"I was born in the sky and in the sky I'll die."
~ Ooc'ca Proverb
She pressed her nose into the crook of her elbow as she struggled out of the hut, dodging burning debris and flaming thatch falling from the roof. Breathing through the fabric of the gown, she tried not to cough as her lungs filled with smoke, and she stumbled over a blazing timber. Clutching her mother's wooden flute to her chest, Zelda staggered out the door.
The sound of hoofbeats reached her ears. Reacting purely on instinct, she rushed away from her hut and hid in a bush that was still untouched by flame, pressing the flute into her pocket. A raiding party of bulblins appeared from behind the village's modest little temple, white horns glinting in the firelight. They screeched, weapons held in their hands, standards raised high.
Zelda could hear the distant screams of her neighbors and friends, could see the vortexes of flame spreading on winds meant to put the fires out. Hiding in the bush, she watched, tears stinging her eyes, as women and children fled the burning temple where they had taken sanctuary, only to be cut down by the bulblins. The men had been taken from afar by burning arrows, Zelda thought. If only those same arrows hadn't lit Zelda's whole world aflame.
Moruge had been a tranquil village, nestled in the quiet depths of the Fairy Forest. A long way from civilization, the people of Moruge made their living on the woods around them: gathering berries, hunting game, weaving baskets, carving wood. And though they were also a village full only of Wind Elementals, they were peaceful and disturbed none with their magic.
But, several months earlier, bulblins had begun appearing in the woods with greater frequency as a drought ravaged the land. Searching for food and water, they had become a greater and greater nuisance… but never one that anyone had taken seriously.
What fools they all had been.
Zelda crouched down in the bush as one of the raiding party looked her way, pressing a fist to her lips to keep from sobbing in terror and grief, battling waves of helplessness. There was nothing she could do, she realized as the bulblin looked away. There was nothing she could do for her people.
Uncaring of the fire, the bulblins dismounted and began to ransack the homes. Zelda watched in horror as they hauled out her own things: her quilt, which was dragged into the dirt and trampled, her food, her few valuables. Her things were loaded onto the back of their piggish bullbos along with the valuables of a number of other village people: she recognized the money bag of their enterprising mapmaker, Tingle, the tools of Vasu, their blacksmith and occasional jewelry maker, old Gregal's best arrows, all hanging pell-mell off the back of a bullbo.
Silent tears streaming down her cheeks, Zelda watched as the bulblins finished their pillage and plundering, then rode away. She waited as long as she could bear to be sure they wouldn't come back, heart breaking as her beloved home was reduced to a smoking ruin. At last, she broke free of the bushes and ran back to the village, trying to find someone— anyone— who had survived. It wasn't a long run— though she lived on the far edge of the village, beyond the temple, it was normally ten minutes' walk from the village square. Moruge had been a small village, but a happy one. And now it was in flames.
Rounding the temple and skidding into the square, Zelda froze at the horror before she began to desperately call out. She called and called until her voice was hoarse. Nobody responded. All of the wooden buildings had collapsed in the fire. If anyone inside had been alive, they no longer were. Bodies littered the ground. She searched all of the bushes, but nobody was there. Everyone was dead.
She was the only one left.
She turned around and trudged back in the direction of her home. It seemed to take a lifetime, and yet no time at all, before she reached her smoking home. Gathering her torn and muddied quilt up off the ground, Zelda pressed it to her chest and stared at the wreckage of her hut, eyes stinging with tears. She'd watched the bulblins take everything important. There would be nothing left in there for her. She could try, wait a while until the fires and ashes cooled, dig through the wreckage of the rest of the village, see what she could find. Winter was coming. Perhaps there were some food stores the bulblins had missed, something that hadn't been damaged by the fire…
She felt herself go numb. There was nothing she could do here, for now. Wrapping the dirty and smoke-stained quilt around her shoulders, Zelda set off into the woods, thinking only of finding a soft patch of grass to curl up on and to shut her eyes, hopefully forever.
Her shaking legs carried her on familiar deer paths through the Fairy Forest, under lush tree branches and over thick and winding roots. It was a beautiful day, or would have been if Zelda's home was still standing. If everyone that Zelda loved wasn't— didn't— hadn't been—
Another wave of numbness washed over her, smothering the anguish that threatened to crush her. Finally stumbling to the grove where she had so often played as a child, Zelda sank to the grass. Curling up on her side, she pulled the smoke-scented quilt tighter around her and shut her eyes as everything began to go faint.
It couldn't be real, she thought to herself as she studied the pink darkness behind her eyelids. This was all a terrible dream.
She didn't know how long she laid there, paralyzed with grief; it could have been minutes, it could have been days. But she was roused briefly when she realized she wasn't alone. Something warm brushed against her mind, warm and alien. She ignored it.
Footsteps crunched towards her. Zelda thought about struggling, but her limbs were so heavy; she was so tired. She didn't care what happened. Whoever it was knelt down next to Zelda. She felt her breath refracted back on her lips as someone slid a careful hand near her nose to check if she was breathing.
"Hey." The someone touched her cheek with a warm hand. It was calloused. "Hey, wake up."
It was a man's voice. He sounded worried. Zelda wanted to tell him to go away, but her body was heavy.
"Wake up." He tried again, moving that warm hand to her shoulder and shaking. She was awake. Couldn't he see that? Couldn't he leave her alone?
There was a terrible sinking feeling in her stomach and she couldn't remember why. She didn't know what had happened. All she knew was that she didn't want to be alive anymore.
When she didn't respond, the strange man muttered something that sounded like a curse, though it wasn't one she recognized. Zelda felt herself being gathered up, heard the man grunt in surprise as he easily lifted her light weight. She could smell him— like the electric tang in the air before a thunderstorm came. Like rain. A quick flying sensation and she felt something else beneath her, something soft, something that rustled. Then her stomach dropped out as whatever it was that they were on went up with a sudden lurch, flapping up and down nauseatingly, rising and rising and rising. The air got thinner and colder. Blackness took her.
She woke suddenly.
Sitting up, unfamiliar blankets slid off her shoulders. She looked around wildly. She was inside a stone and plaster building, the walls painted cheerful shades of blue and green with yellow geometric designs. She'd never been inside a stone building before, but she recognized it from the stories she'd heard from the traders who occasionally came through. The furniture was carefully crafted and wooden, well kept and glowing with a recent layer of polish. She was lying on one of several narrow beds, draped in thick, homespun blankets. It was cold, colder than she would have thought possible for a place to be, and she realized she was breathing harder than usual. Her left leg was agony, as was her right arm.
Looking down at herself, she saw she was wearing a woolen nightgown. Her wet hair had been braided back, and though it had been washed it still smelled of smoke.
She began to shake, wrapping her arms around herself and drawing her knees up to her chest, though her left leg barely bent. Her home was gone. Everyone was dead. There was nothing she could do.
She was alone.
The door opened and a young woman entered the building. She was a few years younger than Zelda, her hair done in a loose golden braid down her back. She wore a white long sleeved gown, and over it, a long, blue shift, embroidered with red poppies. Around her left wrist, a braid shone on her skin in thick blue lines. Her night black eyes lit on Zelda and softened.
"Ah," she said quietly. "You're awake."
Zelda stared at the girl. She opened her mouth to speak, but all that came out was a hoarse croak, and her throat closed as she thought of her people. The girl frowned and bustled over to a pitcher of water. She poured a generous amount into a wooden cup and brought it over to Zelda.
"You've lost your voice," the girl said. "From breathing in smoke, I expect. I've bandaged the worst of your burns, but you did receive quite a bit of damage to much of your body just from proximity to the flames. My brother found you and brought you to me."
Zelda looked around the building again. Understanding her question, the young woman spoke again. "You're in a village called Loft. My name is Aryll. I'm a healer. My brother was scavenging for food when he found you— he brought you straight to me. He has gone back to look for more survivors."
Zelda's face must have said it all, because Aryll's black eyes filled with sympathy.
"I'm so sorry," she said softly. "I can't even imagine what you've been through."
With shaking hands, Zelda drank her water, keeping her gaze thoroughly away from Aryll.
"I cleaned you up as best I could," Aryll informed Zelda. "I'm going to have to change your bandages in a while, though, and I'm sorry. It won't be pleasant. You've got some terrible burns, and your body is going to take a while to recover. Would you like something to eat?" she asked gently. Zelda shook her head. "I can make you some tea," Aryll added. "Or maybe bring you a book."
To this last question, Zelda finally nodded. She'd never seen a real book before. Nobody in Moruge had ever been able to afford one. At the thought of home, Zelda's eyes filled again with tears. She pressed her face into her hands, not wanting this strange woman to see her cry.
"I have a question," Aryll said, voice soft and understanding. "Your body. You look like me, but… there are things that are different. You're far too light, for one. You're not human, are you?"
Zelda, face still buried in her hands, shook her head.
Aryll hummed low in her throat. "But what are you? Will you react to any of the medicine? Oh, dear. Well, it's better than no treatment, I suppose." She touched Zelda's back once in comfort, her fingers feather-light. Even still, Zelda felt the sting of her burns. Funny. She hadn't even noticed when she got them.
"I'll get you something to read," Aryll said quietly. "You can read, can't you?"
Zelda nodded. Aryll sighed. "Good, then. I'll be right back."
Zelda heard her footsteps, quiet even in the thick boots she'd been wearing, pad across the floor. The door swung shut behind her with a creak and she crunched away across stone. Zelda let the floodgates open, sobbing into her palms. She grabbed her pillow and pressed her face into that, suppressing the howls but not managing to keep in the whimpers of a wounded animal. It was not too long before Zelda heard footsteps outside again, and the whimpers, too, were suppressed, though she was unable to stop crying.
Her home. Her friends. Everything gone.
The door swung open again.
