I occurred to me that I had spent quite a bit of time on my journey unconscious.
I had never been driven to unconsciousness in my first journey. I had been battered and bruised, and I had contemplated collapsing from my wounds and my sleepless exhaustion after days of hard fighting, but in the end, I never did.
Was it because I knew I couldn't afford to fall unconscious in a secluded temple full of monsters? On the whole, in my current journey it'd been safer for me to collapse, if such a thing is possible. The human foes I have faced would not kill me where I lay, and the monsters that I faced, I faced with friends and allies fighting by my side. If I fell against Volvagia or Bongo-Bongo, at the very least I would not fall alone.
But what kind of person would I be to take comfort in such a fact? How can I pretend that if I fail, there will be others to pick up the pieces?
No, I'd been reckless, cutting towards my goal without thinking of the consequences to myself and to others. I led two friends down the side of a mountain into the scene of a massacre, to face the wrath of an ancient dragon. I took two friends with me to the heart of darkness in Kakariko to fight against an endless tide of the walking dead, instead of...protecting them. Protecting innocent people, helping them evacuate. Surely the Gerudo army would have cooperated, knowing that an undead plague was taking over the city. I rushed headlong to the source of the problem while innocent people, soldiers and guerillas alike, died in ways too horrible to visualize. Instead of thinking of others.
Instead of being a hero.
And now, where am I?
My scattered impressions gathered up and became coherent thought once more. Feeling and impression return before memory, as is the way of one returning to consciousness. I was lying on my side. And I was in pain.
Wake up. No more time.
The wolves are at the door...
My eye opened wide, trying to take in everything. I'm in the Temple. I'm with the Kokiri. The wolves. The battle. The blood. I knew this, and the knowledge could not let me rest.
I rose from my convalescence. I was lying on a bunk in a dark stone room. The last time I was in such as state, they had finished grafting skin over the bloody hole where my eye used to be. This time, it's nothing so dire, just potential paralysis, blood loss, and almost certain frostbite.
My legs felt like they were on fire. I could feel the pressure of bandages around them, but the fact that the pressure made the wounds burn with pain told me that I had not been out long enough for my body to become used to it. My arms were likewise throbbing with the pain of pressure on wounds. I inspected. The bandages were bloody, but dry: nothing fresh. Good enough. I sat up.
My neck felt stiff and supplied a dull, constant, hollow pain. It was the kind of punishing, lingering pain that I had learned to ignore. I could move my whole body, I wasn't crippled. Good enough. I stood.
My fingers on both hands were wrapped in gauze and cloth. I was able, painfully, to wiggle them in the cocoon of cotton that bound them like a mitten. That's okay. Don't need them...
I started walking towards the arched entrance to the room, from which I saw a glow that suggested inhabited rooms ahead. My feet were bare, my clothes were mostly missing. I looked more like a Gibdo than anything else. There were wounds in places I hadn't even realized were wounded. Stupid of me. Should have taken better stock of my situation. Doesn't matter now.
I staggered a bit as I neared the door. My legs were so weak. My feet were bare, numb, bandaged like my fingers. Had to be frostbite. I wondered if all my toes were still there. Stay up...
I groaned and crashed into the wall with a jolt of pain. Too much blood gone, too much cold. Lightheaded. Tired. No. Can't give up. Not this time.
Movement, sound. People were coming. The light from the next room was blocked by moving shapes. The light at their back threw their features into shadow, but I knew all I needed to know. They were Kokiri. Two of them, investigating the noise.
"Hey..." I managed weakly, trying to push myself off the wall and continue.
"You...What are you doing?" one of them gasped. "You need to..."
"Nope. Going." I was able to stand again, unsteadily.
"Going where?" the second Kokiri asked incredulously. "You're going to die on your feet if you don't just rest for a..."
"No. Listen. There are two people in this place that I care at all about. Neither of them is me. Where is she?" The words leaving my mouth seemed a thousand miles away.
