Into The Woods

By Lyxie

Chapter 3: The Disappearance

In the dream, Impa was standing before her. They were in a stone cabin. The dirt floor was strewn with rushes, and the wooden walls of the cabin were painted a soft violet. Zelda was sitting on a tall stool.

"Perhaps this is a mistake," Zelda murmured. Her voice was different— soft. Gentle. But it had an undertone of depth and power and sadness. Her white-gloved hands were folded in her lap. She was refraining from twisting the pendant around her neck between her palms, but only just.

"My Queen?"

"There is something about him, Impa, that I mistrust." She wanted to stand and pace, but did not. Years of training held her in place, looking serene despite her inner turmoil. "He is concealing something from me by feeding me half-truths."

"That is the way of his kind." Impa blinked her red eyes owlishly. "Creatures of Power are remarkably good at twisting the truth to suit their own purposes."

"Then what is is that he's hiding?" she asked. "He says he will defeat the monster in return for a human form and a single drop of blood, yet this price seems too low. There is something else he wants."

She went quiet, puzzling over it in her head. It just didn't make sense. Though a human form would be a difficult thing for her to bestow, it would still be an unequal trade. There was something she was missing.

"I'll take his bargain," Zelda said finally. "But I believe he misleads us. He is planning something."

We have no option?" Impa asked, red eyes analytical and unblinking.

"None," Zelda responded. "None so simple as this."

Zelda awoke, groggy, to sunny morning light streaming in through the open flap of her tent. She blinked blearily several times, only to see Saria standing in the doorway.

"Huh?" grunted Zelda, shifting until she was in a sitting position. Her head felt muzzy and her tongue felt as though it was made of cotton.

"You feel it too?" Saria asked, making her way forward and seating herself on the plush stool next to Zelda's bed. "I thought I was coming down with something, but Ashei looked paler than normal, and I remembered how much green potion you drank last night."

Zelda exhaled and let her head fall back onto her pillow. She glanced over at Saria, who was wearing a cloak over her dressing gown, and then scooted over in her cot until there was room for her sister.

Saria gratefully crawled in, and Zelda rested her head on her big sister's shoulder. She inhaled the comforting smell of Saria: sweet and herbal, like rosemary and lavender and lemongrass and soil. The most even-tempered of all the sisters, the third princess was kind, gentle, and loving. She was a low-level hedgewitch, and had gained most of her skills from a childhood spent nursing the physical traumas of her many siblings. She loved the outdoors in a way that none of the other princesses did; her long chestnut locks were more often than not tangled with leaves and strands of rosemary, and her eyes were the same bright green of the Ordon woods. The sisters liked to joke that Saria had been a wood nymph in a past life, or some such similar creature.

"There's something strange going on here," Saria said simply, running her long, faintly-calloused fingers through Zelda's tangled locks. "Something's happening to my magic, and Ashei's, and yours. And I'm betting that the people are suffering, too, though they probably think it's just hangovers."

"Mm," murmured Zelda.

"But you and Impa know what's going on, don't you?"

"No," Zelda responded. "But we're working on it."

"I know you went into the woods together yesterday morning," Saria said softly. "Did you find anything there?"

"Unfortunately," said Zelda, keeping her eyes firmly shut and trying to erase the sudden memory of the rearing Gohma. She'd had nightmares about it all night— she remembered that now. Nightmares about it, and something else…

"Can you tell me about it?"

Zelda sighed, then pushed herself up on an elbow to look at her sister.

"I'll tell you as soon as I know more," Zelda said simply. "Right now, I don't know enough to say anything for sure. Impa has gone to check on some things. We should know more when she gets back."

"And what should we do in the meantime?" Saria asked, shivering a little. "I feel weird. Weak, like I felt after I healed Tetra's ankle when she sprained it."

Zelda's lips quirked up at the memory. Daring her older sister climb the tallest tree in the royal gardens had been one of her stupider moments.

"Ashei was training this morning, and she wasn't using any Quest like she normally does," continued Saria. "And you've got a massive magical core… I can't even imagine how you're feeling."

"Drink lots of green potions," said Zelda simply. "And have Mido feed you a little of his magic if you start to get too weak." Mido was Saria's Sheikah, who took the form of a fox.

"But how are you doing?" asked Saria, nudging Zelda, green eyes wide with concern. "Really. How are you?"

Magical cores were tied directly to life force. The larger the core, the more direct the drain on the life force. Zelda looked at her sister, and thought about talking about how she ached all over, or was feeling a little woozy, or that she was afraid of what she was probably going to have to do— what it seemed the Goddesses wanted her to do. But instead, she settled with a smile that she hoped didn't look too much like a grimace.

