with more bravado than she felt.

"Let's make a deal, then," the man said, bringing his masked face next to her ear. "Or are you afraid?"

"What's your deal?" Zelda asked, her stubbornness getting the best of her.

"You may ask me one question each time we dance," he responded. "At the end of the night, you may guess what my title is. If you have not guessed correctly by the end of the Carrus Din, you will owe me one kiss."

"And if I guess correctly?" Zelda asked.

"Name your prize," the man said simply.

Zelda thought for a moment as they spun in slow circles. She realized then that she felt better- more energized- than she had all night. The slow, pulsing flood of power being siphoned into her through her hand jerked her out of it.

"You're feeding me magic," she accused.

"You're feeling better now, aren't you?" asked the man. His eyes crinkled in mirth. Zelda wanted to smack what she was sure was a very annoying grin straight off his face.

"If I win, and guess your title, you'll give me a Token," responded Zelda.

A Token was a sacred thing to high-level magicians and sorcerers, and was the ultimate Boon. It contained a piece of a person's power that could boost a sorcerer's own natural abilities; a Token of this man's wild magic could prove invaluable for Zelda in a pinch.

The man smiled, seemingly pleased with her response.

"Accepted," said the man. "Do you accept the deal, Princess?"

She wondered for a moment if she was making a mistake, but then shook it off. There was no harm in a kiss, and the opportunity to win a Token from this man… well, why not?

"Accepted," she responded. She felt the magic of the deal wind itself around the two of them, then settle into place, like a warm quilt. As the last of the magic seeped through her skin, the music ended. Zelda pulled apart from the man and allowed him to press a kiss to the back of her hand.

"Until tomorrow, Princess," said the man.

"Until tomorrow," she responded, refusing to utter his name. He quirked a brow behind the mask and then turned, vanishing just as suddenly as he had earlier that night.

Even bolstered by the energy the man had fed her, Zelda was exhausted. She turned and saw Tetra and the third princess, Saria, leaning tiredly against a tree.

"Did you just do something stupid?" Saria asked with a yawn.

"No," responded Zelda. "You look exhausted."

"You look worse," Tetra responded. "You've been looking pale all night. We figured we'd wait with you and walk with you back to the pavilion."

"Thanks," Zelda said, touched by her sisters' concern.

The three set off through the campgrounds, passing through parties and revels that had broken off from the original dance and moved out on their own. It wasn't long before they made it to the royal pavilion.

"See you in the morning," said Saria, setting off towards her large green tent.

"Good night," Zelda responded. Tetra vanished into her own purple tent, and Zelda stumbled into her pink one.

She immediately set to shucking her clothes. Sheik appeared beside her, cocking his head in a birdlike fashion as she pulled on her gown.

"Are you certain that deal was wise, Princess?" he asked.

"It's just a kiss," she responded. "I don't see the harm."

The Sheikah pursed his lips, but didn't respond. Zelda stumbled into bed. Sheik sat next to her for a moment.

"Link was right," he responded quietly, a frown creasing his handsome features. "Something did drain some of your energy during the evening. I don't know when, though— I never noticed anything."

"You're worrying at shadows," murmured Zelda, turning her face into her pillow. "Just let me sleep."

The Sheikah sighed, and then transformed in a rustle of feathers into his bird form. He took his place on a perch beside Zelda's cot and settled down to guard her during the night as she rolled herself up in her blankets and slid, easily and happily, into sleep.

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