"The woman who was with me. I have to see her. You'll bring me to her."
"But..." one began.
The two backed off. I staggered into the lit room.
Torches had coated the walls dark with smoke, and it was warm. There were more beds, lined up in rows. Some held sleeping Kokiri. I kept looking, and noticed a clump of Kokiri crowded around one of the beds.
A few noticed me as I approached, and mumbled a few surprised words. I wasn't able to listen, only look and see. They backed away and I got to the bedside.
"She's..." someone began.
"...alive," I said with weary joy.
Her breath was shallow, and she was pale, but Zelda was alive. Her skin was still pale as the snow, her lips a dull, lifeless shade. But a tiny hint of rose, like the first flower of spring, was on her cheeks.
"How long..." I started.
"An hour or so...You've been out an hour or so," answered one of the Kokiri, an orange-haired girl whose bloodstained fingers indicated that she had been working on me. "She's stabilized, but..."
I wavered on my feet, closing my eyes briefly and nearly collapsing. Just say she'll be okay, damn it...then I can pass out in peace.
"But what," I said dully.
"Frostbite. There's a chance she might lose a toe, or a finger..."
"No. Not..." I slurred drunkenly. "Not an option."
"We're doing our best," the orange-haired Kokiri said plaintively.
"You need to lie down, Mister," a third Kokiri injected. "You aren't doing too much better."
"I'm here and I'm awake. 'M not..." My head sank momentarily, but I shook it off. "There's got to be something we can...seen...it's..." My ability to make coherent thoughts ran out, and I paused to try to recollect it.
"It's possible. I've heard of the potions they use in the Hyrulian Army, for officers who are wounded. It somehow..." The Kokiri's high voices seemed to quaver and distort. I kept blinking my eyes, trying to wipe away the blurriness of my vision.
"...don't have anything like that! We would have already..."
"...can't we ask someone? Call in a favor..."
"...for these two? We don't even know..."
Their voices became a discordant burble. I could feel myself slipping away, and hated myself for it. I couldn't give up yet, not while there was still a chance to help Zelda. My mind plunged into a morass of free association, looking for something to cling to so that I could keep from falling back into black unconsciousness. The cold, forest, wolves, blood, bone, healing, temple, Kokiri, fairies...
And after that, my vision went dark. Only for a moment, I thought, only for a fraction of a second I nodded off. I didn't fall. I didn't move. But when I forced my eyes open again I found a now-familiar and yet still terrifying experience had occurred.
Of course, I was no longer among the Kokiri in the Forest Temple. Of course, my past had come up to engulf me in my moment of weakness. Why did this keep happening?
It was dark. Cold. Wet. Only a small glimmer of light, seen from far off, gave me guidance in the blackness. The walls around me were ancient, slick with grime and moisture, carved with inscrutable designs like ill omens. I was waterlogged, exhausted, barely awake. I could feel the water as if it was soaking into my bones. I was so heavy with weight, and death, as though it clung to me.
I remembered this, like a bad dream. It was one of the most terrifying memories that fate could have conjured. The Water Temple. A maze of passageways, rooms of deadly traps, the constant cold dripping of the omnipresent water. The room of endless mist, the single tree, and the crowning horror, that dark shadow of myself born of Ganondorf's malice. I hated every second of it, yet in the end it had been one of my longest trials. I spent hours trying to figure out the tricks and puzzles of the place. It assaulted my mind and my body. Often I would collapse in despair, in some cold corner of the maze, for hours at a time. I despaired of ever seeing the sun again. And now I was here again.
I rolled over onto my side, trying to clear my head. A flickering blue light was my answer.
"Hey...Link, you're okay...get up." Navi flitted around my head. "You can do this, Link."
I sat up. My head was still spinning, but it was growing clear now. I heard her soft, tinkling voice, saw her light in the darkness.
"No matter what, you can prevail. You're the Hero of Time."
I wanted to speak, but could only give a gurgling cough.
