Into the Desert
Link's head was beginning to droop as dawn neared. They had crossed into the desert at some point—there wasn't a hard boundary; the grass just slowly thinned out, until it gave way entirely to sand—but so far, everything was quiet.
The air was cold—like an evening in late fall instead of late spring—and there was a slight wind blowing, but Link was wrapped up in Kara's fur-lined cloak and between it and Zelda's body heat beneath him, he was quite comfortable.
He knew he ought to put the cloak aside and let himself become cold—because that was the only way he was going to keep awake—but he couldn't bring himself to do it; he had gotten to the point that his need for comfort overrode his good sense.
As dawn slowly approached, the sky grew lighter, casting a pink tint to the sand. Link lifted his head and looked around; there was nothing to be seen but softly rolling dunes and sand blown into rippled patterns like a shoreline after high tide.
Link glanced down and watched, in a detached sort of way, as Zelda wearily trekked through the sand. She was clearly tired, because she was clumsily dragging her hooves through the deep sand, causing it to spray out around her.
And then he noticed that the sand just ahead of them didn't match the rest. The long, rippling lines were disrupted by a roundish patch, like something beneath the surface had churned it up.
"Stop!" Link suddenly shouted, his brain waking up. But it was too late; the words were barely out of his mouth when Zelda stepped onto the strange patch of ground and she immediately sank up to her knee.
She gave a whinny of terror and tried to pull back, but she only succeeded in getting her other foreleg stuck in the sand pit.
"Stop!" Link called again, holding tightly to her mane so he didn't fall off of her and into the pit, too. "Don't move."
"I know. This must be one of those pits Hols warned us about."
How are we going to get out?
"Give me a minute."
A rush of adrenaline had him wide awake, but it took him a moment to get his breathing under control; he felt as if his heart was going to beat out of his chest.
He looked around, but saw nothing that was the least bit helpful. However, he did notice that the sand all around them looked normal. He hurriedly unfastened his cloak and threw it out of the way.
"I'm going to get some rope," he said, even as he began to rummage around in one of the baskets, "and I'm going to jump off your back. Once I'm on the ground, then I can pull you out."
How are you going to pull me out? she asked. She was a full-size horse, and although Link was strong relative to his size, he was still a small man. He wouldn't be able to do a lot.
"If we can't get you out by pulling, then I'll just teleport you out," he said sensibly.
We'll lose the baskets, she pointed out.
"Then we'll go back to Hols and start over," he replied. "That's better than losing you."
Hurry, she said. I'm sinking.
Link pulled out a long coil of rope and put his head and arm through it so that it lay across his chest like a bandoleer.
"Be very, very still," he warned her. Then, very carefully, he gathered his feet up under him. With a prayer to the gods, he slowly stood up on Zelda's back.
The shifting of his weight caused her to sink forward a little faster, and he nearly lost his balance; he had to lean down and put his hand on her neck to steady himself.
As soon as he was as surefooted as he could reasonably expect, he took a deep breath and leapt from her back. He rolled forward as he hit the ground and came back up on his feet, well away from the pit.
He turned back around; Zelda was in over her knees.
He slipped the rope off and quickly tied a lasso loop in one end. He got as close as he dared—not entirely sure where the edge of the pit was—and he tried to throw the lasso around Zelda's head.
He tried again, but missed wide again.
You're not very good at this, she complained.
"What do you expect?" he asked, reeling the rope back in. "I'm a fisherman, not a cattle herder."
He managed to throw closer the third time and the loop hit Zelda on the head, catching on her ear. She shook her head until it was through the loop. A few more wiggles, and the rope slid down around her neck.
Link circled around until he was not quite directly behind her. "I'm going to try pulling back," he explained. "As your feet come up, try rearing and see if you can free them. Just be careful not to move your back feet; it'll be a lot worse if any more of you falls in."
She nodded her head.
Link wrapped the rope behind him and positioned it in the middle of his back. He got a tight hold with his left hand, dug his feet into the sand, and leaned back against the rope until it was taunt.
"On the count of three," he announced. "One. Two. Three!"