"I'm fine," said Zelda, injecting as much honesty into her voice as possible. "I'll be fine. Sleeping for so long helped a lot." And it had. Just not enough. "Don't worry about me, ok? Focus on taking care of yourself."

Saria looked as though she was going to argue, but instead nodded, still frowning a little.

"I'm sorry I woke you," Saria said. "You should go back to sleep if you're that tired."

"No, it's fine," said Zelda around a massive yawn. Saria smirked as she detangled herself from Zelda and crouched beside the cot.

"You're lying," Saria said simply. She rested a hand on Zelda's forehead. Gentle magic seeped through. "Sleep," whispered Saria.

Zelda wanted to fight it, to tell Saria to conserve her magic, but her eyelids were growing heavier, and her limbs felt boneless. A protest still on her lips, Zelda slid back into the world of dreams.

She woke again suddenly in the late morning. Golden light trickled through the pink walls of the tent, and Zelda rolled off her cot, landing with an undignified whump on the fur rug. A shadow falcon blinked down at her with red eyes as she laid on the floor, trying to catch her breath.

"Shut up," Zelda muttered to the Sheikah, who was perched above her cot. She wondered where he'd been earlier that morning; shrugging it off, she sat up, and realized that she felt worlds better than she had earlier. Cheered, Zelda sat up, lifted the bell beside her bed, and rang for her maids to come help her dress for the day.

Half an hour later, Zelda's tow-colored hair had been braided into a coronet and knot, peppered with flowers, and she'd dressed for the day in a brown dress and green tunic. Feet firmly shod in buttery leather boots, Zelda stepped out of her tent into the late morning sunlight and made her way over to the dining tent. Lulu was the only other Princess there, blinking blearily and clutching her head.

"Good morning, Lu," Zelda said to her eldest sister, seating herself across from Lulu so that she'd shade the woman's eyes from the sun. Grateful (but hazy) indigo orbs met violet ones, and Lulu cracked a pained smile.

"The wine," croaked Lulu. "Last night. Ugh. Goddesses, I'm too old for this."

"You seemed very enthusiastic about carrots," Zelda said lightly, accepting several fluffy biscuits from an attendant. She began to smear the biscuits liberally with honey butter, eagerly anticipating her breakfast.

"There aren't any carrots in Zora's domain," grumbled Lulu, sinking her fork into a sausage. "I got a little overexcited."

"Not homesick?" Zelda asked her sister, taking a bite of her biscuit.

Lulu's eyes softened. "Somewhat," admitted the first princess. "I miss my family."

Lulu had gone into her arranged marriage willingly, though she didn't know her groom, Mikau, until a few weeks before the wedding. Nevertheless, it was a good match; the two were very happy together, and if the blush on Lulu's face was anything to gauge by when the other princesses began teasing her, she was more than a little enamored of her husband.

"I was disappointed the children couldn't come," Zelda offered. "I think Tarin was too, especially since Honey and Maple couldn't make it either." Maple and Honey were Julietta and Romio's twin daughters. The girls were only six years old, and had been judged too young to come along on the Carrus Din. They'd stayed with their grandmother, a very famous witch named Syrup; given Maple's budding powers, Zelda was glad the child wasn't along. The girl had a lot of raw magic, and the drain would have affected her acutely.

"We'll all be at the Carrus Nayru," Lulu said quietly. "The children can't be away from water too long."

Zelda made a sympathetic noise. She couldn't imagine what it must be like for Lulu to be raising half-Zora children; when they were older, they would each permanently take either the form of Hylians, or of Zoras. As they were growing, though, they retained facets of both forms; scales and fins, sharp teeth, pointed ears, and hair. Zelda remembered when Lulu went into labor with her eldest son, Evan— she'd been in Zora's domain visiting her elder sister. Lulu had wound up laying an egg, and she'd freaked.

"What's so funny?" Lulu asked, narrowing her eyes at Zelda, who was smirking into a goblet of orange juice.

"Remembering when you had Evan," Zelda said simply. Lulu looked for a moment as though she was going to lecture Zelda, but then she smiled and laughed once lightly.

"I could have killed Mikau for not warning me properly," said Lulu.

At the time, Mikau had cringed from his wife, saying over and over again that he and the other Zoras hadn't known that Lulu wasn't expecting to lay eggs. It had been a memorable fight— nearly as memorable as how loudly Lulu had shrieked at Aveil when she made a joke about making omelets afterwards.

