Into The Woods

By Lyxie

Chapter 5: The Fear

"Come forward, Beast."

A gargantuan creature, larger than a horse, strode forward from the woods, black body glinting in the sunlight. It was highlighted with streaks of shimmering gold that shifted and writhed, even as the body of the beast remained uncertain. In one moment, Zelda could almost believe it was a goat. In the next, it was a hawk. At last, it settled into the barely-held shape of a wolf, features shifting nonstop, fur lengthening and shortening, legs thickening and thinning seamlessly, gold moving in languid lines across its fur.

Zelda stood in the snow, eyes on the Creature as he approached. He bowed his enormous, shaggy head, bringing his bright blue eyes level with hers. The eyes were the only thing that did not change.

Have you made your choice, Queen of Hyrule?

His warm voice echoed in her mind even as he studied her.

"I accept your bargain," she responded. "Are you ready to begin?"

I am.

She peeled off her gloves, dropping them in the snow as she stepped forward to stand beside the wolf's massive neck, placing her hands on his chest. Despite its constant movement, it felt reassuringly solid. He bowed his head, and Zelda let the powerful magic fill her, running through her and into him. She willed his fur to become flesh, his legs to lengthen, his arms to shrink, even as she held it in her mind— the body of the beast that he had been. Magic poured through her, hot energy blasting through her veins, filling her, even as she continued to push it out through her palms and into his body, willing him to change form.

Underneath her hands, fur melted into fabric, becoming solid. The immense body of the Creature surrounding her became the form of a man with his arms wrapped around her waist. The last of the power faded and with it, Zelda found herself with her palms firmly pressed against his heartbeat.

"The blood, Queen," he said quietly, his voice just as wonderful as it had been in her mind.

"Very well," she said, stepping back. She drew a silver dagger from the pocket of her skirt and pricked her thumb. The man held out his hand. A single crimson droplet fell onto the skin there and vanished. When he looked up, he was smiling, and Zelda felt her breath taken away. His smile was like sunshine.

"Thank you," he said simply, his brilliantly blue eyes boring into her own as he reached for her hand with his.

Zelda had been certain she would sleep until well after noon, which was why she was so shocked to find herself wide awake at dawn and unsettled from strange dreams. She was still exhausted, but sleep eluded her. A quick check of her core showed that, while she wasn't fully back to normal, she was better than she had been since the fight with the Gohma— a process that would normally take at least a week. Sheik seemed to be doing well, too; he'd taken shape as a falcon and was perched above Zelda's bed, and looked healthy and almost opaque.

The Princess sat up, frowning at the discomfort her ball gown caused. She swung her feet out of her cot and stood, burying her toes in the fur rug that carpeted the floor of her tent. She pulled off her ball gown until she stood in nothing but her shift, and then she moved to sit on a stool and begin the work of detangling her hair.

It was soothing work, and Zelda tried to focus completely on it instead of allowing her mind to wander to the night before. Against her best attempt, a small bubble of panic rose up within Zelda. She tried to push it away, tried to forget it, but the harder she tried to not think about all that had happened, the more her mind returned to it. She tried shutting her eyes and meditating; even that trick, which had always worked for her, did her no good. Finally, she turned to the falcon, who was watching her with bright red eyes.

"Have I made a terrible mistake?" she asked.

Sheik studied her for a moment before morphing into his human form. He knelt at Zelda's feet and placed his hands on her knees.

Being touched by Sheik was always strange— it felt more like an imagined sensation than a real one. Sheik didn't often touch Zelda, though; usually, there was no need.

"You had no choice, Princess," Sheik said simply. "None."

"But maybe if I'd waited…"

"The consequences would have been disastrous," Sheik finished for her. "Though I am not an advocate for hiding from that which disturbs you, put all thoughts of Link from your mind. Dwelling on the nature of your tie to him will only distract you now, and there are much bigger dangers to be dealt with."

Zelda's comb hit a snarl in her hair. She frowned at the lance of pain that shot through her scalp. She began to work at the snarl, frowning deepening as the tangle got worse. Her hands were shaking. Sheik stood, and gently took the comb from her, and began to pull it through her tangled locks. Zelda shut her eyes and breathed deeply, forcing herself to relax.

"Let's put our heads together," she said finally, keeping her eyes still shut. "Mine and yours, and I guess everyone else's too. Let's try to figure all this out."

"Where would you like to start?"

"Chancellor Makivelo," she replied. "I know there's something about him that we're missing. Can you tell me about him, Sheik?"

"Cole Makivelo of the Peak Province was born twenty-seven years ago on the longest night of winter," Sheik began. The smooth, repetitive pull of the comb through her hair was almost hypnotic. "His mother, Veran, was a Labrynnan witch of little power, and the marriage was a political one ordered by the King. His father, Niccolo, you know."

"I do," agreed Zelda, shivering at the thought of the cunning and ruthless political strategist.

"In direct defiance of his father's wishes, Cole was raised by his mother in the country, on the family property. He spent his first sixteen years of life there, before journeying to court after the unexpected death of his mother. He resided at court until he was twenty, and then returned to the family estate upon the death of his father. In the seven years since, he has spent every Season at Court, though the majority of his time was spent residing in the country and administrating the Peak Province."

"So except for the horrible father and the foreign mother, there's not much of interest about him," mused Zelda. "Except that his mother was a witch, and she chose to remain in the countryside, where she was likely being drained… though if she was low-enough level, the drain would have been minimal. Or maybe she somehow got involved in whatever Dark Magic is going on," she added, mind skipping back to countless anecdotes she'd heard over the course of her sorceress's training about low-level wizards and magicians who had made Pacts with Creatures of Power with catastrophic results.

