Tears Chapter Thirty-One

SOUNDS of celebration echoed through the empty streets: everywhere the clink of glasses, voices raised in laughter. Every window seemed to bear a light. The black horse clattered over the cobbles beneath overhanging upper storeys, chasing the drifting moon. Its harsh breathing and the clash of its iron shoes filled Dark's ears, and he wished that he had been able to muffle its feet with rags--but that would have cost precious time, and speed rather than stealth was his concern now. He had to get clear of the city.

At last the maze of winding streets opened out into a familiar area: the Silver Square, once the marketplace of old Hyrule Town. A solitary drunken reveller, wide-eyed, stumbled back against a wall as he rode past. He urged the horse on towards the great south gate, noting with relief that it was open and the drawbridge down--he had feared that he would be forced to fight his way out.

The drawbridge drew near. Then, without warning, the horse startled and skidded to a halt; he fought it as it reared. From out of the deep shadow beside the gate, two soldiers had stepped forward to cross polearms and block his way.

"You there!" The nearest soldier reached up to grasp the prancing horse's bridle. "What are you doing out so late? State your name and business!"

Dark sighed, annoyed mostly at himself for his lack of attention. He had no time to argue and no desire to become entangled in a struggle. Instead, he lowered the hood of his cloak and simply fixed his eyes upon the soldier. He was not yet known to the City Guard; and he knew well how his appearance frightened the more superstitious among the Hylian people. The man slowly began to tremble and to back away under that fiery blood-red gaze, and then he fell over his own feet and lay whimpering on the cobbles. Dark kicked the black horse again and it sprang forward, leaping past the other soldier who stood like a statue staring at his fallen comrade. Like a thunderbolt the horse charged over the bridge and out into the wilderness of the empty lands. The land had altered greatly since Dark had last seen it, but one thing did not move or change--the great dark specter of Death Mountain, rising a third again as tall as any other peak in the mountain range. He guided his sleepy, irritable horse toward the ancient flanks of the mountain, pacing it through the darkness. The moon slipped in and out of sight; clouds were drifting over from the east.

A packed dirt track led away from the town, through fallow fields and meadows, towards the rolling downs of the old Lon Lon lands. He cut through a newly ploughed field to rejoin the road, leaping two fences and a ditch. At the top of the rise, Dark wheeled the horse about and stood in the stirrups to look back towards the town. He felt a sinking in his heart as he saw the tiny specks of fires coming up by the gate; the distant sounds of shouting were just perceptible to his sharp ears. The guards must have raised the alarm--well, Link would know the manner of his departure soon enough.

He turned the horse again and set off at a slower pace, mindful of the animal's stamina on the long road ahead. Death Mountain was black on the horizon; there were many miles to cross before morning.

In a little while, the first fat drops of rain began to splash around him, cold and stinging on his skin. The dirt road swiftly became slick with mud and he was forced to slow his pace or risk a fall. He pulled Link's warm winter cloak close around himself, cursing his ill luck--but at least the Hero would find it hard going. Especially if he had not thought to snatch up a spare cloak from his room.

 

 

"Link, please--slow down!" Zelda urged her poor white mare to go faster, but the palfrey was no charger like Link's red and had not the endurance of Sofia's desert-bred gray. It was already struggling to keep up with the others. Ignoring her pleas, the green-eyed warrior raced his horse through the quiet streets of the town like a man possessed, hooves sparking on the cobblestones. His face was set in a cold, terrible mask which filled her with fear. The serpentine dagger was drawn, clenched in the fingers of his left hand.

"I will catch him," he snarled, without glancing back at her. "I am not going to lose that sword!"

"Link, it's just a sword--"

That got a reaction. Savagely he hauled on the reins, bringing his horse to a skidding, scrambling halt on the bridge that led out of town. The animal plunged in protest, but Link kept his seat easily, looking back towards the Princess with eyes that were chips of green emerald. "It is not just a sword!" he shouted.

Zelda's brows drew together; she refused to be intimidated by bluster. "What is it, then?" she challenged, drawing up alongside him. "Nayru's love, Link--you've been obsessed by the thing ever since you got it! What is so special about it?"

