The Final Threat
Tatiana volunteered to fix something to eat, and most of those who hadn't gone with Braddock went to the kitchen with her to help prepare a meal.
"I think we should just keep some food out constantly," Zelda suggested, "at least for a few days. I daresay it will take everyone a little time to get back to a normal routine—and normal mealtimes."
"I agree," Link said.
Zelda asked Tatiana to just put food out in the family dining room; anyone who was working in the castle could come and eat whenever they became hungry.
And that meant her. She was starving—and given the sounds coming from Link's stomach, he was, too.
They were joined at the table by Sir Elgon and Rayliss and the two tigers. Ceily and Meghan brought them some fresh fruit and wine to tide them over until something more substantial could be cooked. They even thought to bring out some raw steaks, which Long Fang and Growder fell on immediately.
Braddock came in a short time later. "Majesty, the people are starting to assemble in the square as you requested."
"Thank you." She started to stand, then glanced down at her clothes. She was still wearing the outfit the fairy gave her. It wasn't too damaged, but it was covered with a fine white film of plaster. And while she wasn't against wearing the royal arms on the blue tunic, it wasn't appropriate for a princess—or a queen—to wear a tunic and pants like a man.
She worried that it wouldn't make the right impression. But when she glanced around the room, she didn't see anyone she could borrow clothes from. Ceily and Rayliss were both in filthy rags; so were the rest of the women. Her fighting outfit—masculine or not—was better than anything they had.
Link stood up and began brushing and beating the dust off her. "This will do fine," he said quietly.
"I would prefer a dress."
"We don't have one at the moment. Besides, I think the people will feel more confident when they see you dressed for a fight. It conveys the image that you are strong. And they want strong right now."
"He's right, Your Majesty," Braddock agreed. "It's appropriate for the occasion."
Link called for his sister and had her comb and braid Zelda's hair. Meghan didn't do anything elaborate—just a quick braid down the back of Zelda's head, then she reseated the small circlet that Zelda wore.
"That looks much better," Link said, as he watched Meghan work. "We're going for strong, not harried."
"Would you quit with the puns," Zelda said.
He laughed. "I'm sorry to say, that was unintentional. But it was a good one."
She gave the bottle of fairy's tears to him. "Here, if you're going to walk around half-naked, at least clean up."
"I'd take a shirt if I could find one," he said, taking the bottle from her.
"Do you want me to try and find you one?" Vera asked, as she set a tray of cold meats and cheese on the table.
She nodded, then hurried out.
Link shook a drop of liquid from the bottle onto his chest. It rolled down his skin, then absorbed into it. A moment later, his cuts and scratches began to fade away.
Zelda nodded to Braddock. "Lord Braddock hasn't had any yet. He's the last one."
Link offered him the bottle, but he waved it away. "Use it on yourself, Your Majesty."
"I'm fine. You use it."
"There's enough for two, I think," Link said, holding the bottle up and peering through it. "So why don't you both have a drop?"
Braddock took his share, then Zelda got hers. Whether it was because she had some food and wine in her, or because she had a bit of a rest, or because of the tears, she was feeling noticeably better. She certainly felt in control of herself again.
Horace appeared a moment later. "Your Majesty, I think they're ready for you."
Zelda took a deep breath. Link smiled at her encouragingly and offered his hand. She took it and let him pull her to her feet, but she was disappointed when he let go.
Appearances, and all that.
She and Link, along with Horace and Braddock headed towards the main gate. She was rather surprised to notice that Sir Elgon, Rayliss, and the two tigers followed them. Were they afraid to stray too far from their rescuers, or did they want to try to help her make a good impression?
Zelda ascended the stairs to the covered balcony that was directly above the gate and which looked out over the main square. Royal decrees and appearances by the royalty on special occasions usually took place at the balcony.
Down below, the streets were filled with people. There were even a few people perched on the rooftops of nearby houses, hanging precariously onto weather vanes. Everyone was strangely silent—especially regarding such an important announcement.
"Shouldn't they seem happier?" Zelda whispered, as Link and the others filed into the room with her.
"Maybe they don't trust themselves to hope that it's over," Link suggested.
"What if they don't accept me?"
"They'll accept you," he said, putting his hand against the small of her back and gently pushing her forward. "Besides, it's not like they have any other option; everyone else is gone."
"That's not very comforting," she said out of the corner of her mouth.
There was a stirring in the crowd and the people looked up at her with faces peaked from lack of food and creased with lines of worry. They all looked expectant, but it was hard to tell what they expected. They certainly didn't look hopeful, but somehow she had to make them feel hope again. That was the only way to get the machinery of society going again.