"Aryll?" came a man's voice, light and warm. She smelled that thunderstorm smell again. Apparently he had looked around and seen that Aryll wasn't around, because he sighed.
"I'm so sorry, miss," he said softly from afar. His voice confirmed what she already knew: they were all gone.
Zelda only cried harder into the pillow. She heard him approach her, and instinctively, she balled up tighter, though her wounded left leg remained mostly straight. Seeing the small, desperate motion, the man's footsteps stopped, then retreated.
"Forgive me. I will leave you to your grief," he said, his voice full of regret. The door swung quietly shut behind him.
After a few minutes, her tears subsided into shaking. She remembered her childhood, when her mother and father had been alive. She remembered how, when her mother got sick, her father had stayed beside her for as much of every day as he could. And she remembered how, when mother had died, all Zelda had wanted was to curl up into as tiny a ball as possible, to crawl into her father's body and let him carry her next to his heart where she would be safe from harm, insulated from the agony of losing her mother. Her father had gone only the year after that in a hunting accident, gored by a boar.
She had been so young. She had been only fourteen. It had been nine years, and yet, with the loss of her village, she felt that pain keenly again.
She was all alone. She was, quite possibly, the last Wind Elemental alive.
It was too horrible to contemplate.
At last, Aryll returned, bearing a square cloth sack in her arms.
"I understand my brother came in," she said softly. Zelda, exhausted, nodded into the pillow, and then looked up at Aryll, eyes bloodshot. "Did he disturb you?"
Zelda shook her head. She set the pillow aside behind her and fixed her eyes on the package in Aryll's arms.
"A book and a gift," Aryll said quietly. She walked over to the bed and gestured to the edge. "May I?"
Zelda nodded again. Aryll sat, setting the cloth bag in her lap. She withdrew from it first a long, red feather quill, and a pot of ink for writing. Next came a book, bound in thick leather. And last came a smaller book, bound together with cloth, made of various scraps of paper of differing sizes.
"Our legends and history," said Aryll, touching the large leather book fondly. "This is only on loan. I hope that you will enjoy it. The cloth book is for you to write in, if you need to. Most of us in Loft keep journals. It is a good way to let the hurt out of your soul."
Zelda pressed the cloth journal to her chest, blinking back tears again. They were being too good to her. She was a total stranger. She cocked her head to the side, her expression clearly asking why they were bothering with her, why she had been saved. Aryll looked at her for a long time, expression inscrutable.
"Our people would not leave an injured woman to die," she said at last. "We believe that we each have our parts to play, and that we found you for a reason. It is better, I think, to find your way before your way finds you."
Though Zelda didn't understand, she hesitantly nodded. Aryll arranged a number of thick pillows behind her and helped her lean back. Zelda winced as her burns were compressed, but made herself ignore it as she propped the book against her stinging right knee. Using her bandaged right hand, she flipped the first page open.
"You came up here with a quilt. I've cleaned it as best I could, but it's not salvageable— don't worry, I didn't throw it away," she said as Zelda looked up in alarm. Aryll held up her hands in a placating gesture. "I've boxed it up for you. Also, a wooden flute was in your pocket," Aryll added. "It's fine. It's being cleaned— ash got in it."
Zelda nodded gratefully, trying to blink back more tears. She willed them away, waiting for her vision to de-blur so she could read the first page. It was a beautifully drawn picture of a number of humans soaring on the backs of enormous birds. At the top of the page, an inscription read in ornate lettering,
"An Acktual Historie and Legends of Loft."
Zelda admired the artwork a bit more, then turned the page.
'The Beginning,' she read.
'At the beginning of all things there was only chaos. Then the three golden ones descended and created order from disorder. Din made the land. Nayru made the sky. Farore made the underworld.
'Their labors completed, the golden ones left behind a relic of their divinity, guarded by creatures called the Ooc'ca, beings of great power and magic, to scatter the seeds of life across the soil of the world. There were, at first, two great Ooc'ca: Day and Night. Father Day guarded the relic of the golden ones, the power that lights the land. Mother Night laid First Egg, and incubated it for seven times seven seven times years. The world hatched from it, though it remains in the night sky to re-hatch the world each midwinter; and from First Egg came all of the lesser Ooc'ca, and the plants and the rivers and the clouds.
'Many years passed, and the Ooc'ca flourished, but Day and Night were not satisfied. Gathering their power again, they created the Wise Lady, a powerful woman made in the image of the three golden ones. She, in turn, made the humans and their Brothers and Sisters; she made the creatures of the surface, beings of fur and slick skin and strength. And then, at last, she adjourned to the sky, where she sits between Father Day and Mother Night, neither light nor dark.
'And so it is that we have the Ooc'ca to guide us, and our Brothers and Sisters to make us whole.'
It was like no creation story Zelda had ever heard, though there had been relatively little interaction with beings from outside Moruge, save for the occasional merchant train. Eyes tired, unaccustomed to reading for so long, Zelda shut the book, running her fingers across the leather cover. With the intention of closing her tired eyes just for a few moments, she sighed and leaned her head back against the pillows behind her.
Over the next three weeks, Zelda's life fell into a steady rhythm of sleeping often, eating once a day, and reading occasionally. Sometimes she wrote in her journal, though her hand quickly cramped around the feather quill. She never cried and she never spoke, not even to say her name, though Aryll was patient with her. At last, Aryll declared Zelda's burns healed enough that she could be active, though she warned the young woman that there would be scarring.
"Healed burns mean you can't lie around in bed anymore," Aryll said lightly, though there was slight reproof in her voice. "So it's time for you to get up and start doing chores, miss. You'll need to pull your own weight here, same as the rest of us."
Aryll's brother never made a return while Zelda was awake, though she knew he came by occasionally when she was sleeping— oftentimes when she woke, there would be fresh flowers beside her bed or in the vase on the table, or food, or a new book. Zelda wasn't sure why, but she appreciated that he never disturbed her: he had rescued her, and for some reason, the idea made her stomach sink with guilt. She was weak and he would know it. He had seen the damage to her village. He would think her a coward who hadn't tried to save anyone.
She was glad she never saw him.
Zelda suspected that Aryll had decided the best medicine for Zelda's grief was hard work and exercise, because she was immediately put to work in the small herb garden outside the little house that Aryll made her home and living in. Though Zelda occasionally sat in the small courtyard before the house, she'd never explored much, and had no desire to, for the time being. From what she could tell, Loft was an ancient village built in even older ruins, structures made of wood and plaster and stone all blending seamlessly into each other. The foliage of Loft was different, too, from anything Zelda had seen before; unfamiliar trees and creeping vines, tall grasses, glowing plants, brilliantly colored flowers with blossoms bigger than Zelda's cupped hands. At least, that was what she could see from Aryll's well wooded corner of Loft. It was foggy often, windy more than that, and always bitterly cold though it had been warming from spring to summer in Moruge.
Working in the herb garden was punishing. Zelda was endlessly weeding, wrapping her stiff, uncooperative fingers around the unwanted plants and pulling. It was surprisingly difficult. Weeding was something Zelda had never done before— back in Moruge, back before, the village midwife and apothecary had taken care of the growing of all the important herbs. Zelda had been what was called the history keeper: when called upon, she'd laid down simple enchantments, found lost things (oftentimes children), diagnosed the maladies of animals, and taught the oral history of her village to the children, as well as teaching them songs and music.
Many of these old songs came back to Zelda, especially songs of mourning and funerals, and she would find herself quietly humming them as she weeded. When she had the presence of mind, she would write them down in her journal at the end of the day, recording them for future generations, promising herself that Moruge would never be really lost.
She was, in fact, at the endless task of weeding one afternoon when she heard a man's footsteps. They told of a tall, big man; he was walking heavily, though trying to hide it. Looking up, Zelda saw a barrel-chested, red-haired man round the corner. He was puffed up like a rooster, flame-colored hair styled sky high, though he was clutching his left arm, which hung at a strange angle and was bleeding heavily.
"Aryll," he called out. Underneath his tan he was pale. "You busy?"
"If you're coming to ask for a date the answer is no," came Aryll's irate voice from inside the cabin. Zelda dusted the dirt off her hands and brushed them on her violet skirt, the warm homespun an old castoff of Aryll's.
"Not exactly," said the man. Zelda hurried around him to open the door, and he eyed her curiously. "Who's the mouse?"
"That's none of your— Groose!" Aryll exclaimed, setting eyes on his injury. "Your arm! What happened?"
"Hit a bad wind," he said with a wince. "Would have just fallen except my arm was tangled in the harness, and… well." He shrugged one shoulder as though to say it didn't hurt, but Zelda saw the man swaying on his feet. Zelda helped Aryll lead him to a stool, and then stepped back, wringing her hands.
"Bandages," Aryll said. "And hot water, quickly." Zelda nodded once and went about helping Aryll while the healer examined Groose's arm.
"…Will take a while to heal…" Zelda heard Aryll mutter as she went about ladling water from the large barrel beside the hearth into the kettle. She hung the kettle on the iron crane and swung the arm onto the fire, which Aryll kept going constantly, filling the cottage with cheery warmth. The kettle seen to, Zelda turned and gathered up bandages from where she knew Aryll kept them, in the tall medicine chest next to the hearth. Then she glanced back over to the table, where Aryll was carefully turning Groose's arm one way and another, inspecting the damage in the misty light coming in through the window. The jagged end of a white bone protruded from his upper arm, and Zelda, slightly nauseated, swallowed once. Then, remembering the mangled bodies of her friends, she schooled herself.
Groose was still alive. That was better than the alternative.
"…Really did a number on it," Aryll was saying softly as Zelda hurried back over, bandages in her arms, trying to keep her thoughts from showing on her face. It must have worked, because when the healer looked up at Zelda with a smile, she looked proud.
"Very good, thank you," Aryll said. "If you don't mind staying inside until I'm done bandaging Groose up— I shouldn't need an extra set of hands but it's always nice to have some around, just in case."