Rather like she had.

Breathe, Zelda, she reminded herself as a stone of terror struck the back of her throat.

"That's a distinct possibility," said Sheik. "Cole Makivelo never exhibited any traceable signs of power during any of his Academy examinations, either."

Beginning at age four, every child in Hyrule was tested each year by the Royal Academy of Magicians for traces of magic. Those who had abilities, even the smallest scraps of magic, were educated; the consequences of having even a single low-level magic wielder in the country who did not know how to control his or her power could be devastating. Once a child came of age, when he or she was eighteen, the inspections stopped; magical manifestation was directly tied to growth of the body. If a child's magic had not manifested by the time that he or she reached his or her full height, no magic would manifest itself.

"The Academy never found magic, which means that the Chancellor shouldn't have had magic," mused Zelda. "Which means that he… oh," she said, her stomach dropping as something occurred to her. "What do you think the chances are that he was being used as a living locum?"

"A locum would make sense," Sheik agreed. "Whatever is in the woods likely can't get out, and so it sent Cole to act in its' stead. It would work, as well— though a locum tenens is usually made of clay, it wouldn't be hard to reshape the spell with Dark Magic to use a live vessel, especially if that vessel was willing."

Strong sorcerers and sorceresses often made locum tenens by hand and imbued them with magic, and left them somewhere important. Zelda had her own locum in her private study back in the palace; if she so wished, she could see, hear, and cast magic using the locum, but only in small amounts.

It would explain everything.

"That means that, if the Chancellor was a locum, whatever is in the woods could see and hear everything that the Chancellor saw and heard," mused Zelda. "And it would explain why I didn't detect the magic he used— it was likely so weak, and pulled straight through him so quickly, that I wouldn't have had an opportunity to follow the trail."

"Which begs the question, Princess," said Sheik, "why Chancellor Makivelo was destroyed the way he was?"

"I don't know," Zelda said, biting on her lip. She opened her eyes and looked at Sheik through the mirror propped up on her traveling dresser. "It looked like a powerful energy control spell gone horribly, horribly wrong, but if the Chancellor wasn't the one in charge of that magic, then who did it?"

"There are three distinct possibilities," said Sheik. Zelda's hair was completely tangle-free, but he continued to comb, knowing that it soothed her. "First and foremost: that whatever was using the Chancellor as a locum lost control of the spell and inadvertently sucked all of the energy out of Cole. Second: that whatever was using the Chancellor as a locum intentionally drew all the energy out of Cole, for reasons unknown. Third: that it was an entity unrelated to the Chancellor that activated a high-level draining spell that either intentionally or unintentionally targeted the Chancellor alone."

Each of the possibilities was alarming. Zelda took a calming breath, trying not to feel like she was in over her head. So what if the Academy had never let her deal with a major threat before? By all accounts, she was one of the most gifted sorceresses in the Kingdom, and certainly she was the youngest sorceress to have been granted full accolades in at least a hundred years; she could do this. She could.

"So who was that man in black?" Zelda asked. "Do you think Link was right, and that he was a demon?"

"Yes," said Sheik. "The black smoke that was exhibited when the man disappeared is typical of demons and other powerful Dark creatures."

Zelda tried not to chew on her lips. "Why is there a demon connected to all of this?"

"I don't know, Princess," said Sheik simply. "Though there's no doubt that the demon is connected, and that whatever it is that ties the demon and the Chancellor together is susceptible to Light magic."

"Yeah," agreed Zelda, remembering the Light arrows and how they abruptly ended the battle the previous night. "Or, at least, whatever process sapped the Chancellor of all his energy made him extremely reactive to Light."

"Which is probably the best indication of Dark Energy that we're going to get," stated Sheik. "It would also tie in to the Gohma in the woods— Dark monsters tend to be symptomatic of a larger Dark presence."

Zelda shuddered. She'd forgotten about the Gohma. With everything else that had happened, the uncomfortable memories of that morning were one big, black and purple blur.

"I can't help but feel like there's something that we're missing still," said Zelda, giving voice to the nagging feeling in her stomach. "Something big. Something that should be obvious." Sheik set aside the comb at a small motion from Zelda. She began to pull her hair back into a herringbone plait— a nervous habit she'd cultivated at the Academy after unintentionally frying her hair once with a spell gone awry.

"Let's review it, then," said Sheik, moving to kneel in front of Zelda again. "The Royal Augur sends us here, to the Snow Spine, for the Carrus Din, breaking from a long tradition of going to Ordon. Almost immediately, you discover a spiritual spring and awaken a spirit, and possibly other magical entities in the woods. That night, the Chancellor— we believe— begins draining your energy. The next morning, you and Impa set out into the woods, and encounter a Gohma. That afternoon, you and Impa determine that there is something strange happening to all magic users, not just yourself, and Impa sets out to investigate.

"Come evening, the day's continuous drain on you is noticeably worse after brief interaction with the Chancellor. You return to bed. Sometime over the course of the next day, which is otherwise uneventful, Impa vanishes. And then yesterday, the power of the drain increased suddenly and substantially, which led to your bargain with Link. It's mere minutes after the two of you bind your magical cores together that the Chancellor is sapped of all of his energy, and the demon appears seemingly in response. The three of you fight, you dispatch the Chancellor's husk with a Light arrow, and this drives the demon away as well," said Sheik.