"Rest, Link. I'll keep watch." Navi flew away from me, and I sank back. It felt so good to close my eyes.
I don't know how long I was out this way, but when I opened my eyes I was laying on my side, and across a small gap in our beds, I saw Zelda's face. I was under a layer of warm blankets, warm candlelight illuminating us. It was silent, probably late at night. A basin of water between our beds reflected the shifting flame of the candle. The wretched temple of watery death was sealed safely away, many miles and many years from here, in a tiny corner of my mind that I try to keep far from my conscious thought.
"Link..." she spoke softly, her lips hardly moving, her eyes half-closed. Slowly, her arm emerged from the blankets. It reached out across the gap towards me.
I extended my arm towards hers. I grasped her now-warm hand with my bandaged one, and smiled. For a moment, she smiled back. Then, I fell into a comforting darkness, a dreamless sleep untroubled by the demons of my past or the dangers of the present, and it would be many hours before I emerged. Maybe, now, unconsciousness wasn't so bad.
My return to awareness was sudden and sharp, and for a moment I believed I had been awakened by a flash of light. But there was nothing to see. I was engulfed in darkness but undeniably awake.
I quickly realized that what had awakened me was not a flash of light, but a flash of pain. A spot on my chest stung fiercely, and there had been a loud crack. Groggy, I briefly considered the possibility that I had been struck there by lightning, before my rationality asserted itself and rejected that hypothesis.
Why was it so dark? I tried to squint. Then suddenly it occurred to me that my eye was shut, that it had not snapped open, as reflex would force it to, the moment the sound and the pain had struck me. I wiggled my nose, scrunched my face, and felt my skin sliding across something. A blindfold.
Something was gravely wrong. Deprived of my sight, I tried to feel my way through the situation and attempted to move my hand in front of me to grope. I could not move my arms. Focusing my attention on them, I determined that they were being held behind my back. A tightness on my wrists attested to bindings of some sort. The inner parts of my arms were pressed against something cold, hard, and cylindrical, like a marble pillar about two feet in diameter. The cold shaft of the stone pillar pressed against my bare back as well, and when I tried to pull myself forward, away from it, I found I could not. My shackled wrists kept me stationary against it.
Then I became aware of the ache in my knees, and sensed that the weight of my upper body was resting heavily on them. I surmised, then, that I was kneeling, with shins and arms wrapped behind me around the pillar. I could not move my legs, though whether that was because they too were bound or whether it was simply my weight pinning them in place, I could not tell.
That was the extent to which I was able to assess my situation, before the lightning struck again.
The loud crack and the flash of stinging pain on my chest, also bare, were simultaneous. My teeth clenched and I exhaled in a hiss.
The voice came from in front of me, in a tone as cold and hard as the frozen ground outside the Temple.
"You and I have much to discuss. I've let you rest more than you deserve, so that you can recover your strength. You will need it."
The voice was unlike any I had heard before. I thought that it might be a Kokiri's voice, but no Kokiri could produce a voice so dire and severe. The thought crossed my mind that I might not even still be among them, but that I had been spirited away to some dreadful dungeon elsewhere.
"I am counting on you to be strong, and endure. Because if you break too easily, too quickly, there will never be enough time for me to extract everything that I wish to know from you."
The voice chilled me to the bone. There was a hint of sinister passion to it, but at the same time it was so detached, so calm and remote. A pitiless voice, as though its speaker had been hurt too many times to feel pain any longer.
"But I'm sure you will endure. They always do. They cling to the fraying strand of life, fearful of the abyss. I know."
The chilling voice paused, skillfully letting the words sink in. I was haunted by it—not by its threat, but by a strange and nearly imperceptible familiarity. It was alien, unnatural, and yet so close to someone I had heard before.
"I will ask, and you will answer. This..."—again there struck a thunderbolt of pain—"...will be your motive. For now."