Zelda licked her lips nervously, suddenly unsure what to say. She should have been planning her speech while she was eating!
"As you all know," she said, a bit hesitantly, "I am Princess Zelda."
"How do we know that?" some angry voice shouted from below.
"If you've lived in this town anytime, then you have surely seen me here with my father."
"How do we know you ain't some demon's trick? Or some magic?"
"Yeah," came another voice. "What if you're just some illusion of Nagadii's meant to trick us?"
"I've already paid enough taxes!" a third shouted. "My children don't have anything to eat!"
"I didn't say anything about paying taxes," Zelda said.
"You killed the king! Why should we listen to you?"
"This mob is getting ugly fast," Zelda heard Sir Elgon whisper to Link. "Do we have a backup plan?"
She was failing. She had one thing to do—to announce her return and Nagadii's death—and she was failing. How could she be queen when she couldn't even accomplish such a basic task?
"She's a murderer!" someone shouted. "Take her! Kill her!"
Suddenly there was something streaking through the air towards her. Someone grabbed her around the waist and threw her to the floor, but not before the projectile had cut across her right cheek.
There were screams below—and shouts. Angry shouting.
Zelda glanced up to see Link leap over the balcony's railing and into the mob below.
"Link, no!" she cried, reaching for him, but it was too late.
She grabbed onto the railing and pulled herself to her feet. Below, Link was running—sword in hand—through the throng. People were running in chaos everywhere, trying to get out of the way of him and whoever was shooting. But no one seemed to know where the danger was coming from and the area was packed, and the crowd began to turn into a stampede.
"Highness, down!" Sir Elgon said, trying to pull Zelda below the railing again. Another arrow streaked through the air and struck the back wall. Rayliss shrieked and Horace pulled her down, covering her with his body.
Long Fang and Growder and Lord Braddock ran out of the room and down the stairs. Zelda peeped over the railing just enough to see them run into the crowd, trying to follow Link. The sight of two huge tigers made the people scream and panic even more.
Zelda felt Sir Elgon tugging on waist. "Highness—Majesty, please!"
"Let go," she ordered. "I think I see one of them."
"That's the problem!" he protested. But he still let go of her.
She stood up and pulled off her bow, but the crowd was too thick; she didn't dare shoot for fear of hitting innocents.
The other archer didn't have to worry about that, though, since he was shooting upwards.
Zelda ducked as she saw him raise his bow again. A little to your left and straight ahead, she told Link.
Another arrow struck—this time in the outside of the railing near Zelda's face. But despite the danger, she stood up again. You're almost there; just a little farther forward, she told Link as she watched his progress through the mass of people.
And then he pushed through the crowd and reached his target. The archer dropped his bow, but Zelda couldn't tell if it was because he was attempting to surrender or if he was just caught by surprise by Link's sudden appearance. But it didn't matter; Link cut him down without hesitation. That only made the people in the crowd scream even more.
Sir Elgon tackled Zelda again as an arrow came in from the opposite direction.
"Godsdamn it!" Sir Elgon shouted. "How many of the bastards are there?"
Zelda pushed him off her and stood again. "Liiiiiinnnnk!"
He heard her call over the noise and looked up at her.
"More!" she shouted, pointing to the opposite side of the square.
Braddock and the tigers caught up with him a moment later. Without missing a beat, Link jumped onto Long Fang's back and the two went bounding through the rapidly-thinning crowd.
Two more arrows came whistling through the air, but Zelda barely flinched; they went too high.
You're going too far west, she told Link. Turn south-southwest.
Another arrow streaked through the air, but fell short. Someone below the balcony screamed in pain.
I see them now, Link said. There's more than one of the bastards.
Zelda watched as Long Fang bounded towards the first archer. Like a knight on horseback, Link leaned out with his sword held ready, and when they were on the man, Link swung, decapitating him.
His partner—a little farther away—was smarter; he aimed his next arrow directly at Long Fang.
Zelda cried out as Long Fang was struck and he went down, spilling Link over his head.
The next thing she knew, the archer had grabbed up a weaponless Link and was holding a knife to his throat.
"If Your Majesty wants this man to live, you'll call off your forces," the man shouted as Growder and Braddock bore down on his position. His words made the crowd grow quiet and they turned to watch the standoff unfolding in their midst.
"I can tell Lord Braddock to stand down," Zelda shouted back, "but I don't command Growder. He answers only to Lord Long Fang… whom you just shot. And if I know him, he will want his revenge on you."
"If he tries anything, this man will die," he said, pressing his knife closer to Link's throat. Link had to tilt his head back to avoid getting cut.
