Chapter 6: The Beast
It was the incredible, immaculate nothingness that woke her.
She sat up suddenly, or at least tried to, but found that her arms and legs were too heavy to move. She was weak. She had never felt so weak, or so cold. Her breath came panting gusts from between her lips. She tried to croak for help but couldn't. A glance upward verified that Sheik was gone. Zelda focused inward— when had it become so difficult?— and was stunned to see her magical core almost totally drained, Sheik a mere hint of a shadow of a cobweb wrapped around the swiftly thinning strands of Zelda's core.
It was still dark. It was either very late, or very early. Zelda couldn't tell which. Her heart began to beat faster. Oh, Goddesses, she was dying. She was going to die. She'd had that stupid fight with Link, and he was angry at her, and he wouldn't be able to save her, and she was going to die here in this tent in the middle of the wilderness.
It was fear and adrenaline that allowed her to roll off her cot and onto the floor, though she wasn't much better off there. Terrified and exhausted and fighting slumber, Zelda tried to crawl to the chest full of green potions, but couldn't find the energy to move that far. It was so close— it was at the foot of her bed— why couldn't she reach it?
She felt like crying or screaming. She didn't want to die. She wasn't ready to die. She was not going to die.
Hardly thinking about what she was doing, she grabbed onto the ivy vine wrapped around her core and pulled as hard as she could.
She felt a little warm energy flood her, enough for her to get to the chest at the bottom of the bed. She reached in and grabbed the strongest vial of green potion she could find, and drained it, gagging and spluttering. She grabbed a second one, drained it too, and then finished off the cocktail with a red potion. Exhausted, panting, and feeling sick, Zelda crawled to the flap of her tent.
She'd expected that she was under the attack of a mere energy spell, which didn't prepare her at all for what she saw as soon as she crawled outside. The sight made her stomach heave, though she fought valiantly to keep down the potions she'd just ingested.
The body of an enormous man, taller than most of the twisted pines, hung upside-down from the blackness in the sky, bound in chains of bone. The length of his spinal column was exposed, enormous discs of white glinting in the firelight. Where his head ought to be, though, there was nothing but the oozing stump of a neck, into which a great red eye had been mounted within strips of trailing, shredded flesh. The figure's arms (which were free from the chain) had also been amputated just below the elbows, though two enormous hands, each with fingers longer than Zelda was tall, floated below it. The creature's mottled, purple-green flesh was clearly made up completely with Dark Magic, though Zelda was quite sure that the white bone chain and the bone of the spine were both human in origin.
"Goddesses," whispered Zelda, crawling forward. "Oh, Goddesses."
The two hands were twisting and turning in a sinister way, beckoning to her tent. The mutilated bodies of several Royal Guards littered the ground; Zelda wondered what had happened to them until she saw the mess on the palms of the figure's hands. She wasn't able to hold it together any longer after that; all the nasty potion she'd downed came back up in one horrible rush.
She felt weak. This creature had come here to harvest the energy from her. What was she compared to such power? She was nothing.
Without the potions in her stomach, she could feel her energy trickling away much more acutely. Using what little she had left, Zelda summoned her bow and a Light arrow, and shot at the creature's eye. It dodged so fast that Zelda didn't even see it move; it was simply there one minute, and gone the next, and her Light arrow- her last bit of magic- was clattering uselessly to the ground.
"Help me," she whispered, trying not to cry. "Somebody, Goddesses, please, help me."
Her head was growing heavy. Her arms gave out from underneath her and Zelda collapsed. This was it. She'd failed.
A roar split the air. Zelda remained awake just long enough to see a man— a familiar man in a wolf's mask— appear from nowhere, armed with a massive, gleaming sword.
"Link," she breathed, feeling relieved. He was here. She would be ok.
She was going to owe him for this.
She fell headfirst into the darkness.
"Come on, Zelda, open your eyes."
She lifted slowly out of the blackness, only to be met with the moonlit face of a wolf with brilliantly blue eyes.
"You're still wearing your mask," she said, exhausted. "Why is it so cold?"
"I've brought you to the Sacred Spring," said Link, voice giddy with relief. "You're completely submerged in the water."
Well, that explained the knives stabbing at the marrow of her bones, and also all the starlit silhouettes trees she saw above her head. It was still dark.
"You were attacked," Link said quietly. Zelda realized he was sitting on the bottom of the spring, and that she was lying across his knees, and that his hands were on her face. His thumb was stroking her cheek as though he wasn't fully aware of the little motion. "A Dark Creature was sent to harvest all your energy."
"Just mine? Are the others ok? Saria and Ashei?"
"They're fine," Link said soothingly. "Even if you hadn't warded their tents as thoroughly as you did, I suspect the Creature was sent after you and you alone."
"It was horrible," Zelda whispered as slow memories came trickling back to her. "That monster. What was it?"
Link was running his hands through Zelda's hair comfortingly. "A Bongo Bongo," he said softly.
Zelda had heard of them, of course. The name had always struck her as vaguely ridiculous. But there weren't words horrible enough to describe the monster. She curled towards Link's stomach, seeking out the comforting heat of him even as she began to shiver.
