A Damned Dirty Business
The rising moon found Link and Zelda still on the move. They agreed to stay in their animal forms until they reached their destination. Not only was it safer, but they found it easier to feed themselves in their animal forms. Link needed much less food as an eagle and Zelda could graze anywhere at any time. It also meant they didn't have to waste time building a fire and cooking food.
They also found that neither of them needed as much sleep when they were in their animal forms, and they didn't need all of their sleep at once. So, rather than try to move quickly during the day and sleep all night, they moved at slower pace but continuously, day and night. When either of them got tired, they would stop to sleep for a half hour or so, then they would move on. If they really needed to, both of them could rest with one eye open to watch for danger, but usually they took turns, with one eating and keeping a watch while the other slept.
But even with taking turns sleeping, they didn't sit idle for more than six hours a day.
It was the peak of summer and the days were long and hot and dry. They traveled almost constantly at night, when it was cool, and did the majority of their resting and eating during the day.
They made good time across the plain that separated Shi-Ha from the Lost Woods, then they skirted around the woods to the north. A week from the mountains and they were nearly to the western edge of the woods, ready to cross into Hyrule.
It was a particularly hot and oppressively humid day and Zelda was resting more frequently than usual. The afternoon sun seemed to be trying to roast them to a crisp.
Can we stop? Zelda asked. I'm feeling a little hungry.
Link alighted in a nearby tree and watched as Zelda slowly cropped the prairie grass, but within minutes, she was asleep.
Link felt the pull of sleep, too. Near the ground, it was much hotter, and the heat seemed to lull everything into a doze. Even the insects were barely making any sound.
He decided to go back up, where the air was cooler and scout the way ahead. Just a few miles away was the wide-open prairie that ran all the way from Pallis to Castle Town. They would have to cross a major road there, and Link worried about what they might run into; that had always been a fairly busy road. But when he got closer to it, he found it to be eerily deserted. Apparently the only people daring to travel these days was them and Nagadii's forces.
Link was high in the cloudless blue sky, lazily drifting on thermals and looking for a mouse or vole for a light snack, when he was suddenly startled out of his hunt.
He wheeled around and shot back towards the Lost Woods. Long before he got there, he could see Zelda rearing and struggling. Three men—perhaps lying in wait in the woods—had lassoed her neck and were trying to get her under control.
"I think this might be her!" one of them shouted, sounding delighted, even as he strained against the plunging horse. "Lord Nagadii will pay a fortune for her!"
"I think it's just a wild horse," another man shouted over Zelda's whinnies. "If it was a person, it wouldn't act like this."
"Where's the other one? Link, or whatever his name is?"
"He's supposed to be a bird. Look for a bird."
"I've got my hands full, if you hadn't noticed!"
If they want a bird, I'll give them a bird, Link thought as he dove towards the ground, as fast as an arrow.
Zelda stopped fighting and seemed to look his direction. A moment later, she changed form and the lassos slipped uselessly to her feet.
Before the men realized what was going on, Zelda had an arrow pointed at them and Link dropped from the sky next to her, his sword in his hand.
"Looking for us?" Link asked with derision. The men stared, seemingly struck mute.
"Drop your weapons," Link commanded.
With reluctance, the men threw their swords onto the ground.
Cover me, Link told Zelda. She nodded.
He went to each man in turn and frisked him, throwing away knives and anything else that might be used as a weapon. When he was convinced they were no longer armed, he stopped back to Zelda's side.
He pointed to one of the men—the one who had seemed to be the leader. "I know you," he said. "You were a guard at the castle."
The man's eyes widened.
"Padraig, wasn't it?" Link asked, slowly dredging up the man's name from the depths of his memory. He had not really known him, because the other man was middle-aged and Link tended to spend his free time with the boys his own age, but there had always been something about Padraig that he didn't care for—something shifty in his eyes.
"He was one of my guards?" Zelda asked, sounding hurt. "They're Hyrulians?"
Zelda turned around and walked a few paces away, as if she couldn't stand to be near the men.
"Your Highness," Padraig said in a wheedling voice, "we didn't realize it was you we were capturing."
"Bullshit," Link spat. "I heard you myself. You were looking for me by name and knew we might be traveling as a horse and a bird. You said Nagadii would reward you."
Padraig paled. "But… but Nagadii said that you were criminals."
"A man overthrows the royal family and you believe him over your rightful monarch?" Link asked incredulously. "If things had transpired the way he said—if he had been honest—then he would have put the next person in line on the throne. But he didn't, did he?"
The men looked down; none of them could meet Link's accusing look.
"You have been aiding and abetting a murderer and usurper. And you," Link said, pointing to Padraig, "you are the worst traitor of all because you swore to protect the royal family. And now you would trade in your rightful monarch for money."
