A Birthday Surprise
Link and Zelda had birthdays only eight days apart, so they agreed to celebrate in between the two dates by sneaking out for the evening. Zelda was turning seventeen; Link had just passed eighteen.
Zelda expected she would have a typical royal birthday party, complete with many visiting dignitaries—none of whom were actually there for her, but rather to conduct business—and that she would be paraded among all of them like a prize racing horse being put through its paces before eager bettors. She was now in her "prime marrying years" as one of her father's advisers liked to say (when he didn't know she could hear him), and had endured a similar show the year before—being asked to play the harp, sing, and show off her graciousness and charm.
She much preferred the idea of actually celebrating her birthday with Link. And knowing that he was alone and had no one to acknowledge his birthday, she did the necessary amount of lying to get some food and sweet cakes from the kitchen in advance.
They sat together under the old oak tree—the last few dead leaves of fall that still clinging to its branches rustled dryly in the wind—and shared the food Zelda had brought.
"This is excellent," Link said, wolfing his portion down. Zelda wondered if he didn't get much to eat, or if it wasn't very good, or if ravenous hunger was just typical of boys his age (she had heard it was).
"I'm glad you like it," she replied. "Happy birthday."
He smiled at her and raised his goblet. "Happy birthday to you, too, Princess."
She clinked her goblet against his. "Here's to another year older… and another year closer to an arranged marriage," she said with biting sarcasm.
"May it be one arranged by the gods… not by politicians."
"Goddesses make it so," she said fervently. She tried not to think too much about who her father—and all his advisers—might marry her to; it made her feel ill.
Zelda took a drink from her cup, then set it down. "I got you something," she said, suddenly feeling a little shy about giving him a gift.
"You didn't have to do that, Your Highness," he replied, but looking eager nonetheless.
She smiled and handed him a package wrapped in a soft piece of scrap leather.
Curious, he untied the string and opened up the leather.
"They're vambraces," she explained, as held up the leather arm protection to the moonlight so he could see them better. They were heavily tooled with various decorations and painted in bright green and yellow and red.
"They're beautiful," he said, gazing at them in appreciation.
"I prefer to wear one when I'm doing archery," she said, showing him her somewhat more modest arm guard. "The bow string stings if it pops back on you."
"Oh, trust me, I know," he said, as he slipped a vambrace on over his shirt sleeve. It had straps and buckles that made tightening it up with one hand easy. "I wasn't allowed to use any sort of arm protection when I was growing up. The brothers used to tell me that there might come a day when I'd have to shoot without any protection, so I might as well get used to the pain so that I'd be tough when I needed to be."
Zelda winced. "I'm not sure if I'd like to go to your school after all."
"Well, I suppose it has made me tough," he said, slipping on the other guard. "But, I won't mind wearing this when I shoot, just the same," he added with a smile. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," she said, pleased that he liked his gift. It had been hard to think of something that he might want or need; he seemed pretty self-sufficient and not the type to like impractical, ostentatious gifts like the nobility and royalty so frequently exchanged.
"I have something for you, too," he said.
"Do you?" she asked, sounding more eager than she meant to.
He reached down the front of his tunic and pulled out what looked like a stick. But when he handed it to her, she realized it was a flute.
"It's pretty," she said, examining it. It had vines and tiny flowers carved into it.
"Thank you. I made it myself."
"Did you really?" she asked, looking up at him.
She smiled, then looked at it again. She would have probably liked anything he gave her, but she was extra pleased with the little flute which he had made himself.
"I don't know how to play it," she admitted, "but I can learn."
He chuckled. "I heard your harp teacher complaining about me the other day, so I don't think you should learn from me." He grinned. "I wouldn't want you to sound like… what was it?… a bird being eaten by a cat."
Zelda frowned. "I thought what you were playing was quite beautiful. I enjoyed it" She offered the flute to him. "Will you play something for me?"
He took the flute. "Certainly. Is there anything you would like to hear?"
"Whatever you want."
He cleared his throat, then licked his lips once and put them to the flute. Then he began playing the rollicking tune that Zelda had taken up—the one her teacher complained was too low.
She listened intently, enjoying it, and—contrary to her harp teacher's complaints—she didn't hear a single note that was too sharp or out of place. In fact, Link added in some extra flourishes that showed he had a good deal of skill with the instrument.
"That was great," she said when he finished.
"I think it's better when you're playing too, though," he replied.
"Maybe we'll be able to play together again sometime—when my teacher isn't around." Then she brightened up. "Would you play with me at my birthday party? My father always makes me play to show off."