"Are you feeling any better?" Zelda asked Lulu, whose color seemed to be slightly less pasty white than before.

"Slightly," Lulu responded. "I wish I could find Saria for a pick-me-up."

Zelda studied Lulu from across the table and then reached across the space between them. She pressed two fingers lightly to Lulu's forehead and let the magic of a mild healing spell do its work.

She was pleased when exhaustion didn't strike her— only a mild tiredness that Zelda could easily get over with a little potion or some more food.

"You're a Goddess-send," Lulu said simply, eyes bright and cheeks full of color. "I keep forgetting that you know healing magic."

"It comes with the territory of being a sorceress, you know," Zelda responded drily, finishing the last of her biscuits with gusto.

"What else can you do?" Lulu asked, curious.

Lulu had lived in Zora's domain for nearly the full duration of Zelda's magical training. Of all her sisters, Zelda was easily least close to Lulu— she'd been married at the age of eighteen. Zelda had been six years old, and a flower girl, and only just learning to not make things explode when she had temper tantrums.

"Lots of things," Zelda said with a shrug. "I can talk to spirits, and see different kinds of magic, and do lots of things that you would find incredibly boring."

"Like what?"

"Like mapping the stars to gauge when the ideal time for working a large spell is," said Zelda drily. "It sounds exciting, but is actually quite dull, and involves an inordinate number of maps and arithmetic. The Academy likes to contemplate the nature of magic and the meaning of life and all that, but I'm not as good at the philosophy," Zelda added with a shrug. "Magicians take care of the wisdom thing. Sorcerers and Sorceresses are a little more action-oriented."

"So could you light this whole campgrounds on fire at once?" Lulu asked.

"Probably," Zelda responded. "But I'm not so good with Fire. I could flood it pretty easily, or cause a major earthquake or a storm, but it would take a lot of power, and I would probably be laid up for quite a while afterwards."

Lulu studied Zelda for a moment, pondering something. She seemed to reach a conclusion because she grinned.

"I've had it explained to me before, but I was never really interested in magic while I lived at the palace, and when I had my intensive lessons on magical bureaucracy I was getting ready for the wedding, so I didn't really pay attention… and the Zoras have their own system, anyway. So what's the difference between a hedgewitch, a witch, a magician, and a sorceress?"

Zelda accepted a grapefruit from a waiter and dug in, taking a few moments to chew and collect her thoughts on how to explain, in the simplest way possible, the differences. She swallowed and set down her spoon.

"Hedgewitches and hedgewizards have the least amount of power, and are therefore most commonly found. Every family or village has at least one hedgewitch. They use lots of herbs, amulets, wands, and other conduits to conduct their power. They're also best suited for healing, and tend to learn on the job. Saria had a little formal magical training, but for the most part she spent a lot of time following another hedgewitch around and learning from her.

"Witches and wizards are the next step up," continued Zelda. "They tend to need only something like a wand to channel their power, and only occasionally. Witches usually learn from other witches or wizards. They're particularly good for setting up minor enchantments, making amulets and things, and brewing potions.

"Magicians are much more powerful than witches or hedgewitches. Most magicians carry staves, because at that level of power, they can store extra magic there. Because they're powerful, magicians tend to cling to order, and have a very rigid hierarchy to make sure that nothing goes awry. Magicians in Hyrule make sure that the natural balance of the world is preserved, and that order is maintained."

"What does that mean?" Lulu asked. "The natural balance of the world?"

"All magicians belong to the Academy," explained Zelda. "And they monitor… the flow of power, if you will. If one area of the kingdom has too much or too little power flowing in and out, they'll send someone to investigate and set things to rights… think of it like a big, circular river that takes water to all parts of the kingdom. If the flow is stronger than it should be in some places, and weaker than it should be in others, magicians figure out why and fix it. Magicians also tend to contemplate the 'whys' and 'hows' of magic. I suppose that's what happens when you're the watchdog." Zelda shrugged, and spooned another bit of grapefruit into her mouth.

"And sorceresses?"

"Rarest, and most powerful," Zelda said simply. "As a sorceress, I don't need a wand, or any other trinkets to control my power. There are maybe a dozen other sorcerers and sorceresses in the Kingdom."

"And what do sorcerers and sorceresses do?"

Zelda shrugged again. "Whatever they want. Usually battle big monsters, or the like."

"What do you do?"

That was a good question. What did Zelda do? "Not much," the seventh princess admitted. "Since I'm a royal, they don't let me near the really dangerous stuff. For the most part, I set up big, big enchantments, like altering the weather in certain provinces when necessary, or warding, or that sort of thing."

