4: Fixed Stars
Once, when he was a child, Saria had told him that bees shouldn't be able to fly.
Shouldn't. But could, nonetheless. And this was confusing. What bees had to do with him, he had no idea.
What she meant was that bees are too big, their wings too small for their stocky bodies, and that despite that they weren't built for it and no one would have blamed any one of them for giving up entirely, they still managed it. Even if they had to work twice as hard at it, they still managed it.
Maybe it was supposed to be inspirational. He didn't know. He did know he had never cared for bees. He'd been stung more than once in his time, and while it didn't hurt hurt, not like he did now, it certainly wasn't on his list of favorite things.
And why he was thinking about that now, of all times, he knew even less. Strange thoughts of all types were sifting in and out of his head, changing focus and running together like wet paint. Memories of trees and light reflected in water, recalled dialogues, snowflakes falling like feathers from a flat gray sky, the sound of laughter and metal striking metal, the scrape of feet on stone and the babble of the marketplace, full moonlight across the open fields, the cavernous echo of empty space in a subterranean, stone-walled temple, the familiar sad notes of an eastern requiem through the screaming desert wind. The marauding, blurred timeline of an entire life.
Ah, funny he should recall a requiem just now. In fact, he could hear that solumn melody in his head with distinctly more clarity than what was happening around him; almost as though his memories were tangible and trickling into the present, overflowing into it like too much wine poured into a goblet. Even now, her lips were moving, but all he heard was the rush of a long ago wind and the sound of a sweet-voiced harp teaching him the notes to bring a child back to the desert.
What a waste.
A deep throbbing sting ripped him out of the smoke and mirrors game his blood loss was playing with him, like exploding up from underwater. He grunted sharply through clenched teeth, the shockwave of pain echoing down his spine and through the marrow of his bones. His neck arched back against her legs at the first smoldering tremor, and as he gasped hard to catch his breath, a second burning onslaught threw cold water on his burning agony. His bloodstained hand came up to grasp her wrist, his eyes coming to focus on the blue syrup in the vial she held tilted over the wound, standing garish and half exposed under his mangled chainmail. She'd already unlaced his tunic.
"What the…hell is that?" he breathed, his vision fogged ominiously black around the edges. Normally he wouldn't have even thought to say such a thing to her. But such seemed unimportant at the moment, with that godforsaken chemical searing misery through every nerve in his body. He squeezed her wrist to emphasize that he wanted her to stop.
"Chu Salve, it's highly hemostatic." The princess voice was back in place, though it wavered noticeably. She meant business, which he found admirable somewhere in the back of his mind that was functioning behind the black curtain of blinding, burning pain. "The damaged tissue contracts to seal the severed blood vessels, at least long enough for me to bind the wound. Can you breathe, does it hurt?"
He tilted back his head, watching the green and gray shift of the tree canopy overhead in the half light, and he inhaled slowly. And. Oh, it killed.
"I can breathe." Maybe that didn't sound very convincing, but it was the best he could do.
"It hurts," she concluded, tilting the vial one more time. The sapphire syrup bathed the punctures again, and he stifled a curse he would normally never have even dreamed of using in her royal presence.
"I apologize, I realize how uncomfortable it must be…" she sounded ready to cry again.
Link's head was swimming, his vision flickering in strength like a candle flame. His fingers were going numb, his whole body sinking into a bone deep chill that wrapped around him in a slowly tightening grip, ready to drag him into his grave. He could feel it: the straining of his heart, the icy flood of each painful, knifing breath that shot from his tailbone up to his back teeth, his strength draining ounce by fluid ounce. He could taste blood, coppery and hot, washing up in the back of his throat.
He was going to die. Chu salve or not, she was grasping at straws.
"Link. Link. Look at me!" Her cold hands were on his face again, tilting his head towards her. "Stay with me, okay? Don't close your eyes. Listen, let's get your armor off and I can bind your chest. I don't know if…" her voice went a little shrill before she calmed herself. "I don't know if your lung is punctured. I need Impa's help."
