I Bearly Knew You
Link led them out of the Lost Woods without incident. They stopped for a break when they reached the main road; the sun was beginning to set behind them.
Link pulled out his map and spread it out on the ground, studying it while he ate.
"What are you thinking?" Zelda asked after a while.
"I'm thinking I don't have a plan." He chuckled, looking at her. "We've been so fixated on getting the Master Sword working again, I hadn't even thought about what we would do with it once we had it."
Zelda leaned over, studying the map, too. Link had been keeping track of every place where they encountered demons, and he had used charcoal to mark the map with an "X" for every demon. In a few places, where they had encountered a flock, there was a single, extra-large "X." Pallis had a big "X" over it with a question mark.
"How are get going to free Erenrue?" Zelda asked—not for the first time—while looking sadly at the capital city on the map.
"I haven't the foggiest idea," Link said. "We'll just save it for last and see what help comes our way. As you've pointed out, the gods wouldn't give us an impossible task. So far, we've always found the help and answers we need, so there must be some way to save it, too."
Zelda smiled at him, then she leaned over and—much to his surprise—she kissed him.
"What was that for?" he asked.
"I've missed you."
"I wasn't aware I had gone anywhere," he said with a laugh.
"You went to a very dark place, I think," she said seriously. "You've been gone a long time."
His face fell. "I'm sorry," he said.
"It's alright. I know how hard this is on me; I can only imagine how much worse it is for you, since you have been preparing for it for much longer and bear more of the burden. …I just hope I don't lose you again."
"You won't," he vowed. "I will never doubt again."
She smiled softly at him, then turned back to the map. "So, where do you think we should start first? The demons near the tigers' cave are closest, and unless they've multiplied, they won't be hard to take out; I beat all of them twice without a problem."
"Yes, but Nagadii's moving through there," Link reminded her, pointing to the Northern Road that ran between them and the mountains.
"He should be past the crossroads by now, shouldn't he? That was three days ago—going on four. And we've got three days to get back."
"Yeah," he said reluctantly. "But I don't know if that's enough distance between us and him; it makes me nervous to cross paths so close together. What if he's not moving fast? What if he's posting scouts as he goes to make sure we're not sneaking around behind his back?"
"I don't know," Zelda said helplessly.
"If Nagadii uses demons in Shi-Ha, we'll have to come back this way again to take care of them, so I don't think it matters if we get the mountain demons now, or later."
Link… Gardamon's voice interrupted him.
I have just found out that several major demons have escaped from the rift. One of them is in the fairy's cave in the mountain—the one that Princess Zelda went to. I think you should go there first, and you can take care of the minor ones along the way.
I think he knows that he's being spied upon, because he's learned how to cloak himself permanently—not just when he's stationary. And more than that: everywhere he goes becomes obscured, as with a black cloud.
Link was confused. A black cloud? Will that affect us when we go back to the crossroads?
No, it's not a literal cloud—not from your perspective, anyway. It only appears that way to me, because what I'm doing is like scrying. If someone there were to scry for you, they would not be able to see him either.
I can tell when he's on the move, Gardamon continued, because things begin to disappear, but I can see nothing of where he's been—not Erenrue or the road between it and Shi-Ha. That means he could double-back on his trail and I wouldn't know it.
And you wouldn't know if he left sentries or spies behind, either.
No. You must be careful.
Should we try something else first? Something that doesn't take us so close to Nagadii?
At the moment, I'm reasonably sure that he's still moving into Shi-Ha. Once he conquers that, though, it will be harder for me to determine where he is; the more the world becomes dark, the more dangerous it will become for you and Princess Zelda, since he might be anywhere. Better to do this now; it definitely won't get any safer.
Link could see the logic in that.
"Link?" Zelda asked tentatively, looking at him a little fearfully. "Are you talking to someone?"
He turned to look at her. "Yes, Master Gardamon."
"What does he have to say?" she asked eagerly.
"There's a major demon in the Great Fairy's cave—the one that you went to. He says we need to take it out."
Zelda blanched. "What's a major demon?
"I don't know, but it's presumably bigger and tougher than any of the other ones we've fought."
