His eyes opened slightly but were forced closed by the cold.
Yes, the cold. It was so cold.
Again he tried to open his eyes, but again they would not see.
"Do not worry, friend."
He froze where he was, listening. Did he just hear a voice? Or was it his imagination?
"It is not your imagination. I am a friend. I will not let harm come to you."
He looked around him, for all the good it did to his blind senses. Something was not right. Something was very, very wrong. His movements were sluggish and his limbs felt like frozen logs, numb to the bone. When he opened his mouth to speak to the odd voice that spoke to him, he could not speak. He could not breathe. His ears heard rushing all around him; sometimes louder, sometimes softer. He was blind to all the world around him.
"Except me," said the voice.
Yes, he thought, except this voice that speaks to me. Well, he thought, it seems to know my thoughts, so perhaps I can talk with it?
"You can try," teased the voice.
"Who are you?" he asked of the ethereal.
"You cannot see me. You cannot feel me. You cannot taste me. You cannot know me. To you, I do not exist. Yet."
Why can't I know you?"
"Because you are dieing."
Dying?? How? Think! What was the last thing I can remember? Fighting. Fighting against my friend. No! He was not my friend! Not anymore! Not anymore. We were fighting in the river and he pushed me over the waterfall! Yes! I fell! But where does that leave me now? Heaven? Hell? Or somewhere else?
"You are not dead yet. Heaven can wait. But not for much longer."
That is right! I am dieing! Is that why I can't talk or breathe? It must be.
"Voice!" he cried in his mind, "Help me! Please!"
He heard what might have been a chuckle and the rushing became louder. It almost hurt his ears to hear. Suddenly, something around him changed and he could suddenly breathe. He could dimly feel his feet and fingers and through them he felt that he was laying on something hard. He did not move but only breathed. And breathed. He breathed like he had never breathed before in his life. It was the breath of mortality. He was alive!
That's right. Alive and safe.
It was slowly at first, but it soon picked up speed as he climbed upward from unconsciousness into consciousness. He could feel his body around him. He could feel the rocks against his back. He could hear the water near his feet and he could breathe in the wonderful yet cold air. Auldric was alive.
His eyes opened slightly and he saw above him a dimly lit rock ceiling.
Auldirc tried to move his head so as to see more of his surroundings, but an intense pain engulfed him as he did.
"You are awake at last."
Auldric looked around as best he could with his eyes but could see no one.
"Where are you?" he croaked, barely more than a whisper.
"I am here beside you."
'Who are you?" the boy asked.
Again the chuckling. "You will find out soon enough. Soon enough. Now sleep."
Auldric sighed deeply and welcomed the bliss of sleep.
When next he awoke, his eyes were greeted by a blindness of a different sort than before. This as the blindness of sunlight!
He had shielded his eyes when he realized that he could now move his arms! He sat up is surprise. He could sit up! He quickly lay back down. He could vomit!
"Again you are awake. Better this time?"
"I think so," Auldric said trembling, in a slightly less terrible voice than before. "I can move now."
"How did I survive the fall? The waterfall should have killed me."
"In a way, it did."
"In a way? Either it did or it didn't!"
"Then it did, in fact, kill you."
"The how am I here talking with you?"
"Because I saved you."
"Why? So that you can play games with me?"
"No. How else am I going to leave this pit than to have you take me."
"Ha! Don't be so arrogant. I don't need to take you anywhere!"
"But you have carried me so far already. Why stop now? Neither of us wishes to remain here for eternity."
'Carried me so far already?' What did that mean?
Auldric did as he was told and slowly moved his head to one side and then another to look for his mysterious saviour. He saw no one.
"By your hand."
He looked. There was nothing by his hand but the Master Sword.
"Yes," said the voice. "The Master Sword."
Slower than last time, Auldric sat up and peered at the great sword suspiciously.
"You are the sword?" he asked, slowly.
"Yes. For now."
Auldric picked up his blade and looked carefully at it. "For now?"
"Yes. In your current state, your mind would burst should I show you my true form. So I possessed this weapon. This... marvellous weapon."
"What's so marvellous about it?"
"You have not felt it? You have not felt the raw energy flowing through the veins of this blade? The sense of timelessness in which it holds itself? You must truly be a fool."
Auldric spat at the blade, but in his weakened state, he only managed a dribble down his chin. "Remember, whatever you are, you need me to get out of here! So mind your tongue." He paused. "Or whatever it is you have."
"You are not this sword's true owner."
The voice said this as a fact, not a question.
"Of course I am."
"You lie," said the voice quietly. "This weapon belongs to another. It is merely using you to return to it's former owner."
"No one is using me!" cried the young man, his teeth gritted in hate. "I am in control of my own fate, not anyone else!"
Chuckling rose again within Auldric's brain. "Not only are you ignorant to the sword, you are ignorant to the world. I must surely have a cursed fate to have one such as you fall into my lap."
"There is no fate! I control myself!" The boy was shaking in anger and freeze. With each passing minute, his body was recovering from it's clash with death, and with each passing minute, his mind was becoming sharper and quicker. No one would control him, not anymore; not again. Trine had tried, Link had tried, the wizard had tried. Everyone had tried to control him, but no longer would he be a puppet for the strong! He was in control of his own life, not some ethereal thought.
The humour was gone when the voice replied to Auldric's unspoken thoughts. "You constantly deny the existence of fate, and yet you are blind to the fact that everything you have ever done has been written out beforehand by the gods. Your claiming the sword; your fall from the river; your meeting of me. All of it. And that man whom you fought. He, too, is guided by the same force. But I sense that he has accepted this. He is happy to make the best of his destiny and he is a much better person for it."
"Link is not better than me!" shouted Auldric, the anger helping to warm him and raise his body from death. "I will kill him and prove that I am the best in the world!"
"But you cannot."
"You will not. It has not been foretold. You are destined to fail again and again. What then? Are you still in control of your life? Even though you can never better your position? You are a poor, misguided soul, boy. The poorest of the poor. You are the luckless. The one destined to be trodden upon by the greats. Take Link, your friend. He saved your life, and you his. But you can never compare to him. No matter what you do, he will always be better, and your efforts will only propel him further into infamy. You are trapped in obscurity."
Auldric shut his eyes. He would not listen to such things. And from a voice in his head of all things!
"You cannot ignore me, nor can you ignore Fate."
Auldric sat back onto the rocky ground and breathed deeply. He was in control of his own life and no one could ever take that away. Never.
The voice looked down at the sodden boy and waved it's hand over his face. Auldric fell into a deep sleep that would give him the energy needed to tackle his monstrous fate. It looked away from its new companion and gazed at the altar near the back wall of the small icy cave. That altar was his own fate, and he had accepted that eons ago. If only the boy could accept his fate, then both of them could continue their lives.
Sunlight shone brightly through a crack in the draped window. The bright beam of light snuck across the floor to creep up onto the bed, up the covers and into the face of Link.
Rubbing his weary eyes, the hero woke, his eyes shut but his mind open. He listened.
Around him, there was silence. Mostly. The sunlight he felt upon his face almost made a sound so peaceful that he nearly fell back to sleep, but he searched on.
Outside the window across from him, he could hear a soft wind rustling tree branches, and birds chirping happily in their warm nests. Inside the small cottage, he heard the sounds of machinations. In the kitchen, a kettle whistled. In the living room, a fire crackled. Talking sounded from nearby. Link listened.
"Dear, oh dear," came a woman's voice, "It's almost noon and that boy is still not up. Lazy toad. Dear, would you go and wake him up, please?"
"Yes, granny," came another voice, this one a girl's. Feet approached the room.
The door opened quietly and Link heard small footsteps walk to the window. Suddenly his closed eyes were flooded by a blinding light. His hands went to his face, covering his wounded sense. He cried out in surprise.
"What the hell?!"
"Get up, lazy."
Opening his eyes slowly, Link looked at the girl. She was standing by the window, her hand resting on one of the drapes, which were now open.
"Why should I, with such a rude wake-up call?" he asked, a smile streaking across his face.
The girl walked to the side of the bed and slapped the back of Link's head. "It's already almost noon. You have work to do, now UP!"
With that, she grabbed the sheets and yanked them away from the bed.
They both froze. The room was silent. Their mouths hung open in halted speech, and their eyes widened in shock.
Suddenly the moment was over and their brains came back on track.
Her hands to her mouth, Zelda cried, "Ohmygods, I'm so sorry!" at the same time that Link shouted, "What the hell to do you think your doing?!"
Zelda's face turned bright red and she ran from the room, slamming the door closed behind her. Link jumped out of bed and pulled on a tunic to cover his naked body and followed the girl from the room.
He found her in the kitchen. When she saw him walk in, she busied herself with the tea, her head bowed in mock concentration with the task.
Before either of them could speak, a loud and mostly feminine voice piped up from the table.
"There you are!" Link looked to see Hecuba, his hostess sitting at the table, knitting. "Where have you been? It's almost noon!"
"Am I not allowed to sleep?" asked Link defensively, still not quite himself after his rude and embarrassing awakening.
The old, plump woman pointed a needle at him. "Not when there's work to be done. Now get some tea and breakfast and get out to help Donalbain."
He sat down at the table and sliced some of the still-warm bread. Zelda quietly served him a cup of tea as he buttered it. The kitchen was silent but for the sound of Link's munching and the knitting needles clicking together. The awkwardness was pervasive.
As soon as Link finished his breakfast, he went back to his room to get dressed for work in the bitter outdoors with Donalbain.
For the past few days since he arrived at the home of Donalbain and Hecuba to find Zelda, Link had been recovering from hypothermia and exhaustion. He and his companion, Vincent, had travelled non-stop from Hyrule, through Calatia, and into Forhas just to find the princess Zelda and now that they had, it should have been time to rest.
But Link had not counted on Hecuba.
The small, round woman had a short temper with those who did not do their chores and she was determined that all under her roof would work. Of course, now that there were two able young men living in the small cottage, the old woman had designed some grand plans for the place. Most of it involved heavy labour.
Making sure to close the door firmly, Link walked across the bedroom to the closet and opened it. He pulled from the shelves some thick breeches, his tunic, and a thick cloak; He would need all the clothing he could between himself and the bitter winter weather beyond the cosiness of the cottage walls.