He threw his weight back against the rope and pulled with his left hand as hard as he could. Zelda cried out—as if in pain—then she settled down on her haunches and tried to rear. She wasn't successful, but Link could see her legs come partway out of the sand.
"That's it! Again!" he encouraged, as he strained at the rope, trying to keep enough pressure on it so she didn't sink before she had a chance to try again.
She tried again, freeing herself partway below the knees. She tried again—to the ankles—then again, and her hooves were visible.
"Back! Back up!" Link said, even as he pulled back on the rope.
She quickly scrambled backwards until she was well away from the pit. A moment later, she transformed—dropping the pannier baskets and causing them to spill some of their contents—and she fell to her hands and knees, panting heavily. The rope was still around her neck.
Link hurried over to her and pulled the rope off. "Are you alright?" he asked, lifting her face so he could look at her.
She nodded a little. "Yes," she replied breathlessly. Then she winced and touched her neck.
Link tilted her head back and looked; she had the makings of an angry, red rope burn around her throat.
He grimaced. "I'm sorry."
"It's alright," she said, coughing a little. "It's better than being buried alive in a sand pit."
He sat down beside her and put his arm around her. She leaned into him, resting. He could feel her heavy breathing matching the heavy beat of his heart.
"Why don't we call it a day?" he asked after a few minutes.
She chuckled hoarsely. "Sounds good to me."
Link pitched the lean-to so that the back of it would shade them from the rising sun. Then he spread out Tarsus's pelt underneath it and rolled up the two cloaks to make pillows.
They ate pemmican cakes in silence as the world grew lighter around them. It also grew warmer in lock-step with the light, so that by the time they lay down to rest, it was quite warm.
Link was so exhausted, he fell asleep immediately, but he was awoken shortly after midday when the sunlight shifted so that it was shining into the lean-to—and directly onto him. His black tunic (on second thought, not the best color to wear in the desert) was soaked with sweat.
Zelda was still asleep beside him, but he could see from the unhappy look on her face that she was barely asleep; soon, the heat would wake her, too.
He got up and stripped out of his tunic. The dry, hot breeze that blew over his damp skin did nothing to cool him, though; it only made him feel like he was baking in an oven.
He leaned down and gently shook Zelda awake. "Your Highness, I need to move the tent so we can stay out of the sun."
She cracked an eye open. "Wha…?"
He repeated himself.
Groggily, she crawled out from under the tent. She sat there, listless, while he moved the poles and stakes so that the back of the shelter was to the west and would keep the setting sun off of them.
"Gods, it's hot," Zelda said, wiping her forehead. Sweat was pouring down her face and her hair looked damp with it.
"I'm glad we're not trying to travel in this," Link agreed. "It's hard enough to sleep in it."
They both drank heavily from one of the waterskins, then crawled back into the shade. But Zelda was clearly uncomfortable, because she kept squirming. Link was only slightly less miserable; the sweat that beaded up and trickled down his bare skin made it feel as if there were bugs crawling on him.
Despite that, he began to doze off again… until Zelda rolled over with an unhappy sigh.
"Your Highness," he said, not opening his eyes, "if you want to take off your shirt, I promise I will never breathe a word of it to anyone."
There was silence for a moment. "I can't do that," she finally said.
"Aren't you wearing something under it? A wrap of some sort?"
"Well, leave that part on and just take off the tunic. I don't know how you stand wearing two things anyways."
She was still for a minute, then he felt her shifting beside him.
He opened one eye a little and saw her sitting up, pulling the tunic off over her head. Underneath that, she had a linen cloth wrapped around her chest several times, so there was nothing to see.
He closed his eye again. "Just be careful not to get in sun," he warned. "You'll get sunburned in just a few minutes."
Link didn't wake again until the wind blowing across his bare skin became cool.
He opened his eyes and found that the sky was almost completely dark; there was just a little greenish-purple light left in the west.
He looked at Zelda, but already found her awake, staring at the canvas fabric overheard.
"What's wrong?" he asked, as she continued to stare silently, never acknowledging his presence.
"Oh, nothing," she said absentmindedly. "I was just having a thought."
"Oh?" he asked curiously.
"I wonder if there's any way to see those pits in advance?"
"Yes. I saw the one yesterday—about one second before you stepped into it."