"Worse than those dog-things that attacked us on the field at Erenrue?"
"I would think so."
"We knew this was coming," he pointed out. "Everything that we've done has been leading up to this point: hunting down and killing the demons." He sighed. "I guess it's just taken us so long to get the sword that the rift has had time to expand and let these bigger ones out."
"Bigger ones? In the plural?" Zelda said, her voice rising. "There's more than the one? Right now?"
"How many?" she demanded.
"I don't know. Master Gardamon said 'a few.' I'm not even sure if he knows how many, at this point."
Zelda looked unhappy.
"You don't have to go," Link offered quietly. "You could stay with Long Fang while I go."
She immediately looked affronted. "Of course I'm going with you."
Link pressed the issue a little further, knowing her pride would overwhelm her fear. "You really don't have to, if you don't want to."
"Of course I don't want to, but I'm going anyway. You said yourself this quest needs both of us."
"So I did."
"Then I'm going to go," she said firmly.
Link smiled. "Yes, ma'am."
They traveled in their animal forms in case Nagadii had left spies along the road, but they made it to the crossroads without a problem and there appeared to be no one within sight. But even so, they continued in their animal forms until they reached the tigers' hot spring where they had stopped to bathe weeks before.
"How long has it been since we've been here?" Zelda asked, as they stopped to make camp for the night; there was barely any light left in the sky.
"I don't know," Link said, putting together a small pile of tinder for a fire. "I've lost track of the days, to be honest; I don't even know what day of the week it is. But I know it was early spring when we started across the mountains and now it's early summer."
"It was almost spring in Hyrule when we left. That night when Nagadii set fire to the plains was cool, but not cold; we didn't have to bundle up." Zelda sighed wistfully. "It seems like a lifetime ago."
Zelda idly watched as he dropped a spark into the tinder and carefully blew it into life. "I was such a different person back then," she said quietly, as he began to add little twigs to the infant fire.
"Is that a good thing?" he asked, glancing up at her. "I mean, that you've changed?"
"I think so. I think I'm a better person now." She suddenly laughed. "I certainly like you a lot better than I did at first."
"Well, I must admit," he said, as he went back to adding wood to the fire, "I'm different now, too. I might have been a touch… cocky back then."
She laughed. "And you think you've changed?"
He grinned. "Well, maybe not," he allowed. "But… I guess I'm better at not annoying you with it."
"You like to tease," she said. "When you're acting all cocky, it's not that you really believe what you're saying; you're just saying it to make a joke or tease. I didn't know that at first, so I thought you terribly arrogant. But, eventually, I just realized it's your sense of humor."
He looked up at her. "Is that what you think?"
He looked down again. "Hmm."
"What? Am I wrong?"
"No, not at all," he said hurriedly. Too hurriedly.
"You do think I'm wrong."
"No, no, not at all. I am completely un-arrogant; I'm just acting this way because I'm trying to be funny. Totally not because of arrogance."
She looked sideways at him, then laughed. "See, that's my point."
"Yes, Your Highness."
She gave him a playful shove. "Don't call me that."
"Yes, Your Princesship."
She shook her head. "You're really impossible, you know."
He grinned. "Yes, I know."
"You don't care at all, do you?"
"No." He looked at her. "Do you?"
"Do I care if you're stubborn?"
"No, do you care if I think you're stubborn. It takes a hard-head to know one, you know."
She crossed her arms and turned away from him, a mock pout on her face; she was no more serious about their argument and name-calling than he was. "I really don't know why I put up with your… your abuse," she huffed.
"Because you can't find anyone else who will put up with yours?"
Before she could retort, he threw a large piece of wood on the fire and changed the subject. "Why don't you take a bath why I cook supper?" he offered.
She pushed herself to her feet. "What a good excuse to get away from you."
She started to move past him, but he caught her hand and kissed it. Then he looked up at her, his blue eyes burning.
"I think you like arguing with me," she said in a whisper—her voice betraying her pretend-indignation.
He kissed her hand again—more slowly this time—giving her goosebumps. "And I think you like it, too," he said.
"Maybe…" she allowed. "Although I don't know why."