Link wanted to turn his back on the men, too, because it disgusted him to look at them, but he didn't dare; they were obviously sniveling cowards, and if they didn't try to run and save their own skins, then they would stab him in the back.
"Please, we didn't know all that," one of the other men begged. "We're just doing as we were told."
"Even when you were being told to violate your oaths to queen and kingdom? Even when you were being told to do something which is dishonorable? You'll take orders from anyone, no matter what his objective or how he achieves it?"
None of the men responded.
Zelda came back to Link's side. "What are we going to do with them?" she whispered.
He looked at her, a little surprised she had to ask. "They have betrayed their oaths to you and committed treason," he pointed out. "It's not just a matter of them helping Nagadii because they were forced to do so; they were going to turn you over to him for money."
She frowned, but didn't respond.
Link lowered his voice more, so it was barely audible. "They will tell Nagadii where we are. We're not far from our destination and we don't know how long we might be there. Our next stop is just across to the mountains, then back here. We're going to be all over this area; it would be easy for Nagadii to set a trap for us."
"What should we do?"
"Highness, you know what needs to be done. You know what your father or grandfather would do in this situation."
She glanced away. Link could tell, by the way that she pressed her lips together in a thin line, she was close to tears. It wasn't an easy call to make.
Finally she turned back to him and gave him a single nod.
Link walked over, grabbed one of the men by the shoulder, and forced him to his knees.
"What are you doing?" his companion demanded, looking at Link with wide, horror-stricken eyes.
"You're guilty of treason. What do you think I'm doing?" Link retorted, gripping his sword firmly in both hands.
"Please," the kneeling man whispered. "Please… I'm sorry… please."
Link raised his sword and swung. The man's head tumbled forward and bounced a few times on the ground; the rest of his body collapsed limply onto the grass, spraying blood everywhere. Link's tunic was splattered with the red gore, but he didn't pay any attention to it. If he had stopped to think about what he was seeing, it would have frozen him with horror. But years of training for combat had taught him to shut down his emotions. It was the only way a soldier could function otherwise.
The next man in line was shaking so badly, he sank to his knees before Link could reach him. "Please don't. I have a family…."
"You should have thought about them before you helped Nagadii reign as a dictator over them," Link snapped.
Seeing that he could get nowhere with Link, the man turned his pleas to Zelda. "Please, Your Highness… mercy. Please forgive me. Mercy. I'll do whatever you want; I'll prove myself to you. Just… mercy. Please."
Link glanced at Zelda, just in case she lost her mind and pardoned the man, but she just looked away—unable to watch, but unable to grant pardon, either.
Suddenly, Padraig turned and bolted for the woods.
"Hey!" Link called out. He started to take off after him, but before he could take a step, Zelda raised her bow and shot Padraig in the back.
He went down, screaming. The arrow of light disappeared as soon as it hit him, but it was obvious that it had wounded him the same as a regular arrow.
Link turned back to his prisoner, raised his sword, and dispatched him before he could get any bright ideas, too.
Then he walked over to Padraig. He was face-down on the ground with a bleeding wound in his back, but he was still alive and groaning in pain.
"You shouldn't have run," Link said, before dragging the man to his knees. "You just made it more painful for yourself."
Padraig struggled against him, but he was so weak that, despite being much larger than Link, Link had no trouble controlling him.
"Gods! I know you're a traitor, but can't you at least die like a man, with some dignity?" Link said angrily.
Padraig stopped struggling and his shoulders slumped with acceptance.
Link quickly put him out of his misery.
He walked back to Zelda, who quickly looked away from his blood-spattered visage.
"I don't think we should linger here, in case there are more men nearby," Link said quietly.
She didn't say anything. She just transformed into a horse and took off at a gallop, as if she could run away from what she had just seen… and done.
Link transformed and took to the sky, but this time he stayed much closer, constantly looking for movement in the trees or on the plains.
They were at the far edge of the Lost Woods when the sun set.
I want to stop for the night, Zelda said, speaking for the first time in a few hours. I want to eat real food and be human for a little while.
Link understood why she needed that, and he quickly agreed.
He dropped to earth and resumed his human form. "Let's stay in the woods," he said, pointing to the trees. "We'll be harder to see there than in the open."
Zelda nodded her agreement, so he hacked a narrow path through the dense tangle of trees until he found a small opening under the branches of a large, gnarled tree. The tree was on a little hillock of dirt, but rain had washed some of the dirt away, exposing the roots and making, essentially, a little cave under the tree just big enough for two people to sit.