Zelda nodded once, wanting to do what she could to assist, and Aryll looked pleased.
"Good, then," she said, and got to work on Groose's arm.
She had been up and out of bed for slightly under two weeks when she woke one morning to find her wooden flute resting on the woven mats beside her pillow. Once Aryll had declared her burns mostly healed, Zelda had been moved out of the bed, which was to be kept ready for emergency patients, and instead the girl slept on a pallet on the floor by the hearth, like Aryll did.
Aryll was already up and moving around when Zelda woke up and found the flute. She grabbed it, pressing it to her chest. Aryll must have heard the movement, because she turned to see Zelda curled into a protective ball around the flute.
"My brother brought it by just a few minutes ago," she said softly. "We thought you'd be glad to have it back."
Wordlessly, Zelda nodded, hands tightening on the flute. Excepting the stained quilt, it was all she had left of home.
Aryll sensed the melancholia coming back over Zelda and allowed her to mope for a few hours before handing her a broom and telling her to sweep the stone courtyard in front of the house. Silently, Zelda obeyed.
She stepped out and was greeted with a ferociously cold slap of wind that brought tears to her eyes. As the icy breeze pulled at Zelda's hair, coiling it and uncoiling it in its airy fingers, she smiled a little. Her home was gone, but she would always have the wind, she reminded herself.
Even if she was the only one left.
Looking up at the low hanging clouds, Zelda mused on how different the sky was here. She had been able to catch glimpses of blue and white through the canopy of green trees back in Moruge, and the clouds always seemed so far away. Here they appeared to hover just overhead, low and fluffy and light. Zelda began to sweep the leaves from the courtyard, though the wind was forever blowing the debris back into the way of her broom. Zelda scowled, brushing a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. Her grip tightened on her broom, and she took a deep breath. As she exhaled and brushed the broom forward, a gust of wind issued forth from the twigs of the broom, spiraling around the courtyard and depositing all the debris well away from where the wind could blow it back onto the flagstones. Zelda put a hand on her hip, the other hand holding up her broom, and inspected her work, then nodded with satisfaction. That would do.
Turning to go back into Aryll's cabin, Zelda stopped dead in her tracks. She had been seen.
The man stepped forward slowly, and as the thunderstorm smell hit Zelda again she realized she was facing Aryll's brother, her rescuer. Zelda looked around frantically, but there was nowhere to hide. He slowly extended a hand, though whether it was in comfort or to catch her, Zelda wasn't sure.
"You did that, just now," he said. "With the wind."
Slowly, Zelda nodded.
"Can you do that whenever you want?" He didn't look angry— more excited.
Zelda nodded again, shrinking away from the man as he took another step forward.
"Can you only do that with small winds? Or can you do it with big ones, too?"
Zelda just stared at him, grip tightening on her broom. The man, realizing that he was upsetting her, stepped back, dropping his hands, and grinned. The smile hit Zelda like a punch to the gut.
"Sorry," he said. "It's just— I've never seen anything like that. It's amazing. It could really, really help us here in Loft. I'm Link, by the way. Do you have a name?"
Zelda raised a brow once. Obviously she had a name. The man laughed, chagrined.
"That's right," he said. "You don't talk— can't, or won't. Which is it?" Another glance at Zelda's stubborn expression and he sighed. "I don't suppose it matters," he said. He ran a hand through his hair— his nails, Zelda noticed, were neatly trimmed down to just above the quick. His skin was lightly tanned, and his ash-colored hair had been bleached by the sun. His blue eyes, she saw, were the same color as the sky.
And he had seen her village.
Turning suddenly, Zelda marched back towards Aryll's house.
"Wait, hold on," cried Link, even as Zelda shut the door behind herself. Aryll looked up from where she sat in a low stool beside the hearth, carefully mixing a pot of ingredients for healing.
"Was that Link you just shut the door on?" Aryll asked Zelda as she roughly threw the broom into the corner. Zelda nodded once curtly.
"Well, let him in," Aryll said. "I don't know what he said to upset you but— oh, honestly."
Zelda had marched out the back door.
She hadn't spent much time on this side of the house, mostly because there was nothing here but trees. Zelda stomped through them, wondering why she felt so angry and ashamed. Link hadn't done anything— he hadn't killed her people. She owed him her life— or even more than that. He had saved her entire race from extinction by finding her in the woods that day.
Zelda could hear upraised voices from the direction of Aryll's cabin, but they didn't sound angry— Link sounded excited, and Aryll gave an exclamation of surprise. Determined not to deal with them, Zelda found the largest tree in the copse and immediately began to climb.
It was an old activity, and a familiar one— Zelda had often climbed trees in Moruge, even as an adult. She'd pick fruit from the trees, or climb to the top to work her magic. It always helped her, being closer to the sky where the wind was easier to grasp— though there was always the danger that she would get carried away by it. There was something soothing, too, about solving the puzzle of how to go up. It wasn't always easy, tree climbing. But it was almost always possible.
The pine tree had fine, thick branches and it didn't take Zelda long to near the top of the tree canopy. She was surprised at how winded she was— she'd climbed more difficult trees by far in Moruge, and yet she was panting for breath and her lungs ached. Zelda spread the branches before her, the thick curtain of green pulling aside to reveal the endless blue of the sky, and her breath was suddenly the least of her worries.
Overhead, men and women soared astride giant birds, dipping and cartwheeling effortlessly through the sky. She'd read of these birds in the book Aryll gave her, of course, but she didn't think it had been real.
Looking around more, Zelda realized that what she had thought was a village in a forest was, in fact, a village in a forest on a number of large, floating stones, suspended in the sky. Precarious-looking wood and rope bridges spanned from one stone to another in a kind of massive spider's web; Zelda realized that the forested area that Aryll's cabin inhabited was part of the enormous, floating stone that the main part of the village was on. The stone was huge— at least a mile long and a mile wide, craggy, with buildings of varying size built into the rock. Aryll's enclave was up relatively high, giving Zelda a remarkable view of the main floating stone, though there were so many other stones floating nearby that bridged to the main hub that it was dizzying.
Slowly, Zelda pulled back into the pine tree, letting the thick green branches encase her. Then, carefully, she made her way down the tree, whole body swimming with vertigo. At the bottom, she planted her feet firmly on the ground and leaned her back against the tree, trying to take comfort in the solidity of it all, trying not to think about just how high up she probably was.
Well, she reminded herself, there were ancient ruins everywhere that had clearly been standing for ages; the rocks probably weren't going to fall out of the sky. Not today, at least.
Zelda swallowed thickly and leaned her head back against the tree.
It wasn't long before she finally heard footsteps— Aryll's. Probably in search of her, she thought blandly, focusing on breathing.
"Are you alright?" Aryll asked gently from above Zelda. "You ran off so suddenly, and you're horribly pale."
Zelda opened one eye, looking at the healer in her blue dress. She frowned accusingly, then stood up and marched purposefully back to the cabin. Aryll followed.
Link was there when she arrived, sitting at the table and flipping through the Historie and Acktual Legends of Loft. Zelda roughly seized the book from him, opened it to an illustration that she had thought to be fanciful— one of men and birds soaring above a castle high in the sky. She slammed the open book down on the table and pointed an incriminating finger at the drawing. Then she pointed at the floor, and, putting her hands on her hips, huffed.
"Oh," said Arylll. She bit her lip, then looked at Link. "You got a look at the village?"
Zelda nodded once.
"I was going to tell you," Aryll said finally, "once you were a bit stronger. You're still not healed, and we assumed it would be a shock to you."
You were right, Zelda thought mutinously.
"But what you need to understand," said Aryll, and now her words were harder, her eyes steely, "is that our people need you. You can manipulate the wind. We're dependent on it. There are monsters up here— creatures in the sky that our warriors fight each day. Think of the good you could do for the people of Loft if you could turn the winds in our favor."
Zelda looked over from Aryll to Link, then back to Aryll. Both had similar expressions of both hope and resolve warring on their face.
Zelda sighed, letting her arms hang a little looser. They weren't going to give her a choice in the matter— she could tell that already. But she didn't know. It was all too soon. It was all too much. She was far too high off the ground.
Thinking of how far from the surface she was gave her another dizzying wave of vertigo. Shaking her head to clear it, Zelda reached into her pocket and touched the comforting wood of her mother's flute.
She was the last Wind Elemental. She was the last of her kind. And they needed her.
Hesitantly, she nodded. Aryll smiled happily. Link looked excited. Zelda felt as though she had just signed her death warrant.
"We won't ask you to fly until you're ready to do so," Aryll assured Zelda. Somehow, that statement didn't bring her much comfort. "But… are you ready to speak?"
Zelda thought about her village. She thought about running through the burning rubble, calling and calling, and nobody answering. Her throat closed. Emphatically, she shook her head. Aryll looked disappointed, but nonetheless grabbed a wax tablet and a writing stick from beside the fire.
"Will you tell us your name now, at least?" Aryll asked, extending the tablet to Zelda. The tablet was familiar to her, far more familiar than the paper and inkstick that she wrote with in her journal. Wax tablets had been what her young students learned to read and write with in Moruge.
Taking the writing stick, Zelda carefully scratched the glyphs of her name into the wax.
"Nohansen Zelda of the Clan of Wind," Aryll read aloud. "I take it that Nohansen is your family name?"
Zelda nodded once.
"Zelda," Link repeated. Then he smiled, that same sunny smile that had so forcefully disturbed Zelda earlier that afternoon. "It's very nice to meet you, Zelda."
Zelda tipped her chin up once in acknowledgement. Then, exhausted of all the pleasantries, she turned on her heel and left, wanting nothing more than to immerse herself in the mindless task of weeding the herb garden.
