Zelda moved around the room, trying to help the most seriously-wounded people first. Horace had a nasty cut to the side of his head that didn't want to stop bleeding, but a drop of the fairy's tears healed him. Link's brother, Alons, was still unconscious, but when Zelda gave him a drop on his tongue, he came around, good as new.
Braddock, the young nobleman who had emerged as the leader of the prisoners, was one of the last she approached. He was scratched up and bruised, but not seriously hurt.
He waved her away before she even could offer. "Save that for someone else, Your Majesty."
"I've already treated everyone else."
"Then use it for yourself and… whoever that is with you," he said, nodding towards Link, who was still sitting with his reunited family and was deeply engrossed in conversation. By the way his mother kept covering her mouth in horror, Zelda thought he must be telling them about everything that had happened since he last left them.
"That is Sir Link," she said, turning back to Braddock.
"Is he from Erenrue, like Sir Elgon?"
"No, he's from here."
"I don't think I've ever met him, but then I never spent much time at court."
"But you have been to court? You do look vaguely familiar..."
He smiled a little and bowed slightly. "I am properly Lord Braddock, the youngest son of Baron Walder and Baroness Salee, who was the daughter of Duke Henri."
Zelda quickly began constructing a family tree in her head. Duke Henri was her father's father's brother—her father's uncle and her great-uncle. That made the Baroness her father's first cousin.
"So, we're… second cousins," Zelda guessed.
"I believe so." He glanced around the room. "And I believe that I'm the only cousin you have left—at least in Hyrule."
That news struck Zelda like a smack in the face. She had only vaguely known her Hyrulian cousins—her father had been an only child, so she had no first cousins in Hyrule—but she had had a lot of second cousins. A lot more.
"The… the only one?" Zelda asked in shock.
Braddock leaned up against the wall and crossed his arms. "As soon as we heard that you had 'murdered' the king," he gestured with his hands to show how little he believed the rumor, "and that Nagadii had temporarily taken control of the kingdom until the next rightful heir could be found, my father said it was all a lie. He sent me and the rest of my family into hiding in separate places—all save himself and my oldest brother. They organized a rebellion against Nagadii, but—at least as far as I've heard—they were killed.
"I think the reason why Nagadii marched on Erenrue was less because he wanted to capture you or make war on them, and more that he wanted to empty Hyrule of all the men and thus take away any chance of another rebellion.
"In any event, he hunted down everyone he could find with any connection to the royal family. I managed to elude him for a while, but I heard later that he found the rest of my family."
He looked around the dungeon. "Seeing how they're not here, I can only assume he killed all of them."
Zelda was rather shocked by how matter-of-factly he could relate all of this; it was as if his experience had hardened him and taken away all of his emotion.
"I got tired of being in hiding and doing nothing," he continued, "so I started harassing any of his mercenaries I could find—booby traps and things like that—guerrilla-type stuff. That went on for a while until I bit off more than I could chew and tried an open attack and ended up captured… oh, about three weeks ago. I expected any day to be executed, since I'm pretty sure I'm the highest-ranking nobleman left and of the Blood Royal, but I guess Nagadii was so worried about you coming for him, he didn't bother with me.
"Of course, executing me for being vaguely royal wouldn't have done him much good when the real heir was on her way back." He smiled. "And, boy, did she make an entrance!"
"You call climbing out of the water system under the lowest dungeon making an entrance?"
"When you only have two people to fight an entrenched army, you do what you can. I learned that fighting on my own."
He looked up at the ceiling. "You know, I probably shouldn't be so negative; maybe some of the rest of our kinfolk survived the purge by hiding where Nagadii couldn't find them. I mean, it didn't take people long to realize what was happening when Duke Roland went to the castle first thing to claim the throne and was never heard from or seen again. Nagadii's story might be believable when one heir goes missing, but when the second one disappears as well? That's a coup for sure."
Zelda had a horrible image of her father's people and all the other nobles of Hyrule—who were all at least distantly related to the throne—being rounded up and executed right there in the castle.
Her home was soaked in the blood of her family. Its stones had drunk of the very blood that, long ago, it had once nurtured in the younger princes and princesses who would go out and become Hyrule's nobility.
"Hey…" Braddock said softly. He moved to stand in front of Zelda so that she was hidden from everyone else. "Hey… it'll be alright."
"No, it won't," she whispered. She had seen death and destruction plenty of times before. But even when it hit close to home—like when she lost her grandfather and uncle—it had never actually come home. Bad things had happened in other kingdoms, but she had never confronted the fact that the same things—or worse—were happening in her own home. She knew, intellectually, that it had to be happening, but she didn't know the details, so it didn't seem real; she still had hope that most of her people could be spared.
But that illusion was shattered. There was no more room for hope—only for the truth.
"I… I have to go," she muttered, her chest so tight she could barely breathe. Then she turned and fled out of the dungeon.
She had to get away from the invisible demons that still lurked there.
She tore wildly up the stairs and ran down the deserted corridors. There was a stabbing pain in her side and she was breathing so erratically, she felt light-headed. But she didn't slow down.
She wanted to hide and grieve in peace. The weight of what had happened—and the fact that she alone was responsible for fixing it—felt like a ton of stone crushing her.
She ran to her old room and threw open the doors, prepared to leap into her bed and bury herself so deep in it, no one would find her. But she froze at the threshold.
There was no bed.
There was no anything.
For a moment, she thought she must have taken a wrong turn; she must be a disused wing of the castle. But, when she turned around, she saw the paintings in the corridor—the same paintings she had passed a thousand times in her life as she went to and from her room.