Without another look to the women in the kitchen, Link left the cottage and stepped out onto the ice covered steps. He looked around.
The small clearing surrounding the cottage was covered with white snow, as was everything else. The trees were contrasts of white and black, and the surrounding outbuildings were little more than mounds of snow with a little opening in one side. Leading down from the front steps, a path of footsteps –two pairs- led off into the dark forest. They could only have been the steps of Donalbain and Vincent. Link set off in pursuit, clasping his cloak closely about him against the chill winter air.
The young hero followed the footsteps through the forest until he heard the sound of an axe and a man talking. Following now both the sounds and the path, Link soon found himself looking at both his host and companion chopping down a large tree.
"… so that's why you should talk more, lad," said Donalbain to the ever-silent Calatian, Vincent. "All you need to do is find a reason to go on living. Find yourself a wife, or family, or anything, as long as you have a new mission in life. You mustn't go on being silent and dumb all your life. Not healthy." As the old man was talking, the giant tree fell with a deafening crash and the forest then returned to it's previous silence. Link walked up to the two.
"Still no luck with him?" asked the young man, picking up an axe lying beside the unmoving Vincent.
The old man nodded sadly. "Poor lad. I've seen some horrible sights in my time, but what he saw must have been absolutely terrible. And there are few ways for us to help him. Sad." With one last shake of his head, Donalbain hefted his axe and began chopping the felled tree into logs.
With one last look to his friend, Link set about helping the frail old man cut up the tree.
The two of them, with Vincent looking on, spent much of the day chopping the tree into firewood, the coldness of the forest being stayed by their seemingly never-ending work. They stopped occasionally for breaks and once for a quick lunch, but they worked tirelessly for hours and hours making sure that they and the women would stay comfy and warm in the coming nights for winter was in the middle of it's season and showed no signs of leaving early.
In the late afternoon, as the sun was beginning to sink over the far-off mountains, the three had collected more than enough wood for the next few weeks and headed back to the cottage for some well deserved rest and food and warmth.
The trio entered the little cottage and were immediately greeted with the smells of a wonderful dinner awaiting them.
"We're back!" called Donalbain, taking off his boots near the doorway and then heading for the kitchen.
"You're too early," came a cry from the kitchen angrily before the old man could make it halfway across the living room. "Go back out!"
As Link took off his boots and began to help Vincent with his, Hecuba appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, hands on her hips and a sour expression on her face. "Dinner will be ready in about an hour, so go away until then."
Donalbain stopped in his tracks before the large frame of his dear wife. "But we just came in, dear. We can wait for dinner in here. Now please move so I can get the brandy."
The old woman held up a finger and waved it at her husband. "Oh, no you won't! You can go back outside and work for the hour, not sit down and get drunk! Not while we are in here cooking our bottoms off to give you three a wonderful meal! Now get!"
Donalbain looked dismayed and Link could hardly stifle his amusement at the little argument. "Please, pet-" started the old man.
"Don't you 'please pet' me! OUT!"
Donalbain sighed and retraced his tracks to the door where Link was still standing. While his body language said defeat, his face was a large grin as his back was turned to his wife. Hecuba returned to the kitchen and the old man chuckled. He leaned close to Link and said in a low voice, "There's small bottle of dandelion wine waiting for us in the goat shed. Come on."
Again putting on their boots, the three men made their way back outside into the cold gathering dusk and to a nearby shed. Holding the small door for his companions, Donalbain closed it behind them and rummaged in the corner of the small shed, behind one of the two goats, who were happily sleeping away on the straw covered floor. Link and Vincent had found seats next to the goats just as their host cried out in delight and pulled from the darkness a small bottle of pale liquid.
The small lantern between them, Link and Donalbain shared the bottle, offering to Vincent but getting the usual response.
"More for us, then," Donalbain said with a wink.
After a few minutes of quiet drinking, Donalbain asked the question that Link knew was coming eventually.
"So you do love Zelda, right?" he asked.
Link took a swig of the bottle and handed it back before replying.
"I love her more than my own life," the boy said gloomily.
"You don't sound too happy about it."
Link shrugged. "I love her enough to search across half the land and nearly kill myself, leaving behind all that I have worked for in the past five years, and yet I know that I can never have her."
"And why is that?" asked the old man innocently, though Link thought there was a slight smile on the man's face. It could have been that the old man knew more than he let on about the world outside the forest, or it could have just been the wine.
"Our… Her family never approved of me," the boy said with a sigh.
"So don't tell her family. Her life is her own to decide for, not her father's. They might not be happy about it, but if her family finds out that you two are already married, they won't have many options."
"Except divorce," Link pointed out as he took another drink.
Donalbain waved his hand vaguely in the air. "Divorce can be messy, especially for a family like hers. They would probably disown her rather than divorce."
"Though now that her family have all died, it might not be such a large problem, but…"
Donalbain nodded. "Others would surely be looking on and they hold too much power for strangers, eh?"
Link nodded and sighed deeply.
The two were silent for a while, doing nothing but passing the steadily emptying bottle back and forth.
"Does she love you?" asked the old man suddenly.
Link nodded. "I think so, but she's never really said so. She was very loyal to her family. She would never do anything against either their wishes or what is for the best of the… family business." Link chose his words carefully, knowing that his hosts were ignorant of Zelda's royal past. The girl had chosen not to tell the old couple that she was the princess of Hyrule so that she might be treated just as another anonymous peasant and perhaps live out a simple, quiet life.
At this, Donalbain chuckled as if Link had said something funny. "Family business…that's one way to call it."
"What do you mean?" asked Link suspiciously as the old man took another long swig of the wine.
He shook his head and put the bottle back into the corner. "Nothing, nothing at all," said the man as he tightened his cloak around himself. "Just making talk is all. Nothing more. Now come on, dinner should be ready by now."
Without another word, the three exited the small shed and opened the front door of the cottage, closing it quickly once inside to keep the warm air in. Hecuba noticed them and barked, "What have you three been doing?"
"Feeding the goats," replied both Link and Donalbain automatically.
Hecuba waddled over to glare her husband in the face, or as near as she could, and said menacingly, "Your nose looks a bit red. Have you been drinking?"
Donalbain shook his head fiercely, avoiding the woman's gaze. "Of course not, pet. It is winter, after all, and for a nose not to get red in winter is just unnatural…"
He was stared at for several uneasy seconds before Hecuba huffed and walked back to the kitchen. "Dinner is about ready. You lot had better wash up first."
Donalbain glanced to Link and winked. "Come on lad. Let's get your friend here washed all proper like." With that, Link and his host guided the brain-dead Vincent to the back room of the small cottage where a basin of warm water lay upon a table. There, the three of them washed themselves of the grime of a day's work, finishing just in time to hear Hecuba's voice calling them to the table.
Once seated and served, the new family began to talk.
"So, my little ones," Hecuba began, "Have you given any thought to the Midwinter Festival?"
Link and Zelda glanced at each other before answering.
"What is the Midwinter Festival, granny?" the girl asked.
The old woman looked appalled. "What is it?! Why it is only the most popular thing to do around these parts in winter! All the young people love it just as much as us older folk, isn't that right dear?"
"Of course, dear," came the expected answer from opposite the matron.
"Quite," she continued. "At the festival, held on the solstice, all of the families in the area gather for a few days and have a large party with plenty of food and games and stories and everything! Oh, it's so much fun! You two will be going with each other, of course?"
Zelda blushed deeply and Link chocked on his food. "Ah, Hecuba," he started, "Zelda and I are just friends."
The old woman smiled slightly and, to his horror, patted Link's hand in a tenderly way.
"Of course not, dear. Now stop chattering and finish your dinner."
The conversation had clearly been ended and, soon after, so had dinner.
Later that night, after dinner had been put away and the old couple had retired for the night, Link sat alone in the living room, slouched in the large chair by the diminishing light of the fireplace. He had sat staring off into the mesmerizing glow for what seemed like hours when he heard a floorboard creak beside him. Turning, hand reaching unconsciously for his absent sword, he relaxed at the sight of Zelda staring at him dressed in her nightdress and holding a small candle that cast dim yet eerie shadows around the room.
"Are you alright?" she asked quietly.
He nodded. "I'm fine, thank you. Why are you up so late? You should be asleep."
She shrugged and sat down on the rug near the fire, knees pulled to her chest and chin resting on them. "I couldn't sleep. What's your excuse?"
It was Link's turn to shrug. "The same, I suppose."
The two were quiet for a moment, both just staring into the red glow.
"So what have you been telling Hecuba?" Link asked suddenly.
Zelda shook her head, smiling. "Absolutely nothing. She just has it in for us, I suppose."
"She couldn't be more conspicuous," Link added, also smiling. "Though that Midwinter Festival sounds like it could be fun."
Zelda nodded excitedly. "I know! It's been ages since we've been to a party! The last one was in…" She trailed off as memories of their last moments of fun came back to her. She sniffled softly as she thought about just how close the two of them had been to death.
"Calatia," Link finished for her, his voice trembling as he too remembered.
"It seems so long ago," said Zelda wistfully. She thought for a moment. "It must be at least two months ago. Maybe more."
Link nodded. "That was the start of this mess, wasn't it?"
Suddenly, Zelda looked defiantly at her friend and spread her hands wide. "I wouldn't call this a mess!" She relaxed a bit. "I would call it happiness."
Link met the gaze of the girl. "I would call it temporary."
Zelda shook her head sadly. "What is it with you that you just can't let go? Living here has made me happier than I have ever known and I know that you love it here just as much as I do! And you still want to leave it as quickly as you can! Why can't we just be happy?"
A grunt came from behind them and the sleeping form of Vincent turned on his sofa bed. Link motioned to Zelda to keep her voice down. He then came down from his chair and sat beside his princess, arm around her shoulders.
"We've had this conversation dozens of times. I would love to stay but we both have a duty to Hyrule. We can't leave it in the hands of Trine. It belongs to you. Its people belong to you. Its spirit belong to you. And its protectors belong to you."
Zelda leaned her head against Link's shoulder. She knew what he was saying. Someday the two of them would have to return to Hyrule and retake the throne, but until they did, Link would always be alongside her, protecting her and comforting her just by being there. He was hers. They both knew it.