"It just seems like there's a puzzle piece that isn't fitting right," said Zelda, tying off the herringbone plait with a red ribbon— the color of the day. "There's a gap. There's something else— I know there's something else— I just don't know what it is."

Sheik blinked owlishly at her, and for a second Zelda swore she could see Shad looking out at her. She smiled weakly.

"Shad, can you please look for information about a demon matching the description of the one we saw last night?" asked Zelda politely, knowing that the Sheikah would receive the question through the bond they all shared. "Thank you."

"In the meantime, Princess," said Sheik, smiling at her and touching her knee again, "I suggest you pray and meditate. Perhaps the answer will come to you then."

"That sounds like a good idea," Zelda said, reaching for the bell to ring for her attendants to help her dress.

Murmurs had followed her around the camp all morning. Zelda was used to being stared at— it happened when one was a member of the royal family. What she wasn't used to, however, was the caution and curiosity, the just-audible whispers being passed behind held-up hands.

It didn't help that she'd been spotted coming out of Impa's tent clutching the Dark Orb that the Gohma had generated in the hopes that it possessed a clue of some sort. Even Nonmagic could recognize the Dark power that clung to it; though Zelda hurriedly stashed it in her chest in her tent, the uneasiness around her increased. Romio had been standing nearby, and though he, like Ashei, could only wield Quest, he turned distinctly green at the sight of the Orb.

As she walked through the camp to go pray at the large altar that had been set up on the southern edge of the festivities, hissing whispers followed her like the sound of the wind through the trees. Sheik sat on Zelda's shoulder in his falcon form, a visual reminder that Zelda was neither unprotected nor helpless; the two had agreed that it would likely be for the best that Sheik be physically present, in case a few of the people- peasant and noble alike- got a little too curious about just how strong their Princess was.

But even Sheik's physical presence couldn't protect Zelda from the cutting whispers that followed her like a second cloak.

"—Too powerful, it's not safe—"

"—Seen some magic before but none like that—"

"—Should thank her, but what's to keep her from going mad with it—"

"—Shouldn't even be able to walk today, maybe she's the one draining energy—"

"—And that man with her, just as terrifying—"

"—Just like all those other Sorceresses, loose women, sleeping with whomever they please—"

Zelda knew that many of the people were wary of magic— it was why all the strong magicians stuck together at the Academy, and the same reason why every other Sorcerer and Sorceress in Hyrule was a lone nomad or a hermit in the wilderness. The people were afraid of what they didn't understand, and magic was almost as inscrutable as the Goddesses, whom they revered with equal parts adoration and terror.

Zelda kept her chin held high, closing her ears to the whispers that trailed after her as she made her way toward the altar to pray, cutting an arrow-straight line down one of the larger corridors that had formed in the camp.

It wasn't a long walk, though it felt like ages. Zelda let loose a sigh of relief when she spotted the temporary temple. A massive twisted pine that was nearly as tall as the Academy tower rose from the earth like a distorted beacon. Below that, a canopied pavilion covered the altar, which was merely a long table with the customary holy candle, chalice, and wand. The three artifacts had been displayed below a small statuette of the Triforce. Zelda set down the small rug she'd been carrying over one arm, spreading it out on the ground before the altar. Behind her, the people still watched. Zelda didn't so much as flinch when Sheik alighted from her shoulder and transformed into a man. Completely solid today, he crossed his arms and fixed his watchful ruby stare on the quietly shifting crowd. Zelda turned her mind away from what was going on behind her, trusting in Sheik to keep her safe, and instead fixed her eyes on the holy relics. Then she began to count her breaths, breathing in the blessings of the Goddesses, and breathing out all of her ills and worries.

She fell easily into prayerful meditation. Though the Carrus was a fiasco, it still was a Carrus, and the Goddesses had to be honored and tended to.

Zelda began to slowly cycle through the series of prayers that needed to be said that day. She was getting an unusually early start; most people tended to begin their prayer sometime after lunch, and it was still early morning. However, Zelda was determined to have a good, long go at it. She wanted to pray, and she wanted to meditate, and hopefully she'd figure something out during one of the two.

Her lips shaped the first of her ten holy chants for the day, voice a low hum, as she slid easily into the rhythm and cadence of Ancient Hylian. It was a beautiful language, though Zelda would have argued otherwise when she was up to the tips of her ears in conjugation charts while studying at the Academy. But now, the words came easily; though she'd memorized the sounds of the chant easily as a child, she was thrilled to know the actual meaning and nuances, courtesy of her studies.

Her first prayer was to Light.

"O, Light of the Goddesses,

Which burns in the eyes and the soul,

O, Light, guiding Light,

Give unto me your blessings…"

The soft song fell easily from her lips out into the air. The melody was soothing. Zelda let it wash over her, hands clasped in her lap, as she focused herself completely on the prayer and on her breath. It was her, the song, and the Goddesses; right now, there was nothing else in the world. No monsters. No missing Impa. No Link.

Time passed in a haze. Zelda slid easily through the songs, each of which was no more than five minutes: Light, Earth, Fire, Water, Shadow, Spirit, Farore, Nayru, Din, and Unity.

Her throat was tired from so long singing, and Zelda had lapsed into silent meditation when she became aware of a presence next to her on her blanket. She exhaled deeply, signed the holy trinity over herself, and turned to look at the praying form of the Queen sitting beside her, eyes lowered, hands clasped in her lap, clearly deep in prayer.