"It's cold," she said, voice quaking as she shivered. "Can't we get out of the water?"
"Not yet," Link responded. "The guardian spirit is replenishing your life force."
"I nearly died, didn't I?" Zelda asked. Link didn't respond, but his silence spoke volumes. She rolled back onto her back, looking up at Link's masked face. "How bad?"
He let out a shaky breath. "Bad," he finally said. "I was worried I hadn't gotten you here in time."
Zelda reached up with one hand to touch Link's masked cheek. "Thank you," she said to him. "For saving my life."
"You're welcome," he responded, looking down at her.
She traced her fingers across the smooth contours of the wolf's mask, partly to distract herself from the biting cold of the water. "Why are you still wearing this?" she asked.
He didn't answer, only watched her with those incredible blue eyes.
"Can I take it off?" she asked, voice a mere breath.
He inclined his head once, then hesitated. "Be careful," he said. "It's magic."
The mask wasn't attached to him by any sort of ribbon— there was just mask and flesh. Zelda framed his face with her hands and ran her fingers along the place where porcelain met skin, marveling at the rugged texture of the side of his face. Carefully, Zelda slipped her nails below the edge of the mask. Link stiffened.
"Tell me if I need to stop," she whispered. "Tell me if I hurt you."
Gently, she began to pull. Link was sitting very, very still. She felt the lower portion of the mask giving, though the top remained firmly in place. She moved her hands down to his jaw and pulled at the mask there. It rolled off his skin slowly, peeling back and curling like the thin skin of a fruit, though it felt as solid and firm as marble. The going was slow, but it gave Zelda something to focus on beyond the cold of the spring's water. It felt like her bones had been replaced with ice, though she could feel her life force rapidly replenishing.
Finally, she could see his mouth, though the mask remained firmly in place above that. The lower portion of the mask, which Zelda had been able to roll away, slid off into nothingness, until Link was sitting there in a porcelain half mask.
He had a strong jaw, Zelda noticed. It was smooth, though not too square— it was almost a little boyish. His mouth was serious, though there was a tiny quirk at the corners of his lips that hinted at his teasing good humor.
"There," said Zelda quietly, stroking her fingers across his lips. "That has to be better."
"Much," responded Link. His voice was husky. "Thank you." The way his lips moved under her fingers gave her the shivers.
"I'm sorry for what I said earlier tonight," hummed Zelda, thinking back to their fight. "I was unkind."
"You have nothing to apologize for," responded Link as Zelda moved her hands to rest on his shoulders. "All is forgiven."
Oh, Din take it.
Summoning energy she thought she hadn't had, she pulled herself up in one smooth movement and locked her lips to his. Link stiffened for a moment, before wrapping his arms around her and hauling her more firmly into his lap. Zelda didn't care that she was cold and wet and so was he, because her whole body felt like it had been suffused with lightning. Her blood had been transformed into pure fire. She was kissing Link, and he was kissing her back, and she was pretty sure that nothing had ever felt this good before.
Link's hand slid up the curve of Zelda's ribs and she gasped. He took the opportunity to deepen the kiss, filling Zelda with all sorts of wonderful, warm feelings. She certainly wasn't cold anymore. In fact, she was hot. Hotter than she'd ever felt in her life. She had the urge to grab Link and drag him somewhere dry and do all the things that Sorceresses were accused of doing to unwitting men.
Link was the one to break the kiss. Panting, he rested his head against her shoulder— their height differences were amusingly reversed with Zelda sitting on his lap. His arms were tight around her. She felt wonderful.
"I have a question," Zelda said, breathing hard, running a hand through Link's hair. It was wonderful, so thick and soft, like a pelt.
"You'll have to pay for it," Link responded, a grin in his voice. Zelda tweaked his ear once.
"Why did you bind yourself to me?"
Link paused and looked up at her. His blue eyes were unreadable. Zelda wanted to shrink into herself— she felt small, suddenly, and vulnerable, and like a little girl.
"Because you fascinate me," Link said after a lengthy pause. "Because you're strong, and courageous, and incredibly foolhardy."
"Foolhardy?" squawked Zelda, pulling away. Link pulled her back and burrowed his face in the crook of her neck, inhaling her scent.
"You made a pact with a Creature of Power without knowing what your end of the bargain would be." Link's lips moved against her skin and he pressed a kiss to her shoulder with every word. "That's about as foolhardy as it gets." Zelda wondered when the neck of her nightdress had fallen down. This was probably going to end horribly. Or wonderfully. She couldn't make up her mind. She shifted restlessly, and Link must have caught on to her discomfort, because he pulled back and looked at her.
"I give you my word," Link said, eyes solemn, but with the faintest spark of humor, "I will not take advantage of you unless you want me to."
And Zelda remembered what position they were in: her sitting on his lap, her in her wet nightgown alone with him in the woods. She squeaked and covered herself. Link laughed.
