The Closing of a Chapter
Sir Elgon had been right: Link and Zelda were practically mobbed as soon as Rayliss's coronation ceremony was officially concluded and everyone headed for dinner.
They were both bombarded by so many questions, words of thanks and well-wishing, and touches, they didn't know which way to look or who to address first. Sir Elgon had to wade in and rescue them.
"Now, now," he said politely, but firmly, "let Her Majesty and His Lordship pass; there will be time for talking later."
For the remainder of the evening—and into the wee hours, actually—neither of them could get a minute's rest from the constant barrage of people who were dying to meet them.
"It will be even worse when you leave," Sir Elgon warned as he escorted them back to their rooms, lest they continue to be mobbed.
Link looked at Zelda. "I think we ought to leave here very early in the morning—before dawn—to avoid any… congestion," he said euphemistically.
"Or we could leave in our animal forms," Zelda suggested.
Link considered that, then shook his head. "I don't want to look like we're sneaking out or avoiding anyone."
"But we are."
"Yes, but we have a legitimate excuse for needing to leave early—we have to go back to the Lost Woods to put the Master Sword back before we can return to Hyrule. People will understand that. But if it gets out that we left in our animal forms, then it will look suspicious—rude, even."
"I think I have to agree with Sir Link," Elgon said. "You need to sneak out without looking like you're sneaking out."
Zelda spread her hands. "Whatever you think best."
Servants got them up the next morning before there was even any light in the east. Zelda was rather grumpy as a result.
"Once we're outside the city, we can stop and rest," Link promised. "In fact, we don't have to be in a big rush for the rest of the trip; we'll get up and go whenever we feel like it."
When they went out to the courtyard, they found that there was a mule harnessed to an old wagon, which was loaded down with luggage. Despite Link's protests to Austina the day before, she had insisted that he take Zeyde's things—which not only included his clothing, but some of his jewelry and two small crowns he had made to specifically match some of his outfits.
"Zeyde liked you; I think he would want you to have his things," Austina said.
"This is a fortune—an inheritance—that I'm not entitled to," Link protested.
"Rayliss has no need of any of it and my boys are still some years from being big enough to wear it—and some of it they will never have the rank to wear," she said, alluding to the fact that although both boys were princes by birth, they were no longer considered "princes royal"—a title that would be reserved for Rayliss's sons alone—and, therefore, they could no longer wear crowns, and their dress would be expected to be slightly less elaborate than their father's, who was the heir apparent.
"I don't have the rank to wear it, either," Link pointed out.
"You will soon, I think," Austina said with a smile. "If nothing else, consider it an early wedding present. The husband of the Queen of Hyrule must look the part."
He started to open his mouth to continue to protest, but she laid her hand on his arm, cutting him off. "Link," she said with a quiet sadness, "we don't want it around. We choose to remember Zeyde in our own way, but seeing his clothes hanging in the closet…." She shook her head. "It's too hard," she concluded with a whisper.
"I'm sorry," Link said. Then he took her hands in his. "Thank you for the gift."
She managed a watery smile. "I know you will think of us—happy thoughts of us—when you wear it."
"Yes, I will," he said, before bending down to lightly kiss the back of both of her hands.
All of the clothing and accessories had been packed and were now in the rickety old wagon, waiting to go.
"I'm sorry we can't give you anything more dignified, but we're terribly short of horses." Sir Elgon said, as he came to meet Link and Zelda in the courtyard. He was carrying a torch to light the way.
"That's alright," Link said. "We know the feeling."
Sir Elgon gestured to the wagon and sleepy-looking mule—its eyelids almost as heavy as Zelda's. "That's why I thought we ought to give you your mule back; you might need it."
Link's laugh cut through the cold, pre-dawn morning. "It's a hell of a thing when an old mule is so valuable, it requires careful negotiations between two kingdoms."
"It is that," Elgon agreed.