Idly, Zelda fingered the small necklace that hung around Link's neck; the ring necklace given to him by a Malon from an ancient age. It was much like the bond shared by the two Hylians- Sometimes there is a large divide in how the two thought and acted, but in the end they would always meet again to become one.
"You belong to me…" she said softly before lifting her head and looking Link in the eye. "So there would be no problem if we went to this festival together?"
Link leaned his head back and closed his eyes for a moment, a slight smile on his lips.
"I suppose not," he said finally.
"Of course not," the girl said haughtily, smiling madly. "Good night then. And get some sleep."
With that, Zelda rose quickly, pecked Link on the cheek and walked off to bed leaving Link sitting on the rug washed in the near-gone glow of the fire.
After the bedroom door had closed, Zelda quietly crept into the bed set up for her by the wall of her host's bedroom. Her candle quickly extinguished, she pulled the covers over herself and after some time was breathing the heavy, regular breaths of sleep. Not long after, the door to Link's room opened and then shut quietly. The house was asleep.
Hecuba, lying in bed, her eyes wide open, smiled. Of course the two children would fall in love, after all, she had planted the seeds and with teenagers it didn't take long for results to sprout. The world often complied with how she wished it to behave.
She closed her eyes and was asleep in an instant.
Again, the cold body of Auldric rose slowly from unconsciousness.
"You are awake," said the voice softly within the boy's mind.
He groaned. "I thought that had all been a dream," he said aloud.
"No dream, just hazy reality."
The voice ignored his question. "It is time for us to leave this place."
Auldric nodded, more to himself than to the voice, and stood up looking around him as he did.
The ice cave was no bigger than a small hut, and most of it's space was filled with the frigid waters of the river above. Auldric was standing on a small shelf of dry land hidden away in a corner of the small cave. An altar stood decaying against the wall.
Looking up, Auldric could see no way to climb from the hole above him where the waterfall was pouring in.
"How do we get out?" he asked.
"Through the water, of course," said the voice patiently.
Looking down into the pool, the water seemed clear to Auldric's eyes, and suddenly, as if a ray of light had shown through the cave mouth, he glimpsed a small hole near the bottom of the pool.
"I have to swim? Through that water?"
"If you do not," said the voice, "then we both stay here for eternity."
Auldric did not need to be told twice. Taking a large breath, he gripped the Master Sword fiercely and dove into the freezing water.
Immediately his skin was accosted by the numbness of icy water, but he fought the pain and swam until he was at the hole. Grabbing its sides firmly, he pulled himself through the opening, propelling himself down a narrow tunnel of water, blinded by the now rushing bubbles and liquid.
He torpedoed along for what seemed like an eternity, all the while his lungs screaming louder and louder for air.
Then, just as it seemed he would continue forever, the rush of water ended and Auldric was thrown into the air.
He landed heavily on a patch of earth and lay there gasping for breath for many minutes, suddenly shivering as his adrenaline left his already weak body.
"Good boy, Auldric. Now we are free for fulfil our destinies," said the voice softly.
Auldric's gasps soon became normal rhythmic breaths and he began to dream…
"Why are you here?"
He looked around but could see nothing- the world had gone black.
"Why are you here?" Repeated the ethereal voice.
"Who are you! What do you want of me!?" he screamed in reply.
"You are here."
"Yes I'm here! Now answer me!"
"Why are you here?"
"I don't know where here is!" he shouted to the nothingness. "I can't see anything!"
There was a pause of silence and the blackness seemed to get even more black.
More voices this time sang a response in voices that both made his skin crawl and his heart break:
"Your eyes are perfect and there's no fog, yet you roam wasting time"
He collapsed to his knees, holding his head in the pain and pleasure the voices created within his mind.
"That… answers nothing! Where am I?!"
Again the sirens answered, this time softer, at the edge of hearing. "You lie in bed fevered and still, yet you are not sick at all."
Tears started to flow freely down his cheeks as the voices spoke again, his confusion mounting and his terror at the voices rising.
"What is happening to me?" he asked the voices in a small voice.
Again a pause and the pressure on his mind increased. Then, just above a breath, the voices spoke again.
"Why are you dead?"
The pressure continued to increase until, finally, Auldric passed out in the blackness.
He opened his eyes painfully.
"What…?" he croaked hoarsely to the world around him.
Suddenly a hand pressed upon his brow and a cooling sensation spread through his body.
"Shh." Came voice softly from above. "You must remain quiet and calm. You are safe."
But he did not listen. Auldric tired to fight the hand and rose his head from the pillow it was resting on and tried to rise.
"I'm not safe! The darkness will find me! The voices will torture me again! I must…"
His words we cut when the hand forcefully pulled him back onto the pillow. "You must rest, sir. I assure you, you are safe here. Do not worry yourself. You have been through a lot. Now is the time to rest."
Again a feeling spread through his body, but this time he could not fight against its sense of quiescence.
He quickly fell again into sleep.
When next he woke, Auldric woke slowly. There was no hand holding him to the bed he slept in, and he rose slowly.
He was sitting on a very soft bed in a small cottage. In the hearth a small fire was glowing, warming something in a pot. Next to the bed, sitting quietly on a chair, sat a young girl, sleeping.
Auldric stared at the girl. With her long brown hair and perfect face softened by sleep, she looked much like an angel he saw often on a statue standing in his village. The angel he once believed stood only for him and protected him.
The memory brought back unwanted memories of his past, and he quickly pushed them to the back of his mind.
Throwing the sheets off him, he stood shakily, noticing for the first time how white his completion had become. His veins could be seen clearly on his bones and in the filtering sunlight of a nearby window, his skin seemed to almost glow. If he did not know better, he would say that his skin was dead.
While looking himself over for injuries, he noticed that his tunic had been removed and warm towels had been tied onto his chest. Ripping them off, he threw them onto the bed and wandered over to the fire.
The heat of the fire seemed to burn instead of warm him as he drew near to the hearth. Turning away from the fire, Auldric looked to the table nearby. Upon this table sat a pot similar to the one on the fire. The boy gingerly took the lid off of this pot and peered inside, hoping for some food. Alas, he only found more of the wet rags.
As he replaced the lid, he heard a gasp. Turning, he saw that the girl had awakened and was staring fixedly at him.
He walked over to her and stared at her. She stared back, apprehension in her eyes.
"Where…?" Auldric started, but found his voice halted in his throat. He coughed painfully and tried again. "Where… am…?" but could get no further.
The girl stood suddenly and placed a hand upon Auldric's arm. Reacting swiftly, the warrior grabbed her arm and threw the girl against the wall, then pinned her arms above her head with his hands. He stared her in the eyes, his face close to hers.
"Where am I!" he screamed at the girl angrily, not caring for the burning in his throat. Just as he yelled, he stopped and relaxed, seeing the look of pure terror in the eyes of the girl, and the tears beginning to well up within them. She released a pitiful sob. She meant him no harm.
He released his grip on her and sat down heavily on the bed, massaging his battered throat. The girl collapsed into the chair and curled up, not letting her eyes off of him.
For over an hour they stayed like that, both eying each other, waiting for movement. Finally, it was Auldric who broke the silence.
"Did you save me?" He croaked to the girl.
She nodded slowly, eyes still upon him.
"What happened? How did I get here?"
She spoke quietly in response. "I found you near the lake."
"What…?" Auldric's words caught in his throat and he suddenly felt light-headed. The world tipped suddenly and he passed out, falling back onto the bed.
After a minute, the girl rose from her chair and looked at her guest's eyes. He was definitely out cold, and still suffering from the fever.
She sighed and picked up the pot of warm rags from the table. He should not have risen from bed so soon.
She quietly began to apply the rags.
Yet again, Auldric rose from unconsciousness, but this time lay still, his eyes closed.
"You are a fool to have done that," said the voice.
"What do you mean? Done what?" mumbled the prostrate warrior.
"You attacked your hostess. She obviously helped you survive our escape from the cave, and you respond to this aid by attacking her. Good job, hero."
"Don't mock me, spirit," spat Auldric quietly. "She surprised me when she moved suddenly. I reacted as a soldier should."
The voice chuckled. "A soldier?? Whoever said that you were a soldier?"
"Of course I am. I serve the king, I am his guard. That makes me a soldier."
"Serving a king does not a soldier make. Peasants serve a king; servants serve a king, but neither are soldiers. You are merely a servant. Or you would be had you not thrown away your duties. You then are now nothing more than a man with no mission."
"I am not a servant!" yelled Auldric fiercely to the voice. "I do as I wish and I do have a mission!"
"You have no master, yet you call yourself a soldier. You have no orders yet you have a mission. You must be wiser than me to see the logic in these."
The boy seethed in anger toward the voice but did not respond. He was too weak. "I have no time for phantoms," he said.
"I am no phantom," helped a voice. "I am as real as you."
Auldric froze. That was not the voice of the spirit. It was the voice of a girl.
"Who are you?" He asked slowly, keeping his eyes closed, fearing it was another voice in his head.
"I helped you survive the fever. You are alive thanks to me."
"You are… the girl?"
"Yes, I am. My name is Helen."
"Why did you save me?"
A pause. "Why should I have not? If you saw a dieing man upon a riverbank in winter, would you not help him?"
"Not if he were damned."
Again a pause. "Are you damned, sir?"
Auldric smiled slightly. "I think I may be."
"Then when you are better, we shall have your curse lifted. But for now just rest. Your fever has broken, but you still must recover you strength."
He heard the girl rise from where she must have been sitting beside him, and walk over to the fireplace.
"Did I speak in my sleep?" He asked.
She seemed to stop what she was doing and think, from the pause.
"Yes. But it was feverish mumbling. Nothing to worry about. Just sleep."
Auldric sighed and relaxed. He was safe for now and on the mend. Soon he could continue with his mission to kill Link.
As the warrior drifted off to sleep, the Voice looked down upon him and sighed.
When he next awoke, Auldric felt like he had just woken from the most peaceful sleep he had ever slept. He slowly sat up and looked around the room. The girl was nowhere to be found, yet a fire blazed happily in the fireplace. She had not gone far.
Slowly, the boy lifted his legs over the side of the bed and stretched as if he had never stretched before. His arms and legs were stiff from not moving for what must have been days, his back was like a board- rigid and hard to move. Bones cracked and moved, getting used to being awake. It felt good.