"You can trust me," he said, features bright with delight. Zelda was quite certain that she wanted to kick him. "No harm will come to you while you are here, from my hand or from another's." He looked up at the sky, which was swiftly lightening, and his mood shifted. "But you must stay with me today," he said simply. "And I fear you won't like what you're about to see."
"What?" Zelda asked. Link pressed a last kiss to her lips, and it seemed desperate. Unable to help herself, Zelda matched him, movement for movement, desperation for desperation.
"Stay in the spring, Zelda, until you are fully healed."
Zelda wanted to ask him what he was talking about. But he pressed a kiss to her cheek and lifted her off his lap, setting her in the shallows of the spring. Confused, Zelda caught one of his hands in hers, acting on instinct alone. Link squeezed it once and then let it go, standing and backing out of the water.
He made it out not a moment too soon. As he stood, dripping on the shoreline, the sun made its' way above the horizon and a black light consumed Link. Wrapped in with the blackness were swirls of a familiar, gentle pink; it looked so much like Zelda's magic that, for a moment, she thought it was the bond she shared with Link. But no, this was older than hers. Far older. Then it all faded, and Zelda remained rooted to the ground in shock.
Link had vanished. In his place was the charcoal-colored wolf with the strange markings.
"Link?" she gasped, even as she scooted back into the spring with a loud splash. The wolf raised his blue eyes to meet Zelda's own, and she saw him there, in the wild blue depths, proud and sorrowful.
Zelda gaped. The shock of the icy water was nothing to this.
"You… you're… you…. The wolf? You're the wolf?" Zelda managed. Link nodded once. "And you can understand me?"
The wolf nodded again. Zelda tried to control her rampaging thoughts. It didn't work much.
"Is this your true form, or is your true form that of the man?"
Link glared at Zelda. The Princess cracked a sheepish grin.
"I, um, sorry. Can I ask you some yes or no questions?"
The wolf nodded once.
"I'm not kissing you, though. That can wait until you're human again. You will be human again, won't you?"
The wolf nodded.
"But you're a wolf by day."
"Have you always been this way?"
"So… are you under a curse of some sort? Or a similar enchantment?"
Link hesitated for a long moment, and then nodded slowly.
"Okay," said Zelda, breathing out quietly. "Okay. So you're a man who transforms into a wolf… or a wolf who transforms into a man… but you're not mortal anyway, and…. And…. " Something occurred to her, a memory from her first morning. "Oh Goddesses, Link, you've seen me naked!"
The wolf's mouth fell open, tongue lolling out in a grin as his tail began to wag. Zelda splashed cold water at Link, mortified.
"I can't believe you," she hissed. "You… you… ugh." Zelda splashed her hands in the water. "Worthless dog."
Link's tail stopped thumping on the ground. Zelda looked up in time to see him advancing on her with the slow grace of a predator.
"I… Link?" she asked, suddenly afraid. "You're not about to attack me, are you?"
Zelda backed into the water, but not quickly enough. Link sprang and toppled her over into the cold water. Zelda surfaced, spluttering. Link had already leapt, agile, up out of the water. He was faster than any wolf she'd ever seen before.
"You're awful," chastised Zelda, advancing on the wolf. "Absolutely horrible."
She got too close. Link took that opportunity to lick a long swipe from just above her drooping collar, up the side of her neck, over her ear. Zelda squealed and backed away again, sliding on the rocks that covered the bottom of the spring. She slipped, and went under again, and came back up for air glaring at the wolf, who was making a wheezing coughing sound like laughter.
"Well, you can enter the spring, at least," said Zelda stiffly. "So I know you're not evil."
The wolf looked at her, Link's blue eyes shining out, and thumped his tail once against the ground. Zelda sighed, carefully making her way over to the rock where Link sat.
"You didn't tell me," she said simply. "I'm guessing that it was because you couldn't tell me, right?"
The wolf nodded.
"Because I have to ask you specifically? And only then you can answer me? Like with all the other questions?"
Another nod. Zelda reached him, and studied him carefully. He really was a beautiful wolf; his charcoal fur contrasted handsomely with his white markings and bright blue eyes.
"May I touch you?" she asked quietly. The wolf nodded again, wagging his tail a little. Tentatively, Zelda reached a hand out to run it across the wet fur.
It was thick, bristly, and soft— much like the hair of the man. Zelda traced his white markings with careful fingers. She then ran her hands over his neck and head and ears, which she seemed to enjoy. Her fingers brushed across a tiny hoop made of blue metal in each ear. Zelda remembered the man wearing the same jewelry.
"I think I can forgive you for this," Zelda said quietly. "But it still means you lied… even though it was a lie by omission. I know you couldn't help it, but it still hurts. When… when all this is over, we need to sit down and have a long, honest talk… even though I'm the one in your debt. But I would appreciate it."
Link wagged his tail once. Zelda laughed lightly, feeling ridiculous. Then she shivered. Link looked at her with concern, then stood and shook himself. His fur had dried in the sun, but Zelda was feeling colder by the moment. He looked at her, and then very pointedly looked over at the bank.
"Are you saying I can get out now?" Zelda asked the wolf. He nodded once. With movements that were made graceless by equal parts numbness and haste to get out of the water, Zelda slipped and slid her way out of the spring, shivering in her chemise.