"You do that regularly?" Lulu asked, eyes wide.

"Every once in a while," responded Zelda. "But, to put it in perspective: a hedgewitch can heal someone every day. A witch could make someone sick every week. A magician could lay a curse on someone's family every month or so. A sorceress could make someone's village slide into an enormous chasm in the earth perhaps once a season."

Lulu shivered. "That's a lot of power."

"That's what the Academy is for," Zelda responded. "Making sure that the power isn't ever abused."

"And is it?" Lulu asked.

Zelda thought about the Gohma, and about whatever it was that was draining the magic from the area— and doing it in such a way that the Academy hadn't caught on.

"Sometimes," Zelda responded. "Sometimes, people go down the wrong path, and tap into bad spells— Dark Magic. The kind of magic that started the Imprisoning War. But the Academy is good about finding people who have gone Dark, and then someone- usually a high level sorcerer or sorceress- strips that person of all his or her power with the help of a team of Magicians."

"So you could take someone's power?" Lulu asked, wide eyed.

"Only if they were weaker than me, and I had about twenty Magicians at my back making sure I didn't explode or accidentally conjure a demon or something."

Lulu's indigo eyes were the size of saucers. Zelda wondered if she'd said too much. First Saria barging into her tent at the crack of dawn, and now Lulu's curiosity; would she alarm all of her sisters by the time the day was over?

"And anyway, I'm particularly talented with Light magic," Zelda added consolingly. "So someone who had gotten into Dark Magic…. I could just purify him or her, which is much less risky. Don't worry about it, though, Lu," said Zelda. "It sounds big and scary, but it's not. Magic wielders in Hyrule are very well monitored. Nothing bad has happened in ages." She couldn't stop her mind from returning to the woods, but resolutely, Zelda pushed those thoughts away. She and Impa were going to fix- discreetly- whatever was wrong in the Snow Spine, and nobody would be the wiser.


"If you say I don't need to worry about it, then I won't," Lulu said with a shaky laugh. "After all, nobody would know better than you, right?"

Zelda saw a massive, hairy spider in her mind, pincers clicking, eye bleeding ichor, venom dripping down to scorch the ground beneath it. "Right," Zelda agreed.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Zelda was surprised when evening rolled around and she wasn't in the least tired— likely because she'd slept until nearly eleven, and always had a green potion (sans wine) handy during the day. Dinner was the same jolly affair as usual, with music and merriment and no small amount of mayhem. Zelda found herself sitting next to young Tarin, and she was regaled with stories of his great adventures from that morning. He'd gone to see the jousting tournament, which Zelda had foregone: it was a little too close to the treeline for her comfort. Instead, she'd spent the afternoon in prayer with her mother.

The Queen of Hyrule was a calm, quiet woman. When she had wed the King, after the death of his first wife (the mother of Daphnes, Lulu, Julietta, and Saria), she had apparently been lively and bright, but motherhood had calmed her some. She had the same inky black hair as Ashei, as well as the violet eyes that both Zelda and Ashei shared. She had flawless, pale skin, a long, round face, and the same lush lips that both Tetra and Aveil had inherited. She was lithe and willowy, and looked nearly childlike next to the immense height and girth of the King.

Zelda didn't often spend time with her mother. When she was very young, her mother had been busy tending to the twins and to Tetra; once Zelda's magical temper asserted itself, Zelda was immediately put in the care of Impa, who could place a damper on Zelda's baby magic and teach her to control her abilities. Once Zelda had understood the fundamentals of magic, her study had become incredibly rigorous; all of her princess studies, paired with her sorceress studies, had made for a childhood and adolescence that didn't contain much free time. It was only recently, after Zelda had been granted Accolades by the Academy, that she had begun to get to know her mother.

The Queen was a soft-spoken, devout woman, though sparks of her legendary strong will still asserted themselves from time to time. For the most part, she was prim, demure, and gentle; Zelda wondered if she'd mellow out and be like her mother in thirty years.

After dinner, all the hundreds- if not thousands- of people in the camp settled themselves down on the great hillside to watch Saria play the flute. The third Princess looked stunning in a long gown of green, and she perched on a stool that had been carved to look like a tree stump. She played a folk song from each province, moving many members of her audience alternately to either laughter or tears. When Saria's quarter-hour was up, she received thunderous applause, and swept a deep curtsey, cheeks pink with pleasure.

