Zelda rubbed her belly, feeling rather full. As promised, Anne-Marie had fed them well on meat, but the brothers from the monastery had contributed some of their rations, too, so it was as good as a feast. Of course, any meal that had bread felt like a feast these days.
The only thing that marred Zelda's contentedness was a twinge of guilt; the brothers and their students had eaten rather lightly—as if they were worried about conserving their supplies—even as they pushed more food on Link and Zelda. And Link and Zelda hadn't needed a lot of encouragement to take extra helpings. Now that she was full, though, Zelda wondered if she and Link should have been mindful of the supplies as well. She rather felt like a glutton compared to everyone else.
"You have been trained to rule," Anne-Marie said, addressing Zelda once she had finished her dinner. "What should I do with Lord Long Fang and Growder gone?"
Zelda felt that Anne-Marie had been waiting for an opportunity to talk to her. Not only was Anne-Marie the only tiger present at the meal, but throughout dinner, she had absentmindedly licked her paw. Zelda suspected it was a nervous gesture—like people chewing on their fingernails or tapping a foot.
"Just keep doing what you've been doing," Zelda said soothingly. "I'm sure they will manage to escape and come back soon. Lord Long Fang said he would return, and I think you can count on that."
"Yes, but we didn't do so well when he was gone before." Anne-Marie pointedly looked at the scars across Link's face.
"Only because of Tarsus," Zelda argued. "Do you have another Tarsus among your people?"
"No… although some of our people—mainly Tarsus's old supporters—are not happy with me being in charge… or us having humans here," she added in a low voice, glancing down the table at the monks and children.
"You must rule with an iron fist," Link said firmly. "I know that's not your nature, but you must squash any resistance—even if it's just people talking. Look at what Tarsus accomplished just by talking."
Anne-Marie nodded sadly.
"Don't let anyone get any ideas in their heads; don't let them think that they might be able to take you on and win."
"Rule as if you were Lord Long Fang," Zelda added. "You know what he would do and say; do and say the same things."
Anne-Marie nodded again. "What you say is wise."
Zelda smiled at her. "You can do this. Lord Long Fang wouldn't have left you in charge if he didn't trust that you would keep his people safe and his rule secure until he could return."
Link looked at the abbot. "Do you still have your weapons?"
"I didn't take anything from them," Anne-Marie hurried to say. "We weren't sure if we going to be followed and attacked again."
"That was a good idea. It's also a good idea to continue to hold onto them, even as Nagadii's threat fades." He looked at Abbot Winfield pointedly. "If anyone gives Anne-Marie trouble, you be sure to stand with her and give her a show of strength. You don't want to be at the mercy of whoever deposes her—Princess Zelda and I have the scars to prove that."
The abbot nodded gravely.
"Lord Long Fang has often spoken with longing about human governments," Anne-Marie said. "He likes the way that Erenrue is run. Even Shi-Ha, with its strange, council-government, seems to be a good thing. It's not like here; here, you rule through strength. When you lose your strength, then you lose everything. If you don't willingly step aside, then you will be killed. And while Lord Long Fang's family has ruled here for several generations, it's only because they were strong enough to hold the streak together; it's not because it's a hereditary position."
"So your loyalty—and Growder's—is unusual?" Zelda asked.
"To some degree, yes."
"Why do you do it, then?"
Anne-Marie shrugged a little. "I guess because we believe in something besides strength—something that Lord Long Fang has which many others lack. He is strong, and he will defend his rights, but he tries not to control people; he is not a tyrant. We would rather be under the rule of an older, weaker male who is not a tyrant than live under a young, strong male who is."
Link nodded. "You want a king—someone who takes care of his people, rather than sees them as a constant threat to his power."
"Yes, I think that's it."
"Every kingdom begins as yours has," Zelda said. "Every kingdom begins when someone who is powerful enough and smart enough and inspiring enough gathers people around him and they decide to live together as a community with him as a leader. When their society is young, he must prove his worth by protecting it and helping it grow and develop. If he fails, he will be ousted by the next strong person. Things will continue like that until someone finds a way to garner enough loyalty, no one will attempt to overthrow him—or will be unable to do so. If he can stay in power long enough to name a successor of his own choosing, then you have the beginnings of a royal dynasty.
"If you and Growder—and enough others—remain loyal to Lord Long Fang, even when he grows too old to fight against those who would attempt to supplant him, then you may be able to establish a kingship."
Zelda looked at her seriously. "Once we deal with Nagadii, there will be a lot less need for strength and a lot more need for wisdom—his sort of wisdom—and compassion. There will be a lot of rebuilding that needs to be done."