Gowder was hunkered down, ready to leap, but he didn't move.
The man began walking backwards, dragging Link with him. "If anybody makes a move, he dies!" he shouted.
Shoot him, Link said hurriedly.
Zelda watched for a moment, then shook her head. I can't; I don't have a clear shot of him. I might hit you—especially with him moving like that. It's just too close to chance.
If you let him drag me out of sight, he's going to cut my throat and make a run for it. Now, I'll fight him before I let that happen, but that's not without its own risk. I think I like your chances better.
Zelda… I trust you. Take the shot.
She took a deep breath, then pulled out one of her light arrows.
"Stop!" the man shouted. He came to a stop and jerked Link up, using his body as a shield. "If you try anything, he'll die!"
Take the shot.
She held her bow below the railing, so the man couldn't see it, and she trembled as she nocked her arrow.
Goddesses, whatever happens, please don't let me hit Link, she prayed.
Then, with a fluid, automatic movement, she raised her bow, pointed the light arrow directly at the man's left eye, then she let loose.
The Light Arrow few fast—much faster than a normal arrow—and true.
The man fell backwards, dragging Link down with him.
Zelda jumped over the balcony railing without a thought of fear—despite the fact that people watching her screamed.
She landed on the balls of her feet with her knees bent—just as Link had taught her—and she rolled forward. She was back on her feet in a flash and running towards Link.
Braddock was just untangling him from the corpse and pulling him to his feet when she came running up. She could see a line of blood across his throat.
"Oh, Link, is it bad?"
"No, just a scratch."
She threw her arms around him, hugging him tightly. But, most unusually, he didn't reciprocate. Not here, sweetheart, he warned.
She reluctantly pulled away. Although she knew why he said it—and knew he was right—she couldn't help but feel a little stung by his rejection. She had known this day would come—that they would have to put up a wall between them again—but she had never really realized how much that would hurt.
She felt more alone than she had in months.
She put it out of her mind, though, when they came to Long Fang. "How bad is it?" she asked, squatting down to look at the arrow that was lodged between his right foreleg and his chest.
"I'll live," Long Fang growled.
Zelda frowned. "I think we better call Kara here," she said. "She knows better than anyone how to treat your kind."
"I think that would be a good idea," Growder said, his voice betraying his worry.
She turned to Braddock. "Can you find a wagon or something so we can get Lord Long Fang back to the castle?"
"I'll find something," he said, before running back towards the castle, passing Horace and Sir Elgon, who were limping their way towards them.
Sir Elgon gestured to Zelda. "I wish you would come back inside, Your Majesty. Those archers look like Shi-Ha mercenaries and there are probably more of them around here. Gods only know what they're planning next."
"But Nagadii is gone. He's dead," Zelda insisted. "What reason do they have to continue to fight?"
"Maybe they don't believe he's dead."
"Or maybe they'll do anything they can to save their own necks," Link said. "And if they can ransom a person or two on their way out, all the better."
"Y-your Majesty?" someone said hesitantly.
Zelda looked around until she saw an older man standing at the edge of the crowd, holding a hat nervously in his hands.
"Begging your pardon, but you ought to listen to these men here," he said, nodding towards Link and Sir Elgon. "What they say is true: there are many mercenaries in this city. I fear for your life."
Link slid his hand under her arm, and got a firm grip on it. "Let's go," he whispered, even as he looked around with paranoia.
"I'm not leaving Long Fang out here," she insisted.
"I will stay with him," Growder said.
"We'll stay as well," Horace said. "Let Link take you back to the castle.
"No. We all go together or not at all."
"Majesty, please—" Link started to beg.
"No," she said firmly, cutting him off.
He frowned, but saw that she wouldn't be moved. "Then, will you at least get down so you're not such an easy target?"
She considered his compromise, then nodded. She sat down beside Long Fang while the others stood around them protectively.
"Look at that," Sir Elgon whispered.
Zelda looked up, but didn't see what Sir Elgon was talking about.
"I don't think it was the people who were against her at all," Sir Elgon continued, speaking to Link. "I think it was those mercenaries who were trying to agitate the crowd."
Zelda looked around, still trying to figure out what they were talking about. It took her a minute to realize that a circle of men had protectively formed around them.
Her people didn't doubt her; they were protecting her from the real enemy.
After a little while, Braddock reappeared with a rickety wooden wagon being pulled by a decrepit-looking old mule. It was telling that he was driving it himself; apparently help was as hard to find as a horse.