My teeth were on edge, my lips parted. My mind was racing, frantic. The pain was hardly felt; I was consumed with the burning question of my tormentor's identity. A thousand possibilities whirled through my mind as I tried to match some trace of the voice I was hearing to a voice I that I knew. But it was not enough, not yet. I needed the torturer to keep talking.
At that moment I, too, felt an undeniable urge to talk, to speak out and grab hold of some agency in this exchange. I spoke the first words that came into my mind.
"What have you done with the woman, my companion?"
Laughter like a swarm of daggers filled the air. "Your little blonde whore? That's who's on your mind right now?"
I could barely make out the softest of footsteps, and the direction of the voice changed accordingly as my captor seemed to pace in front of me. "Mmm. I cut her throat. She bled out like a slaughtered pig. How does that make you feel?"
A moment passed. I betrayed no hint of emotion.
"You're lying." I grunted the phrase in a monotone through clenched teeth.
Again there came the melodic laughter that seemed to slice through my ears and lacerate the darkness that engulfed me. Even more than the voice, the laughter seemed familiar. It had a disturbing innocence coming from the lips of a cold-blooded torturer.
"Ha ha, I am. Of course I am. What a waste that would be!" I felt something touching my cheek, tracing along my jawline. It felt like flesh, a finger. I knew my unseen tormentor was standing right in front of me. "Now that I know how much you care about her, I'll be sure to let you hear her screams. Perhaps you can both suffer at once, and the suffering of each will loosen the other's tongue."
"Well, I'd love to chat, but you haven't asked me anything," I responded smugly. A plan was forming in my head. If I wanted to claw back any hope, and draw out any more clues, I would have to get under my captor's skin. Upset the balance of power. Bound to a column, blind and beaten, I would have to fight back with words.
My insolent reply was rewarded with another stinging blow, this time to the side of my face. The force of the blow jerked my head sideways.
"You Gerudo spies are all the same. Your bravado sustains you through the first stages of the agony I inflict. I like that. I like to watch your confidence crumble and your willful defiance shear away to nothing."
"You still aren't asking me anything."
"Then I will ask you this." The voice hovered close to my face. "How did you find this place?"
"I knew how to get here."
I felt a faint rush of air as whoever was in front of me drew back. "Impossible. A legion of your finest scouts entered this forest years ago, and not one returned unscathed. The lucky ones were those who did not return at all. The unlucky ones stumbled out delirious, driven mad by what they had witnessed here. The Lost Woods holds no mercy for defilers like you. Did your Gerudo paymasters not tell you that you had been recruited for a suicide mission?"
The corner of my lips curled into a brief smirk. "I'm going to ask you a question, now."
I expected another blow, but none came. The footsteps stopped, as if the torturer was almost intrigued by my boldness. So I continued: "Why do you think I am a Gerudo?"
"I did not say you were a Gerudo. You are no woman, so they will never truly call you one of their own. What you are, however, is a sympathizer. Maybe they enticed you with their lies. Maybe they coerced you. I don't care. I want to know how you found this place, and why you were sent here."
I did not answer. My silence provoked a strike. This time the blow landed precisely on the spot of the first blow that had awakened me, redoubling the agony. The torturer was demonstrating impressive skill.
Still, I did not respond. This prompted a measured series of strikes, on my chest, shoulders, arms and face, raining down on me with clockwork regularity. I endured each one, waiting for my chance to continue the dialogue as an equal, refusing to speak on demand.
The beating stopped and I could hear the torturer's breathing, louder than before from the effort but clearly nowhere near exhaustion.
"Hmm. Perhaps you are the sort who will respond to a bit of flattery. Dressing in the garb of a Sylvan Liberator was an uncommonly shrewd precaution. I wonder, did you infiltrate them, and learn the secrets of the forest that way? It could not have helped you greatly. It's not as if any of our so-called champions could find the path, anyway. And although you wear their clothes, you did not disguise your face. I know the face of each and every one of those sanctimonious bastards, and you...aren't...one."