She had expected that, once word of her abilities got out to the people of Loft, she would have no peace. But it seemed that Aryll and Link were determined to bring Zelda into the chaos of Loft life slowly, perhaps because they didn't want Zelda to get overwhelmed and refuse to help. It was a legitimate concern, Zelda thought, as Aryll and Link led her through the dense copse of trees surrounding Aryll's healer's cabin.
"Our ancestors nearly depleted all of Loft's natural resources," Aryll was explaining to Zelda as they wound through the trees. "Our trees make fine wood for building strong houses, and the people cut them down without much thought for the future. But the small birds left, and they drained too much water from the ponds, and had razed too much of the fertile grounds. There was a terrible famine," she continued, then looked to Link. "So the wing warriors— the fliers charged with keeping us safe from the monsters of the sky— made it part of their duties to make the dangerous trips to the surface for supplies."
"We've assumed a balanced lifestyle now," Link said after Aryll finished speaking. "We scavenge on the surface for most of our supplies. Those that we simply can't find because of drought, or blight, or famine, or what have you, we supply for ourselves here from our reserves."
"Root crops, leafy vegetables, herbs, potatoes and squash, pumpkins on the lower altitude tiers," Aryll supplied. "And some ground fruit— those are our crops. If the winter gets bad and we can't fly to the surface to gather kindling and firewood we'll delve into the natural wood supply." She gestured around her. "Drinking water, at least, is easy to come by— we can harvest it from the clouds. But mostly we live carefully, without waste."
Zelda wanted to ask about the books, how they had come by so many books, how they could afford such a luxury as paper, but she didn't. She hadn't spoken yet and couldn't. Every time she thought of opening her mouth, she remembered the village, and kept it steadfastly shut.
"Aryll," Link said aside to his sister. "Have you heard? Phoeni's Ghost Talon has chosen Cawlin's Stone Eye."
Aryll stifled a giggle. "Poor Cawlin. Phoeni has been pining after him since you were all at the Academy."
Zelda's brow furrowed. Link, seeing her consternation, smiled a little.
"There aren't many women in Loft these days," Aryll explained to Zelda. "A generation or so ago, the men became arrogant and wouldn't let women join the Wing Warriors. They said that they didn't need women." Aryll snorted to show just what she thought of that comment. "So, to punish the men for their hubris, Mother Night stopped sending women to the couples of Loft. There are at least two men to one woman who are of age, though more daughters are being born as the men repent their sins."
"It means that many of us are unable to find wives among the women of Loft, though," Link admitted seriously. "For all that Cawlin may roll his eyes about Phoeni, he's really quite lucky. A union between two individuals in Loft is often initiated by their Loftwings," he said. "And, in fact, many marriages are chosen by our birds. They usually have the right of things, after all. As our birds mate for life, so do we."
Zelda still didn't understand what Link had meant about ghosts and stones, but decided it must have been a figure of speech. And what had Aryll said about Mother Night? She thought back to the Historie, remembering that Mother Night was the patron goddess of Loft. Or was that the Wise Lady? Zelda still wasn't entirely sure.
They passed through the last of the trees and Zelda found herself standing on a stone pathway on the edge of the rock. There was nobody else in either direction on the winding stretch, and the edge of the stone— tier, Zelda mentally corrected herself— had a wall that came to about her waist, excepting a wooden platform extending out over the great blue sky.
"I'll stay with you here on the ground," said Aryll. "Link will get his bird. Then we can practice with the wind. Okay?"
Zelda nodded, trying to pretend that she wasn't on a floating rock in the clouds. A gasp was torn from her, though, as Link charged full-speed down the wooden platform and leapt, spread eagle, over the edge.
"Don't worry," Aryll said, wrapping a soothing arm around Zelda. "Diving belly-first makes it easier for the birds to catch us mid-flight. See?"
A shrill whistle had issued forth from the direction of the plummeting Link, and what looked like blood-colored comet zipped past Zelda and Aryll, down towards Link. A moment later he was seated astride the bird, grinning fiercely as the two dove through the wind.
"Link's bird is a Crimson Terror," Aryll said, not bothering to hide the pride in her voice. "The fastest, fiercest, and smartest of all the Loftwings. He's the first one to call a Crimson Terror to himself in generations."
Zelda thought of Link bringing her back up to Skyloft astride that red beast and shuddered discreetly. Aryll didn't seem to notice. Link and his bird had turned and were now gliding in lazy circles, occasionally spinning upside down.
"Show off," muttered Aryll. She grabbed a necklace around her neck and spoke into the blue glass pendant. "Are you ready?"
The pendant began to glow. Zelda was stunned when Link's voice came back out of it.
"Yes," said Link through the pendant. "Zelda, can you give me an up draft? Can you aim it just under Brother's wings?"
Zelda reached out to the wind. Link and his brother went shooting into the sky, the wobbling wildly as the bird adjusted to the sudden surge in wind.
"Good," said Link a moment later, sounding a little out of breath. "Only… can you make the transition a bit more gradual?"
"She says yes," Aryll translated for Link. "Would you like to try that again?"
"Yes, please," Link responded courteously. "I'm going to go into a dive. Once I've angled back up, if you could please create another updraft..."
Zelda nodded. Link and the bird plummeted through the sky, then dipped and straightened, drifting lazily upwards. Zelda focused this time, applying first a small amount of wind and gradually increasing it. It took more focus than Zelda would have thought; when she'd cast occasional wards from storms, it hadn't required near as much precision on her part.
Link and his bird wobbled only slightly the second time around. The third time, it was even less. Within twenty minutes, Zelda was easily creating an updraft that skyrocketed Link and his bird smoothly into the sky. He whooped through the pendant.
"How about a tailwind?" he asked. "To give us a speed boost."
She was, she had to admit, a bit jealous; Link looked so happy and carefree on the back of his Loftwing. The two communicated effortlessly, moving as though they were one creature. But looking at the expanse of space, of nothingness between Link and the distant cloud cover below, Zelda couldn't bring herself to want to get on the back of one of those birds. Thinking of the journey that she had made up to Loft— even though she'd been unconscious— was enough to make her feel ill.
Much in the way that she touched the wind, Zelda reached out in the direction of the Loftwing. Unlike the wind, though, something reached back when she touched it, something warm and comforting and wild. It brushed against her mind, then was gone, leaving her reeling. Stunned, Zelda dropped the wind. Man and bird wobbled, then plummeted— regaining her composure, Zelda sent another wind to catch them and an updraft to bring them back into the sky.
"Are you ok?" Aryll asked Zelda, looking at her in shock. "Is everything alright? Link?" This last, directed into the pendant.
"I'm fine, we're fine," Link's voice came through, sounding just as rattled as Zelda felt. "I think that it's a day though— Zelda seems to be getting tired and Brother and I could do with some free flight."
Zelda wanted to argue that she wasn't tired, but it would have been a lie— instead, she let Aryll lead her to a large stone. She sank onto it gratefully, puffing out a gust of air.
"You did very well, Zelda," Aryll said, wringing her hands. "Do you want to go back to the cabin just yet? I was hoping that I might go fly too…"
Zelda shook her head, then flapped her hand at Aryll in a 'go, go' motion. Aryll grinned.
"Thanks," she said. "I won't be long."
She turned on a heel and ran towards the wooden platform. It didn't make Zelda feel any better the second time around, even though she knew what was coming: Aryll leapt off, arms akimbo, and whistled. A golden and white bird zoomed after Aryll, catching her and deftly flying off into the sky.
Zelda watched the two birds and their riders cartwheeling through the clouds, and was able to relax ever-so-slightly. She turned her mind back to that strange presence, the push back that she'd gotten. Had that really been the bird? Or was it simply her imagination? Or had it been something else?
Rattled at each of the three thoughts, Zelda turned her mind instead to how her life had changed so rapidly.
It had been more than a month and a half now since Moruge had been razed by the bulblins. Zelda vehemently hoped that each of the horrible creatures had starved to death, or glutted themselves on so much food that they died, or any other number of horrible things. The pain of loss was still there. It would never go away, she knew— she understood something about loss, after losing her mother and father— but Aryll and Link had helped. They'd taken her in, and now they'd given her a unique purpose. She couldn't begrudge them that, though she still woke up in a sweat in the cold, still woke up in tears, not knowing where she was, thinking that she was burning to death with her people.
By the Goddesses, she missed them.
She was so lost in thought that she didn't realize she was no longer alone until a shadow dropped over her. She looked up, squinting against the sunlight, to see the silhouette of a massive pompadour.
"Hey there, little mouse," Groose said, grinning. "You're looking awfully lovely today. What has you out here all alone?"
Zelda glanced quickly in the direction of Aryll and Link, who were busy chasing each other in spirals across the sky. Groose followed her gaze, and raised a brow.
"They left you all alone?" he asked. "Didn't even offer you a ride? Well. My Dread Cobalt it second to none in the sky," he said arrogantly. "Come on, I'll take you for a lift."
Zelda emphatically shook her head, digging her nails into the rock. Aside from the fact that it was just plain scary, Wind Elementals couldn't risk going that high off the ground. She'd panic and reach out to the wind and dissolve, and that would be the last of her species. Their literature had been littered with cautionary tales of children who climbed to places too tall and simply… stopped being.
"It'll be the ride of a lifetime," Groose said again, putting his free fist on his hips. He was tall, taller than Link, broad shouldered and beefy where the other man was lithe and quick. Groose reached down and took Zelda's hand in his free one— his other arm was still bound across his chest in a splint. "Since, y'know Aryll won't go on a date with me, I figure that maybe you'd like to spend some time with Ol'Groose?"
Disgusted, Zelda wrenched her hand away, frowning at Groose. He still wore the thick bandage around his splinted arm. With only a little remorse, Zelda flicked the bandage with a finger. Groose turned white and leapt several feet off the ground with a squeal.
"I suggest you stay away from her."