"Because you've never been able to argue with anyone before," he said wisely. "Your father and your tutors wouldn't brook you arguing with them, and your servants would never dare argue with you."
"Aren't you my servant?"
"No, I'm your knight; there's a difference."
"What's the difference?"
"It's my duty to obey you, but also to advise you."
"Is that what you call this? Advising me?"
"No, I think I'd call this flirting. …Which I shouldn't do, but I do anyways." He grinned his cocky grin.
Zelda felt heat rise in her cheeks. "And why do you do it?"
"Because you let me—and sometimes even encourage me. Which you shouldn't do, either, but you do anyways. Why is that?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "I guess because I like you."
"Well, the feeling's mutual."
He let go of her hand. "Alright, we better quit this or you'll never get a bath and we'll never eat."
With a certain feeling of reluctance, Zelda walked away.
The moon was full and shining down brightly—bright enough that Zelda had no trouble seeing the hot springs hidden behind a rocky outcrop. She peeled off her clothes—Gods! how long had it been since they had been washed?—and got into the water. She sighed contentedly as the hot water came up to her shoulders, easing away both the dirt on the outside and the muscle aches on the inside.
She sat in the water for some time, enjoying the heat and the beautiful night, when Link called out to her, "Dinner is almost ready, Your Highness."
"Alright," she replied. But inwardly she sighed a little. She really wished Link would quit addressing her by her title. She let him flirt with her because she liked it—and liked him—but the real reason why she let him get away with it was because she felt that he was her equal. She was his partner on their quest, and he was hers. His continued use of her title reinforced their inequality, and Zelda was tired of it. In all her life, she had never wanted to be a princess less.
In fact, with running around as a horse as often as she ran around as a human, with her dirty clothes and infrequent bathing, with sleeping outside and eating what she hunted herself, she had never felt less like a princess.
She got out of the hot springs and sat on a rock until she had more-or-less drip-dried. Then she got dressed and returned to the campsite. Link was already gnawing on the whole carcass of a fat ground squirrel she had shot that afternoon. He handed her its mate on stick.
She devoured it, hardly caring that it had an odd, gamey taste peculiar to members of the rodent family. She was not only too hungry to care, but she had gotten past needing the succulent fare she had grown up with. Now, a feast was just anything that filled her up completely.
The squirrel didn't quite meet that definition, but with some boiled, starchy roots that Link had dug up, it was enough to keep her from feeling hungry.
She spread out one of the cloaks next to the little fire, then rolled up the spare as a pillow.
"I'm going to take a bath," Link announced, as Zelda prepared what passed for their bed.
"Alright," she said. She wasted no time lying down and getting comfortable. Even sleeping on the ground didn't seem like the major hardship it had once been.
Yes, she had changed a lot since their trip began.
She went to sleep before she knew it. Then a movement near her head startled her awake.
"It's just me," Link whispered, as he lay the Master Sword in front of her, where he could easily reach it.
The fire had already died down to coals, and they cast a strange light on him; one side of his body glowed a pale white in the light of the moon; the other side glowed orange with the reflection of the coals.
With half-opened eyes, Zelda watched as he spread his wet tunic over a nearby bush to dry; she envied the fact that he could do without his shirt long enough to wash it.
As she looked at him, though, she noticed that the moonlight seemed to make his scars glow brighter; their whiteness stood out in contrast even on his fair skin.
There was the one on his right arm that his mother had stitched together. An arrow had grazed him there when they were trying to flee the monastery in Castle Town. Then there was the large, ugly-looking one on both the front and back of his left shoulder where he had taken another arrow—that time, all the way through. And then his most recent acquisition: the claw marks across the left side of his face.
And the list of scars didn't include the broken arm he had gotten from the wolf months before their quest began; that scar was hidden out of sight, down in the bone.
But despite all of his pain—and the promise of more before they were through with their quest—he had stayed with her. Even when he was at his lowest point—even when he had given up and declared the quest hopeless—he had not abandoned her. When she said she was going forward, he went with her—reluctantly, complainingly, even sullenly—but he went with her nonetheless. She had told Hols that Link's sense of honor—his loyalty to her, specifically—was stronger than anything—even his depression. And she had been proven right.
