Zelda was aware of being warm and comfortable and safe. There was a familiar scent, too—the scent of the outdoors—of sunshine and warm flesh and grass and leather. It made her feel happy. She wanted to laugh and play like a little girl again.
She slowly opened her eyes. The light of a single candle lit the stone room with a faint golden light—enough light to see that she was lying snugly against a familiar figure.
Link was propped up on a couple of pillows, his arm around her. When he saw that she was awake, he smiled.
"Good morning," he said, sounding like his usual pleasant self.
"Oh, Link." She pushed herself up and kissed him. "Link," she murmured again, between kisses.
He surprised her by kissing her back with an equal amount of passion.
She was the one who stopped first—but only because she knew he would soon make her stop anyways. "How long have you been here?" she asked. "How are you feeling?"
"I've been back about an hour, I guess. And I'm feeling much better—like I'm normal again."
Zelda's momentarily elation began to fade. "How much did the fairy tell you?"
"She didn't speak a lot. …Why?"
Zelda hesitated, but decided that Link had a right to know. "Did she tell you about the poison?"
"Oh, that," he said, his face growing darker. "Yes, she warned me about that." He touched her face. "I'm sorry."
"What are you sorry about?" she demanded.
"I'm sorry I exposed you to that. If I had known that the effects might be permanent, I would have sent you back at once."
Zelda scoffed. "You couldn't have defeated that dragon by yourself."
"I can shoot a bow," he pointed out. "I'm not as good as you are, but I can use one."
"Don't be ridiculous. I barely made those shots."
Link perked a brow. "I'm glad you have such confidence in my abilities."
Zelda shook her head. "That's not what I meant to say."
"Isn't it? You're awfully proud of your shooting—and that you're better than me at something."
She started to open her mouth to argue, then she noticed the corners of his mouth twitching upwards.
"You're teasing," she said, slapping his chest.
Zelda moved over and propped herself up on her pillows. "You couldn't have hung from the dragon's tail and made the shot, too," she pointed out.
"I could not have done it without you. That's what you want to hear me say, isn't it?"
"I don't need to hear anything," she retorted. "You're the one who said you should have sent me away and done it alone. You're the one who needs to be reminded that you need me."
He laughed. Zelda had forgotten how beautiful his free and easy laughter sounded; it had been a while since she had heard it.
"Well, I'm still sorry that you may have to suffer long-term consequences," he said, sobering.
"I'm sorry, too," she admitted, "but there's nothing we can do about it. That's just the price we have to pay. And if you're willing to pay it, then I am as well."
He stared at her for a moment, then he pulled her to him and kissed her. There was something about the quality of his kiss that was different from those before. Zelda felt chills running down through her body in waves, making even her toes tingle.
He finally broke it off, but he rested his forehead against hers. "I do love you," he whispered, looking into her eyes.
She smiled. "And I love you."
It was a moment that Zelda wished she could freeze in time. For the first time in quite a while, they were safe, comfortable, and well-rested. They had the freedom and security to smile and love.
Link looked like he was going to say something else, but he hesitated, then apparently decided against it. Reluctantly, he pulled away instead.
"I see you ended up with this rod-thing," he said, changing the subject as he picked up the Soul Scepter that Zelda had left lying on the bedside table.
"Did the fairy tell you what it does?" Zelda asked.
He shook his head. "No, she just asked me for it. She didn't even say why she wanted it."
Zelda proceeded to relate to him what the fairy had told her. The more she said, the wider Link's grin became. And there was a light in his eyes, too—a hungry, gleeful look. She knew, without him saying anything, that he was looking forward to helping the Army of Erenrue exact their revenge for the humiliating defeat they had suffered. And there was probably a measure of his own revenge in there, too.
As soon as Zelda finished, he threw back the covers. "Let's go, then," he said eagerly.
So much for freezing the moment in time.
With a weary, inward sigh, Zelda pushed back the covers on her side of the bed and got up, too.
They only stayed long enough to eat breakfast and get some more supplies from Anne-Marie. They had left the two lean-to tents in the volcano and there was nothing left to replace them with.
"We can take these," Link said, collecting up the cloaks they had left behind when they went into the desert. Link also picked up Tarsus's pelt. "We've made do with them before," he added.
"You're welcome to them," Kara said. "If I had more to give you, I would. There is no price too high to pay for getting my home back."
Link leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. "You have helped us when we most needed it—when we, too, would have paid any price. We will be repaid when we see happy in your home again."
She smiled, then clasped his hand between her gnarled old fingers. "I see good things in your future, young Link. You will be happy in your home, too, before long. It is still a hard road to travel, and there will be more suffering along the way, but you will reach the end and receive the reward which you have earned."
Zelda thought she saw his eyes flicker to her.
"Yes, you will receive what you deserve," Kara repeated.
Link smiled at Kara. "Thank you. I feel better knowing you have hope; it gives me hope, too."