The Queen looked, as always, beautiful; her inky hair streaked with thin lines of silver had been tied up in a knot, and her violet eyes were offset by her red dress and golden tunic. Her faintly-wrinkled skin remained unblemished by the sun. The Queen looked peaceful, as always. Behind her, her two guards waited calmly; Sheikahs only came to those who were born royal. Men and women who married in to the royal family had to protect themselves the weaker way, with body guards.

It was no later than eleven in the morning, by Zelda's estimation. She was still the only one in the altar pavilion, except for the Queen, and for Sheik, who was flying loopy circles up above the pavilion. All onlookers had trickled away.

"When I was a girl," began the Queen in her surprisingly deep voice, startling Zelda with the suddenness of her speech, "I wanted nothing more than to be able to do incredible, wonderful, beautiful things. But I had no magic, and as the daughter of an Earl, I was not allowed to follow the road I wanted to choose for myself. When I was selected to become the Queen-Consort, I was both overjoyed and terrified. All that I wished to do was to make Hyrule a better place.

"I prayed every night to the Goddesses for their mercy, benevolence, and guidance, that I might make a positive impact upon the lives of our people. I didn't know how I would do such a thing, because as the Queen-Consort I have little solitary power. But then the Goddesses gave me four beautiful daughters, each stronger than I had been, and braver than I had been, and able to follow their souls' passions without falling into the trap of their rank.

"Your powers, and the miraculous things that you do, are a gift from the Goddesses. I know that they heard my prayer, and that each of my daughters is a response to that plea. When I pass to the Sacred Realm, I will be able to go in peace knowing that I made Hyrule a better place by bringing you and your sisters into it."

Zelda didn't know what to say. She looked for a moment at her mother's profile, unsure of how to proceed.

"Never doubt yourself, Zelda," said Ambi, opening her violet eyes and turning to look at her daughter. "You are incredibly gifted, talented, and kind. The Goddesses have given you power to better the world, the courage to use it, and the wisdom to do so wisely. Their grace is present in all ways within you."

Zelda smiled, feeling better than she had all morning.

"Thank you, Mother," she said quietly, touching the Queen's right hand gently with her own left one. Their hands were both bare, gloves folded before them, as dictated by tradition. The Queen gently lifted Zelda's left hand and turned it over to reveal the four long scars that cut across her palm, one extending from below each of her fingers.

"Were you maimed by a beast?" the Queen asked softly, touching the middle scar with one blunt-tipped finger. "These look like claw marks."

"All magic has its' consequences," Zelda answered, which wasn't really an answer at all. In fact, this was the first look that Zelda had gotten at the scars from her bonding with Link. It did look as though she'd been clawed by a beast. She wondered how Link had made those cuts. She wondered why he'd made her close her eyes.

"Have faith in the Goddesses," the Queen said, using two hands to close Zelda's long fingers into a loose fist, effectively disrupting the inevitable rise of panic within the Princess. "The Goddesses have faith in you."

Zelda nodded once. The Queen smiled faintly then, and patted Zelda's cheek once and returned her attention to the altar.

"Lunch will be ready soon in the Royal Pavilion," she said . "I have recently eaten, but thought that you ought to be informed, as the servants said you did not have breakfast this morning."

It was true. Her stomach had been too upset. Zelda nodded once.

"Remember," said the Queen softly. "The Goddesses have a plan."

"I'll remember it," said Zelda, smiling at her mother. She gracefully stood up from the prayer blanket, curtseyed to the altar, and then curtseyed deeply to the Queen. "Thank you again," she said.

"You're welcome, daughter," the Queen responded.

As Zelda walked slowly from the pavilion, deep in thought, Sheik dropped from the sky and shifted into his human form, then fell into step beside her.

"Any word from Impa?" she asked quietly.

"None yet, Lady," said Sheik. "There have been no changes."

Zelda sighed. She'd figured as much.

"Do you feel anything from Link?" Sheik asked. "That bond may be well worth inspecting."

In truth, Zelda had been hesitant to do so. Reluctantly, she turned her gaze inward for a moment, and stopped with shock. What had been a single strand of glossy green ivy the night before was, by day, a thick vine that had been covered with blood red thorns and vicious looking spines.

"Sheik," said Zelda, shaken, "what does this mean?"

She looked at his face to see his wine-colored eyes unfocus temporarily.

"Ah," he said, voice low and understanding. "I see."

"What? Explain it to me, because it doesn't make any sense," hissed Zelda, alarm making her pulse beat faster.

"There's no need for distress, Princess," Sheik said, voice soothing. "Please take a moment to inspect the bond again. Closely this time."

Zelda did so. The vine was hideous, an evil-looking grayish green. But it was barely touching her magical core at all; the night before, the ivy had been inextricably tangled with the intertwined strands of Zelda's magical core and life force. Today, the thick vine touched Zelda's core only once, at its' base, and then spread outwards, almost as though it was afraid to touch the magical core… or as though it was shielding it.

"You of all people know," said Sheik as Zelda returned her focus outward, "that appearances can be deceiving."

"What does it mean, though?" asked Zelda, curious and frustrated and still the slightest bit perturbed.

"It means," said Sheik calmly, "that once this is all over with, you and Link will likely need to sit down and have a very… illuminating chat."

Zelda shook her head, then picked up the pace again and began winding down the main path of the camp towards the Royal Pavilion.

"You know something that I don't," muttered Zelda.

"I know many things that you don't, Princess," responded Sheik. "And I know many things that you will one day come to know. You need to come to discover the answers to life's mysteries on your own."