Looking out the window near the bed, Auldric noticed snow covering everything visible. Winter was still in its height.
Suddenly, the door burst open and a cold draft swam into the room. A hooded figure ran into the warm house and quickly shut the door behind her. She was carrying bundles of twigs and sticks.
The girl- Helen- put down the bundles and removed her cloak, putting it on a peg on the wall. Turning to pick up her bundles, she noticed Auldric sitting up staring at her.
She froze in mid reach. "You're awake."
The boy nodded, but did not otherwise move.
Slowly, Helen picked up the wood and walked over to the fireplace, always keeping an eye on her guest.
"Are you hungry?" she asked, peering into a pot over the fire.
"Yes," Auldric croaked. His voice was still hoarse from the long period of disuse.
"I hope you like potato soup," she said, getting out two bowls and a pair of spoons from a cupboard.
He said nothing, but tried to manage a smile as he was served his food. He did not wish to frighten the girl again. Seeing him grin, Helen returned him with a quick smile but it was gone in an instant. She was still afraid.
She took a seat in a chair by the table, watching him eat in silence. The silence was uncomfortable to say the least, each of them having questions to ask of the other.
When the soup had been finished, Auldric again led the conversation.
"Thank you," he said simply, shifting position on the bed. "The soup was delicious."
Still eying him, Helen responded in a quiet voice, "I'm glad you liked it. It's the only thing you'll be eating if you stay here."
"Why is that?"
"Potatoes and herbs are all I have to eat."
Auldric nodded. "Are there no animals around here?"
She shook her head. "None that I can catch."
"What about your father or brother… or husband?"
She paused, her breath catching for a moment. "My father is dead and I have no brother."
"I'm sorry to hear that. What about your husband?"
She seemed to blush slightly. "I have no husband."
Suddenly Auldric was hit by a realization: this girl lived alone. She had no family or loved ones. Was that why she had taken him in? For company?
Deciding to put the issue of family aside, Auldric moved the conversation in a new direction.
"You found me?" He asked.
She nodded. "I was collecting herbs near the lake nearby and I found you lying on the shore almost dead. You would have died if I hadn't helped you."
"Then I am in you debt," he said.
She waved her hand dismissively, now obviously embarrassed. "I did what anyone would have done."
Slowly, Auldric stood up, using the wall as a support. Helen tensed slightly at the movement. Instead of moving toward her, Auldric stood smartly to attention, raising his arm before him in salute.
"In the name of the Kingdom of Hyrule, I thank you for your aid to a soldier in need." That said, he collapsed to the bed exhausted with the effort of saluting.
The girl looked surprised. "You're a soldier?"
"Yes, I am," he replied. Somewhere in the back of his mind, something laughed. He ignored it.
"How did you get into the middle of the Forhasian Forest from Hyrule?" Her face suddenly lit up in hope. "Are you on a mission for the king?"
Auldric smiled. It all made sense now: A lonely young girl, living alone in a backwater part of the world, isolated from civilisation, finds a near-dead man. She takes him in hoping that he would be the prince she believes will come to sweep her off her feet. So naïve.
"You could say that, yes," he said.
She was nearly bubbling over with excitement as she spoke. "Then I'm so happy to have been of help to you! Will you be staying long?"
Expectation. Of course.
"That all depends on how long it takes me to heal. What do you think?"
She nodded. "Of course. But you're recovering from a nasty fever and hypothermia. You've been asleep for days and you need much more rest before you can be healthy enough the leave the forest," she paused. "I guess," she added.
"Then I'll stay until I'm strong enough to leave. But I insist on helping you to pay back my debt to you."
She again dismissed this thought with a wave of her hand. "No, you don't have to do that. I can manage. You just rest."
Auldric persisted, knowing full well the dangers of winter.
"I insist. How else will you collect enough food for two people for the winter? I'm guessing you only have enough in your pantry to feed one person- you. You need me."
The look of fantasy quickly left her eyes to be replaced with a look of reality hitting hard. Auldric waved his had, dismissively.
"Don't worry. Once I get strong enough, I'll help you with what needs doing. Hunting, logging, whatever."
She seemed to perk up at this. "I haven't had meat in along time. I'm not sure I even remember how to cook it!" She laughed the dainty laugh that all girls her age laugh. Its sound sent Auldric's head wheeling but he ignored it.
"Even so, I owe you my life. I don't know how to repay you."
She paused and blushed deeply. Getting up, she sat herself next to her guest and placed a hand on his arm. He tensed. She slowly lifted her head to look him in the eyes and said:
"Tell me all about Hyrule and your travels!"
His heart pounding madly, Auldric gasped in relief, but shook his head.
"I will. But not until my health gets better."
Helen nodded vigorously and stood up, helping Auldric into bed again. "Sleep well, Mr Knight."
Auldric smiled slightly and closed his eyes to sleep. His last thought of the day was of just how easy it was to get the girl under his control and just how critical she would be.
What is happiness?
Trine, king of Hyrule, lord of Delabor, and Possessor of Calatia- undeniably the most powerful ruler the Seven Lands had ever seen- sat upon his throne, listless and quiet.
He was thinking.
What is happiness? What is it to be happy? If one is happy, would he know it?
These thought streamed through Trine's young mind as he pondered his life and his actions, especially those taken in the past few months.
Idly, the young king played with a small crystal in his hands. Just on the surface, this object was nothing more than a piece of pretty glass, but it was what was held beneath that surface that made the thing so valuable: there was magic.
The crystal was actually a communications device, powered by magic and used by great commanders to give orders over long distances to troops and envoys. This simple piece of white rock was possibly the most valuable piece of logistical device in the entire world, and it was useless in its master's hands.
Its sibling crystal had been placed in the hands of the servant who, by all reasoning, should have been the most loyal of all servants.
But something had gone wrong.
The faithful gollum of the king had destroyed his crystal in a rage- so enraged by the demands of his lord, the servant had severed his only link to his master.
The faithful servant was no longer faithful. He had rebelled.
This above all other things bothered Trine. The spells woven into young Auldric's mind should have been strong enough to keep the boy under a firm grip for the rest of his life, yet it had only lasted a few months. This meant either there was something stronger than the magic, or that the magic just was not good enough. Either way, magic was not enough to maintain control, thus the magic-wielder cannot be relied upon too much, despite all of the faithful aid he had given to his liege.
Which led the boy-king back to his original question: What is happiness?
By all accounts, Trine should have been ecstatic. He had risen from an obscure prince of a backwater nation to the emperor of the most powerful empire ever in a frighteningly short time; he had disposed of all who had stood in his way, including his father, mother, uncle and aunt, and even his own cousin who may have one day become his wife. But such was the way of great men- they are hailed as great after their deaths, and their lives may be nothing more than one stroke of luck after another during what otherwise was nothing more than a dull and pointless life.
The great can touch the lives of thousands and change the course of nations, yet they can do nothing to help themselves.
What was it he wanted? Power? He was ruler of millions. He had power. Riches? The treasuries were full of some of the most beautiful and marvellous treasures in history. He had riches. Company? He could have his pick from any number of the thousands of subjects within the empire. He could have company- should he ever chose it.
No. Trine wanted none of those- he wanted something more. Perhaps love? Ashir the wizard had suggested this, once. By killing his entire family, Trine had effectively cut himself off from all who had any reason to love him. He had no family, no friends, no love. But was that what he wanted? Would love make him happy?
If only he had a clear idea of just what it was that was happiness, then he could combat these troubling feeling of emptiness within him.
After consulting with his many ready aids and philosophers, it was still no clearer.
Some had said that happiness was just satisfying his own personal pleasures: eat, sleep, and be merry. But Trine was king, surely he could do what he wanted? He had everything at his fingertips and yet he was still unhappy, so that could not be true.
Others had said that happiness lied in not only satisfying personal pleasure, but also the collective pleasure- that of everyone. Certainly he could do much to achieve this goal, but was it worth it? He had no desire to help others, so was happiness against desire? Are wanting and being happy totally opposite thoughts, neither able to satisfy the other?
Still others said happiness was through the gods. To do as the gods will and devote one's life to them is to attain happiness. Again, that did not seem true. If one devoted one's life solely to the gods and live for the paradise after death, then what was the point? If living meant nothing but a respite before heaven, then happiness meant nothing and it was happiness that Trine craved for.
There was something else, there had to be- another factor in the equation, one that was missing thus far. Something was missing from Trine's life, but he had no idea what it was he needed.
The wizard had tried everything, but even his skill was lacking and his craft useless. If Trine was to find happiness he needed to do it alone, yet for the past few days he had done nothing but meditate, trying to find this lost puzzle piece to his emotion.
This the boy had thought over again and again. It was only when his mind had turned to the crystal that he knew how to gain his lost happiness: the Triforce.
With the very power of the gods, the Triforce would grant him any wish he desired, provided he could get to it. The problem lay there- the Triforce was hidden away in another land, hidden and sealed from mortal eyes. The only entrance to this land lay on Death Mountain to the North of Hyrule, and the key to this closed door was in the hands of the turncoat gollum, Auldric- the Master Sword.
It was only through the use of the Master Sword that the gates could be opened to the Golden Land where the Triforce rested, and right now, that sword was half a continent away in hostile and unsteady hands- possibly cold, dead hands- somewhere in the great forests of Forhas, unreachable by any hands other than those of Fate and luck.
So it was that Trine had reached his depressing conclusion: happiness lay in the Triforce, accessible only through the Master Sword which was, barring any miracle, lost to him.
And so, then, was happiness.
The boy-king sighed deeply and dropped the crystal, catching it beneath his boot and promptly grinding it to powder.
So much for being happy, he thought sadly.
The snow crunched under the hooves of the two horses and the three travellers as they wound their way through the thin forest of Forhas. The trees rustled slightly in the winds above, but below their boughs there was utter quiet and stillness. Not a thing moved.
Except for the travellers.
Donalbain led the way of the small party, tracing a path that he had traversed for many years toward the nearest village where the much anticipated Mid-winter Festival was to be held in two days time.
Next in line came the horses, Silvermane and Winter, brought to the land by Link and Vincent on their quest to find their friend and princess. Atop the horses rode Zelda and Hecuba along with the many supplies and goods they would need both on their trip and stay at the distant village.