"The…Temple…is more than a half day's journey on foot…"
She was busily unlacing the leather thongs along the shoulder his ruined chainmail and talking about her camp nearby, and he had the strangest urge to laugh. Of all the times he'd quietly fantasized about her frantically undressing him, this had never quite been the scenario. The rawhide clasp at his throat came free, and she tugged the armor open. As she shifted the mail, the wet silk lining of the armor peeled away from his skin, glued with the blood running from the rents across his back that he'd almost completely forgotten about. The pain was all just meshing together by now.
Zelda's hands were pulling on his shoulders, easing him up to sit against her, and he mindlessly allowed it, gritting his teeth with the effort it took to pull his muscles into compliance. He sucked in a quick breath that sliced through him like a lungful of broken glass, and he shuddered, coughing hard as his chest spasmed in violent protest. There was blood in his mouth, and she was pushing a bottle against his lips.
Yes. This was death at its most glamorous.
Before he could protest, another of her foul Sheikan syrups ran over his tongue and down his throat. It tasted like dead flowers smelled, except more noxious and he fought his gag reflex valiantly. Once she'd poured what she felt was an acceptable dose, she tilted the little bulb of a bottle backward and recorked it before stashing it away and returning to the task of pulling off his armor without a word as to what she'd administered.
"Putting me out of my misery?" he inquired acidly. He was only half-joking.
"Of course not. It's just laudanum." The mail shook as she eased his arm free. Already she was daubing the chu salve on his back with a cloth. "…These need to be stitched."
"Laudanum," he coughed. "Might as well have been poison…I won't last ten minutes…" In fact, he already felt the pull of sleep that the opiate would unquestionably bring along with it. Maybe it was just the power of suggestion, but everything was flattening out around him, her voice stretching like she was speaking to him from the end of a long corridor.
"You haven't been listening…Impa will…" He heard her ripping fabric, then the quick, tight tug of her wrapping the scraps around his chest. If she was talking, he couldn't hear her. All he could concentrate on was a dull buzz in his head, like the remembered drone of bees in the forest meadow. Bees reminded him of Saria. Once a long time ago, when he was a child, Saria had told him that bees shouldn't be able to fly. Shouldn't, but could nonetheless. Even if they had to work twice as hard at it and no one would blame the little things for giving up on it altogether.
Though at the time, he hadn't known why she'd told him that. What bees had to do with him, he had no idea. But Saria hadn't been talking about bees. She'd been talking about him. Stupid, no-fairy kid. No one had ever expected anything of him but failure. Except Saria. And, well…Zelda, he supposed.
It looked as though they'd both been sadly mistaken. He'd failed in just about every way he could. With the narcotic crawling slowly through his body, he was even failing at even keeping his eyes open. They were sliding closed already, and he braced himself on one arm as he felt the unavoidable tip forward as his muscles started involuntarily relaxing.
"Why didn't I ask what you were giving me…?"
He felt her hands as she was catching him, felt her breath on his bare, blood-wet shoulder. She was speaking, but her voice was strange; mottled and indistinct, and all he could discern was her cadence, like listening to a conversation through a closed door. Despite how he reached out for it to catch hold of it and hang on, the low, sing-song rhythm of her voice shrank away, and he sank under the surface of a black unconsciousness.
It didn't feel like sleep, more like the familiar but strange disorienting sensation of time travel. He'd no sooner felt everything drop away out from under him than he was opening his eyes, clearly hours later in the starlit darkness, to the gentle rustle and pop of wood burning. His eyes slit open to find an amber glow burning a hole in the dark, warming the front of his body. He blinked sluggishly, fighting to focus, shifting under the heavy shearling-lined blanket and peering around. Though with the shift of his muscles came the knifing pain, the gripping cold, and a new, strange furor bubbling in the cauldron of his mind the more alert he became. The low grumble of the fire seemed much louder than it should, almost like a sort of rolling thunder that didn't fade, and he squinted against it. His brain was throbbing with a ferocious headache; his mouth and throat so dry it felt like dust; his breath so fever-hot it might as well have been steam. But he'd be damned before he asked for water. In fact, the very thought insulted his sense of pride.