Zelda turned her head to see Link standing nearby, one hand on the neck of his Crimson Terror, face pleasant and mild.
"Who asked you, Lazy? The lady and I were having a nice chat."
Link glanced at Zelda, who shook her head emphatically.
"The lady," Link said coolly, "is a guest here, and not to be disturbed. And if you've a problem, take it up with my Loftwing." Link inclined his head towards the massive crimson bird looming threateningly next to him. "He's taken quite a shine to her."
Groose frowned, then looked out at the sky. Aryll was making a deadline towards Link and Zelda. Groose threw up his good hand with a frustrated pah.
"Always spoiling my fun, pretty boy," Groose spat. "One of these days you'll stop being so high and mighty and see you're no better than the rest of us." And with an arrogant huff, he spun on his heel and stormed off.
"I apologize," Link said, moving over towards Zelda. He knelt before her and took her hands in his, inspecting her fingers and hands for damage. "He's very determined to court Aryll, and I think he may try to make her jealous with you. Are you alright? Did he upset you?"
Zelda sighed, then took her hands away from Link and pushed lightly on his shoulders. He smiled up at her, blue eyes sparkling.
"I see you're fine," he said. "Or as determined to be fine as ever."
Just then, Aryll dropped off her Loftwing, landing deftly behind Link.
"Was that Groose I just saw?" she asked with a frown.
"He was pestering Zelda," Link agreed. "But she handled him quite well on her own."
"Did you?" Aryll asked, looking at Zelda. Zelda shrugged. Aryll's brows furrowed and she hummed low in her throat.
"He needs to take a hint and stay away from where he's not wanted," she muttered. Then she turned to Link. "Thank you."
"Nothing to thank me for," Link said. Then, he turned his attention to Zelda. "Would you like to meet my Loftwing?"
Zelda looked at the great red bird. It had been so threatening moments ago, but now it stood, preening and looking about as dangerous as a giant ball of feathers and fluff. Uncertainly, she let Link steer her over to the bird.
"He won't hurt you," he said gently as they neared the Loftwing. He ran his round beak through his feathers and then shook them, light glinting off his sparkling ruby-colored wings. Zelda jumped a little and stumbled back at the sudden motion. The Loftwing lowered his head until he was at a level with Zelda, gazing into her eyes with his big black one.
"He likes you," Link offered. "Try rubbing his beak, if you want."
Hesitantly, Zelda reached out and began to rub the bird's enormous beak. Immediately, his eyes closed. He wheezed a little sigh of contentment. Growing bolder, Zelda began to stroke the feathers of his face and neck. They were so soft, she mused, running her fingers through them. They felt more like silk than any feathers she'd ever felt before. The Loftwing let out a low coo of happiness. Zelda grinned.
"I think that's the first smile I've seen from you," Link noted. Zelda jerked her head up— she'd forgotten that he was watching her. His expression was lazy, though his eyes were intense as he studied her. "You should smile more often."
Self-conscious, Zelda returned to her task of petting the enormous Loftwing, suddenly extremely unnerved. As though sensing her distress, the bird roused himself and nudged her in the shoulder with his big bill.
"He wants food," Link said, stepping forward. "He's hoping you have a treat for him— leave her alone, you big brute," he said fondly, scratching the place where bill met feathers. The bird blinked a few times then closed its eyes in sheer bliss. "Go feed yourself. Zelda is tired."
She wasn't sure why she liked hearing him say her name. She wasn't sure if she liked that she liked it.
The bird sighed, then launched himself off the ground. Two massive wingbeats blew tremendous gusts of frigid air onto Zelda, wrapping her gown around her legs and tangling her hair, and then the Loftwing had flown off into the great blue sky. Link smiled, then touched Zelda's elbow lightly.
"It looks like Aryll has gone on ahead," he said. "Perhaps she's made us dinner. Did you enjoy meeting my Loftwing?"
Zelda nodded once emphatically. She had enjoyed the bird more than she had enjoyed anything since coming to Loft. Even the novelty of books couldn't measure up to the splendor of the enormous, fire-colored bird.
"Good," Link said softly as they entered the woods. "I'm glad."
The two walked the rest of the way back to the cabin in silence.
That night, she dreamt of fire.
She pressed her nose into the crook of her elbow as she struggled out of the hut, dodging burning debris and flaming thatch falling from the roof. Breathing through the fabric of the gown, she tried not to cough as her lungs filled with smoke, and she stumbled over a blazing timber. Clutching the wooden flute to her chest, Zelda staggered towards the door, but was stopped as a cry behind her rang out. Turning, pressing the flute to her chest, Zelda saw Aryll struggling through the debris.
"Zelda! Wait for me! Help me!"
Zelda hurried back in Aryll's direction, weaving her way through the flames, but the roof caved. Zelda cried out as her whole body was consumed by fire. Aryll, Zelda could barely see through the smoke, had fallen under a timber. She was dead and there was nothing Zelda could do. She turned, crying, and hurried towards the door, but a man in the doorway stopped her.
"It's your fault," said Link, crossing his arms over his chest. "You should have died, not Aryll."
"Please," Zelda begged him, throat aching from the smoke. "Please, I can't help her. Please, let me out."
"You killed her," Link said. "You killed all of them. You should have died instead."
Zelda began to scream as fire ate at her legs, and the accusing eyes of her friends watched her from the flames. And then, through the fog, two warm hands touched her shoulder.
"Wake up," said a gentle voice. "It's just a nightmare. Wake up."
Zelda rose through sleep like a bubble coming to the surface of water. She opened her eyes to see Link sitting over her, Aryll hovering behind him in concern. Zelda flinched away from him, pulling her sweat-soaked blankets closer around her. He frowned.
"I tried to wake you up," Aryll said, wringing her hands. "I tried and tried but you wouldn't wake, so I thought that…"
Zelda raised a hand to show that it was alright, then burrowed deeper into her blankets.
"Was it… about your village?" Link asked carefully. Exhausted, Zelda nodded. "About the fire?" Zelda nodded again.
Link placed a hand on her shoulder through the blankets. Zelda didn't want to see his face. He had seen the carnage.
"I dream about it too, sometimes," he said quietly. "I wonder, if I had been down on the surface earlier, if I had followed the smoke— I thought it was just a bonfire— could I have saved them? But I saved you. And there was nothing more I could do. And there was nothing you could do. So if you're feeling guilty, don't. All you can do is go on with your life and honor their memories."
Zelda reached her hand up to touch Link's. She squeezed it once, then rolled away from him. She didn't want to talk about it. She didn't want to hear him talk about it.
"Aryll, call me if you need me," Link said wearily, standing up. There was an unspoken meaning to his words, a deeper layer that Zelda didn't understand. She didn't bother trying to decode it.
"Thank you, Link," Aryll responded. Link's bootsteps thudded quietly across the stone floor. The door creaked open, then swung shut behind him.
"I'm sorry, I know you probably didn't want me to call him," Aryll said quietly. "But I couldn't wake you up. I tried and I tried and I couldn't, and I thought maybe he would have better luck. He's better with wounded animals than I am, and even though you're not an animal, sometimes you have that look in your eye and… I'm sorry. I'm babbling. Can I get you anything? Tea?"
Zelda shook her head, burrowing into her blankets. She just wanted to go back to sleep. She didn't know how she felt about Aryll calling Link. She didn't want to examine it right now.
"I'm sorry," said Aryll again, softly.
Zelda waved a hand again to show it was fine, and then rolled over, burrowing into her pillow. She slowly drifted back to deep, dreamless sleep.
Zelda woke late the next day to an empty house. Sitting up, she found two complete outfits neatly folded up next to her head. They consisted of undergarments, smocks, petticoats, leggings, the thick woolen dresses that she had been wearing, and overshifts. Beside the folded clothes sat a note, carefully written on a small wax tablet that Zelda hadn't seen before. The stylus sat next to it.
Link and I thought it was time you have some clothing of your own. We had these made by a seamstress in town. I hope they fit.
The tablet is also for you, to use however you want. Let me know if you need more pages for your journal. I noticed you've written a lot.
I have stepped out to help Link with a family matter. Be dressed by the time we get back. The three of us will go to the Loft market together, if you are feeling up to it.
Zelda scrambled out of the pallet, throwing her thick blankets aside. Leaping up, she quickly changed, excited at the prospect of seeing Loft at last. Zelda looked at the two gowns and shifts. One dress was dyed a dark rose-color with an over-shift of sunrise pink. The other dress was a buttery yellow with a jewel-blue shift. The yellow dress and shift were slightly nicer; Zelda decided to set them aside, and chose the pink. She avoided looking at her still-bandaged wounds as she pulled on her new undergarments and the warm smock and petticoats. Next came the leggings, which were an undyed off-white. She pulled on the dress, which ended at mid-calf (as opposed to the petite Aryll's dresses, which ended right at Zelda's knee and were too short and loose) and over that drew on the sleeveless shift. Aryll had given her a belt, and she used it to belt the dress, and then she pulled the night-plait out of her mouse brown hair, combed through the tangles with her fingers, and quickly re-braided her hair loosely.
She would see Loft today. The thought of finally seeing more of the floating island than what she'd spotted through the tree branches was enough to excite her quite a bit; now that she knew to look up, she saw all number of people and birds cartwheeling through the blue skies. She wondered what they were like. She wondered what Loft was like.
She wondered what everyone in Moruge would have to say if they could see Loft.