It wasn't the first time Sheik had used that line on her, but she still hated him for it.

"You're horrible," groused Zelda.

"No sulking, my Lady," reprimanded Sheik, his voice lightly teasing— a habit he had doubtless picked up from his impish charge. "It's most unbecoming."

They stepped through the protective rim of guards into the Royal Pavilion and Zelda released a breath she hadn't been aware she'd been holding. She almost hadn't been aware of the suspicious whispers and accusing eyes that followed her back from the altar to the pavilion. Almost.

"There you are," said Aveil, bouncing up to Zelda, red dress perfectly matched with her crimson hair. She looked stunning. Tetra popped up by Aveil's elbow, curious black eyes on Zelda. "We've been looking everywhere for you! Well, not quite, but we've been wondering where you went, and were just about to pluck up the courage to do something really admirable and brave, like send a servant to find you. Lunch is nearly ready!"

"Where did you go?" Tetra asked, coming to stand on one of Zelda's sides while Aveil took her position on the other, like some kind of guards. Sheik melted back into shadow.

"To the altar pavilion," Zelda said. "I wanted to say my prayers early today, and do some meditation."

"I see," murmured Tetra, even as Aveil wrinkled her nose.

"I don't know how you can do that meditation business," she groused. "It's so… sedative."

"Boring," chimed Tetra.

And just like that, Zelda knew that with her sisters, at least, everything remained unchanged. On impulse, Zelda threw one arm around each sister and dragged them together for a group hug. Aveil and Tetra both squeaked in shock even as Zelda squeezed.

"Thank you," she said gratefully. Tetra patted Zelda's hair in understanding, while Aveil spluttered.

"What on Earth has gotten in to you?" she asked, even as she hugged Zelda back. "Who are you and what have you done with our prickly, vexatious Princess Zelda?"

Zelda giggled, then let go of Aveil and Tetra.

"Lunch?" she asked, looking eagerly from one sister to the other.

"Lunch," Tetra agreed, and the three set off towards the dining tent.

The one benefit to everyone being terrified of her, Zelda mused to herself as Link twirled her in his arms that night, was that there were minimal interruptions from unwanted persons. Though the evening was young, they'd already danced twice, and talked of nothing; Link seemed moody and introspective that evening, a far cry from his usual teasing, charismatic self. He was pensive, and often quiet; Zelda wondered why she had such a burning urge to lift him up out of whatever gloom it was that was eating at him. She'd blame it on the bond. That was the least complicated explanation.

Dinner had been an awkward affair. The royal table often received a few stares, but this evening the bulk of the people's attention had been on Zelda, who had done her best to talk to Aveil with poise— a difficult feat even when alone. It didn't help that Tetra egged both the girls on in turn, when she wasn't trying to keep up with Ashei and Romio's drinking contest. Julietta seemed oblivious of the attention and instead was gossiping animatedly with Daphnes's wife Felicia (who participated with some reluctance and an equal amount of intrigue), while Saria and Tarin talked about plants, and Daphnes discussed politics with the King. The royal family was acting as though nothing had happened, and while it was nice, Zelda would have appreciated a little more help in the 'keeping calm' department than Aveil and Tetra tended to provide.

The thick vine that was Link's bond to her had reverted to ivy sometime between dinner and the time that Link appeared before Zelda, silent behind his wolf's mask, eyes burning like blue fire, gloved hand extended. Zelda had taken it immediately, without a word, and Link had pulled her out onto the dance floor. He stood closer than was strictly necessary, though not close enough to cause a scandal; his hands were hot on her. For some reason, Zelda was fairly certain that something was going on in his head and, if nothing else, he needed the reassurance of physical contact.

Or maybe Zelda was just imagining that tension in him. It was difficult— with everyone's eyes on them, following the two around the dance floor as though they might spring into another battle any second, it was hard to feel relaxed. Zelda, at least, was familiar with being stared at. She had the distinct impression that Link was not. He was wound up tighter than a spring, and radiating agitation. If the shifting of the people all around them was any indication, Zelda wasn't the only one feeling the effects of his brooding.

"I think you're worrying everyone," she said softly, trying to get Link's attention. He merely grunted in response.

"Any luck today?" she tried again, readjusting her hand on his shoulder, letting her fingers flutter against him in what she hoped was a soothing caress.

"Is that your question for this dance?" Link asked, clearly distracted.

"You can't see it because I'm wearing a mask, but I'm pouting right now," teased Zelda, instead of giving way to the urge to smack him. "I have too many questions and there aren't enough dances tonight to cover all of them. That simply isn't fair, Link."

Link's blue eyes, which had been hazy and distracted, snapped down to focus on Zelda's face. He saw her watching him with part caution and part humor, and his whole body relaxed under Zelda's hands.

"My apologies, Princess," he sighed. "I'm a bit occupied this evening."

"I hadn't noticed," said Zelda dryly.

"I found traces of Impa's power in the woods," Link said without preamble. "She was alive and well yesterday evening."

"You're quite certain?" Zelda asked, hope rising within her.

"Absolutely," responded Link. "Though her magic was tangled up with a strong binding spell, which likely explains why you've had no word from her."

"I'm not sure whether or not I'm relieved," said Zelda, though her fingers tightened on his hand in a squeeze of silent thanks. "Though it is good to know she is alive, what kind of spell could hold her so effectively for so long?"