He shifted painfully, swallowing a moan, watching the fire for a few minutes while he willed the pain away, breathing slow, measured breaths.
Don't move. Just lay still. Who cares where she is…who cares…
As his eyes shifted out of focus, suddenly he could see her through the fire, her back against a tree trunk, his chainmail spread out on her lap. With a metal tool in her hand, she was realigning the links and pinching them shut; repairing the damage as best was possible.
Through the flames, her movements were methodical, almost slow motion like in a vivid memory being recalled. Her hair was undone, laying wild across her shoulders and she was seemingly ablaze, her gold hair and skin lit with the flames licking up around her in his field of vision; a burning phoenix in the dark forest night that transfixed his semi-coherent gaze, observing her delicate face as she watched her working hands so intently. He regarded her long enough that suddenly he had the strongest compulsion to speak; and as he was still under the twilight of the drug she'd given him, his tongue seemed apt to do as it wished.
"Why?" he asked the flaming apparition, this personification of Din herself or some burning seraphim, and with a jerk of her head of golden fire, she looked up, through the fire and flames to where he lay. She laid the chainmail to the side with a metallic rustle and hurried the bedroll, kneeling beside him and looking down; no longer the fire goddess but disheveled and damp, her blue eyes rimmed red and more human than he could ever recall, something which made him suddenly and intensely uncomfortable. As if listening to her cry hadn't been awful enough.
"Link," she whispered, brushing stray hair from his forehead. "What did you say?"
"Why," he rasped dryly, twisting to the side, away from her cautious hand, just wanting to be further from her but inexorably unable to escape. Which was funny, since that's how most of his life had felt. Like running from things that inevitably found him no matter where he hid and how much he denied them. "I want to know why."
Her brow furrowed, her head shaking a little bit back and forth while she spoke, the shadows of moving firelight. "Why what, Link?"
"Why did you let this happen? You never answered me. How did all of those fortifications put in place fail so quickly? The sages…h-how could your Nayru let this happen under her watch? She could have called for me…"
Zelda looked stricken, her hand coming up against her mouth as she uttered a heartfelt, wordless murmur into her palm. Already her eyes were bright with new tears, even in the vesper. "Because, Link…Nayru…" her voice snagged in her throat, but she forced the words through anyway. The words that she'd been dreading to let slip past her lips and into the air between them where she could deny their truth no longer.
"…Nayru has abandoned me."
She couldn't look at him. Couldn't look up to see his face. She only continued, staring hard at the ground between them, continuing to speak because . "Her guidance…her wisdom…her protection…they have all been lost to me from the moment she withdrew... A-and, because of that…I couldn't…"
Her voice was shrill, pinched but hushed, just a pained whisper tumbling past her lips. She didn't dare lift her gaze until he began to shift, trying to prop himself up on his elbows to look at her more levelly, but he hissed in sudden pain and she started, her hands coming up instinctually to aid him, even as he waved them away and settled back down flat, his hand flexed over his bandaged chest as he pulled in a shuddering breath.
"Abandoned you?" he began, more forcefully, hissing through his teeth. "What do you mean aband—"
"Oh, you're bleeding again…you shouldn't have moved like that." Her voice was raw, but indeed, red was blossoming fresh on the slipshod bandages triangulated across his chest. The swell of pain was back in full force, ripping through him like a blistering blue fire, squeezing the air from his lungs.