For a moment she saw a flicker of doubt in his face--a quick flash of indecision and fear that reassured her. The real Link was still under there somewhere. But, as quickly as it came, the hope was quashed as his previous cold expression returned, with all the power of a chill wind. "It's mine," he hissed viciously, jamming the serpentine dagger into its sheath with savage force.

"You should slow down," Zelda said hopelessly, finding herself unable to reason with the young warrior. "We won't catch him if you drive the horses to their deaths."

Link snorted, appearing to care little for the fate of the horses, but when he wheeled his red horse around and started off again, it was no longer at the full gallop but at a steady canter which would carry them far before morning. Zelda flicked the reins and started off after him, her white palfrey just about able to keep up at the slower pace.

They had soon left the town far behind and Zelda became concerned about the horses' legs on the uneven ground, but Link rode over the plains as if he could see perfectly clearly. It seemed that some otherworldly power guided his choices, for as they rode once a flash of moonlight laid bare their surroundings, and Zelda saw standing water on either side; they were riding by one of the lakes that served as tributary to the river. The horses raced side by side over a shallow causeway, their hooves falling thickly on the muddy ground. Ahead of them, the vast flank of Death Mountain rose like a shadow in the night, cutting out a great swathe of stars. Rain lashed at their faces and turned the road into a swampy morass.

Sofia dropped back a little to ride level with the Princess. "Has he gone mad?" she asked, having to shout over the rain and thunder of hooves. It was an honest question.

"I don't know!" Zelda shouted back.

"Zelda, listen! We could probably take him down! If one of us can get hold of his reins..."

"Without weapons? Are you serious?" The very thought of tackling the Hero of Hyrule sent a chill of fear through her--and at the gallop over unknown country, at that. Someone was going to get badly hurt in the attempt. "Sofia, we can't do it on horseback! We have to wait!"

"Wait? For what?"

She just shook her head at that. She wished she knew.

 

 

There was a faint lightening in the sky; not true dawn as yet but the soft, sleepy predawn state before the world awoke. Dark Link glanced behind him nervously, his hair whipping in the wind, but he could see nothing moving upon the road below. Steady rain clouded his sight and blurred the distant plains.

The horse was tiring fast; he had driven it mercilessly to come this far in the time. In the black of night he had passed through ancient Kakariko, the village that stood in Death Mountain's shadow; its windows were shuttered against the dark and the rain, and none saw his passing. Now he rode upon the very flank of the mountain, traveling the great forgotten road that had once led to the city of the Gorons. The shadow sighed softly to himself, remembering how that great citadel of stone had dominated the mountainside. Now, though, all was gone; the mountain was as still and silent as it had been when the world was formed. Only here and there could the faint ancient chisel-marks of the Goron smiths be seen, old and faded scars.

The Royal Family's messenger...

...a man with eyes of flame...

Can I call you Big Brother?

Against the dawning sky, the mountain's peak rose huge, crowned with smoke and stars. The road, once paved, was crumbling underfoot and the horse's hooves kicked up clouds of gritty sand. He passed rockfalls and places where great slabs of the road surface had fallen away. It slowed him down; he had to take care getting round the obstacles.

So many years...

The horse stumbled suddenly. Dark let it slow to a plodding walk, understanding that he had worked the animal too hard; it had run many miles flat-out to get this far before the sun came up. There had been another rock-fall here, and the path led around a sheer rock face, allowing only a few feet of walking room. The drop beneath was near vertical. Steadily the horse walked on, though now that he was paying attention he could judge just how exhausted it was; its head hung down despite the reins and bridle. It would never make it up the last steep slope without a miracle. He glanced back down the mountainside, concerned about Link's advance, but there was still no sign of the Hero on the bare slopes and he relaxed slightly.

The path widened out ahead. Eager to get its feet back onto safer ground the horse moved forward, breaking into an unsteady trot for a few paces. He checked it on the other side and paused again to listen for pursuit, then slipped his feet out of the stirrups and dropped lightly to the ground. The horse was almost ready to drop; he took its reins in his hand and coaxed the animal towards a natural overhang that lay off the path. There was no sense in riding it into the ground--he would have to let it rest for at least a little while if he wanted to reach the mountain top.