"Not so much here, I hope," Anne-Marie added. "I hope that trouble may pass us by, but in any case, I think you are right."
Then she waved her paw dismissively. "Enough about our troubles. Tell me how I can help you two with this demon that you are hunting. I wasn't aware that there were any here, other than the small ones on the trail up to the fairy's cave. I wonder how it even managed to get into the fairy's cave, since it's blocked up."
"I don't think demons necessarily travel like you or I," Link said. "If they can be killed, but then come back to life, I doubt seriously that some sort of rock-fall will stop them."
"I think I'd like to spend the rest of the day here," Link said, outlining his plan, "and get a fresh start in the morning. Unless you happen to have a shield, I don't think there's anything we need, aside from enough food and water to last us a day. Hopefully we won't need to be gone longer than that. I'd like to travel light, since we know we're going to be fighting."
Anne-Marie nodded. "Yes, that makes sense. We can get food for you, but I'm afraid we have no shield."
"We have one," the Abbot offered. "It's just wood, so it's nothing special, but it's better than nothing."
"I agree; I'll be glad to have it. Thank you."
Link glanced at Zelda. "Is there anything you need?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Then we'll leave in the morning."
Link and Zelda were up early—at least, according to Anne-Marie it was early; there was no way to tell what time of day it was in the vast underground cave system that had no windows of any kind.
They ate a hearty breakfast, then Link traded his small belt pouch for a larger one that could hold a small waterskin and enough food for a day. He strapped the Master Sword across his back and attached the borrowed shield to the scabbard, leaving his hands free. Zelda wore her bow and quiver across her back, as usual, plus Link's sword.
"We will hopefully be back by tomorrow, at the latest," Link said, as Anne-Marie and Hols walked them to the door.
"Let me come with you," Hols begged. "I can help."
Link looked at Zelda and knew she was thinking the same thing: they couldn't let Hols get hurt; he had a family.
"It would be better for you to stay here," Link said. "That way, if we get into trouble, or need to come back for supplies or something, you can teleport us back." Link didn't bother to mention that Kara could perform the same function.
"Well, that makes sense," Hols admitted. "But, at least let me go with you as far as the cave. In fact, I can carry you there so you can save some of your strength."
Link looked at Zelda again, and she nodded a little. She had been on the path before, so she knew how difficult—and dangerous—it was, and he deferred to her judgment on it.
"We'd appreciate your help getting to the cave," Link said, turning back to Hols. Hols rewarded them with a smile.
"Let me tell Lia I'm going; I'll be back in a few minutes."
True to his word, he joined them just outside the door within minutes. "Let's go," he said eagerly, before transforming into a bear.
Link helped Zelda climb onto Hols' back, then she scooted back and helped pull him up in front of her. Hols was at least as tall as a pony at the shoulders, but they couldn't grab onto his fur the way they could a horse's mane—it would hurt to pull on his fur—so it made it more difficult to get on. But they managed.
Ready? Hols asked.
"Watch out for demons," Zelda cautioned. "There are bats all along this path."
Hols nodded his shaggy head, then started out at with an easy, lumbering pace that nevertheless covered a fair amount of ground, thanks to his long stride.
They rounded a turn and Zelda pointed over Link's shoulder. "There's one," she said.
Link pulled the Master Sword out. "Let's put this to the test," he said in a low voice, as the bat began flying towards them.
What should I do? Hols asked.
The bat took no notice of Hols; instead, it headed directly for Link and Zelda, making its strange, clicking noise.
When it was within range, Link thrust the Master Sword forward, skewering the bat. It made a high-pitched squeal, then exploded into black vapor and a shower of black sparks that faded away in a matter of seconds.
There was a moment of silence as all three of them stood in astonishment.
"I think we can be sure that one won't be coming back," Link finally said.
Emboldened by their success, Hols picked up the pace. All along the trail, Link took out the bat-demons with ease. Every time one was hit by the Master Sword, it exploded into vapor.
Then they turned a corner and were confronted by an entire flock of bats hovering over the trail.
"Wait here," Link said, before sliding off Hols' back.
He got out his shield and slowly approached the flock. One bat broke off from the others and came after him. He kept his shield close to his body and swiped at it with his sword. It went flying off to his left, exploding in the air as it went.
It was followed by two more, then the entire flock came at him in a black stream of flapping wings and clicking noises.
Link lifted his shield, protecting the right side of his body and face, and began hacking at the bats. A few of them threw themselves uselessly against his shield, but most tried to come at him from the left side—meeting their deaths quickly on the edge of the Master Sword.
In less than a minute, he had dispatched the entire flock without getting so much as a scratch.
