The Cold Trek
Link and Zelda's days began blending into one another as they trekked up and down the monotonous mountains that separated Erenrue from its south-easterly neighbor, Shi-Ha. As with their trip into Erenrue, their food was the same day after day, and while they spent all day on the move, it felt like they were making no real progress because the landscape hardly changed.
As promised, trees were all but non-existent and animals just as hard to come by. Instead, there were rocks, followed by more rocks. If they were high up, there was snow, but when they descended into a valley, there was nothing but naked gray stone as far as the eye could see.
Where the trail was not too steep or narrow, Zelda transformed into a horse and Link rode for a time. If not for that, they would have barely made any progress at all. Link was so weak from blood loss and constant pain that every step was a struggle for him. He didn't tell Zelda that sometimes—especially late in the day or when they were climbing particularly steep sections—his vision would darken around the edges until he could barely see her in front of him.
She must have suspected that he was having serious problems, though, because on their second day out, she suggested that they use some of the rope in the pack to tether themselves together just in case one of them slipped or she found that groundless place Zeyde had warned them about. As Link could barely support himself—much less the weight of two people—it was pretty clear that she was more worried about him falling down the mountain than she was about stepping off into an abyss.
One day, when they had made a particularly steep descent into a narrow pass between two peaks, they found a lone tree growing out of the side of the mountain. There was a trickling brook running down the center of the pass, too, and Zelda took the time to refill their water bottles and gather up all the dead wood she could find.
While they were resting, a couple of birds flew by and Zelda was able to shoot them both down. That evening, after she made a fire, Link instructed her on how to skin and gut the birds and put them on little roasting spits over the fire. But by the time Zelda had cleaned them, though, she was so disgusted by the blood and gore that she had no appetite to eat them. They were so small, there wasn't but a few bites of meat on each of them anyway, but Link looked at them hungrily, so Zelda insisted that he eat both himself.
She knew he must have been starving, because he didn't even argue with her.
Every evening she changed out the bandages on his wound, and while it did eventually stop bleeding, it continued to ooze yellowish fluid, as Kara had warned. Zelda tried not to gag as she worked, but it was a struggle. She hoped that she would never have to act as a healer to anyone ever again; that was one chore she was quite willing to outsource.
But it didn't take an experienced eye to realize that Link was getting worse instead of better. He rarely talked, and every evening he collapsed on the ground as if he didn't have another ounce of energy in him; often, he dozed off before Zelda could prepare his medicine. When she woke him again, he ate his pemmican cake with ravenous hunger, then fell into a deep and troubled sleep.
He talked a lot while he slept—sometimes mumbling incoherently, sometimes speaking quite clearly—and he often called out to people. Sometimes he startled her when he called her by name—usually with great longing and pathos.
At those times, she would sit beside him and stroke his feverish forehead. She felt a little guilty—knowing that his sleep-talking was a product of his pain—but she couldn't help but enjoy hearing him call her "Zelda." When he was awake, he strictly referred to her as "Your Highness" or "Princess" and he could not be induced to speak to her more informally. It was only when his conscious self was turned off that he spoke to her—if unknowingly—in an intimate manner. Zelda felt that, at those moments, she was witnessing the real Link—the one that he kept buried beneath his sense of honor and duty.
And, when he was awake, it was that sense of honor and duty that kept him moving, even though Zelda begged him daily to take a day off to rest.
"We don't have enough supplies," he said stubbornly.
"You don't know that. Kara may have given us extra."
"She told us that we would need to make good time to get out of the mountains before our supplies ran out," he countered, "and I know we're not making good time."
"You don't know that," she insisted.
"I do know that," he said, looking a little angry. "I've known one-legged men who move faster than me. We're going to run short of supplies before we get out; we don't need to make that worse by extending the trip by another day. I've gone hungry before, Your Highness; it's not pleasant."
"But if you don't make it out of here alive, what's the point?"
"I can still walk," he said stubbornly.
Zelda sighed. She wondered if she came off as unbelievably pig-headed when she was in one of her stubborn moods. Gods, she hoped not. If so, she owed him a tremendous apology. …Although, perhaps, he preferred to just barter in kind—annoyance for annoyance.
When they were above the snowline—and even some nights when they weren't—they had to burn a fire all night long to keep warm. Zelda worried about their firewood supply more than she worried about their food. She knew they could go hungry for some days and still manage to travel—and hopefully reach the end of the mountains—but she knew Link wouldn't make it if she wasn't able to make the pain medicine for him every evening. She could look at his face over the course of the day and watch as the pain medicine from the night before gradually wore off. By evening, he was miserable—although he never said anything; he kept it all in.
Then early one afternoon—barely an hour after they stopped for a midday rest—the sky began to darken.