"A number of spells," Link said a little absently, hands moving to Zelda's waist as he lifted her briefly as the dance called for. She put both her hands on his shoulders for support and looked down at him, enjoying the temporary change in height. It was over quickly, though, and his hands were back where they belonged. Zelda wasn't disappointed at all. Not even in the slightest. "They're all old spells, too— very old magic, probably not even written down anymore. One way to do it would be through a talisman of some sort, like an ofuda, or wrapping sutra beads around her. Another might be through a song of sealing." His voice took on a musing tone.

"Song of sealing?" Zelda asked, hoping that Link wasn't keeping track of all these questions.

"If you know the right syllables and the right notes and the right rhythm, you can do just about anything," said Link. "Sound is tied to some of the most powerful magic. Think about your Words of Power."

"That makes sense, I guess," said Zelda slowly. "But why haven't I ever heard about it before?"

Link shrugged.

"Mortal memories fade quickly," he said simply. "Even written words begin to deteriorate."

"How old are you again?" asked Zelda, hoping to catch Link off guard. Blue eyes latched onto her own, amused and curious.

"That's not my question, don't answer it," she said, cutting him off before he could speak.

"Then what is your question?" His voice was light now. Zelda found herself relaxing, too. How did he to it to her? She didn't understand.

"What is the evil that's waiting in the woods?"

Behind his mask, Link's expression darkened. The music ended. He bowed low as Zelda curtseyed.

"Though I know its' name and its' face, I am unable to tell you," he said, voice honest and angry. "For the same reason that I am unable to supply you with my own name."

"You're tied to it in some way," mused Zelda. "Right? You're connected to it somehow? But… you're not part of it, are you?"

"I take no pleasure in my association with the thing that is eating the woods," spat Link. He calmed himself then, and touched Zelda's hand gently. "Do not worry, Princess. I will not betray you to what lies in wait in the shadows. But it looks like you have a young admirer waiting for you. I'll find you later tonight."

He strode off through the crowd as Zelda turned to see what he was talking about when he said 'young admirer'. Tarin was waiting patiently a short distance away. Behind him, his father watched with proud eyes.

"Will you dance with me, Aunt Zelda?" said Tarin, bowing far lower than was necessary. "It would be an honor to dance with you after the way you saved us all from the monster yesterday."

Zelda found herself grinning below her mask. Bless Tarin.

"Of course I'll dance with you," she said to the little boy. Tarin's gap-toothed grin split his face below his keaton's half-mask and he stepped forward to take Zelda's hands for a sprightly gavotte.

"You're so amazing, Aunt Zel," Tarin began chattering. "I don't know what everyone is all upset about. You saved us from that weird guy in black, and that magic that you did was so cool, and I want to be just like you when I grow up," he added. "Except I don't have any magic but I wish I did."

"Magic is a big responsibility," Zelda told Tarin. "It takes lots of work, and it's not very fun. When I was your age, I had to meditate for an hour every day."

"Ew," said Tarin, wrinkling his nose. He'd tried meditating with Zelda once, and it had ended poorly for the little boy. "Maybe I don't want to be a sorcerer."

"You're going to be King someday, though," Zelda told the young boy. "So you need to make sure that you study hard, and learn to use a sword, and one day everyone will look up to you because they'll know you'll be a wise and strong King."

"You'll help me, right, Aunt Zel?" Tarin asked. "You'll be my Head Sorceress?"

Zelda smiled below her mask.

"If I'm still around, you betcha I'll be your right-hand gal," she said.

"I asked Dad why people weren't dancing with you and Dad told me that it was because they were afraid of you," said Tarin. "Which is stupid, because you were the one that saved us. So I figured I'd dance with you because I'm just a kid, and if I'm not scared of you then they shouldn't be either."

Zelda laughed. "You'll be a just King, too, I can tell."

"I'm gonna be the best King ever," Tarin responded, chest puffing up with pride. "After Grampa and Dad, anyway."

Zelda stomped down the tiny surge of envy that this child knew her father better than she did. It wasn't anyone's fault that Zelda had all but been raised by the Academy. But she still felt a little like an outsider.

"You didn't get in the way of any of those spells last night, did you?" Zelda asked suddenly.

"No," said Tarin, sounding a little concerned. "Why? Is there something wrong with me?"

"No, only…." Zelda paused, looking at Tarin with concern. "I think you just grew about an inch as I was watching you."

"Nuh-uh," said Tarin. "No way."

"Are you sure you didn't catch any of those spells on accident?" asked Zelda seriously. "Because I'm pretty sure I threw a stretching jinx at that bad guy."

"Definitely not," said Tarin emphatically. "But do you think you could put a spell on me to make me tall? That would be so cool."

Zelda laughed and angled her upper body down so Tarin could spin her properly. He was still on the shrimpy side, but growing like a weed; she was certain he would be at least as tall as his father, who was a full head taller than Zelda.

"No can do, Kiddo," responded Zelda. "That would be cheating."

Underneath his keaton mask, Zelda could see Tarin pouting.

"What if you made a tall potion and just left it somewhere and I happened to find it and drank it?" tried Tarin.

"Daphnes Tarin Nohansen," said Zelda severely, "Promise me that you will absolutely never, ever drink a potion that you find lying around."

"Why not?" asked Tarin.

"Because you don't know what it could do," she responded. "It might poison you, or worse!"

"What's worse than poisoning?" Tarin asked.

"Your arms could fall off," said Zelda. "You could grow a second nose, or not be able to communicate except through singing."

"Yuck," said Tarin. "Ok, I promise. No potion drinking."

"Swear it," said Zelda firmly, though she was secretly amused.

"I swear I'll never drink a potion if I find it lying around or don't know what it is," he said.