With those words, I felt a small hand grip my neck just below the chin. It jerked my head back, against the pillar. It gripped firmly, choking me slightly and uncomfortably but leaving me free to speak.
"You're right," I wheezed. "No Sylvan Liberator knows the path. I made it here because I am not one of them."
"No one knows the path," the torturer spat. I could tell that a bubble of emotion was rising in the torturer's voice. "None but my people. And you are an outsider, a foolish Hyrulian on orders from the Gerudo butchers. What is your mission?!"
"My mission is to find someone," I answered. "Someone very important."
"Ahh! Now we're getting somewhere." The hand released me, and my head slumped for a moment before I pulled it back upright, although it was tiring my neck muscles to hold it erect. "Not just a spy, but an assassin."
"I didn't say that," I responded in a measured tone.
"Fool!" snapped the voice. "Why else would you be ordered to find a specific, important person?"
"I would not expect you to understand the true reason."
I fully anticipated retribution for that response, and the torturer did not disappoint, but this time the pain was different. I was struck again on the cheek, but it was not the sharp sting of before. It was broader and duller, with the sound of flesh striking flesh. A contemptuous backhand, I believed. It could only mean that whoever was tormenting me was losing patience. Getting personal. Good.
"I will have the truth from you," the voice barked bitterly, making a snort of disgust. "To say that I would not understand your petty motives...It is you who cannot understand. You can never comprehend the wickedness that your overlords perpetrated against me, against us."
There was a moment of silence, crackling with tension. I pictured my captor seething silently before me, stung by my nonchalance.
"I..." The voice wavered, betraying the first glimmer of weakness I had heard so far. "I am feeling indulgent. I will give you a history lesson, that you might know of the crimes that you are now accomplice to."
The torturer quickly tried to resume the air of cold superiority, but sadness was welling up below the surface. "I was so young when they came. You tall folk think of the Kokiri as children, eternally young and innocent. That's not true. But in a way, you were right. We were innocent. Our lives were harmonious, our happiness untainted by your wars and your greed and your recklessness. It was all destroyed."
I knew it all too well, and I was keenly aware of the sad irony, the torturer whose pain at the destruction of the forest was identical to my own. My tormentor did not need to try and impart the grief of the Kokiri people onto my heart, for it was there already. It was painful, but I needed the unseen voice to continue. As my captor spoke the sense of familiarity grew stronger, as if the voice of the person I knew was slowly emerging like the grass with the thaw of spring.
"I had just lost someone dear to me. I could not be the leader that my people needed. I could not stop the Gerudo armies from torching my home, from slaughtering my friends. I could only help those fortunate survivors to escape from their pointless and vindictive wrath, into the woods where we would be safe."
The voice grew almost wistful. "Still...I had hope, even then. Even with my village destroyed, and the Great Deku Tree slain...I had hope that soon the butchers would leave, and the forest could grow again and heal the wounds they had left behind. But it was not to be. Like a shroud the snows came, and the spirit of the forest fell asleep, deep beneath the protective blanket of frozen death. The Gerudo banished life and vibrancy and left cold hibernation behind. Now I fear the wound will never heal. This place will not forgive the insult that you inflicted on it!"
The voice drew close, so close that I felt the heat of breath on my face as my tormentor screamed out the primal rage and bitter sorrow that was mirrored in my own heart. "THAT is your legacy! THAT is the way of the Gerudo! And YOU would come here to slay me, to finish what they could not?!"
With that final utterance, any doubt slipped away. I knew. I finally knew.
"I didn't come here to kill you. I came here to help you..."
Instantly there were hands at my throat again, but this time there was no mercy or restraint. Pain wracked me as I was viciously choked and shaken, the back of my head slamming against the pillar.
"I haven't used that name in seven years, not since that day! How...did…you...know?!"
I gasped desperately and croaked my answer. "You...said...you lost...someone...dear."