Link padded up to her, rubbed himself once against her legs, and then set off through the woods. Zelda followed behind him, cursing every time she stepped on a stone or sharp pine needle. She had to sit down frequently to pull the small spines out, and it wasn't long before the tender pads of her feet were covered in blood.
It was a long walk, and Link moved slowly. Every time Zelda sat down to remove more debris from the tattered undersides of her feet, he let loose with a low whine.
"It's ok," she reassured him. "I'll be ok."
In truth, she thought of summoning Sheik to carry her, but a quick glance inward ruled that option out— the Sheikah was still weak, and sound asleep. As a denizen of the Ghostly Realm, the healing water of the spirit's spring hadn't worked on him.
Zelda would carry herself.
Well over an hour later, they arrived at a cave set into the mountain. But just inside the mouth of the cave, Link turned around and looked at Zelda. He looked at her, then pointed his nose in the direction behind her, and wagged his tail.
"You want me to turn around?" she asked. Link nodded his shaggy head. Moving carefully on her ragged feet, Zelda turned, and was amazed.
She'd gotten a good view of the mountains on the ride up to the region, but being camped on the edge of the tall woods, Zelda had been unable to see the Snow Spine. Now, standing higher up in the foothills, the range rose before her like a row of jagged teeth, purple tipped with everlasting white. Zelda exhaled in awe.
"It's beautiful, Link," she said quietly. "Thank you for showing me."
Link wagged his tail, and then walked into the cave. Zelda followed, sighing gratefully as her feet touched down on smooth stone. She limped after him into the blackness, but stopped when it became too dark.
"Link," she said quietly. "I can't see."
A warm form nudged against Zelda's side. She lowered a steadying hand to rest on Link's back, and let him guide her into the depths of the cave. After several minutes more, Zelda felt herself pass through a shield of protection just as strong, if not stronger, than the castle's wards. Not many paces beyond that, her feet moved onto a fur pelt. Link nudged at the backs of her legs. Zelda sat. Link pushed her into a lying down position with his cold, wet nose. Zelda was too tired to argue.
"I'll just lie here," she said quietly. "And nap, I suppose."
He touched his nose briefly to her cheek before turning and padding in near silence out of the cave. Zelda blinked a few times in the darkness, then sighed. The pelt was really quite comfortable.
Everyone would be worried. What would they think when they saw the guards? When they saw that Zelda was gone? Would they think it had been her?
Zelda turned her face into the pelt. It smelled good, a little spicy, a little musky. It smelled like Link. She breathed deeply, trying to calm herself, wondering how she was going to get back to camp and what she was going to say. How would she ever manage to explain?
She missed Impa. She would've given anything just then to have Impa with her. But Impa was gone, bound in strange magic so that nobody could reach her. Impa wouldn't be coming to the rescue this time, and Link couldn't tell her anything about what was going on. Zelda would have to figure this out herself.
Breathing in the spicy scent of Link, Zelda dropped into a fitful, restless slumber.
She woke, disoriented, to total darkness. She sat up suddenly, looking around, panicking. Had she gone blind? Then she remembered where she was.
"Link?" she asked. Her heart began to beat quickly. If Link was gone, too, she would never be able to make it out of here alive. "Link?"
Beside her, part of the pelt stirred. Zelda squeaked as an enormous, warm body rose from the pelt, shaking itself, and butted a massive head against her.
"You scared me," she whispered. "I thought I was lost."
The comforting touch of his nose against her cheek was soothing. Zelda wrapped her arms around the wolf, burying her face in his fur.
"Please don't leave me here."
The wolf whuffed quietly. Zelda smiled into his fur, though fear and uncertainty overwhelmed her.
"I'm so afraid, Link," she whispered. "That monster that attacked…. It left horrible destruction. What if they think it was me? What if they blame me?" Her breath caught in her throat. "Will I ever be able to go back, Link?"
The wolf pressed closer for a moment, before backing away completely.
"Link?" Zelda asked. Her fearful voice echoed around the cave.
"Sssh," came the sound of his voice, comforting to her in the darkness. "I'm here."
"Is it sundown?" Zelda asked stupidly. She felt Link's arms wrap around her.
"Yes," he breathed.
"I'm missing Tetra's dance," she responded, even as tears began to roll down her cheeks. "Goddesses, Link, will my life ever be the same?"
"No," he said. "It'll be better."
His lips touched hers cautiously, as though waiting for her to pull away. Zelda leaned into the kiss, hungry for the taste of him; unprepared for the sudden lunge, Link fell back onto the pelt and Zelda landed on top of him. She was kissing him frantically, and he was meeting her as seamlessly as he did when they danced— all she knew was that she didn't want it to stop. Link skimmed two fingers across the outside of Zelda's leg and she gasped into his mouth, then bit down on his lip. With a growl, Link easily flipped them over so that he was on top, pinning her beneath his powerful form.