Zelda looked up, watching as gray clouds began to roll in. The wind was picking up, too, and it blew cold and from the north; it was a winter wind, not the mild spring winds they had grown accustomed to.
"I think a storm is blowing in," she said as she continued to scan the sky.
Link was hunched over, his head hanging like an overworked mule. It seemed to take him a moment to gather his strength and slowly raise his head to look up, too.
"We need to find shelter," he said after studying the sky for a moment.
Zelda pointed off to the left. About a quarter of a mile up the slope, there was a jumble of fallen rock near the base of particularly-high peak; it looked a likely place to find a little cave or some sort of shelter.
Link nodded a little, then put his head back down, ready to trudge on.
Zelda moved away from the path and began to break a new trail. As Zeyde had warned, the snow was rotten from the spring thaw, and instead of carrying most of their weight, it collapsed under them, so they were left to flounder in it to the tops of their knees.
Zelda tried to clear a path as she went so that Link wouldn't have to struggle so much, but it quickly exhausted her and she made less and less headway. Worse, the snow soaked through her pants, then her leather boots, and in addition to being weak, her legs and feet grew numb.
But while they were moving slower, the storm was moving faster; in the blink of an eye, the sky grew dark with heavy gray clouds. Then ice began tinkling onto the snow around them and the wind drove the little shards against their exposed faces.
"We need to get somewhere now," Link said more urgently, raising his voice to be heard over the wind.
Zelda redoubled her efforts and made a final push for the rocky outcropping. She found one place where the fallen rocks more or less created a little cave. It wasn't very deep, and the opening was rather wide—which meant it would be hard to heat—but it at least kept the wind and ice off of them.
Zelda and Link both collapsed onto the ground and lay there panting with exhaustion. Outside, the wind drove the ice harder, until it looked like the air was filled with tiny knives flying sideways. Then the occasional snowflake could be spotted. Soon, the snow replaced the ice and the afternoon became nearly as dark as night as a proper blizzard descended on the mountain.
Zelda was stirred out of her lethargy by her cold, wet pants and her numb feet that were rapidly beginning to pain her.
"Build the fire in the back corner," Link said, wearily pointing to the deepest part of the stone shelter. "Put it against the wall. The stone will help reflect some of the heat back on us."
That sounded like a good idea to Zelda, and she hurried to comply.
While she was waiting for the rocks to heat up so she could make Link's medicine, she pulled off her wet boots and stuck her feet close to the fire. But instead of feeling good, the heat was painful on her frigid skin.
Link slowly scooted over to the fire and Zelda helped him get out of his boots, too. She laid both pairs near the fire, to dry out.
Link pulled off his mittens. "Could you put these on my feet?" he asked, handing them to her.
A bit perplexed, she pulled his mittens over the ends of his feet, as far as they would go; everything but his heels were covered.
"That's better. Thank you."
Zelda, feeling a bit curious, did the same with her mittens. Her feet instantly felt better. The fur-lined leather mittens were warming, but didn't provide direct heat, as the fire did. They allowed her feet to thaw out more slowly, which lessened the pain. Her hands, which had not gotten to the verge of frostbite, were fine close to the fire.
Even though it was still early afternoon, Zelda went ahead and made Link's pain medicine and doled out their supper rations.
"How much food do we have left?" Link asked, taking the pemmican cake from her. "I've lost track of the days."
Zelda knew they didn't have much left; the pack was so light, she barely noticed carrying it anymore.
She pulled out the remaining cloth bundles and counted. "Four days, plus today."
She tried to sound upbeat—as if running out of food signaled the end of the journey, but she had no idea if they were four days away from Shi-Ha or if they were still two weeks away. She didn't know how fast they were supposed to travel, but she secretly agreed with Link: he had been moving at a snail's pace. There was no way they could be on time.
Link sighed unhappily, but didn't say anything. There was nothing they could do about it, regardless; they just had to wait out the storm, then press on.
The temperature steadily dropped all day, and when the last dim light of day faded away, it grew colder still. Zelda kept the fire fed, although she resented the use of every precious stick of wood. But even with the heat from the little fire, she stayed cold. Link curled up on the ground next to her—his head resting on her leg, his body as close to the fire as he could get without burning himself—and he went to sleep.
Zelda had nothing to do but sit and think. She wondered what had happened to her aunt and cousins. Did Sir Elgon get them out of the city or find a place to hide them, or had he died trying to protect them, as Zeyde had died for her and Link? And if Nagadii had them, what would he do with them? Would Rayliss, like Zelda, pose an obstacle to him—an obstacle he would be all too glad to remove? What of Rayliss's younger brothers, who were next in line for the throne after her? Would he spare them, or would he use them as hostages for the good behavior of Erenrue's surviving population?
And what of Link's family? Had Nagadii gotten his revenge on them for their defiance and Link and Zelda's escape? Or was he yet holding them hostage, hoping for another opportunity to use them against Link?