Suddenly depressed, Zelda glanced at the small box that held her only belongings: the clothes she'd come to Loft in (which were unsuitable for the cold weather), her quilt, her mother's wooden flute. She grabbed the second outfit and placed it neatly in the box, and tucked the wax tablet and stylus into her pocket. Then she shook herself and set about to putting away her pallet, having learned by now that mindless work was good for dealing with her grief. She folded up her thick blankets, rolled up the pallet, and stored both in the small cupboard where Aryll kept her own pallet, blankets, and spares. Then, Zelda set about doing what she could to clean the small cabin. A kettle of porridge was cooking on the hearth; Zelda opened the lid, gave it a whiff, tossed in some seasoning, stirred the pot a few times, and let it go about its business. She swept the hearth while she waited, cleaned the dirt off the bottom of her boots, and took the braided rush mats outside to beat the dirt from them. She was finishing with the last one when Aryll and Link rounded the corner.
"Ah, good, you're up," Aryll said. "And have been for a while, from the looks of it. You must have risen just after we left."
Zelda shrugged. Then, she gestured to her dress, and pressed her palms against each other before her heart, lacing her fingers together. Looking down, she raised her steepled hands above her head, and then brought them back down to her forehead and bowed in the sign of gratitude that she had always practiced at her village. When she looked up, Aryll and Link were smiling.
"That was a thank you, right?" Aryll asked lightly. Zelda nodded earnestly.
"In that case, you're very welcome," Aryll responded. She looked sideways at Link. "Our errand took longer than we thought it would. We didn't mean to keep you waiting for so long." Then she smiled slyly. "Link needed to find himself a house. He was staying with me originally in the Healer's Cottage, but when you came along he moved out to the barracks so you could stay with us. But he thinks it's time for his own place, so we went to air out the family home."
Link grinned back at Aryll, then turned his attention to Zelda. "Since it looks like you're going to be around for a while," he said, corners of his mouth lifting up in some secret joke, "I thought it'd be best to make arrangements so that Aryll's cabin doesn't get overcrowded."
Zelda looked from Aryll back to Link. They were both smiling in a way that Zelda recognized from families back in Moruge. Link was courting. A strange disappointment settled over Zelda, which she quickly dismissed. It was none of her business what Link did or who he was with. Just because he'd saved her didn't mean…. Anything, really.
Zelda smiled pleasantly, looking from one sibling to the other. They smiled back. Then, Aryll nodded towards the cabin.
"We need to grab some baskets," she said. "I need some more medicinal supplies, and we need food. Oh," she added, reaching into her pocket. She pulled out a small blue bag with a bit of neat green embroidery on the front. "This is a wallet for you. There's a little money in there— not much— but you've been a big help to me and I figured I should pay you for the work you've done."
She tossed the bag to Zelda, who caught it. There weren't many rupees in it, and it was small enough to fit in her hand. Zelda tucked it into her pocket, where her knuckles bumped against the tablet and stylus. Frowning, she pulled it out, then looked at Aryll. With the flat end of the styuls, she wiped the wax smooth and then, (hands shaking only a little— these would be the first words she gave Aryll and Link, other than her name), she wrote:
You saved me and brought me here and nursed me back to health. It is I who owes you. You are being too generous.
As she wrote, Aryll and Link had approached. When she finished the last glyph, she handed the tablet over to Aryll. Link read over her shoulder.
"You've lovely handwriting," Aryll said absentmindedly as her eyes scanned the words. Then she looked up with Zelda with another of the sunny smiles that she and her brother shared.
"Link rescued you because it was the right thing to do," Aryll said. "We would have saved and healed anyone. Mother Night put you before us, and you're a blessing all on your own. So don't worry." She touched Zelda's arm briefly, careful of the still-tender burns there that needed bandaging. "We're going to take care of you until you can take care of yourself. You have a lot to offer Loft. Ok?"
Zelda nodded hesitantly. Aryll sighed in relief.
"Good," Aryll said. "I'm going to fetch the baskets. You and Link wait here."
Aryll skipped off to the cottage. Zelda and Link watched her go. Then, Link spoke.
"You really do have beautiful handwriting," he said. "Only the headmaster at the academy can write a more beautiful hand than you."
Zelda thought about telling him about how she had taught the village young back in Moruge. Then she decided not to. She wasn't ready to tell anyone about Moruge. Not yet.
What is this 'Academy'? What are the 'Barracks' are you staying at?
"The Academy and the Barracks are connected," Link said. "It is where our young, able-bodied men and women train to become Wing Warriors. I trained there ten years ago. The Barracks are where the students and some of the instructors sleep. They had a spare bed that I've been using since you arrived."
Zelda nodded once. Then she remembered something she had noticed the first time she saw Aryll.
What are the blue lines on Aryll's wrist? They do not wash off in water.
"It's a tattoo," Link said. "To show that she is a healer. I have one, too." He pulled back the white sleeve of his long shirt, exposing a red, five-stranded braid similarly laid into his skin. "The red is for warrior. The five strands show that I ride a Terror."
But Zelda was preoccupied by the blue embroidery around his sleeves and collar, and the thick cloth belt he wore around his middle. The other times that she had seen Link, especially when he was riding, he wore different, sturdier clothes. These looked almost delicate. Link caught the direction of her vision because he indicated the belt with his hands.
"The traditional garb of Loft," he said. "Wearing warrior's garb in the market is forbidden in peacetime."
Zelda nodded, though she didn't fully understand. Aryll returned then with a large basket over either arm, slightly pink-cheeked.
"Sorry," she said breathily. "I couldn't remember what I did with my second basket. Are we ready?"
"Yes," Link said, as Zelda nodded. Aryll passed Zelda a basket, and Zelda tucked the tablet into her pocket. Together, the three set off for the market.
Zelda had never been beyond the little square that Aryll's cabin shared with a well, a shed, a small shrine, and a large garden, except to walk through the woods the once to train with Link. Now, the trio set off down the worn stone footpath, winding in and out of beautiful watercolor trees. They rounded a corner and the whole of Loft was suddenly visible: Zelda had gotten a bit of a view once, but nothing compared to what she could see now.
They were high on a hill on the southern side of Loft, judging by the placement of the sun. The rock was less like a large rock and more like a sizeable island floating in the clouds. From Zelda's vantage, she could see a very large temple on the far Northern side of the island, some incredibly painted stone and plaster buildings, trees, and even what looked like a pond. A rock hung high in the sky, and a gentle waterfall trickled forth from it, sending out a rainbow spray of water. The whole island was well forested, though Zelda could see that further in to town, where the buildings got denser, many were carved into the rocky terrain and that green meadows were abundant. She could see, also, that there were a number of rope bridges and wooden catwalks and occasional stone arches connecting the buildings on the island in a great spiderweb, and connecting more outlying floating stones to the main body of the island.
"Incredible, isn't it?" Aryll asked, stopping to stand with her hands on her hips and survey the view proudly. "For someone as vital as a healer, my cabin is a bit far out of the way, but it has one of the easiest touching-down points for birds on the island if their rider is injured, which is why it is where it is. Plus, my patients need rest and privacy, which can be hard to get further in."
They started down the hill, the path gradually winding back and forth past plaster, wood, and stone cottages dug into the hillsides. There were, Zelda noticed, very few freestanding buildings like Aryll's cabin. But every building they passed was plastered and painted with cheerful colors and happy designs. Zelda caught flashes of distant buildings off lighter footpaths that separated from the main walk and wound through the trees.
Link and Aryll chattered lightly to each other as they walked, but Zelda wasn't paying attention. She was drinking in the sights of the incredible new world she found herself in. The further they went down the hill, the sparser the pale green trees with their glossy leaves became, and as they reached the bottom where the village began to condense, there was only short, brilliantly green grass carpeting the ground in a thick blanket. Neat rows of crops interrupted the grass in squares, growing next to freestanding buildings. A little ways away was the pond— Zelda could hear the crash of the waterfall. Throughout the wide island the ground began to rise again, the stone of Loft carefully terraced and supporting numerous buildings built into the rock. At the top of the centermost terrace was a brilliantly-painted purple building with a bright orange roof. It was surrounded on each of the many tiers by small kiosks.
"That's the market," Link said, nodding towards the terrace. Zelda noticed that he had placed a warm hand on the small of her back. "Today is a high market day, which is why there are so many stalls out— ordinarily, there are fewer." Catching Zelda's confused look, he went on. "On most days there are a handful of shops open inside the purple building, most of which have either to do with food or supplying the warriors. However, one day a month is a high market day when people from all over Skyloft come to sell their wares or barter them for services." They had crossed the wide green expanse and begun making their way up stairs. "There's nothing to be worried about," he added, clearly feeling Zelda tense under his hand. "We're just here to pick up some supplies."
Aryll had been listening to the conversation, because she chose that moment to pipe up.
"I need some herbs that don't grow in my garden," Aryll said cheerfully. "Plus bread and cheese and milk, and anything that you see that you want from the Surface."
Zelda perked up at the thought of food from her familiar Fairy Woods, even as her stomach sank at the reminder of her decimated home. Aryll continued blithely, though she spoke a little quicker and her cheeks were rosy with embarrassment. "There are lots of people who sell curiosities that they make, too. You should pick up a trinket for yourself, something nice. It's important to have small treasures."
Zelda nodded her agreement. They crested the last few stairs, and Zelda found herself in the chaos of the market.
Brightly colored flags hung on long lines overhead. Different smells wafted through the air, as well as so many sounds: laughter, chatter, a few raised voices, the shrieks and occasional tears of children, the clatter of money changing hands. It was crowded: Zelda hadn't realized so many people lived on the island. They couldn't have, she thought in disbelief. Perhaps there were other islands in the sky and people flew in.
The day at the market was long and overwhelming. Everyone stared at Zelda, it felt like— though Link stayed right beside her, hand protective on her back, staring defiantly around, she still felt the weight of their curiosity crushing her. She realized, at last, why Aryll and Link had sought to keep her isolated for so long. Though they had treated her with warmth and kindness, she was an outsider. The people at Loft, Zelda realized, had known each other all their lives; she was new. An unknown. She even looked different: the people of Loft were sturdy and strong. Though Zelda was only slightly taller than most of the women, she looked almost wraithlike compared to them- petite boned, slim-waisted, and long necked, Zelda was clearly different.