That was so amazing, Hols said. But Link knew he wasn't talking about his swordsmanship; he was talking about the sword. For Hols, it was true love—although Link was starting to get rather fond of it himself.
Zelda helped Link climb onto Hols' back again and they continued up the path. But there were only bats singly or in twos for the rest of the trip, and they were quickly taken care of without any trouble.
At last, the trail ended at a solitary peak.
"Is this it?" Link said, eyeing the dead-end trail.
"Yes." Zelda pointed over his shoulder at the pile of rocks. "The cave is behind those rocks."
"How did you get in before?"
"There's a little hole at the bottom on the left-hand side that's just big enough to crawl through."
He twisted around, looking behind him. "You crawled through a little hole? I thought you were claustrophobic."
"How did you manage it?"
"I made myself do it. You were dying, so there wasn't any other alternative."
He had known she had encountered demons along the way, and that Growder had killed a wolf that tried to attack them, but she hadn't mentioned the hole. He knew that, for her, crawling through it took more courage than facing an entire swarm of bat-demons. She had faced her greatest fear for him.
"Thank you," he said.
She smiled and patted him on the shoulder, as if to say that having him whole and healthy was worth it.
They got down and went to look at the rocks, but Zelda wasn't able to find the hole she had used before.
"It's gone!" she said in distress. "It looks like there's been another landslide, because there are a lot more rocks here than there used to be, and they've covered up the hole."
She sighed and looked up at the huge pile of rocks. "How are we going to get in now?" she said.
Let me see if I can clear a hole for you, Hols offered. Stand back.
Link took Zelda by the arm and pulled her out of the way. "Hols is going to try to shift some of the rocks for us," he told her.
Hols clambered up the rocks—causing mini slides that sent Link and Zelda retreating even farther down the slope—until he was at the top of the heap. Then, using his heavy paws and long claws, he began digging.
Link was impressed at the volume of rock that Hols was throwing behind him. "Hols will get us in," he said with confidence.
"I think you're right," Zelda agreed, watching him with wide eyes.
It took fifteen or twenty minutes, but at last Hols leapt down from the rock pile and retook his human form. He was sweaty and his face was flushed from exertion, but he looked pleased with himself. "I think I have a hole dug out that's big enough for you to get through," he said.
"Thank you, Hols," Link said. "I don't know what we would have done without you."
Link looked at Zelda. "Ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be," she said bracingly.
Hols sobered. "Good luck," he told them.
"I'll be right here if you need me."
"You don't have to wait out here; back in the mountain works just as well."
"Yes, but… you might need me sooner than that."
Link understood that Hols was hanging out in case they asked him to rush in and help.
"Well, if you think it's best, then stay," Link offered. He didn't really care where Hols was, so long as he was safely out of the way. He didn't doubt that Hols could fight, but he was starting to feel like he and Zelda might be a little bit cursed. Certainly they, personally, weren't cursed—too many things went in their favor at the last minute for them to be cursed—but their friends and family members seemed to suffer disproportionately.
"I'll be waiting on you," Hols vowed.
"Thank you," Link replied. Then he offered Zelda his hand. She took it and, together, they scrambled to the top of the rockslide.
Hols had made a good-sized hole in the top of the rock, but when Link stuck his head in, it was so dark, he couldn't see anything.
He pulled back and looked at Zelda. "What do you think?"
She looked in. "I don't see anything," she said.
"Yeah… that's what worries me." Then he shrugged. "Well, we're here to kill a demon; it won't do us any good if we don't go in and find it."
He stuck his feet into the hole, then pulled out his sword.
"Be careful," Zelda said.
He nodded, then slid through the hole and dropped the ten feet or so to the floor. He moved away from the shaft of daylight coming through the hole and allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but when he looked around, he could see nothing, apart from the soft, moonlight-like glow of the Master Sword.
He strained his ears, but heard nothing, either. Everything was as quiet and still as a cave ought to be.
He moved back to the entrance and looked up at Zelda. "Jump down," he said, sheathing his sword.
"It looks like a long way down," she said hesitantly.
"I'll catch you—just like when you jumped out of the old tree on the plain. Remember?"
She nodded a little.
"Feet first," he instructed.
She stuck her feet through the hole, blocking most of the light. Link positioned himself under her and held up his hands. "Remember what I told you: bend your knees when you land."
"I thought you were going to catch me?"
"I am. But you're still going to be landing on your feet—just like before."
She hesitated a moment, then scooted forward until she slipped through the hole.
Link didn't catch her so much as steady her when she landed on her feet. "Perfect," he praised.
"I like jumping down almost as much as I like crawling through little holes," she said with a grimace.