As Zelda stood underneath a tree clutching a goblet of wine, she was pleased to note that she'd done a minimal amount of looking around for a well-built stranger in a wolf mask. She was giving herself a mental pat on the back for only looking for him three times in five minutes when the object of her curiosity appeared in front of her. He didn't even speak, merely extended his hand to her. Zelda took it with a surety that she'd have to examine later, handed her goblet off to a passing servant, and allowed him to lead her out onto the dance floor.

"You're here earlier tonight," she said simply.

"You have much more energy today," he responded. "I'm glad. Though I suppose battling a Gohma will drain anyone's resources."

Zelda stiffened in his arms. Even her mask couldn't hide her horrified reaction.

"How do you know?" she hissed.

The man spun her once.

"Is that your question for this dance?" he asked.

Zelda nodded.

"I was there," he responded, his warm hand landing on her waist as he guided her through the movements. "Surely you can't think that you're the only one who ventures into the woods?"

"You can't tell anyone," Zelda muttered shakily. She hadn't even thought that anyone else had been there— that anyone else had seen, or known. How hadn't she sensed his presence? "Promise me."

"Your secret is safe with me, Princess."

And just like that, Zelda's apprehensions melted (mostly) away. That was another thing she would have to examine later, when she laid alone in her cot and didn't have hypnotizing eyes staring her down, or strong arms guiding her surely across a dance floor made of dirt.

"I was impressed, though," the man continued, bringing Zelda slightly closer as they twirled. "For someone with depleted magical resources, you fought admirably."

"I thought the Gohma's lair was encased in an impermeable ward," murmured Zelda, careful not to phrase it as a question. The man's eyes lit up with amusement, but he didn't call her out.

"It normally takes more than two magic wielders to defeat a Dark Creature, even a lesser one," said the man. "You must have fought well."

Zelda tried not to flush with the praise. She wasn't some novice magician who had just completed her first enchantment; she was a sorceress. A good one. A force to be reckoned with.

"Thank you," she managed. It was as though the man saw through her, straight through her struggles, and was both amused and proud; he dipped her once, and she could see his smile from behind his mask. She was struck with a sudden burning curiosity to see what lay below it.

"Now now, Princess," said the man, as though he'd sensed the twitch in her fingers or read the curiosity in her eyes. "Tradition states that masks remain on until the end of the seventh night."

Zelda scowled behind her mask, but knew he was right; as a princess, Zelda couldn't break tradition. Not only was the Carrus Din a celebration of life, it was also one of passion; the notion was that, when masked, strong emotions- powerful emotions, like love and desire- were more easily revealed. Mystery fed romance, and the seventh night held the great unmasking; it was no coincidence that many children were born nine months later.

"Your game is incredibly irritating," Zelda said, though she was beginning to worry that she was falling prey to the ploy of the Carrus Din. She wondered if this masked man was hideous. She wondered why she cared. She was a Princess of Hyrule, and he was… well, he was a stranger.

"But you're enjoying it," said the man, and Din take him if he wasn't right about it.

"Whether or not I'm enjoying it isn't the point," said Zelda, hardly noticing that the dance had ended. She dropped a curtsy as the man bowed, and then allowed him to lead her from the dance floor. "It's… it's an enormous breach of manners. Not that I'm going to complain to anyone, but it goes against station, and that just isn't done."

"Who says your rank is higher than mine?" asked the man in amusement. Zelda gaped at him.

"I… that doesn't… what?" she managed. She tried again, but still couldn't come up with anything more eloquent than another, "What?"

"I'll find you for another dance later," growled the man, his voice full of dark promise. "Perhaps you'll have formulated a better question by then."

He didn't vanish this time, but instead walked away into the darkness.

Romio sidled up to Zelda, frowning.

"Do I need to hurt him?"

Romio was protective of all the princesses, but most especially Tetra and Zelda; he'd been in the family for years, and had become a kind of second big brother to the two.

"It might be a good idea," Zelda agreed.

"Who is he?" Romio asked.

"I'd like to know that myself," chimed in Tetra, appearing on Zelda's other side with a goblet of wine in hand.

"An arrogant pig," said Zelda, taking Tetra's goblet of wine, slipping it under her mask, and tipping back the drink.

"He gets beneath your skin, does he?" Tetra asked, even as Romio took the empty goblet with a frown. "Funny. I haven't seen anyone get beneath your skin before. Not even Father, or Impa. Not even Aveil, and that's saying something."

Zelda forced herself to take a calming breath and clear her mind.

"Well, he's certainly unlike anyone I've encountered before," she managed. Tetra's quick grin was visible in her eyes.