Still, the day was good. Zelda sampled some of the food of Loft beyond the simple home-cooked meals that Aryll made. She bought a bag of nuts from the Surface, though her eyes watered a little at the thought that she was now paying for what she had once so easily plucked from the trees at no cost. She also bought herself a simple necklace, little more than a piece of colored, polished stone on a leather thong, but she liked it. A man with piercing blue eyes called to her in a high, effeminate voice, offering to tell her fortune. She declined. She watched Aryll barter for herbs, food, and bandages, then helped carry them in her own basket. And, towards the end of the long day, they ran into the seamstress who had made Zelda's clothes.
Zelda was sitting on a bench with Aryll as Link ordered mugs of mead for all three of them when a round, slightly demented looking lady bounced up to them.
"Well dear, that dress does become you I must say," she chattered without preamble. "Link and Aryll were ever so clever about your measurements. What's your name, dear?"
"She can't speak," Aryll said, drawing the woman's attention. "She sustained severe damage to her vocal cords, I think."
"What a pity," said the big woman, who was dressed in a brilliant blue. "I'm Groselle, dearie. Link told me that you'd been injured on the surface and that you couldn't go back to your people. I must say that I'm so sorry for you, but we're all very happy to have a new face in Loft."
Zelda blinked at the woman in surprise, even as she felt the usual dagger twist in her chest at a mention of the surface. Not noticing Zelda's dismay— or perhaps she did, and that's why her eyes were glittering— Groselle continued. "You'll have to ask someone to take you back down there sometime. It must be so difficult to be separated from your home and your family…"
Zelda thought about pulling out her tablet. She wanted to hit the woman, tell her that her family was dead. But Zelda had seen the likes of Groselle before— there had been a nasty woman who lived in Moruge. Zelda was sad for her death, but the Elemental had been truly horrible and had thrived off of everyone else's pain and discomfort. There was only one way to deal with people like that.
Zelda looked up at Groselle and smiled brilliantly, though she felt hollow and angry inside. Aryll raised her eyebrows, watching in interest as Zelda took Groselle's hand with her own two hands. She squeezed the surprised woman's hand, gestured to her dress, squeezed again, and settled back into her seat, still beaming.
"Well, dear, thank you," Groselle said, a little unbalanced. "You like the dress?"
Zelda nodded emphatically. Then, hoping she wasn't overdoing it, she pressed her hands over her heart and tried to look as genuine as possible.
"You love it?" Groselle asked brightly. Zelda nodded again, so enthusiastically that her plait bounced over her shoulder.
"Well," said Groselle, her hard edges softened a little. "Well." She was pleased and surprised. She looked at Zelda with kinder eyes and touched the top of her head condescendingly. "You're strange proportions, girl, but I'm happy to make more clothing for you when you need it. I do make the best in Loft, after all."
Zelda nodded her head again.
"Ah," said Aryll smoothly. "There's Link with the drinks. Please do excuse us, Groselle." And she stood, swinging her basket over her arm, and Zelda followed, smiling brightly once at the still-preening Groselle then turning and following Aryll. The smile slid off her face. Aryll began to snicker.
"I thought your cheeks were going to fall off," Aryll chortled as she wove through the crowd to Link, who had found the three a table.
Zelda puffed out a bit of air and rolled her eyes in exasperation. She shook her head and stuck out her tongue, earning another surprised laugh from Aryll.
"What?" Link asked as Zelda threw herself down onto the long wooden bench.
"Groselle just came to pick a fight with Zelda," Aryll said dryly. Link's face turned thunderous and he began to scan the crowd. Aryll laid a hand on her brother's arm. "She handled Groselle on her own."
"Handled?" Link asked, raising a brow, though some of the tension melted from his frame. "She doesn't even speak, Aryll, and Groselle wouldn't listen even if she did."
Zelda set her tankard down with a heavy thunk, having just downed a substantial portion of mead. She glared at Link. Just because she didn't talk didn't mean she couldn't hear.
"Sorry," he offered in apology, sitting down next to Aryll, who had spread her skirts out on the bench where she sat across the scarred table from Zelda. "How did you handle Groselle?"
Zelda looked at Link and put on her cheesy grin, then fluttered her eyelashes some and clutched at her heart.
"Flattery," Aryll said dryly. Zelda nodded in agreement, letting the phony expression slide, and scowled into her tankard.
"Nicely done, Zelda" Link said, and she nodded once in acknowledgement, though the sound of her name on his lips was amazing. Zelda pulled her tablet out of her pocket and quickly scrawled down,
People like Groselle just want to feel important. Flattering them in small ways keeps them from tearing down the people around them to make them feel like they're stronger than you.
"Very true," Aryll agreed as Link nodded. Zelda erased the tablet with the flat end of her stylus, then paused, looking up at Link and Aryll carefully.
"You look like you have a question," said Link. "Go ahead and ask it."
Zelda put the stylus to the tablet and wrote.
Is there a book on the customs of Loft? It is very different here. I want to understand what is going on around me.
She pushed the tablet over to Link and Aryll, then set about to her mead. She wasn't going to ask about the specific customs that were bothering her— that of courting— because what Link did really wasn't any of her business. But she did want to know what was going on around her. She didn't want to have to wait for someone to realize she didn't understand the significance of some seemingly trivial gestures.
"I'll have to check the archives at the Academy," Link said. "There's a large library there— that's where the book you're reading right now is from. If you would like, I'll ask if you can come see the Library sometime." Zelda nodded, then put her tablet away after clearing it. She was done talking for today.
Aryll and Link chattered to each other as they all finished their mead. That done, they stood up (Zelda wobbling slightly) and made their way out of the market. It was later now, the sun closing in on the distant surface, and Zelda yawned.
"I hadn't realized it was so late," Aryll murmured as they descended the terraced market. "Link, are you on flight duty tonight?"
"Yes," Link said. At Zelda's curious look, he expanded. "I'll be flying around overnight, watching for people who accidentally walk off the edge of the island. There are walls in place, but sometimes people will try to fly at night when their bird is asleep and can't come when called. It's the job of the warriors to catch them." At Zelda's alarmed expression, he laughed lightly. "It only happens once every few months, but still, it's part of the job."
Zelda nodded. Then, spotting something, she tugged on Link's sleeve and pointed.
A violet-blue bird perched some distance away on the edge of a fence.
"That's a Zeffa," Link said, understanding Zelda's question. "As you can see they're smaller than Loftwings, and they aren't as strong, so we don't fly them. They usually don't hang around Loft, though."
The poor bird looked lonely, Zelda thought. It was a lovely little bird, and in truth it was the same height as a Loftwing, but where Loftwings were strong, robust birds, the Zeffa looked delicate, almost ornamental, definitely not up to the task of carrying the weight of a person like Link. She felt drawn to the creature, wanted to go to it, but Link was waiting beside her and Aryll had turned around to see what the delay was.
"Come on," Aryll said from where she had wandered ahead. "That porridge I put on this morning is probably done by now and I don't want to overcook it."
So, regretfully, Zelda turned her back on the Zeffa and let Link and Aryll lead her back up the winding path to the little cabin she'd come to think of as home.
Zelda took notice of the little Zeffa often. It would perch in the tops of trees or on the roof of the shed off Aryll's square and watch her while she weeded or swept. When she had training sessions with Link, it would sit nearby or float around over Zelda's head. Zelda wasn't sure why the little bird was always nearby, but it brought her some comfort. It, too, was an outsider in this world of men and Loftwings.
"I don't know why it keeps hanging around you," Aryll said one afternoon, walking out of the healer's cabin. She shaded her eyes with her hand as she looked at the Zeffa, which was perched on the roof of the shed as usual. Zelda was up on the opposite roof of Aryll's cabin, re-thatching a small hole in the roof as she'd had to do often to her own hut in Moruge.
"If I didn't know better," Aryll continued blithely, "I'd say it had Imprinted on you. That's nonsense, of course— only Loftwings Imprint, and only on Humans."
Zelda looked down at Aryll and shrugged, then returned to thatching the roof. It was punishing work, like weeding the garden; Zelda was enjoying focusing wholeheartedly on the pull of her muscles and the slide of the thatch under her hands.
"Ah," said Aryll brightly. "Hello. We weren't expecting you until dinner time."
Zelda glanced over her shoulder in time to see Link grinning at Aryll.
"Some of the younger wings are out training this afternoon," he said by way of explanation. "They gave me a break before I descend into the chaos. Zelda, what are you doing up on the roof?"
"Thatching," Aryll explained for Zelda as she turned back around to focus on her task. She was nearly done.
"That's not woman's work," Link said with a scoff. With barely a thought, Zelda sent a wind to push him over without breaking pace in what she was doing. Link gave a squawk of surprise as the wind knocked him over, even as laughter bubbled out of Aryll.
"I take it back," he muttered, from the sounds of it rising to his feet. Zelda finished up with the final bundle of thatch and turned, sliding easily down the roof. She flew into the air, and called the wind to slow her fall. She felt it tugging at her, felt the flesh of her body wanting to join with the wind, but the sensation had barely registered before she landed neatly on her feet.
"Handy," Link observed. Zelda could see now that he was carrying a wrapped parcel and a small basket of purple fruit she'd seen on her market day. "These are for you," he said, extending both parcel and fruit, sliding one foot forward as he did so.
Zelda performed a bow of thanks and then took the gifts. The fruit was unusual— fragrant and sweet but not sickly so. The parcel was heavy. Zelda slid a hand under the twine tying it shut and looked up at Link and Aryll for permission.
"Open it," Aryll said encouragingly. Zelda untied the twine and let the cloth wrapping fall away to reveal a book. It was smaller than the Historie, which Zelda had given back to Link several weeks earlier, after the High Market day, to return to the Academy's library. It wasn't terribly thick, but wasn't thin either. When Zelda flipped the book open, she found it to be beautifully illustrated.