Zelda hummed in delight as he pulled down the next of her dress to kiss his way down until his lips brushed the swell of a breast. She fisted her hands in his hair, in the back of his tunic, restlessly pulling him closer. She wanted him, needed him like she needed air. In the back of her mind, she wondered when this had happened— when she had gone from simply tolerating his presence to craving it. When she had fallen for him.
Link lightly bit into the skin at Zelda's neck, and she gasped in surprise at the sudden pain. But Link laved over it with his tongue, and then gently kissed his way back to her mouth. He peppered her with kisses, and then pulled away with a regretful sigh.
"As much as I would love to finish what we've started," he said, "I need to return you to your family."
Zelda sighed as the heavy mantle of worry descended upon her shoulders once more. She looked within her to see Sheik looking almost completely normal again.
"What are we going to do about… about what lies in the woods?" Zelda asked quietly. Link pressed his forehead against hers, the cool surface of his mask welcome against her flushed face.
"I don't like it," Link said, "But you're going to have to draw out the accomplices."
"Why?" Zelda asked, one of her hands finding one of Link's. He twined his fingers between hers, and a happy warmth shot straight to Zelda's stomach.
"Because they will lead us to their master," Link said simply. "The… the evil force is hidden and warded, much like we are now. The only way that we can get to it is if it willingly allows us in."
"There's a 'but' coming, isn't there," said Zelda softly. Link sighed, his grip on Zelda's hand tightening.
"I won't be able to go with you," he said. "At least, not at first. You'll have to take down the wards from the inside. Once you've done that, I'll be able to come to you… though even once I've made it to you, I won't be able to finish off whatever it is. Only you can do that."
"You need me to use Light magic?" Zelda asked quietly. Link nodded once, then raised his free hand to Zelda's cheek.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "But this is the only way."
"And what's to keep me from being drained the second I step into its presence?" Zelda asked, worry making her gut clench. Link kissed her lips gently once, then released her. She heard him moving quietly nearby, before he came back and knelt behind her. Zelda felt him draping a light chain necklace around her neck. He fiddled with the clasp for a moment, then brushed her hair aside and pressed a gentle kiss to the nape of Zelda's neck as his fingers pulled away.
"I give this Protective Token freely as a sign of adoration," he said softly. "As it was given once to me, many lifetimes ago."
He probably meant that literally, Zelda thought dizzily, feeling the weight of very old, very strong magic settle onto her shoulders. It seemed familiar, too, like the pink magic that had wrapped itself around Link before he had been transformed into a wolf that morning. Zelda's hand found the small Triforce pendant hanging heavily at the end of the chain. The necklace itself was a perfect fit for Zelda as well. It very clearly had once belonged to a woman.
"Did you love her?" Zelda asked thoughtlessly.
"Very much," replied Link, touching Zelda's hair gently. "But it was not meant to be."
"It must have hurt," she said, even as her heart sank.
"It was a long, long time ago," Link responded, pressing a kiss to Zelda's shoulder. He stood then and walked around her, took her hands in his, and urged her upwards with a gentle movement. Zelda climbed carefully to her feet, and was surprised to find that, though they were still raw, they had been cleaned of blood.
"How…?" she began.
"Magic," Link responded, amusement in his voice. Zelda felt a heavy cloak drop around her shoulders just before Link swept her up into his arms.
"You can't carry me all the way back, Link," reprimanded Zelda, even as her arms went around Link's neck.
"Why not?" he asked.
"Because… because it's a long way, and you'll get tired."
"I won't get tired," responded Link with a laugh as they emerged into the starry night. "And I'd rather not have you ripping up your feet and tripping over stones."
"Are you certain I'm not too heavy?" Zelda asked him self-consciously.
"Stop worrying," Link said. His voice was warm. "I'm not a mortal, Zelda. You know this by now. You've seen evidence of it with your own eyes. I can carry a beautiful woman down a mountain."
"Oh," said Zelda, blushing and leaning her head against Link's shoulder. "Ok."
Zelda slipped into thought. Link seemed to be in his element, walking through the woods. The fallen needles of the twisted pines crunched pleasantly underfoot, releasing a wonderful scent. The night air was cool; Zelda was glad for the cloak, and for Link's warmth.
"If I can't find the accomplice by tomorrow night," said Zelda quietly after a long time had passed. "What then?"
"It's your decision what you do," Link responded. "But you are a Sorceress, Zelda. Princess or not, you've started a hunt, and you have a magically binding obligation to see it through."
It was true. When Zelda had graduated from the academy, she'd taken an oath saying just that.
"And after everything is over?" Zelda asked quietly. "What will become of… of my debt to you?"
"I won't force you to stay here, if that's what you're asking," Link said simply. "I would not keep a lovely little sparrow like you captive."
"What about the seal on you?"
Link was silent for so long that Zelda began to doubt that she'd even spoken the last question aloud.
"I don't know," he said finally. "We can discuss that later."
"Alright," breathed Zelda. Link walked in silence for several minutes longer. Zelda spoke up again.
"What if I can't bring down the barrier?"