She was in the right place.
Numb, she walked into the room, still looking around in disbelief. The carpet was covered in a thick dust; when she walked across it, she left footprints, like in snow. All the furniture was gone; even the curtains had been removed from the windows. There was no hint that the room had ever been used for anything.
She stuck her head into the closet, but even in the darkness, she could tell that it had been stripped bare, too. There were only a few pieces of torn fabric lying forlorn and forgotten on the floor.
When she turned around, she saw Link standing in the doorway, looking at her sadly.
She spread her hands. "What… what happened to my room? Where's my stuff?"
"I think we know who happened to your room," he said quietly. "As to where your things are…."
Vera came trotting up the corridor a moment later, panting with exertion. "Oh, Your Highness," she said, practically wailing, "I had hoped to tell you before you saw—"
"Vera, where is all my stuff?" Zelda demanded. "My bed… my clothes?"
"He took it, Your Highness."
"Where did he put it? I want it back. I want my room put back together."
Vera looked even more pained. "It's gone."
"Yes, but where?"
"Burned." Vera looked away, unable to meet Zelda's eyes. "He dragged it all out into the square, by the fountain, and burned it for everyone to see."
Link's jaw tightened and his fists clenched at his side. "He tried to symbolically destroy Princess Zelda by erasing all traces of her existence," he said through clenched teeth.
"Yes, I think that's what he tried to do," Vera whispered. "He had Her Highness's name removed from all the record books and forbade people to mention her…."
Vera hid her face in her apron, too distraught to go on.
A rage flared up in Zelda that was hotter and more intense than any she had ever felt. She wanted to kill someone. She wanted to destroy something. But as she turned around, she could find nothing on which she could vent her spleen.
She resorted to cursing, unleashing a tirade of expletives every bit as caustic as the ones that Link had once spewed.
She found herself on her knees, huddled up, screaming wordlessly, holding her head in her hands as if it was going to explode at any moment. She teetered between mindless rage and all-consuming grief.
She was only vaguely aware of an arm around her, holding her tightly. "Zelda, sweetheart, you've got to pull yourself together," a voice whispered. "You're entitled to your anger and your pain, but not now—and not all at once."
Slowly, she began cramming her emotions back down, suppressing them and saving them for later. But even as she did so, she felt the crushing weight of responsibility fall on her again. Link was right—she had to put others before herself—but she didn't know what to do. She had been tutored in running a prosperous and functional kingdom. She was supposed to inherit advisors who were experienced and knowledgeable in their respective fields. There should have been respected and well-established nobles to support her and carry out larger plans. When her father passed, a small army of capable men should have been there to plan the transition of power and her coronation. Every detail would have been planned out to the last possible detail and the transition would have been smooth and seamless.
But all of that infrastructure was gone and Zelda had no idea what to do. She hadn't been trained for this kind of situation. Fighting demons was easy in comparison; you always knew who the enemy was and what had to be done next. But who was the enemy now? Grief? Poverty? How did someone fight faceless concepts?
"I don't know what to do," she admitted to Link.
"First, you must be a leader," he replied, still whispering. "That's what your people need more than anything right now. They need to see you confident and self-assured because that will give them courage. They need to see you take charge—act like you have a plan, even if you don't. You are the promise of better times to come—of the restoration to the peace and order and prosperity that they're used to. They want things to go back to the way they were, and you can give them that."
"But I can't. Nothing will ever replace the people who have died."
"No. That loss is something we will all have to live with for the rest of our lives. But life always goes on; people always find a way to survive. Look at us. Think about everything that's happened to us, but we're still here.
"Everyone else will find a way to survive, too. But what kind of life they have depends on what you can give them—one filled with hope and the promise of a better tomorrow, or one where the poverty and want never ends."
Zelda sighed and sat back on her heels. He was absolutely right; she had to find a way to make things better for her people; she had to try to undo at least some of the damage Nagadii had caused. But it was still a monumental task.
"What should I do first?" she asked.
"I think you should make a public appearance. Everyone needs to know that Nagadii is gone and that you've returned to take back the throne he stole from you. Then you need to eat and sleep. I think once you've had a chance to rest, you'll find it's a lot easier to see what to do and make decisions.
Link was right: they had been up all night and hadn't eaten in ages. They had been through a lot in the past twelve hours; it was no wonder she was having irrational fits.
She looked at him. "How is it that you can be so calm and think so clearly?"
He smiled a little. "I've had a lot of practice functioning without sleep."
He helped her stand up. When she turned around, she was horrified to see that many of the people from the dungeon had joined Vera in the hallway, silently watching as their potential new monarch had an emotional breakdown.
No wonder Link had told her that she needed to pull herself together; she had no idea she had had an audience.
Chin up, Link warned her. Show confidence. Act like nothing happened and it will be forgotten.
She lifted her head and took a deep, steadying breath. "Wake the people and have them assemble in the square; I will address them shortly," she commanded. She had no idea who would follow her orders, since there was no order or hierarchy to anything anymore, but she issued the command nonetheless… and hoped for the best.
Lord Braddock was the first to respond. "I will take care of it, Your Majesty," he said, with a slight bow of his head. Then he turned and began picking out people to help him spread the word. And, like magic, people followed him without question.
Link was right; the people were looking for leadership; they wanted order to return to their chaotic world. They would follow anyone who appeared able to give them that. And that would sustain them until all the details could be worked out.