Who were the men who were leading Hyrule's divisions? They had not been dressed like the other Shi-Ha mercenaries, but were they really from Hyrule? Who could Nagadii have found in Hyrule who wanted to make war on Erenrue?
It had been clear which men had been pressed into service against their will; those were the men who surrendered to their Princess. But the generals had not bent their knee. Maybe that meant they weren't from Hyrule. Or maybe greed motivated them more than anything—greed for whatever Nagadii had promised them.
If that was the case, then she didn't feel so bad about shooting them.
Eventually, her boredom became drowsiness, so she put a few more sticks of wood on the fire and curled up behind Link. He blocked the heat from the fire, but his body warmth made up for it. Besides, she felt that he needed her heat more than she needed his.
The next morning, the blizzard was still howling. Even in their shelter, gusts of wind would sometimes find their way in, causing their fire to gutter—threatening, at times, to blow it out completely.
After breakfast, Zelda girded herself for a walk outside. She hoped to find a large rock or two that she could push or roll in front of the shelter opening to keep out the worst of the drafts and keep in the heat, but all of the rocks were too big for her to move, so she ended up back in the cave colder than ever with nothing to show for it.
The day passed by slowly—agonizingly so. Link stayed hunched up against the cold, sitting so close to the fire, he was practically sitting in it. He didn't speak at all unless spoken to, and then only short, single sentences.
Zelda worried that he was much worse off than he was showing her, and she contemplated pressing him to be honest, but then she considered what she would do with the information. She couldn't make him warmer. She couldn't feed him more. She couldn't ease his pain. Even if he was on death's door, there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.
So, in the end, she didn't say anything to him. That was the only thing she could do for him: allow him to maintain his pride.
Night came early and things were no better. Zelda made Link's medicine and they ate their meager supper in silence, then he lay down to sleep again.
At least he was finally getting the rest that she had begged him to get. She just wished he didn't have to be so cold; that surely made it harder for him to heal.
She slept poorly. She was so cold, it made her body tense, which, in turn, made her ache after a while. And ever so often—probably not less than once an hour—she had to put more wood on the fire. The drafts that blew through the shelter seemed to make the fire burn faster—or maybe it just seemed that way because the woodpile was disappearing at such a frightful rate.
Zelda reckoned it was sometime in the wee morning hours when she put the last stick of wood on the fire. It was as she had feared: the wood hadn't lasted as long as the food. She had been worrying about not being able to make Link's medicine, but with the blizzard still raging, she had an even more pressing concern: freezing to death.
She went ahead and made up some more of Link's medicine; he would at least have one more dose before having to go without. Then she sat there, despondently, and watched as the fire died down to coals and, eventually, even those began to fade out to gray and black.
When there was no more heat coming from the pile of ash and charred wood, she swept it away with her mittened hand, then scooted over to the spot where the fire had been. She could feel the heat in the rock—both under her and behind her—seeping into her clothes, and while it wasn't as warm as the fire, it kept her from shivering.
She drew Link to her; he moaned in his sleep, but didn't wake. She pulled him into her lap and carefully tucked his cloak around him. His face was pale with bright spots of pink on his cheeks, so she took off her mitten for a moment and touched his forehead; he was feverish—more so than usual.
"We're a mess," she whispered to him. They had no heat, almost nothing left to eat, no medicine to treat Link's wound or his new fever, and it was storming so badly they couldn't leave. They were also out of family members and allies.
They had reached the end of their rope; there was nothing below them but a yawning chasm.
Zelda wrapped her cloak around Link, sheltering them both from the drafts, holding in what little heat their drained bodies could produce.
She began to quietly sing the song that Link had sung for them the night before the battle. She couldn't remember all the words, but she did remember one part.
"But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I'll gently rise and I'll softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all."
She bowed her head, tucking it down close to Link's, mingling their breath so that it helped keep their faces warm.
She had faced death before when she had been adrift on the sea, so the thought of dying now didn't really bother her. In fact, she was glad that this time she had Link with her. Even if he was unconscious, she still wouldn't die alone—and neither would he.
No one would ever know what happened to them. Nagadii's demons were going to conquer the world and kill everyone who remained. Then, when there was nothing left, the gods would finally step in and wipe everything out and start fresh.
How many years in the future would it be, Zelda wondered, before the new race of people—perhaps recreated Hylians—came into the mountains and found her and Link's frozen bodies, still locked in a final, desperate embrace? Would they look upon their remains with the same curiosity that she had when she studied the long-dead ancients and their wonderful machines? Would they ever know that she and Link had died trying to save the old world? Or would their purpose for being in that cold, forbidding place forever remain a mystery?
Somewhere in her thoughts of the future, her present faded into black.