At this, Link stilled. He strode purposefully over to a boulder and set Zelda down on it, then knelt before her, taking both her hands in his, as he had two nights ago. Had it really only been two nights since he and Zelda had bound themselves together? It felt like so much longer.
"If anyone can find a way, it's you," he said simply. "And you have a priceless Token around your neck. It will buy you the time you need to destroy the shield. And then I'll be there, loaning you my strength. And you'll have Sheik, too."
"Yes," said Zelda, her gaze turning inward. Sheik looked almost completely replenished. He stirred sluggishly from his slumber, sent out a warm burst of reassurance, and fell back into his healing sleep.
"Take it all in steps," Link said softly. "We're going to get you back to camp, where you'll inevitably be fussed over and much talked about. You'll claim that you dealt a severe blow to the sorcerer, though it has left you fatigued and weak. Sometime within the next day, someone will panic and attempt to capture you, believing you to be defenseless. You will allow this to happen. When you have been transported to the evil within the woods, you will bring down its' barriers and summon me. I will appear, and I'll protect you while you defeat the creature with Light arrows. After that, I'll carry you back off to my cave, and we'll have that long talk you've been asking for, and possibly do some not talking as well."
Zelda took a steadying breath. Link squeezed her hands again.
"But if it happens during the day, you'll be stuck in the shape of a wolf. You won't be able to help me."
"Focus on bringing down the barrier," Link said quietly. "Everything else will work itself out after that."
His eyes were bright and sincere. The set of his mouth below his mask was completely serious. Zelda nodded her head with more certainty than she felt.
"Okay," she said, looking down at Link. It was incredible how blue his eyes were. Even in the darkness of the forest, she could see them; framed by thick black lashes, they stood out brilliantly. She wanted to take off his mask. For a moment, she thought about reaching for his face, or kissing him again, but then sighed. Now was not the time.
"Are you ready for step one?" Link asked. Zelda nodded. Link lifted her gently again and the two set off once more through the woods.
By all rights, Zelda should have been terrified. And she was, a little; her heart was beating faster than normal, and her mouth was dry, but she wasn't screaming or crying like she would have been had this happened to her several days ago. And she wondered at Link, and how profoundly the past week had touched her life.
She leaned her head back against his shoulder and let him carry her the rest of the way as they talked through what exactly it was that Zelda would say had happened. The King would want to know, Zelda was sure, and Link insisted that they needed to balance truth with fiction just enough that the accomplice would panic. So they talked, and planned, and after a half hour of this, Link stopped at the edge of the woods, just beyond the clearing. "Are you ready?" he asked.
No. "Yes," Zelda responded.
Link stepped out of the tree line and into the clearing, then strode across the meadow towards where the dance was taking place. It was well underway, though few couples were dancing. People were looking around anxiously, shifting restlessly from foot to foot, and muttering. Everyone seemed tense and on edge. The King sat in his throne, watching over the event from behind his golden mask.
When people at last spotted Link carrying Zelda towards the King, whispers broke out like a dozen pots boiling, and then silence gradually descended.
As Link walked through the dance floor, carrying Zelda easily in his arms, the Princess resisted the urge to bury her face in his shoulder. Their roles, again, had been reversed; tonight, he was her shield against the eyes of others.
"Zelda!" cried Tetra, sprinting forward, her purple gown whirling around her as she ran. "You're ok!"
The other Princesses rushed forward to embrace their sister as Link set her gently on the ground, mindful of her still-wounded feet. Tetra slammed into Zelda at top speed, wrapping her arms around the youngest Princess. Aveil and Ashei followed, with Saria and Lulu and Julietta hot on their trails. Most of the Princesses were crying. Zelda felt her own eyes fill with tears, too— tears of joy at being back with her sisters, and tears of terror at what would come next.
"Our Sheikahs said you were safe," babbled Tetra. "They said that you were safe, but that Sheik had been damaged. When we woke this morning and saw the… the destruction, we knew you'd been carried off, and we were so afraid… what happened?"
"Yes," rumbled the King's voice. "I, too, would like to know that."
The Princesses slowly backed away from Zelda, though Tetra remained stubbornly stuck to Zelda's hand.
The lion's mask glinted down at Zelda and she took a deep breath. Her father was difficult to read even without the mask.
"I woke in the night, Father, to see that an apparition of Dark Magic had descended upon our camp," she said quietly. "It had been sent specifically to weaken me and take me back to its' master. It abducted me and took me into the woods, where I would have fallen had Link not come to my aid. The two of us vanquished the monster, dealing a severe blow to the rogue sorcerer in the process. We were each weakened, however, which is why it has taken me so long to return."
"And how was this apparition allowed so close to us in the first place? Why was it not detected sooner?" demanded the King. Zelda swallowed. This was the part she was dreading, though Link swore it was necessary. It was also true, which made Zelda sick to her stomach.
"Link and I believe it was called down by someone close to the Royal Family," Zelda said quietly. "That the sorcerer has a sympathizer. We will begin an inquiry into this tomorrow, to find the culprit."
"And where, exactly has Impa been during all this?" asked the King. Zelda bowed her head.