It was growing swiftly lighter now, and he raised the hood of his cloak against the brilliant line of light that was now creeping around the mountainside. The horse limped to a nearby pool of rainwater that had collected in the slightly sunken overhang, and began to drink thirstily.

Leaning against the mountainside, Dark watched the sunrise come. The rain had stopped and now the sky was clearing fast. Far below, made tiny by distance, Hyrule's rolling fields stretched out into the early morning light, already streaked with sunlight from the approaching fire in the East. Cloud-shadows dappled the misty green. The castle town was a white marble splash at the heart of a patchwork of fields; beyond, the cold pine woods of Lotharia stretched into a dark blue-green fog of distance. To the west at the limits of his vision were the purple stains of the Shadowed Mountains, still cloaked in night. A river wound across the scene like a quicksilver snake, sparkling distantly in the sunlight.

In a few more moments, the wavering golden line reached him and burst in a shower of brilliance and pain. He flinched back into the overhang, pulling the hood of Link's cloak down to shield his eyes--then steeled himself and stepped out into the light. There was no time left, and nowhere to hide on this bare mountain. He had to go on.

He mounted, and coaxed his reluctant horse into a trot, weaving around piles of broken stone. The road was growing steadily worse. Dark just hoped it was still passable--he had not been this way for over three hundred years. And now, too, the sunlight was brilliant, bearing down on him like a weight; it sapped his strength faster than he had anticipated. I am weaker than I thought... He reached back--and for a moment felt a thrill of fear as his fingers missed the familiar handle of the blade--then he realized that the strap had moved around during the ride. The cold hilt fitted into his hand like an old friend; he drew it. At once strength filled him, black and powerful. Shadows stirred under stone.

...You!

It was like an electric shock. Only his reflexive grip on the sword prevented him from dropping it to crash and clatter down the steep mountainside.

No--no, it cannot be--!

With an immense effort of will he once more raised his hand, and slid the sword back into its sheath. Instantly the weakness was back, creeping into his limbs and dulling the edges of his sight. He clenched his teeth against it and kicked the flanks of the exhausted horse, forcing it to run again.

But the thing that had been disturbed would not so soon fall back into slumber.

He forced it out of his thoughts--no time for that now. The road wound around in a long curve now--he remembered it well. There was a great rift, a gorge that had once been known as Dodongo's Cavern. Beyond was the higher path that led to Goron City and the sulphur-choked peak; already he could smell the fumes in the chill autumn air. He was halfway up the mountain--if he could just reach the gorge--

He rounded a blind corner, swore, and hauled back on the reins. The horse skidded in the loose gravel and halted, squealing and stamping, a few yards from a massive wall of blank stone. A rockfall--the largest yet! A single massive slab of stone had tumbled onto the trail, blocking it so neatly that there was not room for even a rabbit to squeeze past. The drop was sheer on his left. It might have been done on purpose. Dark gripped the reins in tense fists, his mind working wildly. There was no chance of passing the blockage, even on foot. He would have to turn back.

The horse was trembling and gasping; he leaned forward and patted its neck, willing it to go on just a little longer. Carefully he turned the animal on the narrow path... then froze.

For Link had just turned the corner.

The young Hero was spattered with mud, his ballroom finery soaked and travel-stained. His red hair, still damp from the rain, hung in tangled tufts over his eyes. He had ridden his red horse mercilessly; foam caked its jaws, pink-stained where the bit had cut its mouth. Its eyes were wild.

Another rattle of hooves on rock, and the Princess and the Gerudo appeared on the bend of the road. There was a moment of impasse.

"Give it up," Link said, breathing heavily. "There's nowhere left to run."

Dark glanced up towards the mountaintop. The upper road was tantalisingly close, at the top of a steep slope of loose gravel and scree. Trying to ride a horse up there would be madness. He turned back--and saw the young Princess give him a slight but unmistakable nod.

Link laid his hand on the hilt of the serpentine dagger.

