Into the Mountains
Link and Zelda walked along the narrow mountain pass as fast as Link could manage. It was already late afternoon, and the mountains cast such deep shadows, they were in an artificial twilight for an hour or two before the sun actually set and the sky began to darken.
The pass opened onto a narrow, rocky valley devoid of vegetation. The trail clearly crossed the valley and started up the slope of the next mountain peak, disappearing into snow about halfway up.
Link felt his heart sink as he looked at the upcoming climb. He had trouble enough walking on the relatively flat path in the pass; he had no idea how he was going to climb a mountain.
He dismissed the worry from his mind, deciding to concentrate only on one day at a time. Perhaps, after some pain medicine, food, and a good night's sleep, he would have more stamina.
They found a little hollow next to where the trail went into the pass. It looked as though it had been enlarged by human hands, and there was a black spot in the middle of the floor that suggested a fire had been burned there before. It looked like sentries might have been stationed there in the past to guard the pass.
"Let's stay here tonight," Link said. "I don't see anything else around the valley, and I don't think I'm up for tackling that mountain tonight."
Zelda didn't say anything—she hadn't said anything since they had fled through the door into the mountains. She just shrugged off the pack and threw herself onto the floor of the cave. Then she curled up with her back to Link and began bawling.
Link slowly sat down beside her and leaned back against the cold stone wall. As he listened to Zelda's sobbing, his own tears began to flow until he was crying nearly as hard as she was. Images of King Ranis mortally wounded, Prince Zeyde being shot, and the once-mighty Erenrue troops fleeing the battlefield in terror, pursued by arrows and demons, passed before his eyes. And he cried for his family, whose fate was unknown.
But after a time, the ache in his arm grew so great, it replaced all other thoughts. His entire left arm ached—all the way to the tips of his fingers—until it was quite unbearable.
He reached out and touched Zelda on the shoulder. She was still crying, although not with the racking sobs that had seized her before.
"Your Highness… I hate to bother you," he said apologetically, "but I need that medicine."
It took Zelda a minute to compose herself and wipe her face and nose dry with the sleeve of her gambeson. Finally, she pushed herself to her feet and started rummaging through the pack, pulling out firewood and packages wrapped up in cloth or parchment.
"Do you think this is it?" she asked after a moment, showing him a small parchment envelope.
He took it from her and opened the flap. There was a small amount of some sort of dried herb in the bottom.
"Since I doubt Kara gave us spices to cook with, I'm going to say yes," he replied, handing it back to Zelda.
She turned back to the pack and began to drag everything out of it. "What I'm not seeing in here is a pot," she said."There's a bowl, but not a pot. We can't very well steep your medicine in hot water without a pot."
"Yes, we can," he said.
"How?" she asked, turning to look at him.
"Start a fire first," he instructed.
While she made a pile of tinder, Link pulled out the fire-making kit that lived permanently in the pouch on his belt and handed it to her. She soon had a small fire going.
"Now, find a few rocks about the size of your palm and put them in the fire," he told her.
She looked a bit dubious, but she went outside and soon returned with five rocks of the appropriate size.
"Put them in the fire?" she asked, as if not sure she had heard him right the first time.
"Yep—it doesn't much matter where, so long as they're getting direct heat.
She put the rocks in the fire while Link eyed the bundle of firewood sitting nearby. When she was done, he pointed to a likely-looking stick. "Get that," he told her.
He pulled the abbot's knife out of his boot—it had a permanent home on his person, too—and handed it to Zelda. "Split that stick lengthwise about halfway down."
She wrestled with the knife and stick for several minutes while Link silently squirmed with pain and impatience. If he had had the use of both of his hands, he could have done it in a matter of seconds, but he bit his tongue and refrained from complaining or lecturing her because he knew she was trying her best. …But it wasn't easy.
She finally had the stick split more or less up the middle. "Now what?" she asked.
"Find a small piece of wood—a chip or a little branch or something—and wedge it down into the split so that the two pieces are held apart. You're making tongs."
Zelda looked at the stick with an expression of confusion, then realization dawned on her face. "Alright, I see where you're going with this." She hurried to find a wedge and finish it.