The choking stopped, and I heard a short, wracking sob. Then the sharp, lightning pain began again on my chest, over and over and over at a frantic pace, the poise and composure of before completely discarded in reckless spite, each word spoken matched with a furious blow.
"How do you know about him?! He is the only one who could have told you how to get here, told you who I am! WHAT—DID—YOU—DO—TO—HIM?!"
My chest was a mass of searing agony, and I felt a hot trickle of blood dripping down my abdomen from the onslaught. I spoke in ragged gasps. "You said...you lost him. But he...was never...lost."
"He promised you...he would meet you again."
"How...how can you know that?"
My breathing had become smooth again, and I chuckled. "You went to all this trouble to get information out of me...and you didn't search my possessions?"
In the darkness behind the blindfold I heard retreating footsteps, and the sound of my pack being rummaged through. I knew just what I was hoping would be found, and after a few moments, I heard a shocked cry.
"This...this is..." The footsteps approached again, and I felt hands brush my skin near my forehead. Then the blindfold was yanked off, and my eye flew open, briefly dazzled by the light. My vision was blurry, and the small, slender figure in front of me was speaking in a pained, astonished whisper.
My vision cleared, and there she was.
She was dressed, like the rest of the Kokiri, in an outfit made of snow-white fur. She was looking straight at me with wide eyes glistening with unshed tears, the irises a paler shade of blue than I remembered. Though she was still no larger than a child, hardship had etched a stoic maturity on her face where none had been evident before. And atop her head, the hair that had been a vibrant, cheerful green in the days of my youth had turned, like the whole of the forest, to a dull white flecked with shades of dark black and brown. But the superficial changes could not possibly have misled me. I had not judged wrong.
In one of her hands she clutched the small beige ocarina that I had snatched from her that day on the bridge seven years ago, that she had just retrieved from among my belongings. With the other hand, she drew a knife from her belt, and reached behind me with it, slashing through my bonds and freeing my hands. On the floor nearby, lying discarded and flecked with my blood, was the black leather riding crop she had been beating me with.
I slowly brought my aching arms forward as she, trembling, put the ocarina in my hands. "Play it," she stammered, barely containing herself. "If you really...if you really are...you'll know the song."
I knew it well. My hands shook slightly as I raised the ocarina to my lips, but once it was there, I was unperturbed. The melody came to me with practiced ease, and I played her song. The song that we shared, the song of a happier time, the song of our eternal friendship.
As the last notes faded the tears fell freely from her eyes, but on her lips was a fragile, quivering smile. "Link...you came back."
I smiled back, broadly, and for a few moments we simply gazed at each other. But unexpectedly my happiness seemed to suddenly devastate her. Her smile vanished, her eyes slammed shut and she let out a hoarse cry. She threw an arm over her face and turned away, and began to run, stumbling, wailing, away from the pillar I was kneeling before.
I gingerly rose to my feet, ignoring all the pain, calling after her. "No! Wait...why..."
She staggered, weeping, towards the far wall, but there was no door in that direction. Her outstretched hand reached the wall and she stopped, despairing, and sank to her knees, and then doubled over with her hands on the floor. I followed her as quickly as my aching legs could accommodate, seeing her tears splashing on the stone floor.
"No," she sobbed as I approached. "Don't look at me..."
"Saria..." I reached her and knelt by her, unsure.
"Don't look at what I've become, Link. How...how could I have done this to you?" Her arms gave out and curled her face to her knees. Not knowing what else to do, I put my hand on her back and gently rubbed between her shoulders.
She wept pitifully there for about a minute before she could speak again. "I...I've been twisted by bitterness, I lost myself in cruelty. I'm a monster. Y-you must...hate me."
"No," I said emphatically. Saria slowly lifted her head from the floor, and finally looked me in the eye once more. I put my other arm around her, and drew her closer.
"No matter what," I said softly, "I will always be your friend."
She crushed herself against me, and I hugged my best friend for the first time in seven long years. In that moment, it felt as though I had never left.