She truly thought there was nothing he would not do for her.
Link lay down behind her and wrapped the other half of the cloak around them. It was warm enough that they didn't need it, but it did help keep the dew off so they didn't wake up feeling damp.
He put his arm around her waist and scooted up close behind her.
She could feel his body heat—heightened by the hot springs—radiating through the back of her shirt. Despite the fact that they were sleeping on the ground, in the wilds, under an open sky, miles away from any form of habitation—much less civilization—Zelda had never felt more safe and secure. And now that Link was back to his old self—his hope and good humor returned—she felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her. She would follow him anywhere—just as he would go anywhere with her. They were inseparable now.
"Link… I love you," she said quietly.
He reached up and gently stroked his fingers along her cheekbone, then traced the edge of her pointed ear. A cold chill ran down her spine, making her shiver.
"And I love you," he whispered.
She wanted to roll over and kiss him—to touch his bare skin and feel him real and solid beneath her hands. She wanted to do all sorts of things that she had never considered doing before—things she had only heard maids and guards whispering about when they didn't know she could hear them—things she knew she shouldn't do. …Things he would never let her do.
"Goodnight," she managed to choke out.
She closed her eyes and tried to think of something other than his warm, half-naked body close behind her.
Really, we have to quit coming to this hot spring, she thought. It makes me think things….
The next morning, they got up with the sun, ate what remained of the boiled roots, and packed up.
"With all the miles we've traveled, I've nearly walked these pants off," Zelda said, tugging her pants up before putting her sword belt on over her tunic. "I wonder if Kara has a needle and thread? I really need to take them up."
Link frowned. "I'm afraid it's more like a combination of the walking and lean, meager meals. I noticed when we were at the beach in Shi-Ha that you looked terribly thin."
She looked him over; he hadn't put his tunic on yet and it was easy to see that he was wiry to the point of looking underfed. "And you don't?" she accused.
He shrugged. "I've always looked like this—more or less. I've always had to do hard work on basic rations. But princesses are supposed to look well-cared for."
"Plump and lazy, you mean."
"I didn't say that."
She whipped out Link's sword—which she now wore as her own—and threw her arm out, bringing the point within inches of Link's nose. He jerked back instinctively.
"I like how I look," she said, as she held the sword steady. She had not just lost weight during their journey; she had also gained strength.
"I've spent all my life imprisoned in luxury," she continued. "I don't ever want to live in that fake world again where I'm totally helpless and I never venture beyond the walls of the castle. I want something else. I want the world—the real world that other people live in."
"Yes, ma'am," Link said, still eyeing the sword pointed at his face.
She chuckled as she resheathed the sword. "Although, I wouldn't say 'no' to a few good meals," she admitted.
"Well, I'm sure Long Fang will have as much meat as we can eat."
She made a little face, remembering the all-meat meals they had been given before. "Let's see if we can find some more roots or green stuff or something that we can take with us," she said.
Link did manage to find a little more that was edible on their trek up the mountainside, but the plants grew increasingly infrequent and sparse as they climbed up and the landscape turned to solid rock.
"Was it… this steep… before?" Zelda panted as she followed Link up the trail.
"Yes, but we were… riding down… so we didn't notice it," Link said, sounding nearly as breathless as Zelda.
"My calves… are killing me."
"Tell me about it."
"Have you… heard from Hols?" Zelda asked as they pushed on.
"No. I didn't want… to distract him. …It always startles… me when Master… Garamond contacts me. …And he knows… what I'm doing… so he doesn't do it… at a bad time. …I didn't want to catch… Hols at a bad time."
"Yeah, but he should… should be up here by now."
Before they could discuss the issue any further, they rounded the corner and Link nearly ran headlong into a huge brown bear. The surprise meeting caused him and the bear both to jump back.
A moment later, Zelda was beside him with her bow in hand, an arrow ready to let fly.
The bear stood up on its hind legs and held its paws out in a very human-looking gesture, as if begging them not to attack. A moment later, there was a flash of light and the bear turned into none other than Hols.
"Hols!" Link and Zelda exclaimed together.