"With all due respect, Majesty, Impa answers to the same higher power that my Lord does," Zelda said softly. "It is not for me to question the actions of the Goddesses' servant."
The King pursed his lips, but did not argue. It was a bone of contention to the King that Impa and Shad were the only two people in the country that he had no authority over. At last, he turned his attention to Link.
"You have my deepest thanks for the safe return of my daughter," the King said. "Name your reward and it shall be yours."
"You may thank and reward me after I have assisted in the defeat of this rogue sorcerer, my Lord," responded Link humbly. The King pursed his lips and then nodded.
Zelda bit on the inside of her lip as she felt the magic of a bargain settle into place. She shot a glare out of the corner of her eye at Link. His face was the very expression of innocence. Zelda didn't buy it for a second.
"And where is Sheik?" the King asked. "My own Medli has told me that he is well, though gravely injured."
"Sheik fed his energy to me, that I might do battle," Zelda responded. "He is now resting, but I am certain he would be happy to testify for me come morning."
"Very well, Princess Zelda," said the King with a nod. "You may return to your tent, so that you may hunt down this sorcerer tomorrow and defeat him once and for all."
Zelda dropped an intentionally wobbly curtsey. "Thank you, my Lord," she said simply. She let herself stumble into Link, who quickly caught her. He looked up at the King, even as Romio took a few paces forward, arms outstretched. Zelda didn't miss the way that Link's arms tightened around her as the knight approached.
"Might I have my Lord's permission to escort the Princess back to the Royal Pavilion, to continue feeding her what power I have left?" Link asked, pretending that he hadn't seen Romio. The king thought about it, then nodded once. Romio let his arms dropped and backed away as Link and Zelda set off slowly across the dance floor, followed by Ashei and Saria. Tetra released Zelda's hand.
"I'll catch up to you later," said the sixth princess.
Murmurs followed them off the floor. Zelda kept her gaze pointedly straight ahead.
"Hey," Ashei said to Zelda as they moved well beyond eavesdropping range. "You shouldn't have warded our tents last night."
"Yes, I should have," Zelda responded. "You were being drained. And it's good I did— the monster would have taken more than just your magical energy."
Ashei looked sullen. Saria touched Zelda's arm lightly.
"Thank you," she said. "For protecting us, even though it cost you." Then she turned to Link. "And thank you for protecting our sister."
"I was only doing my duty," Link said. Zelda caught the double meaning behind his words and was overwhelmed with the sudden urge to stomp on Link's foot. As though reading her mind, Link touched one hand lightly to the small of Zelda's back. Lightning shot through her.
"Will you be alright?" Link asked Zelda as they arrived at the royal pavilion, and she prayed he wasn't faking the concern she heard in his voice and saw in his eyes. Zelda bit her lip, then nodded once. Link took her hand and kissed it.
"I'll find you tomorrow," he said, blue eyes intense. A promise. Zelda nodded again, and tried not to feel terror and fear and loneliness and a little regret as he walked away.
"At least one, if not two of us, be sitting with you at all times during night," said Saria as she ushered Zelda into her tent. "Me or Ashei, and probably Aveil or Tetra, just because they'll kill us if we leave them out. Until one of those girls inevitably barges in, you're going to tell us exactly what is going on." For someone so tiny, the twenty-seven year old princess could be incredibly intimidating. Zelda sighed and wondered how much she should tell her two magical sisters. She didn't want to put them in danger, or worse— tell them something they would repeat, and blow the whole plan out of the water.
"A monster did come to the camp," said Zelda quietly, deciding to stick to telling them what an accomplice somewhere already knew. "A Bongo Bongo."
"What was it like?" asked Ashei, curious. Zelda shuddered at the memory.
"Horrible," Zelda responded. "It was massive." She grabbed her Vade Mecum from where it sat beside her bed and opened it. She flipped to the first page of the bestiary, which was blank.
"Bongo Bongo," she said simply, and followed it with a small seeking spell. The details on Bongo Bongos immediately began to appear on the blank page.
"Read this," Zelda said simply, passing her Vade Mecum to Ashei and Saria. "I need to change, brush my hair, and wash off my feet."
As Ashei and Saria read, identical expressions of horror on their faces, Zelda peeled off her chemise and put on a sturdier night shift on the off chance she was abducted overnight again. Then she sat down at her stool, combed out her ragged, knotted hair, and washed her feet off with a quick cleaning spell. She padded barefoot across her rug to her potion chest, and she withdrew a small vial of red potion and a length of bandage. She rubbed the potion over her injuries, then set to wrapping her feet as Ashei and Saria finished reading the passage on just what exactly a Bongo Bongo was made of, and how many human deaths it took to make that happen.
"One of those was outside?" Saria asked, looking green. "How big did you say it was?"
"At least as tall as one of the castle towers," said Zelda. "I couldn't see the whole thing. It was hanging upside-down from the sky"
"And you defeated it?"
"Not quite," said Zelda. "Link defeated it, from what I understand. I was out cold."
"And then what?"
"And then we found a spiritual spring, where we renewed ourselves enough that we could walk again," said Zelda. "Then we found a cave and slept; after that, Link carried me back here, since I was taken in the night when I had no shoes."