"What are we going to use it for, though?" she asked, as she completed the tongs.
"You're going to put some water in the bowl and wet the tongs, so they don't catch fire. Then, when the rocks are hot enough, you'll roll one of them out of the fire and put it in the bowl of water. After a few minutes, you'll exchange it for another hot rock. Every time you do that, the rocks transfer their heat to the water, until the water is hot enough."
Zelda looked a little amazed. "Where did you learn that?"
"At the monastery. In fact, when I was nine, I had to go out into the forest for three days with nothing more than a sword and a flint and take care of myself. What you hadn't learned in the classroom, you quickly learned through experience."
Zelda made a face. "That sounds harsh. What if something had happened to you? I mean, you were still just a child."
"Well, it wasn't unknown for someone to be attacked or hurt or even killed—although nothing very bad happened while I was there."
Zelda continued to look at him in horror, but he just shrugged. Then he grimaced in pain as his wound burned as hot as a fire. Moving it had definitely been a mistake.
"It's not the life for someone who is weak," he said through gritted teeth. "But you have to admit, it's come in handy."
"Yes, that's true; I don't know what we would do if you weren't strong enough to do this."
"I mean the survival skills have come in handy," he corrected. "I wasn't talking about myself."
"But that's true, too."
Between building the fire, waiting for the rocks to heat, heating the water, and then letting the medicine steep until it was the proper color, the entire process took about an hour—by which time Link was in so much pain, he was nearly in tears, and his hand shook so badly, Zelda had to hold the bowl while he drank out of it.
He made a face as he finished off the dregs. "Gods, that's bitter."
Zelda found the hard leather water bottle Kara had packed for them and helped him drink from it.
"That's better," Link said with relief after drinking a few mouthfuls of cold mountain spring water.
Drinking the medicine and water, however, set his stomach to growling. He realized that he had had nothing to eat all day.
"What do we have to eat?" he asked.
Zelda began unwrapping the cloth-wrapped packages. Her face fell when she found the contents were the same in all of them: a dry, rigid, brownish-colored patty made out of some ground up things and what looked like a bit of fruit.
"What is this?" she asked, holding up a cake.
She looked at Link. "What's that?"
He held his hand out for it. "Dried meat, rendered fat, and sometimes fruit minced up and mixed together. As long as you keep it dry, it'll last nearly forever, and you don't have to worry about cooking it, so you can eat it when you don't have a fire."
"It sounds nasty," Zelda said bluntly.
"It's better than nothing. Besides, it's good when you need a lot of energy."
Reluctantly, Zelda put the patty in Link's hand. She watched him with a look bordering on disgust as he bit into it.
It took a lot of chewing, because it was tough—almost as tough as jerky—but he finally swallowed. "This is actually pretty good," he pronounced. "I think Kara added a little honey to it, so it's kind of sweet—like a sweet sausage."
With a great show of reluctance, Zelda got one for herself and nibbled a little on one edge. Apparently finding it tolerable, she began to eat it in earnest.
"How many of these do we have?" Link asked, as he finished his patty and wiped his hand on his pants.
Zelda finished her own, then opened up all of the packages and began to count. "Fifty-eight," she finally said.
"Sixty, with the two we just ate," Link calculated. "So that's thirty apiece. Did Kara mention how long this trip was supposed to take?"
Zelda shook her head.
"Surely we can't be expected to eat fewer than two per day. That's fifteen days—or two weeks from today. That sounds about right, considering it took us nearly that long to get from the ocean to Pallis, and Pallis is roughly in the center of Erenrue.
"So," he concluded, "that means Kara packed two for us to eat today, so hand me another one, will you?"
Zelda shook her head, but handed him another cake. "You went to all that trouble to justify eating a second one? If you had just said you were still hungry, I would have given you one."
He began to munch on it. "Well, problem is," he said, trying to talk between bites; it seemed the more he ate, the hungrier he became, "even if we know it's supposed to take two weeks, we still don't know how far we're supposed to travel per day. We'll have no idea if we're falling behind or not."