"Would Father approve of him?" Tetra asked. Zelda snorted. Romio murmured an excuse as Julietta drunkenly tipped over several feet away.

"Tet, I barely know him," Zelda responded. "I've only just met him."

"That doesn't make a difference," Tetra sang lightly, though Zelda could tell from the sudden, sad tone of her voice that she was thinking about the man she could never have, who was waiting patiently for her, minding her skiff on the shores of Lake Hylia.

"Come and dance with me," Zelda said suddenly, grabbing her elder sister's hands. "It's a reel, nobody will care if we partner with each other."

"Zelda," laughed Tetra, though she followed the younger girl out onto the packed dance floor. The two whirled around each other, laughing as they traded hands and moved through the dance. By the end of it, Tetra was thoroughly distracted, giggling in delight and out of breath. The two sisters were quickly swept into a quadrille by two young men, Malo and Talo, the sons of a well-to-do merchant. Malo, the younger, was following in his father's footsteps; Talo, the hotheaded elder brother, was one of Daphnes's personal guards.

After the quadrille, Zelda was swept up by Lord Makivelo, then by her brother, and then- surprisingly- by the King himself for a stately sarabande.

Zelda was never fully sure what to say to her father. He was even more of a stranger to her than her mother was; he was a good ruler, if harsh, and he expected his children to lead by example, as he did.

"You seem to be enjoying yourself, daughter," the King said as he took Zelda's hand in his to begin the sarabande.

"Yes," said Zelda. "Very much."

"You have never been to this part of the Kingdom before, correct?"

"I haven't," said Zelda. "Though I've always wanted to see the legendary twisted pines. But… as you know, my Lord, my studies prevented me from traveling much when I was younger."

"I have heard from Auru that you are shaping up to be a fine sorceress indeed," said the King. Zelda nodded once. Auru was one of the six Sages, who kept tabs on the Academy and the kingdom. He was also a crotchety, though affectionate, old man. Zelda adored him.

"I am," she responded, honestly and without any sort of bravado. "I have had the very best of mentors."

"Good," said the King with a nod. "And I understand that you spent the afternoon in prayer with the Queen. This is pleasing to me."

Zelda knew the answer to that one. "The Goddesses have blessed me greatly," she said simply. "My gratitude to them runs very deep."

The King smiled a little, which Zelda only knew because the whiskers of his short beard moved underneath his enormous, golden mask. The visage of a roaring lion, it was both beautiful and terrifying— a fitting mask for a King.

"I hope that my Lord has enjoyed the Carrus Din so far?" asked Zelda, following her father through a complex set of steps.

"Indeed, I have," the King responded. "I do enjoy Ordon, but there's something to be said for the Snow Spine region. Hyrule is a beautiful kingdom from peak to lake and I am glad that the people are traversing it."

Zelda nodded once, unsure of how to respond to that.

"Have you been practicing your harp, daughter?" the King asked Zelda as the dance slowed, drawing near its end.

"Yes, some," said Zelda. It wasn't a complete lie— she'd picked it up to absentmindedly tune it earlier that afternoon before wandering out to find a late lunch. She made a mental vow to spend time tomorrow morning practicing her songs for the end of the festival, after she demonstrated some small magic. "I'm very confident in the music that I will be playing." That, at least, wasn't a lie at all.

"Good," said the King. "It is good for the people to take pride in their Princesses."

Again, Zelda wasn't sure of how to respond, but she was saved by the end of the dance. The King bowed slightly to her, and Zelda curtseyed deep, noticing the way her father's body was tense, and how he favored (very slightly) his left side. She knew he'd never say anything about it, either; as the King, he was loathe to admit weakness, though he was over fifty years old now and his body was bound to ache. Zelda made a mental note to have Saria slip him something later, or to find an excuse to touch her father and work a little healing magic on him; though her resources were lower than usual, she could easily spare the magic necessary to ease some of the King's pain.

She sat with Saria and Ashei for a while after that, sharing green potions and chasing it with wine. When Zelda got up to dance again, she was surprisingly light on her feet, and let an older Lord escort her around the dance floor to a lively gavotte.

The night was wearing on, and Zelda had lost track of what time it was. Well, it was a Carrus Din— the goal was to eat, drink, be merry, and celebrate. And if Zelda celebrated with a little too much wine, at least she could blame it on the green potion. The stuff tasted horrible. It had to be chased with something.

"Are you drunk, Princess?" came a familiar voice. Zelda turned to see the man in the wolf mask.

"Is that your question for this dance?" she fired back, even as she went willingly into his arms for yet another waltz. How did he always manage to pick waltzes?