Link and Zelda were wearing their most casual clothing—Zelda was actually wearing her old fighting outfit—canvas pants and the blue tunic embroidered with the arms of Hyrule on it—but this was covered by heavy, fur-lined, hooded cloaks that Austina had pressed on them to take when she found out that they had little in the way of warm clothing to wear.
"I think you just want an excuse for us to come back—so we can return your cloaks," Zelda accused with a smile.
"I wouldn't hate that," she had replied with a matching smile.
Link helped Zelda up onto the wagon seat. It had been covered with several shearling hides, so they had a warm place to sit.
Link climbed up beside her and Elgon handed him the reins. "We'll escort you out," he said, looking up at them.
"Are you that worried about us, even at this time of day?" Link asked.
"Better safe than sorry."
Elgon ordered two men to walk ahead of the cart, he and another guard walked alongside it, and a final pair of men brought up the rear.
But their idea to leave before dawn worked; they only saw three people their entire trip through the city, and they didn't seem to recognize Link and Zelda bundled up—hoods over their heads—and riding in a decrepit porter's cart.
"I'm glad you led the way," Link said to Elgon, as they pulled to a stop before the main Southern Gate. "I wouldn't have known what streets to take with a wagon."
"Yes, there's only one ramp per level, and they're not in any sort of logical sequence; you have to know which roads to take to get to them."
Link leaned down and offered his gloved hand. "Elgon, it's been a pleasure, as always."
Elgon put his hand in Link's, gripping it warmly. "Always, sir."
Elgon came around the wagon to take his leave of Zelda, then Link slapped the reins on the mule's back and they slowly lumbered out of the city and onto the near-pristine snow glowing and glittering in the starlight. When they looked back, they saw Elgon standing at the gate, watching them leave. He lifted his hand in a final farewell, and Link threw him the Kakariko salute.
"I do like Sir Elgon," Zelda said.
Link turned around in his seat. "I do, too. He's a kindred spirit." He laughed. "You should have heard us the other day at the coronation—complaining about our various physical infirmities like old men."
"Do you know how old he is?"
"He mentioned yesterday that he'll be twenty-five next month."
"He's hardly old! Neither of you are old," she corrected.
"Not on paper, anyway," he replied. "In reality, though, our bodies think they're much older. This cold weather puts an ache and stiffness in my shoulder that can't be any different than arthritis in an old man."
She looked at him sympathetically. "I'm sorry."
He shrugged—the tightness in his left shoulder only highlighting his words. "When you pursue knighthood—or any career in the military—you do so with the knowledge that you may be injured, permanently crippled, or killed.
"You and I both came away from our quest with permanent scars and injuries, but it's a risk we accepted from the outset. The alternative—death for us and everyone else—left us no alternative."
"But that doesn't mean we can't complain… at least every once in a while," he added with a grin.
The day gradually brightened from black to gray as more clouds rolled in. By the time it was light enough to see the terrain around them, it had started snowing again.
Link had to transform and go aloft several times during the course of the day to get his bearings. The blanket of snow on the ground blotted out all features of the landscape—roads, streams, and ditches—and the clouds obscuring the sun made it impossible to determine south. It was only high in the air, looking down on everything, that Link could see the variances in the snow that indicated the smooth depression of a road, the narrower depression of a ditch full of snow, and the distant forest on the boundary between Hyrule and Erenrue. With that information plotted on the map in his mind, he was able to steer them in the right direction.
Their travel quickly became monotonous—cold, snowy, overcast days and even colder nights. But despite the fact that it was fairly awful traveling weather, Link and Zelda were having the time of their lives. As Link expected, it was like a holiday trip for them. Free of work and other demands on their time, and free of the constraints and expectations of public life, they were able to be themselves again. Link spent most of the short days teaching Zelda songs—even the not-so-nice ones he had learned while a guard at the castle—and they sang loudly and laughed until their voices were hoarse. At night, once they had pitched their tent and started a blazing fire, they sat around eating and talking about the business of the kingdom—how to increase fishing, when they could expect the spring harvest to come in, how to increase their horse breeding. Once they had talked themselves out, they crawled into the little tent—snug under several layers of wool blankets and warm in each other's arms, and slept soundly all night.