Now! Quickly! He forced the black horse around once more to face the slope, and slapped its backside as hard as he could. It squealed, rearing, then charged at the steep incline, forcing its way up in a whirl of dirt and loose stones. The iron-shod hooves caught, then slipped, then caught again. He leaned forward, urging the animal on, desperately willing it not to fall--or worse, roll. Something struck him hard on the shoulder and rocked him forward in the saddle, a falling stone perhaps, but he ignored it; there were far more important concerns.

 

 

Zelda went cold all over when she saw Link stringing his bow. "What are you doing?" she cried, striving to make herself understood over the rattle of falling stones and the wind up here on the mountainside.

Controlling his red horse with his knees alone, the young warrior bent his rosewood bow and slipped the string over, then withdrew one of the white-feathered arrows from the quiver at his back. "We're too close!" he called back to her. "I can't let him escape with the sword, no matter what!"

"You're going to shoot him?" The Princess was appalled, despite what she was beginning to understand about the sword. "Link, have you gone utterly insane?"

"To the Dark World with this!" Sofia shouted, forcing her own horse forward. "Zelda! To me! Quickly--we'll take him together!"

Link's horse reared, terrified. Somehow he kept his seat, his red hair whipping about in the vicious wind, drew, and let an arrow fly. Then he turned his head and looked back at them. The expression on his face made them flinch back in sheer horror: he no longer looked like himself. That cold obsession could not be from the Calatian fisher-boy they knew. It was as if some alien personality had taken over his skin; he was possessed by something evil. The ferocious jealousy in his green eyes could have belonged to Ganon himself. "You can't do this!" Zelda called desperately, riding forward to join the Gerudo. They spread out to flank him on the road. Above, Dark's desperately scrambling horse reached the upper path and stumbled on out of sight.

"I knew you couldn't be trusted!" Link yelled furiously, and raised the bow again, another arrow already in his hand. Panicking Zelda yanked on the white palfrey's reins, wheeling the horse around; he fired over her head, and she ducked reflexively. Without even pausing to see whether she had been hit, he kicked his horse and forced it onto the treacherous slope, grabbing for a third arrow. Numb from the shock she lost several precious seconds before urging her white horse on again. She had no weapon; the only thing she could think of to do was to tackle Link physically, though the idea of taking on the skilled fighter made her shiver with terror. He was nearly on the upper path now, though, leaning forward onto the shoulders of his red horse and sending pebbles scattering down the mountainside. Sofia, furious, was close behind him. Zelda crouched like a jockey, willing her poor laboring palfrey to make it up the slope. Foam plastered the white horse's jaws, and its coat was patched gray now with sweat.

Link stood up in the stirrups suddenly, seeing something perhaps. He set the next arrow to his bowstring, drew and let fly; the arrow soared up and rattled onto the stones somewhere far ahead. "You can't run forever!" he called out triumphantly. Swiftly he fired a fourth onto the path of the third, and then drew yet another of the white-feathered shafts before settling back into the saddle and slapping the red horse's backside unmercifully with the bow. It sprang up onto the higher road in one startled leap, and thundered on.

"Goddess, the whole world has gone mad," Zelda whimpered, quailing. She hit her own horse, forcing the animal to race even faster and hating herself even as she did so; she had never before struck the faithful animal, and the sight of its flattened ears and straining neck almost made her cry. Gasping, it struggled up onto level ground and stumbled after Sofia's gray. Even with that, it appeared that it was going to be a straight race to the summit of the mountain, and Zelda had a feeling that her white palfrey was going to be coming in last.

 

 

The black stallion galloped up the path, heaving great ragged breaths; it was only fear that kept the animal going now. Ahead the summit of Death Mountain stood out like a great jagged crown, ornamented by the thin trails of yellowish smoke wending their way up into the sky. There was a thick miasma of smoke and sulphur in the air, a stench that seemed to have come all the way from the Dark World. With a wheeze, the stallion came to a staggering halt on the plateau outside the crater, physically incapable of walking any further. The horse's head hung down to the ground, and its sides heaved piteously.