"What are you two doing here?" he asked in astonishment—clearly as surprised to see them as they were to see him. "I thought you were going to the Lost Woods?"
"We did," Link replied.
Hols eyes widened. "And…?"
Link pulled out the Master Sword and held it up for him to see. It glowed with a soft light.
Hols looked like he was seeing the ghost of a long-lost loved one. He stumbled forward, as if in a daze, tears in his eyes. "It… it worked."
"Yes, it did. You were right all along. I'm sorry I ever doubted you."
Hols seemed to ignore Link's apology, as he stretched out a trembling hand with longing. "May I… may I hold it?"
Link turned it around and offered Hols the hilt. When Hols took it into his hand, though, it stopped glowing.
"She doesn't recognize me as her master," he said, as he held the sword up and slowly looked up the length of the blade, "but she's still alive. I can feel it."
"This is so wonderful," Hols said, as tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. "I never thought I would ever hold the Master Sword—the living Master Sword—in my hands."
They stood there a few minutes while Hols fondled the sword rapturously. Zelda finally decided if they didn't say something, he'd stand there with it all day.
"So… your form is a bear," she said, trying to change the subject. "What happened that you figured that out?"
A shadow passed over Hols face and his joy vanished—replaced with a frown.
He offered the sword back to Link. "We stayed at the Monastery longer than I intended," he admitted. "The abbot and the others kept debating on what they were going to do—if they should send the children into the mountains, if some of the brothers should stay behind—that sort of thing. I showed them the tiger skin you gave me and told them that you were going to call in your favor on everyone's behalf, but they still weren't sure whether it was a good idea to go into the mountains. They were afraid they wouldn't be able to survive up here since there's no good supply of food.
"Finally, one afternoon, three tigers came running into the courtyard, throwing everyone into a panic. One of them introduced himself as Lord Long Fang. He said that he had been reading the stars and knew that you would seek his help. He agreed to take in everyone, but warned that Nagadii was close and that we needed to leave immediately.
"That finally motivated the brothers to pack up food and blankets—just what each person could carry—and we set out. But we were too late. Just as we were starting up the mountain, we were attacked from behind.
"One of the tigers—Anne-Marie—led Lia and the children and the old brothers up the mountain, while the rest of us tried to hold off Nagadii's army long enough for them to get to safety. The mountain worked in our favor, since they were attacking uphill, and the narrow trail negated their superior numbers, but every time I cut someone down, it seemed like two more stepped in to replace him.
"I wished that I could take out more than one person at a time—like Growder and Long Fang were able to do—and that's… that's when I became a bear." He said this as if it still surprised him.
"They brought in nets—like small fishing nets—and captured Long Fang and Growder, but I was too big for them to pull down, and I was able to tear my way out of the net. I sent a bunch of them tumbling down the mountainside like skittles, and that gave me and the other brothers time enough to retreat up the mountain."
Link and Zelda listened to his story with wide-eyed shock. "What happened to Long Fang and Growder?" Zelda asked.
"I don't know. They were dragged off and we haven't seen them since. But Anne-Marie said Long Fang had foreseen something like this happening, and he had told her that it might take a while, but he would be back. So I've been patrolling the trails up here, looking for him and making sure that we're not attacked again. But it seems like they got enough of us the last time around and they're not keen on trying again."
"Did you lose anyone else?" Link asked.
Hols shook his head. "No, everyone made it to safety. Several men were wounded, but nothing life-threatening. The old healer—Kara—has managed to patch everyone up."
"I'm surprised Nagadii didn't send demons after you," Link said. "That would have ended your stand pretty quickly."
"We never saw him—or, at least, we don't think we did. I think we were hit by the vanguard of the army. I daresay we wouldn't have escaped at all if Nagadii had been in command."
"I think you're right."
Hols gestured to them. "Come to the cave. Everyone will be glad to see you again. Ever since we were attacked, Lia's been worried to death that the two of you might have been caught, too."
He transformed into a bear again and Link and Zelda climbed onto his back. Then, with powerful legs and strong claws, he started up the mountain trail at a rapid pace, as if it was easy for him.