"I meant, is there a way to see them sooner than that?"
"I think so—now that I know what to look for. They create a strange pattern in the sand."
Zelda nodded slightly.
"So," he continued, "we just need to be more careful about looking ahead. Hopefully, though, I won't be so tired this evening, so I can pay attention better."
"Well, actually, I was wondering if you could fly overhead and scout out the terrain."
"Fly?" But as soon as he said it, he realized what she was talking about. "Oh!" He smiled a little and shook his head. "I keep forgetting I can take an animal form, too."
"If you'd go ahead of me, you could guide me so I avoid the pits. And even if I get into one, you'll be able to come get me out; we won't have to worry about you falling into it, too."
"That makes sense," he agreed.
They ate quickly then packed up. At Zelda's insistence, Link used a shorter piece of rope to lash the baskets more firmly onto her back.
Now I can run and not worry about bouncing them off, she said.
Link transformed into an eagle. He made an ungainly run-and-hop across the sand, but he finally managed to get up into the air.
He wished he had thought about flying sooner; the desert was beautiful from above.
He made a few circles around the sky, getting his bearings, then he swooped down closer. His eyes were sharp and he could see quite well from high up, but he didn't like the idea of being too far away from Zelda.
He swept ahead of their campsite, scanning the ground for any variations.
Clear up ahead, he told Zelda, but don't deviate from course; there are pits up ahead on your left.
He circled back around, watching her galloping across the dark desert—her golden coat glowing softly above the white sand, her silvery mane and tail blowing behind her like the wind. It was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen—like something out of a dream.
He continued to sweep ahead, looking for traps, then circled back around to meet up with Zelda. As the night wore on, the pits became more and more frequent until she had to quit running and he had to fly close overhead, guiding her carefully.
Around midnight, Link spotted a lone cactus, and he made for it. He was back on the ground, in his human form, by the time Zelda trotted up. She was breathing heavily.
"Let's take a break," he said, unloading the baskets, then unfastening them from her back.
As soon as she could, she transformed and sat down on the sand, looking exhausted. "I'm ready for a break," she said breathlessly. "And some water. I'm dying of thirst."
"Here, try this," he said. He took out his sword and lopped the top off the cactus. Zelda watched him curiously as he carefully positioned it on the sand and used his sword to quickly slice off the prickly outer skin. Once it was safe to handle, he used his knife to cut it into smaller chunks.
He offered a piece to Zelda. Curious, she sniffed it. It smelled green—sort of like grass. She nibbled a little corner.
It was very juicy—like a melon—but mostly tasteless, apart from a faint sourness that continued to remind her of grass.
"It's edible," she declared.
Link took a big bite from a piece on the end of his knife. "Bet'er than no'hing in 'da des'rt."
She laughed at him. He grinned, then chewed his bite and swallowed. "I was saying that it's better than nothing," he said more clearly. "It will rehydrate you if you're thirsty and it will fill your belly if you're hungry—at least for a little while."
"But we have food and water," Zelda pointed out.
"Yeah, but if we eat this instead, we'll make our stores last that much longer. That, and I like the taste of something fresh."
They ate quite a bit of the cactus, then, once they were both full, Link pulled out the map and the compass and tried to check their position. There was no moon, and the faint starlight made it hard to read the tiny marks on the compass, but he was able to use the stars themselves to help him navigate.
"We're a bit off course," he declared at last, folding up the map. "Going around those pits threw us off."
"How far do you think we'll have to go?" Zelda asked.
"I have no idea. I haven't seen anything that looks like a rock around here, though."
They continued in a similar vein for three more days: sleeping—as much as they were able to—during the heat of the day, then traversing the desert at night. Link's eagle eyes kept Zelda diverted away from pits and most of the venomous creatures that eked out an existence in the desert sands. There was only one, brief scare when a snake—which had apparently been hiding in the sand—reared up in front of Zelda. But she was moving too fast to stop, and before she was even fully aware of what was happening, she had already run over it.
Link circled around to take a look and found the snake had been trampled to death. He bit off more than he could chew, Link said with grim humor.
Thankfully he didn't bite anything at all, Zelda replied, still feeling a little shaken by the snake.