Last came Link with Vincent, the walking comatose being led by Link's careful hand. Link had decided to bring his sword despite the assurances by Hecuba that it would find no use. Her argument had fallen on deaf ears as the tool of a warrior is seldom far from his grasp, just as the tools of any tradesman are always at hand to their masters. She had not been pleased.
"How much farther is it?" asked Zelda from atop Silvermane.
Donalbain sighed and did not even bother turning his head to answer. "Still about a day's travel. Please stop asking- we get there when we get there!"
Zelda sniffed loudly to show her displeasure at the attitude of her host but said nothing. Behind her, Link and Hecuba were busy trying to mask their laughs as coughs at the princess's behaviour and the resulting reactions from the old man. They immediately masked their faces when the girl turned angrily at glare at them.
"And just what is so funny?" she demanded.
Link shook his head. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing." He coughed briefly and turned to Hecuba, wishing to change the subject. "So Hecuba, tell us more about the festival."
Zelda's mood immediately changed and she turned upon the old woman in excitement.
"Yes, Hecuba! Please!"
The old hostess nodded and held up a hand. "Of course, children. There is no need to beg so loudly." She paused for dramatic effect and began.
"Many, many years ago, before anyone lived in this forest, there lived the sprites. There little fellows inhabited the trees and the earth and all living things. One day they were playing in a field when all of a sudden a man fell out of the surrounding brush. Startled, the sprites vanished, but one of them stayed behind. This sprite was Needle. Needle was a sprite of the pine trees and had never seen a human before, so naturally she was curious.
"She moved closer to the man and discovered him wounded for he had been in a battle several days before not far from the fringes of the great forest. This man was the great Lord Cuthbert who had so bravely defended Forhas from the tyrannical Nobles and their armies. Wounded during battle, his faithful steed carried him deep within the trees until the poor thing had died of exhaustion. Cuthbert had crawled the rest of the way. As soon as her eyes fell upon the wound, Needle promised to save the man.
"For three days and three nights little Needle cared for Cuthbert tirelessly. The other sprites called her wasteful and stupid for tending to a human, but Needle did not care, for her heart had gone out to the lord. On the night of the third day, Cuthbert finally opened his eyes and gazed at the little sprite next to him. He smiled and gave his thanks to the creature. Seeing his eyes and hearing his thanks made Needle all the more dedicated to aiding the lord but it was futile- That night, Lord Cuthbert died from his wounds and poor Needle buried him.
"The other sprites were furious that a human should be buried within their sacred forest and tried again and again to exhume the body, but Needle stood bravely atop the grave, still crying from her loss and refusing the sprites their anger. Where the little thing's tears fell, they carpeted the land with pine needles, hiding the grave from the sight of the evil sprites. This is why the pine trees cry every autumn in a ring beneath their boughs- to protect the grave of the sprite's lost love from those who would see it destroyed."
Hecuba sighed. "And from that day, there has always been a celebration to commemorate the death of a great man and the pure sprite who helped him. A festival of three days and three nights in the middle of winter attended by everyone within the forest boarders."
"How many people are usually there?" asked Link.
Hecuba thought for a minute before responding. "I would say about forty or fifty. Of course, every year there are new additions to the families and a few less on some. It is always a time of great fun for everyone. If you hadn't noticed, there isn't a lot to do to amuse yourself in the middle of a forest. Just work and sleep."
"And you only have one festival a year?" asked Zelda, shocked.
The old woman smiled at the girl. "Of course. We wouldn't want to spoil ourselves, now would we?"
Zelda groaned and looked back to where Link was walking. She rolled her eyes and frowned. Link smiled in return. He knew exactly what she was saying. As princess, Zelda had gone to hundreds of parties and festivals in Hyrule- such things happened all the time among royalty. After all, they had neither fields to plough nor livestock to feed. They only had time and money. The past few weeks in the home of Donalbain and Hecuba have probably been the most that the girl had ever worked before in her life.
The small party continued in silence for many minutes before the sharp sounds of movement caught their ears from nearby within the woods. Link immediately placed his hand protectively on the hilt of his sword, ready within a moment to strike at danger. The movement continued for a few seconds before a shout was raised, immediately ending the tension that had been building in Link's shoulders. A tall man appeared from behind a thick group of trees and yelled happily, waving his arms frantically at Donalbain.
"Hello there, old man!" the stranger called, strolling up to the travellers, adjusting the massive pack on his shoulders as he extended his arm to grasp Donalbain's. The old man grinned widely.
"Hello, Jagger!" laughed the old man. "Has it really been a year since we saw each other?"
The tall man nodded, his neatly cut hair shaking snow like an avalanche as he did so. "Almost to the day! And Hecuba, lovely as ever, I see."
The portly woman smiled warmly at the man from her horse, reaching up to hug the man. "It's wonderful to see you, too, Jagger." She said happily.
"I'll ask again, my dear woman: come away with me and leave the old man behind! Embrace your hidden love!"
Hecuba blushed deeply and laughed. "You know perfectly well that Donalbain is the only man for me, despite your asking me to run off with you every year. Ask again next year!"
The three old friends laughed together and hugged many more times before the stranger, Jagger, finally turned to the new guests from Hyrule.
"And I notice a few new faces here, and unless Nature has started birthing children fully grown, I'd say that the forest has some new hands to work it." He turned to Donalbain expectantly. "Well? Aren't you going to introduce us?"
Donalbain coughed lightly and began introducing the newcomers to his old friend.
"This is Jagger, an old friend of mine, who lives a good two day's journey to the south of us, harvesting the wild jelly from the trees to sell to the nearby town. Makes a fortune." He paused. "Jagger, this is Zelda, Link, and Vincent. They are spending the winter with us."
The tall man shook hands with the two travellers (Vincent only looking blankly at the offer) and immediately joined the small caravan on their way to the festival.
"So what are Hylians doing in this part of the world?" asked Jagger after a while.
Link and Zelda exchanged glances and Link explained. "Zelda here was banished from Hyrule for a crime she didn't commit. She came here, and I followed along with Vincent here."
The tall man looked to the Calatian. "Doesn't speak much, does he?"
"The boy has had a very rough couple of weeks. Some very nasty surprises, from what I can tell," explained Donalbain. "That'll do something horrible to a young man's mind."
Jagger nodded thoughtfully. "That it will." He paused. "Strange seeing a pair of Hylians travelling with a Calatian these days."
"How do you know he's Calatian?" asked Zelda.
"That is the uniform of a Calatian guardsman, isn't it?" asked the newcomer.
Link nodded. "So?"
"Haven't you heard? Calatia was invaded by Hyrule. They're at war."
This news hit everyone in the company by surprise. Even Hecuba and Donalbain looked shocked for a moment.
"When did this happen?" asked Zelda, her voice barely a whisper, her face drained of all colour in shock.
"About a few weeks back. From what I hear from the villagers I deal with, war was declared just out of the blue. That's not even the surprising part- everyone knew a war was brewing. No, the surprise was that Calatia fell within a week!"
There was a stunned silence as they walked on, each thinking about this new turn of events. Open warfare was rare in the Seven Lands. The last war had been the better part of a century ago, involving every nation in the known world against the invading Sunians in the south. Both Zelda's father, the late King Gerrik, and the Calatian King, Eridanus, had fought in that war, and so had their fathers and brothers. Even today, so many years after the war, there were still tales of the horror the Sunians had brought upon the Seven Lands- whole tracts of lands were destroyed by the mighty magic of the Sunians which Hylian magic was only just able to defend against. Much of the Southern nation of Arkhas had been obliterated and turned to wasteland from the warfare and disease following it.
To have the two most powerful nations of the Seven Lands fighting each other seemed unthinkable. And for Calatia to just roll over within a week to Hyrule was mind-boggling.
"Trine," Zelda whispered after a while.
All eyes looked to her in confusion and expectation. She continued.
"When Trine became king of Hyrule and of Delabor, he must have thought he had enough power to take on Calatia."
Hecuba added her thoughts. "But to tackle Calatia in such a short time… Hyrule must have had very powerful magic on it's side. Very powerful magic."
Link and Zelda again exchanged glances, and both knew what must have happened.
It was not until hours later, when they band of travellers had stopped for the night, and dinner had been finished, that the two Hylians found enough solitude and time to talk with each other.
Suddenly everything made sense.
The last few months had been set into motion by the escape of the wizard Ashir from Hylian custody. A follower of the evil wizard, Aghanim, Ashir was undoubtedly the most likely wizard to help Trine accomplish whatever goal he was after.
Trine helped Ashir escape from Hyrule. With such a high profile prisoner escaping, it was to be expected that Link, the royal protector would be hot on his trail. With a fake trail leading off into Calatia, Link would be gone for weeks tracking down a wizard in a land notorious for its hatred of magic. With Link out of the way, all sorts of underhanded dealings could be accomplished. The death of King Torvus could be pulled off, and with Sir Rampt- very likely a conspirator with Trine- heading the investigation into the death, no evidence would be found. Under the eye of Ashir, Trine could control Queen Mira and then his own mother, Queen Julia, until he was ready to take the throne, making sure along the way to remove any potential problems, such as Zelda and Link and Auldric.
Zelda was furious. "How could we be so stupid!?" she screamed. "We let him just walk in and grab power! We may as well have given him the throne!"
Link barely said a word to vent his anger and frustration. All this time he had thought of Trine as nothing more than a strange noble, with a morbid fixation on being able to inflict pain in others. Now Link knew the truth. He was a smart and cunning mastermind to have thought up a plan so complicated and subtle, that no one in the entire world had seen it. Coincidences suddenly made sense, and personal choices now seemed expected and planned by others.
"So should we head back to Hyrule?"
Link snapped himself out of his brooding thoughts at Zelda's sudden question.
"No," he replied. "We can't just walk in and ask Trine to leave. We would be arrested as soon as we set foot inside the castle."
Zelda looked solemnly at the glowing campfire around which she and Link now sat, the others sleeping soundly only a few feet off. "What about going to the people of Hyrule? If we tell them what has happened, surely they would join us against Trine. He wouldn't-"
"No," Link said sharply.
"Why not?" asked the princess indignantly. "It's not as if everyone in Hyrule is stupid and just follows the orders of the king!"