It was a week before they could see the dark shape of the Lost Woods on the southern horizon with their human eyes, but it seemed like no time at all had passed.
"We'll be there tomorrow," Link said. "Then it'll take us three days, I think, to get back to Hyrule."
"I've been thinking about something," Zelda said.
"Before, when you put the Master Sword into the stone, it sent us back in time. When you pulled it out again, it brought us back to our own time.
"What happens if you put the sword into the stone again and it sends us back in time? What will we do then?"
"I don't think that will happen," Link replied. "I think we had to go back in time for the Master Sword to be repaired—to go back to a time when it was whole, or back to a time when there was a temple there to make it holy—I'm not sure which. But we don't need to do that this time; we just need to put it back."
"Are you saying that whatever power sent us back in time will know not to do that this time?"
Zelda looked at him skeptically.
"The sword itself has a consciousness," he pointed out. "It will know what we're doing and why. We'll stay in our proper time… unless there's something we need to do in the past," he added.
Zelda shivered a little and pulled her cloak closer. "I hope not."
"I hope not, too," Link said. "I've had my fill of adventuring."
By mid-morning the next day, they were at the northern border of the Lost Woods. Even this far south, it had been snowing—by the looks of it for some days—and the entire forest was coated with white. The underbrush, however, only had a thick dusting; the tree canopy overhead kept much of the snow off the ground.
Snow was falling—both from the sky and from the tree branches overhead—when they tied the mule up to a tree next to the path leading into the woods; the trail was too narrow for the cart.
Zelda stood, looking up at the woods, while Link put some hay down for the mule.
"I don't like this," she said.
Link came to stand beside her. "What's wrong?" he asked, peering into the woods.
"It's too quiet. It's like the first time we came."
Link listened. She was right; there was no sound of animals. The only thing that could be heard was the wind occasionally whistling through the trees and the soft sound of clumps of snow falling from the overhead branches onto the leaf matter below.
"Snow does that," Link said. "It seems to steal sound; the whole world sounds muffled and a bit unreal. But there's nothing sinister in it."
Zelda frowned, not looking convinced.
"You didn't like the fog before, but there was no harm in it," he pointed out.
"Not the first time, no. But the second time I got lost in it, remember?"
"That was a demon's lair; that wasn't the normal woods."
She made a non-committal noise. Link knew she didn't like the Lost Woods—and, to be fair, everyone avoided it as much as possible—but so long as you knew the way, there really wasn't any danger to it.
He led the way into the silent forest. While Zelda found it eerie, he found the silence very beautiful and peaceful. But then, he had always liked snow—particularly for its ability to quieten the world. To a man with hypersensitive hearing, silence could be quite wonderful.
At the first split in the path, Link put the Master Sword on the ground. After a moment, it slowly moved, indicated the left-hand path.
"What are you doing?" Zelda asked.
"Letting the Master Sword show us the way," he said, picking it up again.
"I thought you knew the way?"
"I know the way from the east, but not from the north. I guess I've never come in from this direction before."
"But… how will we get back out if we don't have the sword to point the way?" she asked, her voice rising a little in panic.
Link cut a notch in the trunk of a tree next to the left-hand path. "We'll blaze the trail on our way in," he said. "Then, we just follow the marks back out."
They moved quietly through the woods, stopping occasionally to let the sword point them in the correct direction. Link was always careful to mark the trail every time they took a turn.
And then, suddenly, they were standing at the edge of the big clearing at the heart of the woods. Here, the snow was a thick blanket several inches thick. The stones and rubble from the ruined temple peaked forlornly from the snow.
As soon as they stepped into the clearing, the trees began to move in the wind and faint voices could be heard—as if they were moving through the trees and causing their motion.