"You're feeling feisty," the man observed. "Feisty enough to guess my name?"

"The night isn't over yet," Zelda said.

"This dance will be over soon," responded the man. "Unless you're planning on attending an informal dance as well?"

"I might," said Zelda. "I haven't decided yet." She shot a look up at the man from between her lashes.

"You're playing with fire, Princess," he growled.

"So scary," she laughed. "Like a big puppy."

"That mouth of yours is going to get you into trouble," said the man.

"Nothing I can't handle," Zelda shot back. She was pleased to note how slowly he was spinning them. Good. She'd hate it if she had to be sick all over his very nice doublet. "Green looks good on you."

The man laughed in genuine delight, and Zelda tried not to be proud of herself, though she wasn't fully sure of what she'd said that was so amusing.

"I'm glad my attire is to your liking," responded the man.

"So, strange man, what's your interest in me?"

"My name is Link, and you'd do well to call me by it," Link said.

"Fine, Link," Zelda responded, deciding to throw caution to the wind for the rest of the evening. "Why are you so interested in me? I haven't seen you dance with any of my sisters. In fact, I haven't seen you dance with anyone."

"Watching for me, Princess?"

"In your dreams. Now answer the question."

"I find you fascinating," said Link simply. "A twenty year old pampered princess with the incredible power of a high-level sorceress, and the wisdom to use that power properly. You have beautiful magic— and it is magic that is tied most closely to the soul after all, is it not?"

"You're dancing with me because of my magic?" Zelda asked skeptically.

"No," growled Link, his masked face nearing her own. "I'm dancing with you because you're you. That was two questions, and the ball is over, Princess. You owe me a dance tomorrow."

"Couldn't I just forego guessing your name tonight?" Zelda tried.

"That wasn't part of our original agreement, though I'll give you that question as a freebie."

Zelda resisted the urge to stomp her foot.

"You're a horrible, insufferable man, and I'm quite sure I can't stand you at all," she snarled. The weight of it crashed down on her all at once: the monsters in the woods, Romio's horrible promise, Lulu and Saria's fear, the spirit in the springs, Impa gone, and it was still only the third day of the Carrus Din.

"I've upset you," said Link softly. He took both of Zelda's hands and electricity shot up her arm. "That wasn't my intent."

"Stop using magic on me," she snapped.

"I'm not using any magic on you," Link responded, guiding her over to a stool in the inky shadows of an enormous tree. The dance was clearing out, people heading their separate ways, towards tents and other, smaller revels. "I promise."

"I can feel it shooting up my arm," she said, flexing her fingers within his grip.

"That's no magic." Link's grasp tightened just the slightest bit, and he knelt in the soft soil before her. "It's just us, Highness- you and me. No magic. You're upset, though. Would you like to tell me about it? We're quite hidden in the shadows, and I could not harm you, even if that Sheikah wasn't clinging to the edge of your skirt, waiting for me to make a wrong move."

Zelda gave a shaky laugh, and collected herself.

"I'm fine," she managed. "You're a stranger. I don't even know if I can trust you. I don't even know what you look like."

"I can take an Oath of Silence, if it would comfort you," said Link softly. "But… please pardon me if I seem a bit forward, but it seems that you could use someone to listen to you. A different set of ears."

Zelda looked at him. His eyes peered out from behind the wolf mask, brilliantly blue and completely sincere. She took a deep breath and let it out, squeezing Link's hands.

"You're very kind," she said simply. "But even if you swore an oath, I don't think I could talk about it tonight without…" breaking down. Panicking. Realizing how terrified she was, and losing her mind, and weeping with horror. "…Making myself feel worse," she finished, surprised at her own honesty. "But I do appreciate the offer, Link." She squeezed his hands again, enjoying the way that the magic he said wasn't his shot up her arm.

"Very well, Princess," he responded softly. "Would you care to guess my name?"

"Give me a hint," she said, her voice just as quiet, parroting her brazen words from the previous night.

"I'm from a forest," he told her. Zelda wondered when their fingers had become intertwined.

Zelda thought for a few moments. Most of the nobility from the Ordon provinces was present, but she knew the folk of the southern woods very well. So he was from a Snow Spine family. She ran through the names of the greater houses in her head, but nothing fit. So she decided to shoot for a lesser house.

"Nevado," she tried.

"You've guessed incorrectly," Link whispered. He raised each of her hands to his mask, touching the cool, smooth surface of it to the backs of her gloved hands. "Until tomorrow night, Princess."

He vanished, just as Tetra stumbled up.