Link just shook his head. "Not everyone is that stupid, but too many are. Have you ever been outside of the castle walls? And not just to journey around the country, but just remained inside of the city? The orders of the king and lives of the nobility don't really apply to the average person- the average person just wants to be left alone to do what he wants and to feed his family. Even in war, it is the same thing. People who sign up for the army are doing it not for the king, but for their friends and maybe even for their country; they could care less about the whims of the royals and the politics of the world."
"But is we told them the truth…!"
"They wouldn't believe us. A few would demand proof, but most would just say 'we didn't go to war to fight for a corrupt king, we went to war to fight for our country and its honour!', or even more likely, 'I could care less, as long as there is still food on the table and money in my pocket.' Besides, who would believe a banished princess and her lackey? I'm sure that not just a few would think that we just wanted revenge against Trine for giving you the boot. The truth would not apply to such an argument- you of all people should realize that politics and wars like this one are all about the façade and the impression. Reasons don't matter; as soon as someone influential claims that the nation's pride has been slighted, people are queuing up to join the army and avenge their nation, regardless of the truth in the claim."
Zelda said nothing but stared at the fire for minutes as Link's words sank into her head. "Do my people really think like that?" she asked quietly.
Link nodded. "All except for a few, such as the Court and some merchants. The populace doesn't care about royal feuds or politics, just personal safety and national pride."
"Do none of them care about the injustice that has been done to me and my family?!" Tears began freely streaming down the girl's face and she began to visibly shake from the realization.
Link moved closer to her and put his arm around her shoulders, comforting his friend. "Most people don't know what really happened. What goes on in the court is never truthfully told to the people. The world of the court and the world of the people are two different worlds, only slightly overlapping. The cares of the royals are not the cares of the people and vice versa."
The former princess suddenly glared at her protector.
"Do you feel that way? That the cares of the royalty are nothing to the people?"
Link shook his head. "I'm just saying how I see it, and as a commoner who rose up to join the ranks of nobility, I can see it much more clearly than anyone else at the court."
Zelda sighed in resignation. She knew he was right, despite how much it hurt to admit how little her own subjects actually cared about her life's current devastation and humiliation.
"So as a commoner," she said, "what would you do to fix this situation?"
Link was silent for a while, thinking her question over. "Going back to Hyrule right now would be suicide. We need to be able to take on not only Trine and his supporters, but also the Hylian army."
"So we need an army," Zelda said quietly. "A large army."
Link nodded. "The only question is where to find one."
The princess shrugged. Link smiled slightly and said, "Wherever we find one, it will not be here and now. Get some sleep."
Zelda, her mind obviously heavy in thought, merely nodded and stretched herself out on the ground, covering herself with a blanket as she did so.
Link sighed at his friend's worries, but found himself very tired from the day's journey. Despite his own mind's frantic searches for a solution to their problems, he fell asleep almost as soon as he covered himself with his own blanket.
The Midwinter Festival had begun!
When the travellers finally arrived at the small clearing in the middle of the forest, they found tents and lights and people all intermingled together and making a massive rumble of sensory bombardment between them.
There was a tent for each family, most with small carpets set just outside the opening flap filled with goods and wares of all kinds. On each side of the massive pine tree in the middle of the clearing were huge fire pits, plenty of warmth for the possible 50 people to gather around at night. Nearby the pits were long tables filled with foods and dishes of all kinds. Children ran around the clearing in scurrying bands; mothers and wives mostly seemed to gather near the long tables and fires, their husbands and male relatives mostly dispersed among the camp admiring goods and a few of the older men just sitting comfortably and having a good smoke with life-long friends.
As soon as Link and Zelda arrived in the clearing, their hearts gave massive leaps at all the commotion, neither having seen such crowds in many months. Jagger immediately bid his farewell and went off to set up his own tent complete with market rug to sell his many jars of jelly. Hecuba and Donalbain entered the camp all smiles and promptly began reacquainting themselves with old friends, leaving the two Hylians and their comatose Calatian friend alone to stand and stare at the bustling activity with the reigns of the horses tightly held in their hands.
It was only after a few moments of stunned and glorious silence, that Donalbain came back to the two teens and broke their trance.
"Come on you two, don't be standing like a couple of gawking maypoles! We have a tent to pitch!"
Glancing at each other and smiling, Link and Zelda hurried after the old man, brining Vincent, the horses, and camping gear along. With the help of a few of the neighbouring men, they erected the small, low tent in an open space of the clearing, securing their possessions within and a small ragged rug on the ground in front of the flap. Despite its meagre appearance, inside was dry and warm, easily fitting the five people it needed to. Vincent was given a spot in one corner of the tent where he just sat and stared off into space.
"Great Gods!" came a cry from behind the two Hylians, making them jump in shock. They spun to see a small man with a large red nose and a thick moustache staring wide-eyed at them. "More Hylians! Is there some Hylian exodus that I missed hearing about?"
"What do you mean?" asked Zelda of the little man, politely ignoring his crude welcome.
The man grinned broadly. "You two make now three Hylians I've seen today, bringing the total number of Hylians I've seen in my life up to five! Are you hiding out from the war or something?"
Link shook his head. "No. In fact we only just heard about the war two days ago."
"Where did you see this other Hylian?" asked Zelda.
The man pointed over his shoulder to the other side of the camp. "There was a young lad down over that-a-way with the funny ears and accent. Sullen sort of lad. He was tagging along with the young orphan girl, Helen."
Link threw a startled look over to Zelda and thanked the man. Together the two ran off in the direction where this Helen and her Hylian companion were supposed to be. Both princess and protector felt the icy prickle on the back of their necks as the possibility of this strange Hylian's identity loomed in their minds: Auldric.
Onve on the opposite side of the camp from their own tent, Link asked a nearby woman. "Excuse me, but have you seen a Hylian and a girl around here?"
The woman nodded slightly, pointing to a run-down tent with an equally run down rug in front of it.
Walking over to the tent, the Hylians noticed the pitiable goods on the rug- old cups, a worn tablecloth, an old rag doll, and equally sad items.
"Can I help you?" came a small voice from within the tent.
Looking inside, Link noticed a young girl kneeling on a blanket just inside the flap.
"Are you Helen?" asked Link.
The girl nodded and then noticed the faces of her visitors.
"Oh! You're Hylian, aren't you?" she cried out, a smile upon her lips. Getting up, she exited the tent and looked in wonder at her guests. "I thought so! You look so much like him, it's amazing!"
Zelda asked, "Who do we look like?"
The girl took an awed moment to stare at the former princess before replying. "Auldric, of course. He's why you came here, right?"
The Hylians nodded glumly, sharing a worried glance.
"I'm sorry but he went out walking a little while ago. He wasn't very happy to come with me here, but I convinced him in the end."
"He's living with you?" asked Link in surprise.
The girl blushed slightly at the implication. "Well, yes. You see, I found him washed up along the river that runs by my house. I took him in and healed him, while he in turn promised to help me with whatever I needed help with. He's come in handy over the past few weeks, I can tell you! I hadn't had meat in ages! And the wood box is always full now!"
"What about your family?" asked Zelda. "Do they know about him?"
The moment the worlds left Zelda's lips, she regretted them, for the girl's face fell and she held back some tears.
"My parents are dead. I've lived alone for the past few years. That's why I'm having to sell these old things; I have nothing of real value to barter with and no talents with which to make anything. But at least with Auldric around for the past few weeks, I have had someone to talk to and share in the work." As the girl said these last words, her eyes seemed almost to sparkle.
"How was he when you found him?" Link asked quietly.
"Oh, almost dead! He was unconscious for the better part of a week! And then he had a very high fever, always talking to himself and acting strangely. He still seems to have some effects of the fever; I still sometimes hear him talking to the thin air."
Link nodded and thanked the girl and, taking Zelda by the elbow, left Helen and her pitiful tent.
"So Auldric is still alive," the princess said sadly.
Link nodded. "And that girl seems to have some sort of crush on him from the look of it."
Zelda nodded her head slowly. "It's no surprise, really. A lonely girl barely surviving cares for a wounded foreigner. She falls for him because he's the only man she has really become close to in a very long time."
Link took a quick look behind him to where he had left the young girl. Hopefully she wasn't so attached to his former friend as to become an obstacle when he and Auldric eventually meet, as inevitably they would.
Auldric was too busy skulking around the camp of foresters to really notice the arrival of his former comrade and princess. He had quickly bought a cap from one of the locals with which he could easily hide his tell-tale ears from prying people. If Link was still in the forest, he would eventually come to the festival; and two Hylians at a small festival would be hard to explain or ignore. So incognito it was.
He wandered aimlessly around the fringes of the gathering for hours until dusk began to settle upon the towering trees and the huge bonfires became massive beacons of habitation against the horrors of a winter forest night.
The pervasive feeling of joviality that seeped from the camp had no effect upon the solemn Hylian, whose own inner horrors vastly outweighed those of the competing forest's.
The visions and ethereal sounds from his many delusions while feverish still pestered him, not only while asleep, but exceedingly while awake as well. Despite telling himself again and again that they were nothing more than dreams, they still occurred.
"Why are you dead? Why are you here?" The chorus of disembodied voices constantly asked him. He had no idea why he was in this accursed forest and even less of an idea as to why (and how) he was dead.
"Something is calling to you," said another voice from within his head. This voice was no choir of sirens, but a deep and resonating voice that spoke of volumes of intelligence and insurmountable logic. Unlike the others, Auldric was certain this voice was real.
"What is calling me?" He asked the voice quietly.
There was a kind of mental shrug. "It could be anything; ancestors, loved ones, victims," a pause. "maybe fate…"
The boy nearly screamed in sudden rage. It was all he could do to maintain his silence.
"How many times do I have to tell you, Voice?! Nothing is controlling me and nothing will ever control me again! I do what I want!"
"No one does what they want," the voice shot back. "How many times do I have to tell you that? There is always something else guiding you, something higher than you."
Auldric sighed. "Don't give me that god crap. No gods control me, and they never have."
The voice gasped. "Only a complete idiot goes around denouncing something that he has no concept of. You may as well stand on the top of a mountain in full metal armour screaming that all gods are bastards! There are powers out there that are far beyond any of our comprehension."
The Hylian sneered. "If these powers are so incomprehensible, then how do you know of them?"