"If you like," he said with a smile.
Zelda felt a little bit better about her party, knowing that Link would be there. That, and she liked the idea of them playing a duet. She felt she had been cheated out of their last one.
Zelda felt like going for a run after eating, so she took off her cumbersome weaponry, changed her shape, and galloped far out onto the plain. As much as she enjoyed Link's company, there was nothing that could match the feeling of the wind in her hair (er… mane) and the moonlight glowing soft on the tall grass. It was peaceful and free and the best feeling in the world.
When she stopped, she could just hear the sound of the flute. She looked back and saw Link perched high in the tree, playing. It was one of Zelda's favorite songs—and a love song.
She was just contemplating going back and singing while he played—although she wondered how he might take such a gesture, given the nature of the lyrics—when she caught a strange scent on the air. It smelled like dirt and fur and something indescribably unsavory.
She wheeled around. There, close to the ground, crouched to spring, was the most massive wolf she had ever seen. It was almost as big as she was.
It gave a low, barely audible snarl, showing its pointed teeth.
Zelda spun around with a whinny of terror and leaped into the air, coming down at a full-out gallop.
Her horse-instincts told her to run as fast as she could, as far as she could. But as fast as she was running, she could hear the thump of paws on the ground behind her and they weren't getting any farther away.
"Princess!" Link shouted, although his voice was faint because she was running farther and farther away from him.
She altered her course so that she was running back to the tree. She could see Link waiting in one of the lowermost branches, ready to help her climb up, out of harm's way, but she could feel the hot breath of the wolf right behind her and she knew she would never have time to transform and get into the tree before it got her.
Shoot it! Shoot it! she screamed at Link.
He quickly hopped down and grabbed her bow, which she had left at the base of the tree. He was ready with an arrow as soon as she flew past.
The arrow struck its target, but the wolf didn't slow; its momentum plowed it directly into Link, and the two went tumbling across the ground in an indistinguishable lump. Before Zelda could even skid to a halt, she heard an agonizing cry of pain.
She wheeled around and saw Link pinned down by the wolf. He had thrown his left arm up to protect his face and throat, and the wolf had bitten down on his forearm and was savaging it.
"Link!" Zelda screamed, racing back towards him and the wolf. She never even noticed changing back into a human. She had only one thought: to get to her sword before Link died.
It was propped against the tree, and she snatched it up at the run, ripping the sheath off of it.
Link managed to pull his dagger out of his belt, and he plunged it into the wolf's neck. It howled in agony, letting go of his arm. A moment later, Zelda rammed her sword into its side, between the ribs, and buried it all the way to the hilt.
The wolf made a strange, high-pitched squeal, then collapsed onto its side, convulsing.
Zelda sank to her knees, absolutely breathless from her run. As the shock wore off, it was replaced by a delayed-onset fear, and she began to tremble and cry. Her tears, however, only made it even more difficult to breathe, and she bordered on hyperventilating.
Then Link was kneeling beside her. "Princess, are you hurt?" he asked, his voice full of concern.
She shook her head a little; she didn't have enough air in her lungs to speak.
"Are you sure?" he asked, looking doubtful.
He put his right arm around her and pulled her close, stroking her hair. "Thank all the gods," he whispered in relief.
He held her until she began to regain her composure, then he sat back on his heels and gently wiped her tears away with his fingertips. Zelda noticed that he didn't use his left arm at all; he had it cradled against him. But he never made any indication he was in any pain.
"Thank you," he said, looking at her tenderly.
"For what?" she asked.
"For what?" he repeated, incredulous. "For saving my life, of course."
"You saved me first. It… it would have gotten me if you hadn't stood between it and me."
He smiled softly. "That's why I'm here, pestering you with my company: it's my duty to protect you."
"You aren't a pest," she said honestly. She could remember a time when she thought he was, but now, for the life of her, she couldn't remember why she ever thought that. She truly felt Link was a kindred soul.
He dried the last of her tears. "Are you sure you're alright?" he asked once more.
"Yes," she replied honestly. "What about you?" She started to reach for his wounded arm, but he recoiled, not willing for her to touch it.
"I think my arm's broken," he said, an edge to his voice at last revealing the pain he was in.
"We better get you to the abbot; he can take care of you."
He nodded. That he didn't argue or brush her off told Zelda that he was hurt more than he was showing.
She quickly gathered up her bow, quiver, and the bag of dishes and water-skin she had brought with her.
"Don't forget your sword," Link said, nodding towards the wolf.