"It doesn't matter how fast we should be going; we can only move as fast as you're able to move. So there's no use worrying about it," Zelda said practically.
"But I will anyways," Link replied.
By the time he finished his second pemmican cake, he was starting to feel sleepy. The pain in his shoulder had dulled slightly, so he didn't feel like cutting off his arm to make it feel better, but drowsiness threatened to overtake him, pain or no pain.
"Are you still hungry?" Zelda asked.
He shook his head a little. "No, I'm good." He wasn't full, as he would have been after a good meal, but he didn't feel hungry, either. That was probably the best that could be hoped for during the trip.
He took a few big drinks from the water bottle then handed it to Zelda. "We need to be careful about refilling that every opportunity we get," he warned. "Once we're high in the mountains, most of the water will be frozen. If worse comes to worst, we can fill it with snow or chunks of ice and carry it against the body for heat, but snow is more air than water, and ice melts slowly; we will not get very much water from either."
He yawned, fighting to stay awake while Zelda repacked the backpack. As soon as she was done, he nodded to the fire. "Put that out."
"Why?" she asked, looking surprised.
"Because we need to conserve our fuel. It's not so cold that we have to have it, and there's no need for it to burn while we sleep. Just sprinkle a little water on it, then use the bowl to smother the last of the flames. In the morning, we can pack what remains and use it for tomorrow's fire."
Zelda did as he instructed, plunging them into darkness, save a little light coming from the stars and sliver of moon outside.
Link laid down on his right side—it was the only side of him that wasn't injured—tucked his cloak around him, and tried to get comfortable. But whether he actually did or not was irrelevant; he went to sleep within seconds.
All night long, he had strange, somewhat disturbing dreams—starting with one in which he was dead and was sitting in a great hall in the Other World with King Ranis, Prince Zeyde, and all the men of Erenrue, discussing what had gone wrong and what, if anything, they could have done differently.
The next morning, pain woke Link. His right shoulder—which had been against the stone floor all night—was almost as bad as his left. The rest of his body felt like he had been soundly beaten all over.
"Oh, gods," he moaned, as he struggled to open his eyes.
"Link, what's wrong? Is your arm worse?"
He finally managed to open his eyes. Zelda was kneeling beside him, looking at him with concern.
"All of me is worse," he replied.
"Do you want more medicine?"
"Kara said to only take it at night; otherwise I won't be able to stay awake."
"What are you supposed to do for pain during the day?"
"Live with it, I guess." He gestured to her. "I think you're going to have to help me get up."
"I don't know how to do that without hurting you more."
"It doesn't matter. I need to get up and I can't do it by myself."
Zelda frowned, but took him by the right shoulder and pushed him up into a sitting position against the wall of the cave.
Link let out the breath he had been holding. "Oh, gods, that hurts!" he said between clenched teeth.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
He shook his head a little. "No, I don't think so."
"Do you want water? Or something to eat?"
He shook his head again. "I hurt too much to eat," he said, feeling his stomach turn ominously; it would not approve of anything at the moment. "Eat if you're hungry," he told her.
"I can wait."
"Well, let's see about making a little progress, then we'll stop and eat something when we get tired."
Getting Link to his feet was even harder than helping him sit up. By the time it was managed, he was doubled over, panting with pain, a bitter taste in his mouth. He was very glad he hadn't eaten anything first.
"I feel like an old man," he complained, leaning against his walking stick, while Zelda packed up what remained of the previous night's fire.
"Link, you have a hole all the way through your body," she replied. "What did you think you would feel like?"
He actually laughed—but only a little, since that made him ache even more. "Good point," he conceded. But he still looked at her with something approaching jealously as she hoisted the pack onto her back with the sort of strength and youthful energy he was accustomed to having.
Outside, they took stock of the situation. The morning sun was rising, promising a slightly cool, but pretty spring day.
"I could ride you as far as the mountain," Zelda said, pointing across the rocky valley that cut across their path.
"I think that would be a good idea," Link said, already feeling despondent about his chances of walking so far.
Zelda transformed into a horse and lay down beside him. He climbed onto her back and she carefully got up again.