Zelda plopped down, her back against the tree roots, and she stared at the ground, her mind obviously a million miles away. Link gathered some deadfall and built a tiny fire. They had nothing to cook, because they hadn't bothered to hunt or gather anything, and it certainly wasn't cold enough to need or want one, but Link understood that a fire, in and of itself, was a comforting thing. When he had been alone in the woods as a child, he had often built one just to have it. It made him feel like he was still part of human civilization; that he was not cast into the wilds, like an animal, never to return.
He found a little pool of water collecting at the rocky base of another tree, and he took off his tunic and tried to wash the blood from it. Then he washed his face and arms, tingeing the water pink with the blood.
He returned to their camp and draped his tunic over a low branch to dry. The fire was glowing orange and yellow in the deep shadows under the tree—shadows that were growing darker as night fell. He sat down beside Zelda and opened the haversack he had been carrying. They had not even touched the jerky and hardtack that they had taken from Anne-Marie and Lia.
He doled out the food and they sat in silence, watching the fire and gnawing on the tough food with their back teeth. Before long, thunder began to rumble in the distance.
"I wonder if we'll get any rain?" Link wondered, speaking more to himself than to Zelda. Although they had seen rain clouds—and even thunderstorms—several times on the horizon, none of the rain had ever reached them. Dry conditions made traveling easier, but, at the same time, there was nothing to break the heat.
Zelda didn't respond—as if she hadn't heard him at all. Slowly, Link reached out and took her hand in his. She held onto it tightly and they continued to sit in the dark until the thunder and lightning were overhead and the leaves were pounded by a deluge of water. Rain leaked through the green canopy and spit on the little fire, making it sizzle and hiss.
Link and Zelda scooted back into the hollow beneath the tree roots and pulled their cloaks and hoods over them. They stayed dry, even as the rain continued to stream down from the branches overhead, eventually putting out their fire and plunging them into a darkness nearly as absolute as that in a cave. Only the occasional flash of lightning lit up the night like noon, searing an image of everything into their eyes that lasted long after the light had left.
"So much for trying to dry my tunic," Link said sadly, thinking about how uncomfortable it would be to put it on in the morning when it was soaking wet. …Not that it would matter for long; he wouldn't notice it once he transformed.
Zelda put her head against Link's shoulder and he wrapped his arms and cloak around her so they were huddled together under their makeshift tent of cloaks.
"Am I a bad person?" she whispered, breaking the long silence.
"…What do you mean?" she asked, sounding confused. "You're not a bad person."
"You're talking about what happened earlier, aren't you?"
"You feel that you might be a bad person because you agreed to execute those men?"
"I'm the one who did the executing. So if you are bad, then I must be as well, right?"
She was silent, as if she didn't know how to answer.
"Highness, no one said being a monarch is easy," he pointed out. "There is a lot of self-sacrifice involved—as you know by now. But there will also be times when you have to make decisions that are not popular because you know that, in the end, it will be best. And sometimes you have to punish people who have done wrong—no matter how much they beg and plead for forgiveness.
"You know as well as I do that those men knew—or at least suspected—who you were when they captured you, and they wanted to turn you over to Nagadii. They committed treason against you. Yes, you had the right to pardon them if you want, but at the same time, you had no reason to trust they would be loyal to you in the future; in fact, it was highly likely that they would have informed Nagadii of our whereabouts, greatly increasing the chance we get caught.
"Now, while I would like to live, and I certainly want you to live, we have to live not just for ourselves, but for others. If Nagadii takes us out, then there will be no one to save the world and, eventually, the demons will take over.
"They left you with no choice. Or, rather, the only choice you were left with was endangering both of us and the entire world just for their worthless sakes—a risk no person in their right mind would be willing to take."
"Then why do I feel so bad about it?" Zelda asked. "If it was the right decision, I should feel fine with it… shouldn't I?"
"Highness, I would worry if you felt nothing when passing a sentence of death. Good people never feel good about taking a life—even when it's so obviously necessary."
She looked up at him just as the lightning lit up the night. There was a helplessness in her face—like a little girl who had just learned that the world was a very bad, ugly place. "Do you feel bad about it?" she asked quietly. "I mean, you didn't hesitate to do it…."
"Highness, when it comes to protecting your life, I don't hesitate. But yes, it bothers me. I feel angry that they backed me into a corner where the only option I had was to take their lives. I feel like… like they made me dirty myself.
"I have never executed anyone before; the only men I have ever killed have been in battle and were actively trying to kill me. Executing a person—even if they were, at one point, going to kill us, and even if, in the future, they'd try to do it again—executing an unarmed person just… feels dirty, somehow. I guess that's why most people don't want to be executioners. It's not the gore—which any soldier is exposed to; it's the fact that you feel wrong doing it.
"But I think I feel angry mostly because I feel guilty."
"If it happened again, what would you do?" she whispered.
"The same damn thing."