Zelda tugged at it half-heartedly, then, with great reluctance, she put her foot on the still-twitching corpse and pulled. She used both hands and pulled with all her might, but she couldn't get it to come out.
"It wasn't that hard to get it in," she said, giving up in frustration.
"Let me try," Link said, stepping up beside her. He put his foot on the body, as Zelda had done, then pulled on the sword with his right hand. He had to wiggle it a bit as he pulled, but at last it came clear.
Zelda wrinkled her nose at the blood and gore dripping off of it.
"Get that piece of scrap leather we had earlier," Link suggested.
Zelda found it, discarded, at the base of the tree, and she used it to quickly wipe the sword clean, then she put it back in its sheath and buckled it across her hips.
"Ready?" Link asked. Zelda noticed he sounded a little anxious.
"Yes, I'm ready."
"Keep your eyes and ears open for more," Link said, nodding to the wolf. "Most wolves are pack animals."
That was enough to induce Zelda to hurry back to the monastery; she hoped she never met another wolf again for as long as she lived.
"Was that the first time you've killed?" Link asked, breaking the silence after a few minutes.
"Yes," she said, surprised. She hadn't thought about it, but for all her sword play and shooting, she had never actually killed anything before.
"The first time's always hard," Link said. "The first thing I killed was a rabbit for dinner. Killing something innocent and harmless is not easy. Although I was a good shot, I missed the first few I aimed for simply because I lacked the courage to take a life. Later, when I was older, I had to kill a wildcat. That was a little bit easier, since I knew it was dangerous, but at the same time, there was something beautiful and graceful about it. And it was only doing what the gods put it here to do; it wasn't its fault that it was the way that it was."
"Have you killed many things?" Zelda asked, looking at him.
"Enough that I no longer hesitate," he replied.
When they crept back into the monastery, they found it just as quiet and deserted as when they had left.
Zelda went to a small cottage in the back, which was set apart from the rest of the sanctuary and monks' dormitory. She knocked softly on the door, afraid of being overheard. "Abbot?"
She waited a moment, then she heard a noise inside. The door opened with a faint creak of its hinges. The abbot took one look at Zelda and Link, then he stepped back, ushering them into the room.
"What happened?" he asked quickly.
"We were attack by a wolf—the largest wolf I've ever seen," Zelda replied. "It was as big as… as a horse, and almost that tall."
The abbot shut the door and hurried to fetch a few more lamps. There was a book lying on the table and a solitary candle was lit. Zelda had the impression that he had been sitting up, reading, and waiting until they came back in safely. Even though she rarely saw him, she suspected that he always knew when she came and went from the monastery.
"Is your arm hurt?" he asked Link, as he cleared away his book.
Link nodded. "I think it's broken."
"Have a seat," the abbot said, gesturing to his recently-vacated chair. He immediately began laying out bandages and medical implements.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, looking at Zelda.
"No, I'm fine… thanks to Link."
The abbot just nodded. "Put your arm up here and let me have a look at it," he told Link.
Wincing, but making no sound, Link stretched forth his arm, gingerly placing it on the table.
In the light of the oil lamps, Zelda could see several bite marks in the leather vambrace—including at least two puncture marks which looked like they went all the way through.
The abbot unbuckled the vambrace and tried to pull it off as gently as possible, but it made Link yelp with pain.
"You must be quiet or someone will hear," the abbot said anxiously. "I have no concern for myself, but explaining how the Princess came to be here…."
Link nodded, pressing his lips together.
"I can cut it off," the abbot offered.
Link shook his head.
"Link, let him cut it off," Zelda hurried to say, before the abbot began hurting him again. "I can get you another pair."
"I want these," he said stubbornly. Then he looked at the abbot with grim determination. "Take it off."
Zelda felt her heart breaking as she watched, helpless, while the abbot gently tugged the vambrace off, while Link whimpered in pain, holding in his cries. When the abbot at last got the leather guard off, Link breathed a ragged sigh of relief and relaxed back in the chair.
Zelda noticed, however, that his white undersleeve had several rents in it and it was covered in bright red blood.
The abbot cut the sleeve off at the elbow and examined his arm, wiping away the blood that was drying on it. There were a couple of deep punctures, plus two or three more minor scrapes. The deeper wounds were still oozing a little blood, but for the most part, the bleeding had stopped.
Link silently squirmed when the abbot touched his arm. Zelda could see that there was a disfiguring lump in the middle of it
"Yes, it's broken," the abbot pronounced a moment later. "I'll have to set it, then clean these wounds and splint your arm."