"I have more hope than I have had in a long time," she admitted. "The end is near."
Anne-Marie had two tigers ride them down to the base of the mountain. The tigers didn't talk at all; it was hard to tell if they were angry because Anne-Marie had given them the degrading task of riding humans around like horses, or if they were just naturally taciturn. Link and Zelda chose not to speak, just in case that insulted them further. They thanked them when they reached the bottom of the mountain, but the tigers merely gave them a curt nod, then leapt back up the trail, out of sight.
"I haven't felt afraid of the tigers since Tarsus," Zelda said, once the tigers were out of earshot, "but they made me uneasy."
"They weren't very friendly, that's for sure."
"I hope they're not planning anything."
Link looked at her with concern. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, I hope they're loyal to Long Fang and Anne-Marie."
"Well, they did what Anne-Marie told them to do."
"Yes, but I don't think they liked it."
Link shook his head. "That's Anne-Marie's lookout. We've already been in the middle of their power struggle once before, and I have no desire to go anywhere near it again. The best way we can help is to get back to Hyrule and free Long Fang and Growder."
"If they're still alive," Zelda said.
"I pray that they are."
They avoided the highway that ran between Pallis and Shi-Ha, preferring to cut across open country. It was not only faster, but safer, too, as they saw no one on their way. All the same, they traveled in their animal forms during the day and only transformed back in the evening, after it was dark.
Link's good mood deteriorated as the days passed and he began going without sleep again. Zelda made a point to push herself as hard as she could every day, since she was the slower one of the duo; she wanted to get Link relief from his nightmares as quickly as possible.
Link nodded off during dinner one night, still sitting upright with a plate of greens and roasted squirrel meat in his lap. But it was only a few minutes before he awoke with a start.
He looked around wildly for a second, then sighed wearily, relaxing again.
"Link, I had a thought," Zelda said.
"Hm?" he asked, as he picked up his plate and tried to finish his cold dinner.
"The demons can't attack us when we're in our animal form."
He grunted a little in acknowledgment.
"Maybe if you stayed in your bird form, the demon couldn't give you nightmares."
"We don't know for certain that demons are causing them; that's just my theory."
"Didn't the fairy tell you?"
"Tell me what?" he asked, looking curious.
"She said the demon that's giving you nightmares is in Pallis; if we kill it, your nightmares will end."
She could see relief flood him. "So only a little while longer."
That seemed to revive him a little. "Maybe I will try sleeping as an eagle, then," he said, hurrying to finish his meal.
When they were finished, Zelda balled up her cloak for a pillow, then stretched out on the pelt. Link transformed and hopped over to her side and she pulled the other cloak over both of them. The days were still pleasant, but it was starting to get chilly in the evenings, especially when the dew set in.
Link snuggled up next to her—warm and soft—and she thought he must have gone to sleep, because he became very still. She had almost drifted off when he suddenly started to thrash.
She felt one of his razor-sharp claws dig into her side and she jumped up, trying to get away from him.
A moment later—while she was clutching her bleeding side—he exploded out from under the cloak. Feathers went flying everywhere as he took off into the sky, screeching. It took a minute before he finally circled around and came back to camp.
He fluttered down and transformed. "Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," he said.
"Didn't work, huh?"
He shook his head sadly. "No. But now that I think about it, the major demons never ignored me when I was in my eagle-form. I guess they're smarter than the lesser demons and the ruse doesn't work on them."
"I guess not," she said, as disappointed as him.
"You might as well try and get some sleep," he said, gesturing to the disheveled covers. "I'll keep a watch."
Then, just when she thought that she was going to be able to sneak back to bed, his eyes narrowed. "Why are you holding your side?" he asked.
She hesitated, unsure if she should try to lie to him. But her moment's hesitation was all he needed; the next moment, he was kneeling beside her. He forced her to move her hand, then he lifted her tunic and undershirt. Zelda winced as he peeled the fabric away.
"Oh, gods, did I do this to you?" he moaned.
"It's not that bad," she said through gritted teeth. Truthfully, though, now that the cool night air was hitting it, it felt even worse now than it had before.
Link hurried over to their pack and began rummaging through it for some of the bandages and medicine that Kara had given them for basic first aid. He hurried back to Zelda and began to bandage the puncture wound.
"Sweetheart, I am so, so sorry," he said, sounding close to tears.
"It's not your fault; it's those damn nightmares."
He didn't say anything as he worked. Once he had a bandage tightly pressed over the wound, it stopped hurting quite so much. Zelda thought she might be able to go back to sleep.
She lay down on the fur again, and covered up. But Link took a seat by the fire and began to slowly and methodically sharpen the Master Sword with a stone.
She knew he would not try to go to sleep again.
With a sigh, she rolled onto her good side. Despite being tired, it took quite some time for her sleepiness to win out over the burning ache in her side. Even as she drifted off, she could still hear the rhythmic sound of a stone scraping over metal.