"Good," responded Zelda. "And if you do find a potion lying around, or someone gives you a potion and you don't know what it is, bring it to me and we'll figure it out together, ok?"

"Ok," said Tarin. The dance ended. He bowed and Zelda curtseyed. Then, in a wonderfully childish move, Tarin threw his arms around Zelda in a big hug.

"Thanks for the dance, Aunt Zel," he said. "You're the best."

"No," said Zelda, touching Tarin's hair fondly. "You're the best."

Tarin's little ploy worked, though it was a little unfortunate that, at least initially, she danced with the men of her family: her father congratulated her on her bravery during a foxtrot, Romio came out of his uncharacteristic silence to tell Zelda solemnly that she was extraordinary during a rondo, and Daphnes grabbed Zelda for a rousing farandole, and Zelda even danced a minuet with Saria's handsome fiancé Fado, the impish duke of Ordon.

The Shaman of Kakariko, Renado, stepped up after Zelda finished with Fado, and bowed low as he asked for the honor of a dance. The title of Shaman meant that Renado was both an educated leader and a competent magician; during the dance, he complemented Zelda on her exquisite control of her magic, as well as on her ability to dance lightly. This seemed to seal the deal for the rest of the nobility; Zelda was never without a partner.

"Look at you," said Tetra to Zelda at the very end of the night as the youngest princess stood to one side of the floor, fanning herself. "You're the most popular girl on the dance floor tonight."

"It's all Tarin's doing," replied Zelda, watching Saria, Fado, Julietta, and Romio dancing a lively quadrille together, their hands all joined as they danced in a circle. Saria's energy seemed to be flagging, though she was laughing even as she stumbled along. "The scheming little brat."

"He's growing up so well," said Tetra, looping one arm through Zelda's. "But, listen. I have something serious I need to talk to you about."

"What's up?" asked Zelda, turning to look at her sister.

"You still haven't told us anything at all about the hunky guy in the wolf's mask who you keep dancing with," said Tetra. "And he's a sorcerer and you didn't say anything about that, either, and I haven't ever seen him dance with anyone else at all."

"Tet…" Zelda started apologetically.

"I mean I know how you are about all your magic stuff, but you're way too closemouthed anyway for your own good," Tetra said. "I'm your sister. We're not just the Princess squad or something, we're sisters and I know you're not very close to our parents, but I'm here for you and so is everyone else, so share your secrets with us for once," she added. "I'm not lecturing you or anything, I just want you to know that we all love you, and you have seriously got to tell us every single detail about that guy, and that if you don't spring for him, one of us will, because he's sinfully well built."

It wasn't the most bizarre sisterly speech Zelda had ever heard, but it came close.

"Once all this is over, I will answer every question you have for me with as much honesty as possible," Zelda said finally. "Ok?"

"You'd better," responded Tetra. Her eyes focused on something over Zelda's shoulder. "But I've kept you too long. He's waiting for you." Tetra winked at Zelda and then flounced away. Zelda turned. Link was waiting patiently several steps away.

"How much of that did you hear?" she asked, resigning herself to humiliation.

"Enough," said Link lightly.

"How much am I allowed to tell them about you?" Zelda asked. "Because I know barely anything at all."

"It's up to your discretion," Link responded. "Dance the last waltz with me?"

Waltzes, waltzes. It was always waltzes, damn him.

"Of course," Zelda responded, and let him lead her out onto the dance floor.

"I hope you've been having a nice evening," said Zelda.

"It would have been better spent with you," responded Link bluntly. Zelda looked up at his face in surprise but his expression was completely inscrutable behind his wolf's mask. She wondered again what he looked like.

"You're very straightforward this evening," she spluttered.

"Someone drained your energy again."

His voice was a low growl, dangerous and angry. Zelda gaped.

"What?" she asked. "How? But the Chancellor is… I didn't even notice… How could that be possible?"

"I've been sustaining you," Link responded. "But someone pulled on your magic. I've felt tiny traces of Dark Magic out here this evening, but tracking it has been infuriating— to many people in too small a space."

"But I thought… wasn't Cole the one?"

"Possibly," murmured Link thoughtfully. "Or this may be another accomplice."

"But how do you know that someone was draining from me? What makes you so certain?"

"You've got traces of Dark Magic on you," Link said. "Someone touched you with a draining spell. Recently."

Zelda was flabbergasted. She couldn't believe it.

"But Makivelo's dead," she blurted out.

"I know," responded Link. "But whoever is pulling from you must be close to the Royal Family to be able to interact with you so frequently. Perhaps a servant, or a nobleman."

Zelda was still speechless, mind whirling.

"Breathe, Princess," Link said soothingly. "We'll figure this out."

"The festival ends the day after tomorrow, Link," said Zelda. "I'm running out of time to destroy whatever is in the woods."

"I know," Link said quietly. "I'll have a plan of action ready for us tomorrow night."

"Tomorrow night?" Zelda's voice was rising in frustration. "No, Link, that's too long."

"It's the best I can do," he said, exasperation leaking through his own voice. "If I could be there sooner, I would, but I simply can't. It is literally impossible, and don't ask me why."

"Is this another one of your cryptic, 'I can't talk about it' things?" Zelda asked, displeasure lacing her voice.

"Yes, damn it, it is," Link bit back. "Do you think I enjoy tormenting you?"

"You're supposed to be helping me, but all it feels like you're doing is playing cat and mouse," snapped Zelda. "How can I stop whatever's in the woods if you won't tell me how?"