"That's all that happened between you two? Nothing… more?" asked Saria, raising a brow.
"I get abducted by a monster and you want to know about my love life?" asked Zelda incredulously.
"That's the second time he's saved you," Ashei stated simply. "I saw the way you were looking at him, though you'd probably die before admitting that you felt anything for him. Except, you also have a very nice hickey on your neck, yeah?"
"No way," said Zelda, grabbing a hand mirror and frantically turning it so she could see her neck. Sure enough, there was a small, faint bruise where he'd bitten her earlier that day. "That… must have happened when I got thrown," Zelda tried.
"We're not stupid," said Ashei, grinning. "It looks fresh, too."
Saria shrugged. "We've all had our beaus, though I must say, I never thought you'd be the one to dally about."
"This," moaned Zelda, burying her head in her hands, "is way too complicated to be a dalliance."
Saria and Ashei both stared at Zelda. When the youngest princess didn't move, they both began to shift restlessly.
"Hey," said Ashei. "We didn't actually mean to upset you."
"Ashei, there's a very strong, very crazy sorcerer who is trying to suck out my powers to make himself stronger, I'm working around an obscene number of idiotic binding enchantments, Impa is… not here, and I've developed an alarming attachment to the man who I'm relying on to keep me from dying. The whole situation is a little bit upsetting." Zelda exhaled loudly. She lowered her left palm from her forehead and examined it, the four long scratches glinting in the candlelight. They looked just like the claws on Link's paws. But how had he done it?
"What happened to your hand?" Saria asked, grabbing Zelda's palm and pulling it towards her.
"Magic," Zelda responded. "Very big magic."
"It looks like blood magic," said Ashei, casting a critical eye over it. Zelda looked up in surprise.
"How do you know that?"
"I'm not an idiot," said Ashei. "I know about battle magic, and blood magic is often tied in with that, yeah? What did you make a Pact with?"
"Zelda made a Pact?" Saria asked, alarmed. Zelda sighed.
"I can't talk about it," she said. "But it's ok. I'm not an idiot either, Ashei. I know how to deal with Creatures of Power."
Letting them give her hickeys was a good start, apparently.
"You'll let me know if there's anything I can do to help, right?" asked Saria. Ashei nodded her agreement.
"Of course," said Zelda. "And Saria, there is something that you can do for me." Zelda tilted her head to the side and gestured to the bruise. "Can you get rid of this before anyone else sees it? Like Tetra or Aveil?"
"They're about as subtle as earthquakes, yeah?" said Ashei.
"I'll tell them about it when I'm not trying to keep myself from dying very painfully," responded Zelda as Saria pressed two fingers to the hickey. There was a gentle pop, like a bubble rising to the surface of water, and Saria pulled her fingers back.
"That should take care of it," Saria said simply.
"Great," said Zelda. She laid out her dress for the next day, tucking a number of amulets and potions into the pockets, just in case. Then she turned and surveyed her two sisters. "I'm going to go to bed now, because I'm tired." And she was, she was surprised to find— though she had slept the day away in Link's cave, she'd slept the sleep of healing, which she always woke up from feeling more tired, not less. "Though first I'm going to ward the tent so that only someone of Royal blood may enter. And tell Aveil that if she wakes me up, I will not hesitate to light her hair on fire for real."
"Can I read your Vade while you sleep?" Ashei asked.
"Absolutely," responded Zelda. "Just don't shut it and open it again. I'm the only one it's keyed to, and you'll get zapped with a nasty curse if you try."
"Got it," said Ashei.
Zelda set to work warding the inside of the tent, much as she had warded outside of Ashei's and Saria's the night before. The two Princesses watched Zelda work; they were able to see her wrap the powers around the four anchor points, and Saria was smiling faintly by the time Zelda was done.
"Watching you cast spells is always beautiful," Saria said.
Zelda's response was cut off by a sudden enraged shriek— Julietta's voice. The sound of something breaking several tents away surprised Zelda. "How could you?" Julietta sounded near tears. The tones of Romio's response were audible, soothing, but a little desperate; his words were indistinct.
"What do you think is going on?" Saria asked, glancing in the direction of Julietta's tent.
"Dunno. He's been distant the whole Carrus," said Ashei. Out of all the sisters aside from Julietta, Ashei knew Romio the best— they could be found every morning in the training ring, beating the snot out of each other.
"Cheating?" Saria asked.
"Maybe," Ashei responded. "In the stories, it's always the brightest passion like theirs that leads to betrayal, yeah?"
Zelda was too tired to care. "Shut up and let me sleep," she said, throwing a silencing spell over the tent as something else was shattered by Julietta's hands and the sounds of sobbing echoed over the campground. "Good night."
"Night," chorused Ashei and Saria together. Zelda threw herself onto her cot.
Despite her long nap from earlier that day, she was exhausted. Her eyelids were heavier than boulders. "Wake me up if you can't get out." And she sank like a rock into sleep, wishing that Link was there with her to hold her in his arms again.
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