Braddock jumped down lightly, then went around to the back of the wagon and pulled out a large canvas sheet. "I thought we could put him on this, then lift him up into the wagon that way," he explained.
Half a dozen men got into the bed of the wagon and pulled on the sheet while Growder gently lifted Long Fang up so they could pull him in.
Long Fang yowled in pain as they moved him, but luckily it was over quickly.
Braddock hopped back into the driver's seat and Link borrowed Zelda's bow and arrows before getting onto the seat beside Braddock. Zelda wedged herself between the back of the seat and Long Fang's head while Growder and Sir Elgon shielded her on either side.
"I wish I still had some of those tears left," Zelda said as she looked at Long Fang.
"Don't worry about it," he said weakly. "Kara will fix me up, I'm sure."
"But I do worry about it. You got hurt on our account."
"I think we owed you a little blood after what Tarsus did to you. Now, I will not feel so bad about that; things are almost even between us."
"They are even between us," Zelda said firmly. "You owe us nothing more."
Once they were back in the castle, they got some people to help them get Long Fang into the stable, where they laid him on a bed of straw.
"I'm sorry we can't do better for you right now," Zelda said. There was no way even a group of them could carry him up the stairs to a bedroom. Growder might be able to carry him that far, but not without causing him considerable pain.
"This is fine," Long Fang said, wheezing with pain. "It's better than what we had in that dungeon."
"Do you want anything to eat or drink?"
"No food just now. Water would be good, though."
Zelda went to get some while Link teleported Kara in and explained the situation to her. By the time Zelda returned from the kitchen, Kara had already pulled the arrow from Long Fang's shoulder and was in the process of bandaging the wound. Zelda was rather glad she had missed the extraction part; she remembered what happened to Link all too clearly.
They were interrupted a moment later by Horace. "Your Majesty, there are people at the gate," he announced.
Link stood up, looking serious. "What people?"
"City folks. It looks like maybe they've captured some more of those mercenary bastards."
Link, Zelda, and Sir Elgon followed Horace back up to the balcony over the gate. Down in the square was a rather large group of people. They had three men tied up. The men looked as if they had been severely beaten.
"Your Majesty," one of the men in the crowd addressed Zelda, "these are some of the mercenaries who were working for Nagadii."
"You know that for certain?"
"Yes," said an old man, who stepped forward. "This man," he said, pointing his thumb at one of the prisoners, "was a tax collector for our street. I saw him and some of his fellows beating people up if they didn't pay their taxes."
He turned his head and spat to show what he thought about that.
"And the others?" she asked.
"They're your enemies, Your Majesty," the first man said. "Why do you seek to protect them?"
"I don't. I just want to make sure they're guilty before passing judgment. I don't want any innocent person to get caught up by accident. Nagadii may have ruled lawlessly, but there will be law and order here again and we will do things by the book."
Some of the people nodded in approval at her words.
Sir Elgon leaned in, whispering, "For what it's worth, they're all dressed in clothing from Shi-Ha."
"I will take that as a point against them," she replied.
Another man brought forward two short swords and a bow and dumped them out on the ground so Zelda could see. "They had these on them."
"Nagadii ruled that no one was allowed to carry weapons except his personal representatives," the man in charge stated. "Any of us who were caught with weapons were executed. Immediately. Right here in the street."
She had the distinct impression that the crowd felt that turnabout was fair play.
"I believe that you are correct and that these men are my enemies," she at last pronounced.
There was a rough cheer from the crowd. "What shall we do with them, Your Majesty?" their leader asked.
Link whispered to her, "I think you're going to have to execute them."
Zelda swallowed. Although she had killed before—and even had Link execute some of the men who had tried to capture them—she found the idea of executions distasteful. Very little warranted an execution in Hyrule; it was a punishment reserved for the worst of the worst.
"Besides the fact that they supported the man who killed your father and stole your throne," Link added, "they've also caused grievous harm to the people and I think the people will insist."
"Sometimes you have to give the mob a little bit of what it wants to stay in control of it," Sir Elgon agreed.
She glanced at him. "I won't be forced into compromise if the cause is not just. Giving in to a little evil to avoid a larger evil is a slippery slope that leads to ruin."
"But, it's not a compromise if what they ask is just," Link argued.
She considered their arguments for a moment, then nodded. "I have punished those who wounded me and my family," she announced; "it is only fair that my people get their measure of justice as well. They will be executed."
Another shout went up from the crowd.
Zelda tasked the leader of the group to find an executioner—she had no intention of asking Link or any of the others to do it themselves—and she retired to the castle to eat a meal and go to bed. But before she had finished a bowl of Tatiana's seafood chowder, Horace came in again.