"You'll get used to it."
"Well, there certainly seems like there will be opportunity enough."
They moved away from the entrance and deeper into the cavern. Their only source of light was the weak glow of the Master Sword.
"The fairy used to be in here," Zelda said in a whisper. "There was a pool in the middle of the room and she sort of… floated over it. But, at first, she didn't have a form; she was just colors."
"I don't see anything at all."
"Neither do I."
They slowly shuffled across the floor, unsure of what lay beyond their circle of light, which was barely more than a foot in diameter. They nearly stepped into the pool before they noticed it.
"Here's the pool," Zelda said.
"Maybe the demon took her away, or something?" Link suggested.
"I don't know."
Above them came a faint voice. At last, you've come.
Link jumped and looked around, but Zelda placed a reassuring hand on his arm. "Yes, we've come," she replied to the disembodied voice. "Where are you?"
My strength is nearly gone. The demon which has invaded this mountain is very powerful; his element is darkness. I am a creature of the light; I cannot long survive the darkness that seeps from his lair.
"Tell us what we must do," Zelda said.
You must go below and defeat him—not just for my sake, but for the sake of the world.
Something caught Link's eye and he looked up. Overhead, a faint swirl of pale white light materialized.
Hold aloft the sword.
Link did as he was bidden, stretching the Master Sword up until the tip nearly touched the strange vapor.
The vapor descended and began to swirl around the blade. As it did so, the blade began to glow whiter and brighter, casting a much larger circle of light.
The vapor faded away as the Master Sword's light reached its peak.
That's all I can give you, the voice whispered, sounding even weaker than before.
"Thank you," Link replied.
The demon lies beyond the fissure in the cavern wall behind us. He has made a lair for himself, and he has many lesser demons at his command; you must be careful.
"We will," he vowed.
Together, he and Zelda walked around the pool—it was much easier to see with the brighter Master Sword; it was as good as carrying a lantern—and they crossed to the far side of the cavern. There, they found a large crack—wide enough for both of them to walk through, side-by-side.
Just a few feet in, the crack opened out onto a massive cavern—so wide the other side couldn't be seen and so tall the top couldn't be seen, either.
Link looked down, then grabbed Zelda and jerked her back. There was also no floor in the cavern, and it was so deep, the bottom couldn't be seen.
"Now what?" Zelda asked, peering over the edge.
"What?" Zelda said, stepping farther back from the ledge.
"Are you crazy?"
The demon lies below. It is too far for ropes to reach. You must jump.
"If you hadn't noticed, we don't have wings like you do," Zelda said, her voice rising in fear. "We won't float. We'll go splat."
"I have wings," Link said, suddenly realizing what had to be done.
Zelda looked unsure. "Can you carry me down that far? I mean… we don't know how deep it is."
"Going down isn't a problem." He began unbuckling the sword belt which crossed his chest. "It's coming back up that's a problem. But we do have Hols, so I guess we don't have to go out the way we came in."
"What are you doing?" Zelda asked, eyeing him as he took off the belt which carried his scabbard and shield.
"I'm putting this on you. Take off your bow for a minute."
Zelda did as he said. "Why are you doing this?" she asked, as he strapped his equipment across her left shoulder. Her quiver strap was already across her right. He had to do some fiddling to get everything to mesh together on her back.
"This way, I can carry you by the leather straps," he explained, buckling the belt tightly across her chest. "Your clothes would probably tear if I held onto them, and I don't know how long you could hang onto my feet. This way is safer."
He stepped back, looking at her. "Ready?"
She slipped her arm and head through her bow string and managed to get it to lie across her back—despite all of the other stuff. "As ready as I ever am to jump into a bottomless pit," she responded
"That's the spirit," he said, eliciting a small smile from her.
He started to put the Master Sword back in its sheath and just fly in the dark—and hope there was light at the bottom—but Zelda stopped him.
"May I hold it?"
He was a little surprised. "Certainly," he said, offering it to her. "But it stopped glowing when Hols held it," he reminded her. "I'm afraid we'll just have to do this in the dark."
When Zelda took the sword from him, its light faded until it was almost completely out, then, after a moment, it slowly warmed up again until it was as bright as ever.
Link was astonished. "It accepted you."
"Maybe it knows we need its light, but you can't carry it."
"Possibly," he allowed. "It does have a certain kind of consciousness."
He changed into an eagle and fluttered up onto her shoulders. He gathered the leather straps up in his claws, holding tight. Ready? he asked again.
She screwed up her eyes, took a deep breath, like she was about to dive into water, then she jumped off the ledge.
Link spread his wings out and they floated out into the dark.