Zelda halted. "I hear voices," she whispered.
"I hear them, too."
"What are they?"
"I don't know. But they were here before, remember? They won't harm us."
Zelda put her gloved hand in his and held it tight, but continued on with him.
In the center of the clearing, the stone dais was completely covered by snow; the only evidence of its existence was that the snow on it was slightly higher than that on the ground around it.
Link and Zelda stepped up onto the dais, then he bent down and brushed away the snow from the little lump in the middle of it, exposing the block of stone that was the Master Sword's permanent resting place.
"Ready?" Link asked Zelda. She just nodded a little.
Link held the sword up and looked at it for a long moment. He felt as if he was leaving a good friend for the last time. And he could feel a similar sort of sadness from the sword.
"Goodbye," he whispered. Then he turned the sword around, point down, and slid it into the slit in the stone.
Link and Zelda looked around for a minute, but everything stayed the same as before.
"Looks like I was right," Link said, trying really hard not to sound too smug.
"Maybe you didn't get it in all the way," Zelda suggested.
Link put his hand on the hilt, but he knew immediately that something had changed. The sword was dead. …Or, it was probably more accurate to say that it was sleeping. In either case, it felt like Link was touching the hilt of a regular sword; he could no longer feel any sort of consciousness coming from it.
Not only that, but he realized that the voices in the trees had gone away. He still wasn't sure what they were, but they seemed to herald the coming of the Master Sword. And now that it was home, they had grown quiet again.
"It's gone to sleep," Link told Zelda, not liking to think of the sword as "dead."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"It's no longer conscious."
He tried to pull the sword back out—to test his theory—but found it was stuck. He could neither pull it out nor push it in further.
"It won't come out," he said, putting some real effort into pulling it out—to no avail.
"It just went in; how could it be stuck already?" she asked.
Link gave up trying to get it out. "I don't know, but it is."
He sighed, taking a step back. "I guess that's a sign that it's no longer needed—at least during my lifetime."
For some strange reason, that made him feel sad. He had said that he was done with adventuring, but putting the Master Sword back—and knowing that he couldn't draw it out again—seemed very final. A chapter of his life had closed—a chapter he had been living since Master Ryu had taken him from his home at the age of one. For eighteen years, he had single-mindedly pursued the goal of saving the world. And now it was all done; his destiny was fulfilled. The future—which had once been laid out for him, concrete and defined—was now a gray fog punctuated by a question mark. What was he going to do? Without the quest, who was he?
Tears—warm at first, then turning icy cold—began to run down his cheeks.
"What's wrong?" Zelda whispered, slipping her arm around his and pressing close.
"It's all over," he said in a hollow voice.
"It's been over for several months," she said gently.
"Yes, but now it's over over. If there was anything else to do, the Master Sword would not have gone to sleep."
"And that bothers you?" she asked, sounding almost incredulous.
"If you had asked me that five minutes ago, I would have said no. But now… I don't know why, but it does. I guess… I guess it's because my identity has been wrapped up in this all my life. And now… it's like my identity is gone."
"Link, you're still the same person you've always been."
"I know. It's not that. It's…." But he couldn't explain what he meant.
Zelda looked out across the snowy clearing. "I guess if I spent all my life training to be queen, and then I wasn't, I could see how I might feel out of sorts," she said thoughtfully. "You are trained to do a job, then you can't do it—what do you do then?"
She turned her gray eyes on him. "But, Link, you have a lot to do yet. You've finished this job, but there's more to come. You're a knight now and you have to train more knights for us. And you're soon to be my husband, and you know I'm a full-time occupation."
Link laughed—the sound echoing across the empty silence. "Well, that's true," he allowed.
Zelda was right. He was through with a chapter of his life, and even though it had been very long and intense, it wasn't the end of the book. His adventures from here on out would be of a different sort, but there was still a lot to look forward to.