"Well excuse me, Princess," snarled Link. "I'd love to tell you how. By Din, I'd love to do it myself, but I can't. I need your help, and you need my help, so it seems like we're stuck together, miserable as that may be for each of us."

The waltz ended. Zelda ripped herself out of Link's arms.

"Here's my guess for your name," she snapped. "How does 'Worthless Ass' sound?"

"You've guessed incorrectly, Princess," responded Link. "Until tomorrow night. Be careful until then, my Lady. I won't be able to come running to your rescue."

Zelda spun and stormed off.

"Zelda," said Saria, falling into step behind her youngest sister quietly as the seventh princess stomped towards the royal pavilion, "There's something I need to talk to you about."

Zelda stamped down a rise of irritation as she looked at Saria's serious, lined face. "What's up?" asked Zelda, trying to shake herself from violent thoughts about a certain idiotic man in a wolf mask.

"I don't think the drain has stopped," she said. "I feel shaky and weak. Worse than I ever did earlier."

This jerked Zelda out of daydreams of dismemberment.

"When did this start?" Zelda asked. Saria shrugged.

"Sometime over the course of the evening," she responded, brushing at her chestnut locks with a gloved hand. Her cheeks were pale. "I felt fine at dinner, but sometime during the dance it started. I don't know when."

"And what about Ashei?" Zelda asked, grabbing Saria's arm and looping it through her own.

"Went to bed just before I came to get you," Saria said shakily. "She looked about as bad as I feel, and not because of the wine she had. She said the drain on her started several hours ago and she couldn't stand up anymore."

"Let me loan you some of my energy," Zelda said quietly as they made it into the royal pavilion. Saria removed her arm from Zelda's, stepping back.

"No," Saria said simply. "I don't want it. Neither does Ashei. You need it more than we do."

"Sar…" said Zelda quietly. Saria shook her head again in an emphatic no.

"You seem to be doing ok, which is good," Saria said. "And you need to stay that way. Ashei and I both know that you're going to fight that sorcerer we saw yesterday, and you're going to need all your strength. We just wanted to tell you what was going on. I'm going to drink some green potion and go to bed, though, and I'll be right as rain tomorrow."

"If your magical core gets too low it'll start pulling on your life force," tried Zelda. "Please, let me help you."

Saria cast her forest-green eyes on her youngest sister. "If your magical core gets too low, you'll die," Saria responded. "Ashei and I will both be fine even if we get completely drained. For us, it will be no worse than a bad cold. But you needed to know. Good night, Zelda," she said, and pushed her way into her green tent.

Zelda stood there, flabbergasted and furious. Ashei and Saria didn't know about her bond with Link, and they didn't know that the man in black was more than just a sorcerer. What would they say if she told them? For a moment, Zelda thought about going after her sisters, but instead shook her head. She looked around and saw the royal guards carefully not watching her. She sighed.

"Before you start wondering," she said simply, knowing the guards were listening even if they would never respond, "I'm warding their tents, not casting some sort of evil, demonic spell on them, and if you tell anyone outside of the Royal Family that I warded their tents, I personally will turn you into Ordon goats."

That small bit of business out of the way, Zelda set about casting on the wards, unscrupulously drawing on Link's magic to do so. She was still mad at him, but she pushed her irritation out of her mind as she spoke Words of Power and cast the wards. She set up Aveil's ward first: North, South, East, and West all received their own barrier points, and then Zelda wrapped a ward around them and sealed it cleanly at the top with a knot of magic. The same process was repeated for Saria's tent. The whole process took ten minutes total, leaving Zelda a little more tired, but feeling better. She'd wanted to pull on Link's magic far more than necessary, but all her training screamed at her to not be sloppy with her spell casting, and so she'd left everything very neat and clean.

To finish up the wards, Zelda spoke a Word of Power over each, one that ought to keep any Dark Magic, Seeking Magic, or any other malevolent spells from getting into either girl's tent. Of course, the second Saria and Ashei each awoke, they'd sense the wards, be furious, and force Zelda to take them down; but at least this way, they would each get a good night's sleep.

Satisfied, Zelda walked into her tent and shut the flap behind her. It was dark, but she knew her way around well by now. Sheik appeared as she began to remove her gown.

"Neither Louise nor Kotake were aware at any point of a draining spell being placed on their charges," Sheik said. "Moreover, they've both exhausted themselves by keeping the Princesses supplied with magical energy," he added. "They thank you for the wards."

"Are we going to come out of this in one piece, Sheik?" Zelda asked, pulling her shift over her shoulders and pulling on a night chemise over her smallclothes. "Did I put my faith in the wrong person?"

"Link is our greatest chance of success," Sheik said simply. "For better or worse, you've bound him to yourself."

"I wish he would just tell me what's going on," Zelda replied, dropping onto her cot and burying her head in her knees. "I wish he could. All of this waiting is making me antsy, Sheik."

"I will train with you tomorrow," he said simply. "So that when Link comes to you with a plan tomorrow night, you will be ready."

"Thank you," said Zelda. She quickly pulled her hair into a plait and flopped back onto her cot. "You're wonderful, Sheik."

"I am as the Goddesses made me," he responded with a bow of his head. "Now sleep, Princess. You don't know when you'll get your next chance."

"Good night, Sheik," Zelda said quietly.

"Good night, Princess," he said. He transformed and perched above Zelda's bed, watchful in the darkness, and the youngest Princess fell slowly into sleep, lulled into dreams by the lullaby of his quietly shifting feathers.

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