There was a moment of silence before the voice answered.
"I have… seen things," it said simply.
Auldric merely grunted at this, deciding to drop the subject for the sake of the both of them.
Suddenly, a distant sound caught the boy's sensitive ears: the sound of singing. The thing that made his heart leap into his throat was that the singing was coming from outside of his head.
Immediately quickening to a sprint, he ran over to the other side of the camp, nearing a small campfire surrounded by a half dozen small tents and many listeners. In the centre of the circle of listeners, were three women who were singing a disturbingly familiar song.
Keeping out of the light of the fire, Auldric listened intently to the song, his mind and heart both racing at dangerous speeds. The ever talkative voice seemed to be in stunned silence as the song played.
Why are you here, little dove?
Why are you here?
Your life turns and rolls along
Yet your heart bleeds and mind tears
Why are you here?
Why are you ill, little dove?
Why are you ill?
You lie in bed fevered and still
Yet you are not sick at all
Why are you ill?
Why are you blind, little dove?
Why are you blind?
Your eyes are perfect and there's no fog
Yet you roam wasting your Time
Why are you blind?
Why are you dead, little dove?
Why are you dead?
Your blood pumps and body moves
Yet you live with your mind gone
Why are you dead?
The song ended amidst a scattering of applause from the surrounding listeners, but Auldric did not hear it. Over and over the song was repeating in his head, as it had done so many times before, but this time it was different; this time his ears were still humming with the tune and his eyes were still locked on the source of that tune.
Without any warning, something snapped. The Voice knew it and Auldric knew it the moment it happened.
Before either knowing just what was happening, Auldric had stormed into the crowd and drew the Master Sword before the singers, causing them and many in the crowd to cry out in surprise and horror.
"What do you want from me?!" he screamed to the three women, his voice rising to a fevered pitch, making him sound like a screaming demon. When the singers did not answer, Auldric pulled one by the hair and laid his blade across her throat, ignoring her struggles and renewed screams.
"Where did you learn that song!?" he screamed again to the woman under his sword.
Eyes fixed fearfully on the now glowing sword, the woman answered quickly.
"Our… our mother!" Auldric looked to the other women and they quickly nodded.
"Where is you mother?" he asked.
The woman in his hand whimpered. "She died years ago!"
Auldric paused, his whole body going stiff. His mind had gone blank, as if it had just shut down from all of the confusion. He just stood still amidst the commotion he had caused.
"Auldric?" came a voice from behind him. Glancing behind his shoulder, the Hylian saw Helen standing a few feet into the light of the fire. She looked worried.
"What are you doing, Auldric?" she asked timidly, her eyes full of fear.
Dropping the singer, the boy turned on his saviour, sword aimed at her heart.
"You! You witch! You did this to me!"
Before the words were fully out of his lips, he lunged at the girl who shrieked and dodged, the surrounding crowd scattering into the shadows, with only a few of the older men remaining, cautiously trying to grab the attacker's arms while his back was turned.
Everyone in the camp froze and became silent. Heads turned to the source of the booming voice that had roared through the fray. Auldric turned to the other side of the firelight, his sword held loosely at his side.
There, with his sword drawn, stood Link, barely visible in the darkness with his grey tunic, but there nonetheless. Slightly behind him stood Zelda, a dagger in her hands.
The three Hylians stared each other down for minutes before Link spoke up.
"Auldric, I'm sick and tired of having you around! I don't know what happened to you to make you this way, but I do know that you are a threat to me, Zelda, and to these people. I cannot let you hurt them!"
Auldric grinned, his face seemingly bathed in the blood red glow in the fires, a death's head hovering above the evil glow of the Master Sword.
"Then we end this here and now."
The camp was deathly silent as the two warriors assumed fighting stances and squared off against each other. A slight snow began to fall.
It was Auldric who charged first, and the fight began.
Coming in with a sweeping swing, Auldric's sword met Link's parry and then defended against the counter attack to his ribs. Quickly blocking the blow, Link held his friend's blade and elbowed him in the jaw, sending the boy stumbling back, stunned.
Continuing his assault, Link came at Auldric with an overhead strike but his opponent recovered quickly enough to dodge the attack and kick at Link's thigh, hitting just between the muscles, sending Link crashing to the ground in pain. Auldric quickly stepped upon Link's hand, trapping his sword. Link looked painfully and fearfully into the eyes of his former friend, seeing nothing of the fondness love that had once been there; replaced now with hatred of an unbelievable kind and an arrogance that was shocking in one who had always been fairly timid.
"I always knew I was better than you, Link," said Auldric triumphantly. He raised his sword for the final kill. He grinned again. "I just never had the chance to show it before."
"No!" came a cry from the surrounding crowd. Zelda came running out into the firelight, a bright blue glow in her hands. Suddenly the glow shot from her hands and hit Auldric full in the chest, sending him flying backwards several feet, sending him brushing against the bonfire. He hit the snowy ground and shrieked in pain
Zelda kneeled next to Link, helping him get up. "Are you all right?"
Quickly massaging his wrist, Link nodded. "Just bruised. Nothing serious." He limped over to where his adversary was still writhing on the ground, shovelling snow onto his side and face.
"Get on your knees!" Link ordered.
Auldric stopped moved and peeked up at Link, a slight smile upon his now-charred face. "Will you really kill me, Link?"
Link hesitated at the question. The grin grew wider.
"That's the problem, isn't it?" Auldric said gleefully. "This fight is one sided- I want to kill you but you don't want to hurt me. You have to hold back, and that makes you weak. You almost died because of it! You always seem to get yourself into these problems of unrequittal, don't you? With me; with Zelda; the list goes on. What kind of pathetic soul gets himself into relationships that he can never end?"
"Shut up!" screamed Zelda suddenly, startling both the fighters. "The only pathetic soul here is you, Auldric! You used to be best friends with Link and now look at you! Wriggling around in the mud of a strange land, with half your face burned off and about to be executed! If Link gets himself into endless relationships, you seem to continually get yourself into situations where your own weakness ends up mounting against you! You're too weak to deserve to live!"
A look of uncertainty crossed Auldric's face for a moment but it disappeared instantly. He grunted.
"Say what you want, princess," he said. "It still doesn't change the fact that while I may be too weak to live, Link can only live with the help of his friends- he is wholly dependent upon you for his own peace of mind. What would happen if you were killed?"
Zelda fell quiet and it was Link who spoke next.
"You are in no place to be talking psychology, Auldric. Now get on your knees and prepare for the afterlife."
Auldric did so, slowly, speaking as he did.
"When was the last time you killed someone in cold blood, Link? Wasn't it Gannon?" He smirked. "Maybe I should feel honoured to be treated in the same way by you as that creature was." Suddenly, his voice and expression changed; changing from near insanity and the knee-jerk reaction of prolonging death, to composure and a timeless ancientness.
"You forget, hero, that it was Gannondorf who was the cause of everything that you are. It was he who set everything in motion- the kidnapping of Zelda; the assassination of the royal family; the death of your uncle; your meeting Zelda. Your whole life since that stormy night has been because of Gannondorf. It is no wonder that you can't help your life revolving around his memory."
Link shook his head and pressed the blade against Auldric's neck.
"Stop talking stupidity." Auldric nodded and the look of fear dimly returned to his eyes. Link raised the sword and…
The sword stopped.
From out of nowhere, the girl, Helen, had rushed in between Link and Auldric to halt the execution.
"Get out of the way!" Growled Link, lowering the blade. Zelda grabbed hold of the girl's wrist and tried to move her, but Helen stood her ground.
"Don't kill him!" the human pleaded. "He hasn't done anything to you! He's a kind and gentle person who would never harm a fly! Leave him alone!"
In a flash, taking advantage of the distraction, Auldric seized his sword and spun around, the blade aimed just behind where he was just kneeling. Link jumped back, sword raised; Zelda threw herself to the ground; and Helen looked blankly on, shocked by what she was seeing: a sword coming directly at her head.
The Master Sword stuck metal and the sound resounded like a thunderclap throughout the camp. Everyone was again startled at another sudden turn of events.
There, in the middle of the arena, his arm around Helen and his sword deftly holding Auldric's swing, stood Vincent, apparently having come out of nowhere as quick as lightning.
He glared down at the Hylian.
"Don't you dare harm this girl," he said softly, throat muscles hoarse from lack of use.
The three Hylians were dumbstruck by the red knight's sudden appearance and even the crowd of locals seemed to be unsure as to whether this battle was less of a fight and more of some sort of play, with new characters showing up every couple of minutes.
Taking advantage of the pause in battle and the uncertainty of the exact outcome, a tall man detached himself from the crowd, a large stick in his hands. Walking up behind Auldric, he slammed the stick down on the back of the boy's skull, knocking him out.
The tension in the air only lessened when Link sheathed his sword and kicked Auldric in the ribs. He thanked Jagger for the help taking care of Auldric and picked up the fallen Master Sword., whose blade slowly faded from bright red-orange to a pale blue. Link grinned at the familiar feel of his sword. He then turned to the Calatian.
"Glad you decided to come back to us, Vincent," he said, shaking his companion's hand.
The knight smiled slightly, obviously confused. "It's… good to be back?"
Zelda came over and hugged Vincent tightly. "You're talking again! What happened to you?"
Vincent shrugged and looked down at Helen, who was still under his arm, fearfully shivering and holding tightly to his waist. "That," he said slowly, "is a very good question."
Zelda watched grimly as the unconscious body of Auldric was dragged away from the scene of the fight, and secured in a tent on the outskirts of the camp; soon after, the crowd of onlookers dispersed, all going away to go back about their business. She saw Vincent took Helen away and back to her own tent, to calm the girl down from the fight and the horror of learning that her lodger was a lunatic.
The princess sighed and hugged herself against the chill night air. The sudden appearance of the Calatian knight was a shock to everyone, most of all to Link. To have the man just snap out of his closed state was remarkable, and his timing could not have been better to save Helen. It surely must have been some sort of miracle that saved that girl. Deep down in her heart, Zelda had the feeling that those two would now have a bond with each other that would soon make them long-time friends. Again she sighed. From the look of how she lived before she came here, Helen could certainly use the companionship and attention. Poor lonely girl.