"There you are," she laughed. "I've been looking everywhere for you. Why are you sitting under this tree?"

"Wanted to rest," Zelda responded.

"Well, you should've rested somewhere else. Would you care to come to the Dotour's revel with me and Aveil and Ashei? Madame Aroma begged us to go, and it's certain to be fun."

Zelda squeezed her still-tingling hands shut. She wanted another goblet of wine to wash away the taste in her mouth. It reminded her suspiciously of disappointment, though she wasn't sure why.

"Yes," she responded, standing. "Yes, I'd love to."

Zelda awoke at dawn with a frown on her face. Anxiety was seeping through her bond with Sheik, and the falcon was shifting restlessly on his perch, shadow feathers sliding against each other in a sound that reminded Zelda of papers blowing in the wind.

"What's up?" she asked him blearily. He flew into the air and transformed into a man, transparent black feathers melting into solid flesh; he instantly began to frown and pace.

"I am feeling weakened," he said simply. "And I can't find Impa."

Zelda pushed herself up on one arm, her tangled hair swinging around her. "What do you mean, you can't find Impa? She's your anchor."

"I feel nothing from her," said Sheik simply. "The bonds are still active. I can feel all the others. It's just that I can feel no thoughts, or feelings, or anything coming from Impa. It is as though she is made of stone."

Zelda immediately swung her feet out of bed. She shivered once as the cool, early morning air touched her skin. Though it was midsummer, it was dratted cold in the Snow Spine.

"What should we do?" Zelda asked anxiously. "Is something wrong?"

"I don't know," Sheik responded. "The others and I have agreed that nobody is to know what is going on except for you, and Saria and Ashei if they figure it out."

Zelda brought her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around herself, shivering from cold and dread. Impa was strong— the strongest magic user Zelda knew. And she was clever. That something could cut her off so completely….

"I don't like this, Princess," Sheik said simply. "It feels as though there is something afoul at work."

Zelda laid her cheek against her knee.

"The Goddesses wouldn't lead us astray, would they?" she asked him, feeling insecure and naive and young, like she had when she confessed her fear of shadows to him when she was but a small child. He'd comforted her then by saying, 'Shadows are not what is evil and unknown, but what is good and soon to be known.' She wanted him to comfort her again, but part of her knew that words of reassurance would not be forthcoming.

Sheik turned abruptly on his heel, his long braid swinging behind him.

"Impa had suspicions," he finally said simply. "That the augur's reading had been tampered with, and that the Goddesses did not ordain that we came here."

Zelda fisted her hands in an attempt to keep from biting her nails. She felt cold. Such a suggestion was blasphemy… and yet..

"Either way, we're here, and now it's just me that's left," she said quietly. "I'm the only one with power standing between whatever's in the woods and my people."

Sheik turned apologetic red eyes onto the youngest Princess.

"We will all loan you our strength," he said simply, speaking for the other Sheikah. "We can feed our magic into you so that you stay strong, and can fight if need be. If you fall, the consequences will be dire."

That was an understatement. Zelda began chewing on her lower lip.

"I promised Impa I wouldn't go into the woods," Zelda said. "So I won't. Do you think I should try to ward the camp?"

She wished she'd done it nights ago, right when she first arrived. But it hadn't occurred to her that she would be in danger all the way out here; she thought there would be nothing to fear. There never was at any of the other Carrus festivals.

She'd been wrong.

"It is likely worthless to try to ward," Sheik said simply. "Whatever is in the woods feeds off magic. Your ward would only strengthen it, not the other way around."

"Which means… what?" Zelda asked. "If I can't use magic, how can I kill… how can I stop whatever it is?"

"It likely has a weakness," said Sheik simply. "But to determine such a thing, we must first come to know the nature of what it is that is feeding off of magic. Shad is already at work in the library looking for relevant information. As soon as we have discovered something that assimilates neatly into what we already know, I will inform you. Until then, I will remain in pure shadow form to conserve energy."

"Thank you, Sheik," Zelda said, sighing and flopping back. The Sheikah inclined his head once and vanished.

She screwed her eyes shut. Aside from the fact that her head hurt and her memories of the previous evening were foggy at best, it was all too much. But it was the fourth day. The Carrus Din was at its' halfway mark. She just had to make it through today, and three days after that, and she could go home to Hyrule Castle, and to the Academy, and leave whatever horrible thing was in the forest to grow and fester until it moved out of the woods and swallowed the kingdom whole.

Maybe it was the hangover. Maybe it was the stress. But Zelda curled into herself, buried her face in her pillow, and wept silently in the pale morning light.

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