As she was pressing a fresh cloth from her pack to his chest, he snatched her right hand determinedly and, even as she tried to pull it away, he tugged off her glove to see the back of her delicate hand, now clearly devoid of the pale triforce insignia they had once shared. He stared at it blankly, his expression pale but incredulous, and the longer he held it there, the more her stomach turned to stone.
Finally she twisted her hand away, her face averted in excruciating shame. "Did you think I would lie about that?"
He closed his eyes against the bewilderment while she continued pressing the cloth firmly to his seeping wound.
"Would you…?" He breathed, squinting at her uncertainly. His voice seemed far away, like he was swiftly slipping back into the opiate smoked oblivion she'd hoped would pacify him until Impa made it back to the camp. Chasing the dragon back into the shadows. "Why would she…do such a thing?"
As a response, and maybe as a distraction, she laid her bare hand against his forehead at his vacant, staring eyes with their glitter of quiet hysteria. "Lord. You're burning alive."
He bent his head away from her slowly with his brow furrowed, expressing his obvious aversion to her touch, but he said nothing, only let out a long, shaking breath and fell into a silence that unnerved her enough after a few moments to press her fingers against his throat to feel for a pulse. He'd lost consciousness again; whether it was the pain or the laudanum, she'd never know. It was possible he wouldn't recall waking up nor their conversation by morning, but if she knew anything about Link at all, and she liked to think she did…a little…he'd remember word for word what she'd said. Not that she'd been particularly eloquent or specific. The explanation he'd been demanding of her wasn't something she could tell him while he lay there, prone and openly vulnerable as he was now. He would hate it, and she couldn't stand to see the expression on his face when he found out why she'd been forsaken by the goddess' good graces and all her high born sensibilities protested violently at the thought.
No. The fact was that she couldn't believe it; she still instinctually wanted to deny her part in it. She still wanted to be a victim of circumstance.
But the fact was that there was no one to blame for it except herself and her own imprudence. Despite what her father had said, she wasn't ready for the weight of the entire kingdom on her shoulders. She had proven that incontestably. And now her noble Father was dead. His empire of divine light lay in blackened ruin from the mountain range to the southern forest. Nabooru was dead, the Desert Colossus reduced to a devastated wasteland. Hundreds of others, both nameless to her and others held deep in her heart, had now been long buried in payment for her selfish whims. Once she'd thought of herself as strong and capable; a woman warrior who had once walked the land under the very nose of the Desert King, disguised as a Sheikan scout with her face covered, hair and breasts bound tight; armed with all the agility and battle capabilities in which Impa had so painstakingly trained her, and the imbuement of Nayru's wisdom to give her an impenetrable safeguard. Once she'd thought she would slide as easily into the role of regent as effortlessly as she had into the skin of Sheik, but…instead, her talent for stern, confident communication and diplomacy in the heat of political disagreement had been more woefully lacking than even she had anticipated.
But she didn't want to think about it all now.
Perhaps when Link was more himself, when Impa had returned and tended to his wounds, when he wasn't lying inert and bloody and she could look him in the eye more easily, then she would consider explaining all of this to him. For now, he was terribly wounded, deep in the thrall of pain and opiates…and still he'd done more for Hyrule in the single, though surprisingly grisly, murder of one stout Barbarian lord than anyone had in the years of his absence. She re-submerged her cloth in her basin of clean water, wrung it, and laid it gently across his forehead and left it for a long moment before removing it, flipping it over and pressing the cool side to his cheek, then the side of his neck where his sweat damp hair clung to the dewy, pallid skin.