Looking away from the camp and into the snowy darkness, Zelda looked to a fresh set of tracks leading awkwardly off into the distance. As soon as everything had calmed back down to normal standards, Link had hobbled off quietly to be by himself. In all the years she had known him, Zelda had never seen the hero act so caught up in a battle. The emotional turmoil of having to fight off and then attempt to execute a good friend must have been horrific for the boy to live through.
Pulling her cloak closer around herself and trying to catch sight of Link through the blackness, Zelda hardly noticed the appearance of someone beside her.
"How are you holding up, dear?" asked Hecuba softly.
Startled, Zelda answered, "I could be better. Everything happened so fast, it seems almost like a dream."
The woman nodded sagely. "The most important things in life seem like dreams when they happen- how else would we deal with them?"
Zelda just nodded, not quite understanding the meaning of the woman, but sometimes silent acceptance was better than beginning an endless explanation.
"Where did Link go off to?" asked the old woman, following Zelda's gaze into the dark woods.
"Off that way into the forest. What's over there?"
Hecuba nodded slightly. "A hot spring. Good for the joints, those are." She paused. "You should go after him."
The princess nearly jumped at the unexpected suggestion.
"Why? He went off to be alone."
The old woman put an arm around the girl. 'Sometimes it is when friends want to be alone, that they need company the most." With that, ignoring the debating look on Zelda's face, Hecuba gently pushed the girl in the direction of the springs.
Wordlessly and not looking back, Zelda started walking toward the forest.
As soon as the girl had disappeared into the gloom of night, Hecuba waddled back to her tent where she found Donalbain making a small dinner. When she sat down beside him, her husband said, without looking up form the pot, "You didn't need to do that, dear."
Hecuba just waved the comment aside. "Those two were fated to fall in love."
"So why do you try so hard to make them fall in love?"
Shrug. "Sometimes fate isn't fast enough and needs a little prod now and then."
"And you're the one to prod fate, are you?"
Another shrug. "Why not? I know what's best for those two. The sooner Fate knows that, the better of they will be."
The old man chuckled. "That's true, I suppose, my know-all-and-see-all wife." He reached over from his stew and lightly patted his wife's hand. "You always did know what was best."
"Of course I did."
Zelda walked slowly through the dark trees, trying hard to follow the tracks left by her friend. The warmth and light of the camp had quickly fallen away as she walked farther and farther into the woods making her shiver beneath her cloak, growing steadily fearful at the unknown darkness.
Just as she was about to give up on finding the springs, Zelda caught sight of the faint flickering of torches and the sound- distantly- of trickling water. Approaching nearer and nearer, the princess caught the faint scents of incense and smoke and water wafting through the chill air.
Suddenly the trees gave way to a small misty clearing with an equally small pool- hardly more than a crack in the ground- where a tiny spring emptied its water. Around the pool stood a ring of torches on pikes, straight and tall, like bright and flickering soldiers standing guard and protecting the pool from the dangers and horrors of the real world. All around the pool hung a fog of cool air wandering and swaying in the slight breeze that managed to find this ethereal grotto through the forest. Looking up, Zelda noticed the clear dark night and the shiny brightness of the moon coming out from the horizon of branches, the stars looking downward from the cosmos in silent vigil of their children. As she walking into the clearing, the breath was stolen from the princess by its sheer beauty and fantastic juxtaposition upon the cold, dark forest around it. She nearly cried from the intense sense of emotion that swept over her.
Looking into the pool, Zelda saw Link up to his shoulders in the water with only his head leaning back over the cusp of the liquid. Beside him on the rocks from where the spring tumbled, lay his clothes in a neat pile. She smiled at the sight. Even in pain and misery, Link was always careful of his clothes when he could be, a throwback to his days as a commoner when he only owned one set of clothing and a trait that he had doggedly persisted on keeping despite his promotion to the royal family and the castle.
"Link?" she spoke softly.
His head came up in a flash, arm snaked out of the water and resting on the hilt of his sword. He relaxed instantly and grunted, sliding back into the warm water.
"How are you feeling?" she asked, walking closer to the pool and kneeling beside it, staring into the disturbingly peaceful face of her friend.
He shrugged under the water but said nothing.
"Are you ok? Do you want to talk?"
He opened his brilliant blue eyes and stared at her for a moment before tilting his head away from her, motioning into the pool.
"The water is very warm," he said. "You should come in and get out of the cold air."
She stood up and glared at him. "Promise."
He nodded and closed his eyes again, a humoured smile on his lips. "I promise. Now get in."
Turning away from the pool, Zelda quickly undressed and slipped into the spring, gasping at its warmth and how all of her body instantly seemed to relax as it touched the water. She slid in as Link had- up to her shoulders- and sighed.
"Oh, this feels so wonderful!"
Link nodded. "I'm glad you decided to stop being a prude for a few minutes in order to get in. You should know by now that of all the people in the world, I'm the least likely to take advantage of you."
Zelda giggled lightly. "I can never tell with you. One day you're a typical boy, and the next you're an uptight soldier who doesn't know the meaning of fun."
He nodded, smiling. "And sometimes you're a fun, caring, loving and tender girl; while other times being a princess."
She gasped at the insult and splashed water at him, which he promptly returned to her, causing them both to soakingly laugh.
After a minute, the laughing stopped and the two friends calmed down, Link returning to his previously quiet mood.
Zelda turned to look at him. "There was nothing else you could do," she said.
His eyes snapped open and glared at her, his eyes filled with the closest emotion to hatred that Zelda had ever seen in them. Fortunately for her, they quickly gave way to a look of simple sadness and pain. He looked away again, closing his eyes to help keep the welling tears back. He sighed such a deep and heartfelt sigh that it made Zelda's eyes water and chest break in pity and helplessness at her friend's pain.
"Did I ever tell you," he said quietly, "about the time Auldric and I went hunting in the Preserve and found a giant bee's nest? We had been walking for ages without seeing any game and suddenly I come out of a thicket and step on the nest accidentally." He smiled and chuckled. "Those bees were so pissed off at me that every single one in that nest came out and attacked me! I was covered from head to toe in welts and could barely move. It was only through Auldric grabbing my arm and pulling me off into a nearby river that I survived those bees. I lost consciousness after that, but Auldric told me later that he had put poultices on my stings and carried on his back all the way to the castle where I recovered. I was unconscious for over a week and unable to get out of bed for another month." His eyes took on a faraway look as he remembered the adventure. "The two of us were always together going off on adventures all over the land- even a few times in other lands." His face suddenly hardened. "We were always there for each other and now whatever Trine did to him has caused my best friend to become obsessed with my death! Trine destroyed the Auldric I knew; making him just another tool for whatever… plans… he-he has…"
Link's voice broke and he trembled, tears rolling freely from his eyes. Zelda put her arm around her friend's shoulders and hugged him tightly.
"It's alright," she said, hushing him. "It's alright. Let it all out." He shivered again and then turned fully into the hug and moaned in pain, his fingers clawing at Zelda's back and his face digging into her shoulder.
"I nearly killed my best friend!" his muffled voice came, over and over. "I tried to kill him…"
Zelda soothed him quietly and stroked his hair calmly, letting her friend unload all of his pent up emotions onto her, his tears falling onto her shoulder, gliding down to mix with the warm whirling water.
As crimson and fluffy dawn swept over the dozens of tents surrounding the massive great pine, movement crept back into the quiet camp. Women woke and fires were lit; breakfasts were prepared and animals fed. A new day had begun.
Hecuba and Donalbain were quietly nibbling on their simple breakfasts when Link and Zelda walked side-by-side up to their tent. The Hylians stopped before the old couple who had taken them in.
"Yes?" asked Donalbain, squinting up to his young lodgers.
"We have decided to leave the forest," Link said simply.
The old man and the young man stared silently at each other, both seeming to judge the intentions of the other. Zelda almost spoke up, but a quick and quiet noise from Hecuba stopped the words in her mouth.
Donalbain spoke next.
"Very well" he said. "There are packs and supplies inside waiting for you both."
The teenagers were taken aback by the simple acceptance and forethought given by the old man, but quietly retrieved their belongings.
"Donalbain," said Zelda, pointing back into the tent, "There are two extra packs. Who are they for?"
The old man smiled and pointed down the makeshift road to a couple who were slowly making their way toward the small group.
"Of course they will wish to go with you," said Hecuba, beaming at the Hylians, especially at Zelda.
When the two stopped before the assembled group, Vincent spoke up.
"We are going with you," he said. Link nodded and handed him a pack, handing the other to Helen. Both humans looked baffled.
"You can thank Donalbain and Hecuba for the packs," said Zelda.
Donalbain waved to the four teens. "So that you lot don't get yourselves lost out in the forest, pay attention. Link, there is a map of the area in your pack. It's easy to get lost in these woods, so pay attention to it. Now, if you lot go directly north of here, you will soon come to the highway that passes through the forest, linking Calatia with Forhas. Go east on the road until you find the fork in the road and take the left route. It will take you to the Great Waterhall and there you can find expert help on how to finish this quest of yours."
"Who's at this Waterhall?" asked Zelda.
"A very wise ruler who knows every inch of the world," said the old man. "The people of Waterhall collect knowledge as a gambler collects debts- they know everything about everything. If you have a problem, take it to them to solve."
The old couple stood up and hugged each of their guests in turn, giving quick advice to them all.
"What about your package?" asked Hecuba of Link. Noting his questioning look, she pointed to the tent set apart from the rest of the camp. "You can't just leave him, can you?"
Link bit his lip and stared at the tent. Zelda placed her hand on his shoulder, seeming to startle him.
"No," he said. "He should stay here with people who have the time to care for him."
The old couple nodded solemnly. "A wise choice, I suppose," said Donalbain. "We shall do what we can for him, you can rest assured."
Another round of goodbyes was shared and then the four travellers mounted Winter and Silvermane and left the camp behind them on their trek north to the forest highway and the city of Waterhall.
Waving until the four had long passed from sight, the old couple sat down again beside their fire, leaning lightly against each other.
"Are you sure about what you saw?" asked Donalbain of his wife.
She nodded, staring into the crackling fire before them. "As sure as I am of everything else." She sighed. "Those poor children, they have no idea what's in store for them." She picked up a stick and poked the fire slightly.
"A long, long road is ahead of them."
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