"Hide the wounds," Link said, his voice strained with pain. "I'll just tell everyone that I fell and hurt my arm. I don't want anyone to suspect that I was attacked; that will lead to awkward questions about what I do on my nights off."
The abbot nodded and began to ready his things.
"What do you mean 'your nights off?'" Zelda asked, looking at Link in confusion.
He managed a watery smile. "If I'm scheduled to be on duty when you want to go out, I trade my shift with someone else. If I was on-duty when I slipped off with you, it would definitely be noticed."
"I thought… I thought guarding me was your job?"
"It is, but it's not what I'm paid to do."
"You… you don't get paid to guard me?" she asked in disbelief.
"Oh, I think I get paid," he said with a disarming smile. "Being with you is its own reward."
Before Zelda could figure out how to reply to such a declaration, the abbot interrupted them. "I'm ready whenever you are," he told Link.
Link braced himself in the chair, then gave a quick, jerky nod of assent.
The abbot took Link's arm in his hands and began pulling and pushing on it to get the bones back in place. Link bit his knuckles, trying to keep from screaming, although a deep groan of pain came from him.
Zelda rubbed his back as he leaned forward against the table, hiding his face, and trying to valiantly to stay quiet. The muffled sounds of pain he made were agonizing.
At last, the abbot was done. "There, that has it," he said triumphantly.
Link fell back against the chair, panting. His peaked face was tinged with green. "Gods, I feel sick," he moaned miserably.
"Princess, would you get him a cold cloth?" the abbot asked, nodding to his wash basin on the other side of the room.
Zelda hurried to pour some water on a cloth and she wiped Link's face with it. Slowly, a little color began to return to his chalky face.
"Thank you," he said with relief, sounding a little better.
While having the bite wounds cleaned stung, the pain of them clearly paled in comparison to the broken arm, and the abbot had Link splinted and bandaged up in no time.
"Thank you, Abbot," Link said, looking at the white bandages on his arm.
"Let me give you something to drink for the pain," the abbot said, beginning to pull out little jars of herbs.
"I can't take anything right now," Link said, standing up. "I have a shift in a couple of hours."
The abbot stared at him in amazement. "You're not going to take anything?"
"No. But, if I may, I'll come back when my shift is done."
"Absolutely. I… don't know if you'll make it that long, though. The pain will get worse and a slight fever will probably set in."
Link smiled in his teasing way. "Thanks for giving me something to look forward to."
"Link, you should probably stay with the abbot a few days and let him take care of you," Zelda said. "You can tell people you fell and broke your arm and no one will be the wiser."
"No, I traded my shift with someone and my word is my bond."
Zelda glanced helplessly at the abbot who looked equally helpless, then he just shrugged. Zelda already knew Link well enough to know there was no talking him out of it, so without further delay, they took the secret passage back to the castle.
"Thank you for my birthday," he told her when they were almost to the throne room. "I didn't much care for the wolf that crashed our party, but I'm very grateful for your present. I think without the vambrace, it would have taken my arm."
Zelda swallowed, sickened by the thought. It was bad enough he had to suffer a broken arm on her account. If he had lost his entire arm….
They paused at the foot of the stairs. "Your Highness," he said, stopping her before she could throw the switch and open the secret door, "I wish that you would promise me something…."
"Anything," she said quickly.
He smiled a little. "Remember that you said that," he teased. Then he became serious again. "Would you promise me that you won't go out alone? I know you went out alone for years before I came along, but… well, you've seen the worst that can happen. That we survived is because we had each other; if either of us had been alone, we would have been dead."
Well, that wasn't entirely true, Zelda thought. Link was safely in the tree when she attracted the wolf's attention. If she hadn't been there, he wouldn't have gotten hurt. At the very least, he would have been able to shoot the wolf from the safety of the tree; he only put himself in harm's way to save her.
"I promise," she said honestly. She really had no desire to go out again any time soon. In fact, she didn't know if she would ever feel safe outside again.
"I think it would be best for both of us if we didn't go out again for a while," Link continued. "The predators become more vicious in the winter when food is scarce—not to mention it will take a couple of months for my arm to fully heal and regain its strength. And I certainly don't want to go out without the use of my sword hand."
"No, you should stay in and take care of yourself," she agreed.
"Maybe we could find another place to go?" he asked hopefully. "I do like our evenings together…."
"We can stay inside the monastery; I used to do that when I was younger. No one ever knew, except the abbot, and even if someone did see me there, we could have some excuse—that I was sick or something, and you escorted me there to see the abbot."
"That sounds like a plan," he said with a smile. And Zelda knew then that he needed her company as much as she needed his.