The years of his absence from Hyrule had been such cruel ones. Looking down on him, laying there as she'd only ever been able to imagine, she wondered fiercely where he had been every day since she'd last laid eyes on him; sending him away to a place she'd foolishly thought would be free of the hardships their time had faced. Her understanding of the ocarina had been obviously flawed; he could very well have been mistaken for his part of it, after all, here he was; laying static under her hands, breathing lightly, his dark gold hair unbound and laying in a chaotic damp tangle across the burgundy fabric of her down-stuffed bedroll. She reached up to brush her fingertips through it, then hesitated and drew back, wanting with everything she had to force her eyes away from his firelit face. But instead, she only studied it more intently from the sloped curve of his jaw to the soft point of his nose, the twin freckles high on his cheekbone, the thin line of a scar that cut across the fine tail of his left eyebrow, the tawny fringe of his closed eyelashes and the smears of blood on his shoulders and throat. Doing so felt so foolish, like a frivolous child transfixed at a gift they are not allowed to open, but something in her…as it had always been, just couldn't help it, and was slave to the infuriating and irrefutable urge.
Even in the light of the dire situation, it was all flooding back: the familiar glut of possessive, indefatigable emotion that had assaulted her since the first time she'd ever laid eyes on him as a young girl. Even looking upon him now, matured and changed to the point being nearly unrecognizable on sight, still that bizarre charge fired in her the moment she'd seen him again in the forest, and now, despite their argument, it lingered and burned somewhere deep in her, beneath her pulse, beneath her thoughts. It was almost instinctual, subliminal; an utterly enigmatic but nevertheless pressing desire to be near him. It was something elusive, and much harder to kill off than she'd imagined. It had survived years of starvation and drought despite her efforts to quash thoughts of him at every turn, and now they boiled in a fever pitch under the all guilt and shame the remembered abandonment of her divine benefactor had brought back into pitiless focus.
And more than anything, she wanted to ask him why he hadn't just come back to Hyrule after…after those long expected black clouds had lifted. If he'd known all along he could return, as she had not…why had he chosen to stay away from the land he had brought back from the brink of Hell?
Why had he chosen to stay away from her?
It was a selfish demand she wished to make of him. She knew that, and as much as she wanted to, she wouldn't ask. She should have been able to be trusted with the safety of her own kingdom. As the seventh sage. As an honorary warrior of the lost shadow race. As the holder of the triforce of wisdom.
As Princess Zelda XXIII, daughter of the Great King of Hyrule and successor to his regency.
Her own voice echoed around in the caverns of her hollow conscience. Link…How many times have you and I been cursed to be reborn over and over…all to protect this land?
What a waste, this curse of eternal return. A cycle of misery and sacrifice only to end in this endless failure. Sisyphus' boulder rolling back down the hill.
"After all," Impa had once said, revealing to her the arcane magic of the royal Ocarina. "What is time but a snake that eats its own tail?"
She hated it all, time, fate, failure, her future and past all governed by fixed stars. Hated herself for being a helpless slave to it and throwing that wheel into motion. She had always thought herself above that, even during Impa's tales of the endless Legend of Hyrule and its tragic repeating circuit with the same players forced into their roles over and over, whether by soul or by blood, it was always the same.
Now…even her own reflection, she couldn't look at it anymore without bending her gaze away in disgrace for being such a fool to think she could untangle the thread of fate.
And she hated that Impa was right. She was afraid of him. Just a little. But, stupidly, it wasn't because she'd just watched him hack off the head of a man and maim another in the space of a few breaths, as effortlessly as clipping roses. It was because of the way he was going to look at her when she told him why those men had deserved what he'd done to them and worse.
It was because of how he would look at her with disappointment and disdain when she told him why she honestly deserved the same treatment. More than anyone else, she couldn't stand the idea of his looking at her with the same naked contempt as she felt when she looked at herself in a mirror.
Zelda quietly re-submerged the cloth in the cold water, pushing it down in the basin with spread out fingers, watching it bubble up and swell with icy water before she retrieved it and twisted it gently, removing the bulk of the liquid before replacing it on his forehead, pressing it down with her palm for a long moment as though to wick away the excess heat while something hot and wet skipped down her cheek and fell like a warm raindrop to the sodden loam below.
And she did. For what she had done, she deserved to die. But she was too cowardly to do even that.
To be continued…