Dark swung his leg over the horse's back and slid down to the ground--and stumbled, and nearly fell. Suddenly he felt his own strength draining like the horse's; the strain of the night's exertion seemed to be catching up with him, plus there was the added burden of the sun's light which now beat down on him direct. Din's Fire, it hurt! He grabbed at the saddle horn for a moment, swaying, feeling the world graying out around him. The crater... he had to get to the crater.

With an effort of will he stood upright and took a few stumbling steps. His breath rattled in his chest; he turned his head and spat salt.

Hey! Listen!

They say a faŽrie lives on top of Death Mountain...

Metal clattered on stone, and a pebble hit him on the ankle. Dark's head jerked up as the dreamy state evaporated; he whirled, his hand twitching for the grip of a sword hilt; and then saw with a strange confused shock the long white-feathered arrow lying a few feet away. The metal point of the arrow was wedged between two rocks at a sharp angle; its shaft still trembled slightly.

He turned away and headed towards the low opening in the crater wall. That, at least, was as he remembered it. Ahead, a dark tunnel through the rock led down into the crater itself; an eerie crimson glow shone through the entrance. He stumbled down into the passage, feeling the heat begin to build around him. Behind him, a horse whinnied and there was a clatter of hooves on loose stones.

He tripped and fell to his knees going down the incline, and had to clutch at the wall before he could stand again. It was only a short walk to the end of the tunnel, but it seemed to stretch out forever; Dark found that every step was more difficult. He didn't understand what was happening to him, but he could feel his strength draining away, his resolve wavering. The sword... was it the sword? A cough tore at his insides and he fell hard against the warm rock wall and had to lean there, struggling for breath. Don't think--just keep going. Hurry!

The heat hit him with an almost physical blow, the moment he stepped out of the tunnel's further end. The path had led him sharply downwards, and now he stood on a ledge that overlooked the active volcano. It was a dry heat, hungry for water, and it evaporated the sweat from his face instantly so that not even that could give any relief. The floor felt hot beneath the soles of his boots, enough to be unpleasant after a few moments standing still; he shifted his feet painfully. It was hard to breathe at all now. The air shivered with its pregnant burden of fumes, and everything shimmered in a heat-haze. The sun's light was pale and washed-out here; a haze of sulphur and brimstone in the air masked out any heavenly radiance that might have lit the crater. Instead, a deep blood-red firelight lit the crater from below, making everything seem to shine with its own vermilion flame. He could not even see the lava for clouds of black and poisoned smoke. It was like the embodiment of hell.

A little further... His hand reached back once more for the sword, and he hissed and doubled up when the movement caused a sudden sharp agony in his shoulder. Somehow his clutching fingers found the hilt, and he drew it forth, gaining strength from that touch. He held the sword in a death grip as he limped forward to stand upon the very edge of the crater, looking down onto the bubbling inferno that none save Hyrule's Heroes had ever dared to brave.

There were running footsteps in the tunnel, and then Link dashed out of the opening into the crater, seemingly unaffected by the indescribable heat within. The serpentine dagger glittered brilliant in his hand, drawn and ready. "Defend yourself, thief!" he snarled, charging forward. The shadow did not react, seeming to draw on some last resource of strength within himself as he stood gazing down from the high ledge of the crater, his ebony hair whipping around his face in the poisoned winds from the cauldron below. The Sword of Tears was clenched tight in his black fingers and its oily substance shone with a hellish reflected flame above the chamber of fire.

Sofia was the next to arrive, half-running and half-sliding down the tunnel slope in a flurry of torn green silk; she reeled back as the wave of heat hit her, shielding her face with a hand. In another moment she gasped as she saw the tableau laid out before her: the shadow standing on the edge of the crater, Link moving towards him with drawn sword.

Choosing sides was not difficult. She ran forward, grasped Link's shoulder, and as he turned on her she simply punched him as hard as she could. He fell hard on his back in a spray of gravel. The serpentine dagger whirred end over end, glittering in the red light, and clattered to the dirt at Zelda's feet as she came out into the crater; the Princess jumped back reflexively.