"Majesty, they've found an executioner… and some more mercenaries."
Zelda sighed wearily, her shoulders slumping.
"You don't need to try to do everything in one day," Sir Elgon suggested.
"I don't see you going to bed," Zelda retorted.
He just shrugged. Rayliss had undergone her own emotional breakdown following the attempted assassination and had been put to bed. But Sir Elgon was still gamely soldiering on, trying to help as much as he could.
If it wouldn't be stabbing Rayliss and Austina in the back, Zelda would offer him a job as her Captain of the Guard. But she knew even if she made the offer, he would never take it—not so long as there was a member of the royal family of Erenrue left.
Technically she was a member of the Erenrue royal family, too. Was that why Elgon was as protective of her as Rayliss?
"What answer shall I give them, Your Majesty?" Horace asked when she didn't respond. "We can put them in the dungeon until you're ready to deal with them."
She sighed again, then rose. "No, let's get it over with. The sooner it's done, the sooner everyone can move forward. That, and I'd like to be able to move through my capital without being ambushed."
Three hours later, with no end of the ordeal in sight, Zelda wished she could take her noble speech back and do as Elgon and Horace suggested and put off the executions until later.
"How many mercenaries were there?" Zelda asked Link in disbelief as yet another one was presented to her, denounced by people who had suffered under his tyranny, and was sent to the block on the other side of the courtyard.
Zelda couldn't even stand to look that direction anymore. So many men had been executed, the ground was soggy with blood and they had to put down straw to try and absorb it. Every so often, a wagon filled with bodies was taken out to the monastery where a hastily-dug mass grave awaited them.
"I feel like this is bad luck," she confessed to Link. "This is not how I wanted to start my reign."
"It's certainly not pleasant," he admitted, "but I think you listening to the people while they relate what happened to them is… cathartic."
"I assume you mean for them."
"Yes." He managed a wan smile. "I daresay it's not for you."
"Not at all."
But what Link said was true. The people wanted someone to listen to them. For more than half a year, they had bottled up all their hurt and disappointment and frustration and now it was pouring out like liquid from a keg with its spigot knocked off. After getting their justice, they trickled back out of the castle looking relieved and talking more optimistically.
It was a hard price to pay for peace and hope, but Zelda gritted her teeth and bore it.
The one thing she wouldn't do, though, was execute anyone who was not an actual soldier. A number of people—including a few families—were denounced as spies from Shi-Ha. But Zelda worried that in their zealousness to purge themselves of the hated Shi-Ha mercenaries, the people of Hyrule were catching up innocent immigrants. So she reserved judgment in those cases and sent the people to the dungeon instead.
"Your Majesty, I must protest," one man said when she directed the family he denounced be put in the dungeon. "They are from Shi-Ha."
"Just because they are originally from Shi-Ha doesn't mean they're spies," she replied wearily. "They're my subjects—the same as people born here—so they're entitled to a fair trial."
"Really, Your Majesty—" he started in again.
"If you are that desperate to see blood and gore, step over there," she said, gesturing to the other side of the courtyard.
"T-that's not what I mean," he stuttered.
"Then what exactly do you mean?" she said, growing more annoyed. "If they're guilty of spying, then I will find out and they will be dealt with accordingly. What does it matter if it's today or tomorrow or next week? And if they're innocent, wouldn't you rather they went free? Would you want their innocent deaths on your soul? Would you want to answer the gods for that?"
He paled a little and shook his head. "No, Majesty."
"Then be content that justice will be served in due time and rightly. I don't want the deaths of innocents on my soul either."
He bowed his head in humble acquiescence, then disappeared into the crowd watching the proceedings.
She caught Link looking at her. "What?" she demanded. "Do you think I'm wrong?"
"Not at all."
She sighed. "I suppose I should be more tactful."
"I thought that was being tactful."
She smiled a little. Then she looked him over, really noticing him for the first time in hours; he had been standing faithfully by her chair for the past three hours without a break.
"Didn't Vera ever find you a shirt?" she asked. He was still bare-chested—the large black tattoo on his back very obvious.
He slowly grinned, then leaned down so he could whisper in her ear. "Why? Is the presence of my hot body distracting Your Majesty?"
She burst out laughing. Some people turned to look at her curiously, wondering what could be so funny at a time like this.
She put her hand over her mouth, trying to stifle her laughter. Link just gave her a quick wink, then stood up and resumed his position beside her.
"I thought you said you were going to behave once we got back," she whispered to him.
"Yes, well… you know me; I have a tendency to get into trouble—do things I ought not do—especially where you're concerned."