She had to slowly pick her way through the rocks—every time she took a misstep or stumbled, it jarred in Link's shoulder, causing tears to well up in his eyes—but they made a steady pace as the sun slowly rose higher.
On the other side of the valley, the rocks gave way to a more compacted dirt trail. Zelda continued up the path—Link leaning forward, nearly lying on her neck, to shift her center of balance forward, making her more sure-footed on the steep path.
At the snowline, she finally stopped. I don't think I can go any farther like this, she told him. The trail had been getting progressively steeper until it was about to the point that it needed to be climbed.
"Understood," Link said. He managed to get off her back without any help, and he sat down on a flat rock on the side of the trail. With a flash of white light, Zelda returned to her normal form and sat down beside him.
"Ready for something to eat?" she asked.
"How are you feeling now?" she asked, as she slipped off the pack and began rummaging through it.
"Slightly less stiff and achy," he said. He didn't mention that the hole through his shoulder felt like it was burning from the inside out.
Zelda fished out a couple of pemmican cakes and they ate them in silence, looking back over the valley whence they had just come. They could just make out a part of Pallis, hiding behind a mountain peak. It was strange that it looked perfectly normal from that distance—as if nothing bad was happening within its walls.
All too soon, their cakes were gone, and there was nothing left to do but climb.
Link soon came to realize that he had not truly known pain and stiffness; what he had felt that morning was but a shadow of what was to come on the mountain. His weakness made every action that much more difficult, until every step up became agony. It got to the point that he had to pause to catch his breath after every single step.
"Why don't we rest?" Zelda said, when they came to a relatively flat spot on the trail. Link was all too happy to throw himself onto the ground, panting heavily.
She pulled out the water bottle and handed it to him, but his hand was shaking so badly from exertion, he splashed the water down his chin, and it ran icy cold down the front of his gambeson.
"Damnit!" he cursed. It took every ounce of self-control he had not to fling the bottle down the mountainside in anger.
Zelda reached over and wiped his face and neck dry with a corner of her cloak. "If you need help, just ask," she said, taking the bottle from him and holding it up so he could drink from it.
He sighed when he was finished, then used his sleeve to wipe his mouth. "I'm not used to asking for help," he admitted. "I'm not used to being helpless at all. I feel… so frustrated. I should be helping you, not the other way around. I'm a burden," he added shamefully.
She sat down beside him. "Now you know how I feel when you're doing everything and I'm doing nothing."
"You're a princess," he said, as if that explained everything.
Zelda laughed; it sounded rather harsh. "I am princess of nothing right now—as my grandfather pointed out when I first arrived in Erenrue. I have no kingdom of my own, and now I don't even have any family or allies. Everywhere I go, I am run out again, like some loathsome animal with an unbearable stink.
"I am princess of nothing," she repeated.
Link looked at her with pity. "Even if you don't have a kingdom at the moment," he said, "that doesn't change the fact that you are a princess by birth. No one can ever take away your nobility."
"Weren't you the one who said it had to be earned?"
"I think you've earned it."
"I don't." She looked out over the mountains with a hard light in her eyes. "I won't earn it until I have made Nagadii pay for what he's done. I want him to feel what I felt when I held my cousin in my arms and watched as he was turned into a demon—while I listened to him scream in pain. I want Nagadii to know what it's like to see everything he cares about hacked down in front of his eyes. I want him to hurt, as he's made other people hurt.
"I will not be worthy of my throne until I have done that," she said with hard, bitter anger.
Link looked at her for a moment. He understood the anger she had festering within her, because he had felt it, too. But he also knew that, like him, she didn't have the luxury of being that angry. As he had been taught over and over again, emotional people—including those who were angry—made mistakes. Life-threatening mistakes.
"No, Your Highness," he gently corrected, "you will not be worthy of your throne until you have erased the pain he's caused. It's easy enough to cause pain, but much harder to alleviate it."
"I can make a start on that by getting rid of him," she said, unswayed from her plans for revenge.
And Link couldn't argue with her on that point; everything hinged on getting rid of Nagadii.