Link rolled over, spat blood from a split lip. Beneath the tangles of his hair, his narrowed eyes focused on Sofia, and then slid sideways once more to fix on Dark. Slowly he pushed himself to his feet.

"No," Sofia said. She stepped in front of him and barred his way with outstretched arms.

"Get out of my way."

Zelda saw the Hero's shoulders tense and knew that he was beyond reason. There was no more time. She ran forward and tackled him, knocking him to the ground. In another moment Sofia piled on top of him as well, and all three of them were rolling in the dirt. Link struggled furiously, his gaze always fixed on Dark; they struggled to hold him down. He was horrifyingly strong.

"Dark!" Zelda cried. "Now--do it now! Hurry!"

Dark Link closed his eyes, listening once more to the old familiar song of the Sword of Tears. Help me, it whispered to him. Wield me... use me. I will make you a prince among men. As you were once, so could you be once more. I will be your slave. I will do your every bidding. I will slay your enemies and drink their blood. Only serve us, as you did once, as you shall again, and all this will be yours. And at the same time he seemed to hear the ancient voice of Ganondorf, the Gerudo King, as he instructed the young Dark Link in his true function. Your task is to destroy the Hero of Time, and all his descendants, and I give you this sword in order that you may do so! The sword hummed in his hand, vibrating with power as it filled him with renewed strength--loving him, fawning over him, acknowledging him as its true master, if only he would turn away from his borrowed morals. Slay the Hero! Link had no children; if he was killed, here and now, the direct descendance of the Hero of Time would at last be broken. Dark Link's quest of a thousand years and more would be over.

He smiled slightly, wryly. It all seemed such a joke. He had waited so long and struggled so hard to fulfill his Master's command; at times it had seemed that the task would never be within his grasp. Now, at last, here it was! Link had no weapon, and there were no children to rise up after him; all he had to do was walk over there and finish the quest he had begun a thousand years ago when he fought the Hero of Time. Then, at last, he would be free!

He knew better than that. The sword shrilled in sudden fury as the extent of his resolve became clear to it; he felt it cry out desperately to the one who had made it long ago. With a grim smile, Dark Link lifted the weapon high above his head, and then flung it out into the crater. For a long moment it seemed to hang there spinning, resisting its fate to the last, but then gravity caught up with it and dragged it down, down into the white-hot heart of the volcano. It vanished without a sound, flashing one last time fire-red and fading into a pall of thick smoke as the mountain shook. Dark felt the last vestiges of his strength leaving him with the passing of the sword, and he sank down onto the hot ground, unable to stand any longer. The slight ironic smile stayed on his face as the world blacked out around him.

Link cried out in agony and sudden revulsion as the sword vanished into the molten magma. For a moment he felt it--he felt something die within himself! He screamed again in shock, every muscle tensing as a monstrous flash of pain smashed through his skull, and then he relaxed shuddering, suddenly as weak as water. Dimly he felt the girls getting up off him, but he couldn't stand. With the sword's passing, he felt his natural sense returning, and alongside it a terrible horror at the way he had been used. He had almost killed Zelda! Link slumped onto the searing ground, covering his face with his hands, and then began to cry like a child.

Zelda swayed and wiped at her streaming brow; the heat was beginning to overcome her. "It's gone," she mumbled through dry parched lips. "He killed it... it's gone."

"Good," Sofia said, getting clumsily to her feet. Her knuckles were bleeding; she examined them ruefully for a moment before raising her head. "Let's get out of this hell-hole. Assuming our horses can still walk, that is."

The Princess nodded and glanced towards the crater's edge. A sudden lurch of cold terror struck her as she saw the crumpled figure lying there--and the slick dark stain on the fabric of Link's winter cloak. A long white-feathered shaft gleamed coldly in the crimson light; not all the Hero's arrows had gone astray. "Oh, Nayru!" she gasped, pressing a hand to her face. Leaving Sofia to deal with Link, she ran to the shadow and turned him onto his side, touching his mouth gently to feel for breath.

"Is he..?" Sofia's eyes were wide, shocked.