If it happens again, do the same thing; when you're running, you have the advantage.
It didn't happen again, though. As aggressive as they may have been around humans, the desert snakes and scorpions were not completely without sense. Whenever Link's eagle-shadow fell on them, they hurried to take shelter, lest they become dinner.
One snake wasn't very quick, though, and Link—mainly because he was bored—swooped down and grabbed it just behind the head, strangling it in his claw. When they stopped at dawn, Link offered to cook it for Zelda.
She made a face. "You're not serious."
"Sure. Snakes aren't bad to eat—kind of like chicken, but with a bit more flavor."
She continued to look at him as if he was crazy.
In part to prove to her that he was serious, he pulled out a little bit of firewood from the bottom of one of the pannier baskets and made a small fire. He gutted and skinned the snake, then chunked the meat up and skewered it on some sharpened twigs.
He offered a skewer to Zelda. "Here, hold that over the fire and roast it."
She wrinkled her nose and refused to take it.
"It's good. Trust me," he insisted. "It'll be a change from pemmican," he added temptingly, knowing she was already tired of the dried cakes.
With great reluctance, she took the skewer from him and held it over the fire.
They sat in silence, roasting the snake, as the day grew brighter. By the time the sun peeked over the edge of the horizon, the meat was ready.
Link took a big bite and chewed it thoughtfully, considering its qualities; Zelda looked on apprehensively.
He swallowed. "Not too bad," he declared, "but I've had better." He took another bite. "It's tough," he said as he chewed. "It really needs to be marinated and slow-cooked to soften it up."
Zelda made a little face, but she finally screwed up her courage and took a bite. Link watched her face, but her expression didn't change.
"Well?" he asked, once she had swallowed.
"I guess it tastes alright," she allowed. "But you're right: it's tough."
She looked out into the distance as she slowly ate her snake meat. "You know, you're quite making me a barbarian," she declared after a while.
Her pronouncement caught him by surprise. "What?"
"It feels like I spend more time as an animal than as a human; I'm eating a snake; and I'm sitting on the skin of one of our enemies," she enumerated. "I sound like one of those wild people that supposedly lived off the coast of Hyrule thousands of years ago."
Link laughed. "I hadn't thought about it like that."
"What am I going to do when I become queen? I won't know how to sleep in a real bed. I won't want to eat normal food. And I will only want to wear men's clothes."
Link laughed louder.
She looked at him. "You're quite a corrupting influence, you know."
"So it would seem." He looked at her, half-joking, half-serious. "Do you want to go back to Hols? I'll search by myself. You can stay inside and protect your Royal Complexion."
She shook her head. "No, I don't trust you."
"You don't trust me?" he asked, surprised. He wasn't sure if she was still joking or not.
"I know you don't believe in this task; if I leave, you might give it up. …Besides, it's hardly fair for me to make you do something you don't want to do, then abandon you."
He felt a little hurt, although he knew he couldn't blame her for doubting him; he had done everything in his power to convince her to abandon the entire enterprise.
"Your Highness," he said, looking at her seriously, "I'm not here because I have hope that this will work; I'm here because this is what you want. If you want me to hunt for a fallen star, I will hunt for it until the end of my days. And I will not short you any measure of my time and effort—not because the situation deserves it, but because you deserve nothing less than all of me."
She looked at him for a long minute, her eyes unreadable. Then, slowly, he saw tears well up in them.
"Link," she said quietly, "how can you think that the gods have abandoned you? If they would abandon someone like you, then they would not be gods worth worshipping. For your sake alone, the world should be saved."
Link was taken aback and didn't know how to respond.
She scooted closer and put her head against his shoulder. Tentatively, he put his arm around her, holding her close.
"I will stay with you," she declared, "not because I don't trust you, but because I owe you the help."
"You never owe me anything, Your Highness."
"I owe you more than can ever be repaid," she insisted. "And… if I'm wrong—if we are doomed to failure—then I want to die beside you."
She looked up at him after a moment. "But I'm not wrong," she added.
He smiled a little. "If anyone could force the gods to change their plans, it might just be you." He kissed her on the top of the head. "I certainly can't tell you 'no'."