Zelda just shook her head, not trusting herself to speak for thanks. Both of them--they had saved both of them somehow. "He's alive, thank Nayru, but he's badly hurt. We have to get him out of here, and fast." The red-haired woman nodded quickly and turned, walking towards the crater entrance.

"I'll get the horses," she called back. Zelda nodded and smiled shakily. Shock was starting to catch up with her now, and she wanted either to laugh or cry--or perhaps both at the same time. Her hands were shaking uncontrollably.

Link was on his feet now, more or less. His face was pale and drawn; he walked towards the discarded dagger like a man in a dream, picked it up and slipped it without comment into the scabbard at his side. When he turned towards her, she saw the stains of tears still on his face, though the searing heat in the crater had dried them by now. "Zelda?" he asked softly, as if unable to believe it. A moment later his face crumpled again, hope dying as he took in the scene. "O Farore... I killed him, didn't I?"

"Not yet." Zelda's expression softened. "He'll live, Link--he'll live! Can you give me a hand?"

He stared at her for a moment, a gamut of expressions--disbelief, realization, joy--running across his face, then he ran to her and knelt by the side of the shadow. Gently he slipped his arms under Dark's body and lifted him, careful of the arrow shaft, wrapping the cloak around him as if Dark were an injured child. "I thought--" Link began, but then shook his head violently. "Never mind. Oh, Zel..." Tears started in his eyes again. "I'm just so sorry," he began brokenly.

Zelda shushed him, touching a finger lightly to his lips. "It wasn't your fault," she said softly, and brushed her fingers lightly over his cheek. "It wasn't even you. Forget about it. We should just go. The sooner we get back, the better it'll be."

 

 

The horses were in no condition to bear burdens, so they walked down the mountain together, their mounts following behind. It was a beautiful day now, cloudless and bright, and a soft autumn breeze blew across their path. Link carried Dark cradled in his arms; the shadow remained unconscious, a phantom swathed in cloth.

The faint sound of cowbells drifted up to them, borne on the wind. Zelda lifted a hand to shade her brow from the low sun, looking down towards the foot of the mountain whence the sound had come. Faintly visible were the red roofs of a village nestled between great mounds of stone. "Is that Kakariko?" she asked the air, trying to recall a mental image of the castle's maps. They had passed through somewhere on the way up the mountain... "The villagers will have a healer. We'll head there."

Link nodded, thankful to have something to look forward to. He was starting to recover from the sword's hold; he felt tiredly relieved now, as if a long-term irritant which he had hardly noticed, a pestilent thorn in the foot, had been removed. It had left a wound, yes, but it was a clean wound and it would heal well given time. A moment later something else occurred to him. "This is going to look rather strange," he commented to Zelda, glancing in her direction.

"What do you mean?" the Princess asked, honestly confused for a moment.

"Well, just look at us!" he said with a weak smile.

Indeed, they were an interesting sight. The four of them were dressed in what had obviously once been court finery, the tattered remnants of ornate evening wear that had worn poorly on the long and hectic journey. Sofia's green dress was absolutely ruined, a torn and filthy tatter. Zelda's pearl-colored ballroom gown had been ripped at some point and was showing far too much leg, and Link looked as scruffy as ever he had despite--or perhaps because of--having ridden out in his best clothing. Then, too, they were accompanied by four filthy, exhausted horses in need of a hose down.

Zelda winced, imagining the reaction of the villagers to the state of their Princess and Hero--and then the reaction of the King when they turned up after a night's unexplained absence. They should probably start formulating excuses; they were going to need several! "This is going to be interesting," she agreed dryly.

Sofia did not comment. Her attention was on other things. Dark's blood had stained the cloak of Kokiri green, almost down to the hem; but the livid taint was shrinking visibly before her eyes. The sun came out suddenly from behind a cloud, and shone full upon them, and with a soft dissolving hiss the odd stain vanished entire.

She said nothing to the others, but merely stared at the shrouded shape in Link's arms.

It was only a few more miles down to the village, and the welcoming prospect of cool water, bread and farm cheese in the Kakariko tavern. By an unspoken agreement they quickened their pace.

 

 






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