"It's an etiquette primer," Link said helpfully. "Each of the Warriors has it memorized. You wanted something about our social customs— this was the closest I could find."
It would work, Zelda thought, flipping through pages idly. She paused to admire one illustration of a young man on bent knee, looking politely up at a woman playing the harp. The inscription on the page next to the picture said, "Proper Observance of the Ritual of Awarding the Wing Test Boon." Zelda shut the book and looked up at Link and Aryll, smiling.
"Shall we go inside?" Aryll asked, looking at Link. "I can put on some tea."
"No," Link said regretfully. "I have to get back to the Academy— I'm taking the junior students out on training, after all." Aryll cringed in sympathy and patted Link's shoulder as he slumped in fake dejection. Then he straightened, back to the impeccable posture he always carried. His movements were always so crisp, Zelda thought, so very intentional. He smiled at Aryll once more, then turned his attention to Zelda.
"I'll come again soon," he said by way of farewell. Then, he smiled, bowed smartly, and turned on a heel and strode off.
"Skyfruit, I see," Aryll said, observing the contents of Zelda's basket. "Well. Do you know what that means?"
Zelda shook her head.
"You might come across it in that manual," Aryll said. "But I'll explain anyway. It could mean nothing— it's a common gift. But, depending on the number, and the manner in which the fruit were presented to you, and some other things like the flavor and when they were picked, they might also have another meaning."
Zelda raised her eyebrows. Aryll grinned.
"I'm not telling you the meaning, if that's what you want to know," she said. "You're going to have to read that book and figure it out on your own."
Zelda hesitantly nodded. Then, she hefted the small basket, which she'd slung over a wrist.
"Yes, let's take those inside," Aryll agreed. "Then we need to go through my medicine chest and make sure it's all in order. After that, you can start reading."
Zelda nodded eagerly, wanting to get started on the book, and followed Aryll inside. They put the fruit and basket on the table, then got to work.
Later in the afternoon, Aryll was called away to deliver a child, and ordered Zelda to remain at the cabin and make dinner.
"This is Orielle's third," Aryll said, quickly packing medicine into a bag. "The birth should go quickly, if all goes as it should. Wait here and cook something, if you don't mind." Zelda shook her head, and Aryll kissed her once on the cheek.
"You're a Nightsend," Aryll breathed, and then rushed out the door in the wake of Parrow, Orielle's anxious brother.
Zelda finished repacking the medicine chest, then swept the floors once for good measure, and went down into the small basement to check the spence for food. There was a little smoked meat, a number of vegetables, and the nuts that Zelda had purchased at the market. Deciding to cook as close an approximation to a dish from home as she could, she gathered up the ingredients (or equivalent ingredients) she could find and carried them upstairs, where she began to prepare the food. Some sifting through Aryll's spices yielded suitable replacements for what she was used to, and in no time at all the kettle was simmering over the fire as she cooked a nut stew that her mother had once made. With nothing else to do until the stew was done— which wouldn't be for several hours— Zelda settled down at the table and began to read the book by the slowly lengthening daylight.
Her head was quickly spinning with new information about body language that she'd never considered. Moruge hadn't been very formal— her people had been most concerned with living in peace with nature. But here in Loft, everything was ceremonial in nature. Zelda resolved to herself that she would watch her surroundings a little more carefully. However, she thought, looking down at the book with a scowl, her head would explode if she read much more. With a sigh, she carefully shut it, and then put the book away in her box. She grabbed her flute while she was there, then checked the stew. It wasn't done and wouldn't be for a while, so Zelda sat down again and this time lifted her flute to her lips.
She warmed up, then set off on the familiar paths of her village's songs. They'd been playing through her head often lately. The realization that she would never hear them again unless they came from her own flute had hurt. But she still lifted her instrument and played, played with her whole heart, fingers dancing over the notes that were as familiar to her as her own name, and she closed her eyes.
She first played the traditional worship mass, which was nearly a half hour long, then moved into a series of folk dances. She'd progressed from those to a sadder funeral melody, thinking of the people she'd lost, and at last, spent, she set the flute down. It was dark outside. She'd been playing for long time.
"That was beautiful."
Zelda nearly fell out of her chair. Link was sitting against the wall by the door, arms propped on his folded legs. He looked exhausted.
"I let myself in a while ago," he said quietly. "You had your eyes closed and you didn't seem to hear me. I came to bring you dinner, though it smells like you've got that under control."
Zelda stood shakily, then made her way over to the kettle. The stew was done. Carefully, not sure what she felt about Link witnessing so many of her personal moments, she swung the kettle on its metal arm off the fire. She turned to fetch a spoon only to find Link standing right behind her. He studied her face intently in the firelight for a moment and then, very carefully, he lifted a hand. Zelda froze, eyes on his face.
"You've been crying," he murmured, wiping away the trails of previously unnoticed tears down her cheeks.
Zelda felt the floodgates within her wobble and weaken. Biting her lip against a sudden surge of tears, she turned quickly to grab wooden spoons and bowls to serve the stew in. Link stepped back and gave her the space she needed. She ladled stew into the bowls, pressed a bowl and spoon into Link's hands, and sat down at the table, carefully not looking at him.
The stew wasn't quite right, she thought to herself as she ate it. The ingredients weren't the right ones. But it was close enough to home that she didn't care. Thankfully, Link let her eat in silence, though she could feel him watching her from across the table. At last, after Zelda had set her bowl down, he spoke.
"I'll clean," he said. "Just sit. Rest."
Zelda nodded, then folded her arms on the table and rested her forehead on the fabric of her sleeves. She heard Link bumping and scraping around. She listened as he poured some water from the barrel that sat beside the hearth into a basin, then scrubbed out the bowls. With quiet clicks he set them on the bricks to dry. Then, she heard him move towards her, and felt it when he put a hand on her shoulder.
"The stew was delicious," he said quietly. "That was a recipe from before, wasn't it?"
Tears began to drip down her cheeks again. She nodded against her forearms.
"You aren't alone," he told her. His hand smoothed down her hair. "Come here. It's okay to be sad."
She didn't know why she listened to him— it was insane. But at his invitation, she threw herself into his arms, sobbing onto his shoulder, crying as she hadn't cried since the first night she came to Loft. His arms closed around her and he stroked her hair, her back, let her weep. Several times her tears lessened, but then at a whispered "it's ok" from Link they would begin anew. Somehow they moved from standing beside the fire to sitting on one of the sickbeds, Link leaning back against the wall, Zelda clinging to his (by now) very wet tunic.
He had undone her plait and was running his fingers through her hair, gently pulling out the tangles. The motion was soothing. At last, her cries wound down for the final time, and even his soothing murmuring was not enough to cause them to begin again. Zelda felt horrible, waterlogged, slow; and yet, it was as though a weight had been lifted from her, like poison had been leeched from her soul.
"You've been keeping that to yourself since that first night, haven't you?" Link asked her as she laid against his chest. Exhausted, she nodded.
"How brave you've been," he murmured, pulling his hands from her hair and resting one palm on her shoulder, the other closing around her waist.
There was nothing Zelda could say to that, no way for her to respond to him, so she stayed with her ear resting against his chest, listening to the comforting beat of his heart. It still hurt. The loss still stung, now that she had acknowledged it. But the pain was less now.
"Would you like to hear about my day?" Link asked Zelda, thumb idly stroking back and forth across her shoulder. She nodded.
"After I left you this morning, I went to the academy and picked up the junior students. They're children— fourteen or fifteen years old, maybe, and still learning how to fly properly. They're so young, too, that their minds are all a mess, and they're forever getting in trouble. I took them out in the skies to fly practice drills," he continued. "I taught them a few new ones. Brother and I are considered the best team in the sky," he added with more than a little pride.
"It's exhausting business, teaching the juniors," he continued. "Half of them don't know their beaks from their tail feathers. And you have to constantly be on the watch for someone to fall out of the saddle…"
Zelda shuddered. She heard the smile in Link's voice as he continued.
"Afterwards, I had to teach some of the very small students— six and seven year olds who have only just Imprinted with their Loftwings— how to take care of their birds. Children have entirely too much energy."
Zelda nodded. She understood that. She peeled herself out of Link's arms, then, and fetched her tablet. When she returned to the cot, Link spread his arms again and she tucked herself up against his chest once more, not thinking too hard about the situation. She just wanted— needed, craved— physical comfort.
I taught the children in Moruge, she wrote on her tablet. I was the history keeper.
"I am sure you were a marvelous teacher," Link said quietly. "The children must have loved you."
Too exhausted to cry again at the memory of her students, so vibrant, now all dead, Zelda nodded.
My mother before me was the history keeper. My father was the thatcher, she wrote.
"I'm so sorry," Link murmured. "They must have been lovely."
I don't remember much of my mother, Zelda wrote. She was ill for most of my childhood and died ten years ago. My father followed her not long after. Even in Moruge I was alone.
"You aren't alone here," Link said quietly. "I'm here for you, as is Aryll."
I appreciate your kindness, Zelda wrote.
"Would you like to tell me about your people?" Link asked. "About… about the Wind Clan?"
We are a kind of being called Elementals, Zelda wrote after some hesitation. Our element is wind. There are also Fire and Water Elementals somewhere on the surface. I have never met any. Aside from the merchants who came through occasionally, you and Aryll are the first people from outside Moruge that I have met.
"You're a Wind Elemental," Link repeated. "Is that why you're so much lighter than Aryll and I are?"
My bones are hollow, Zelda wrote. In some ways, Wind Elementals are more like birds than like humans. We prefer to make our homes in places where there are many trees. We are, for the most part, placid and peaceful. We mate for life.
Link nodded, then touched Zelda's hair. "You must be lonely without your people."
Zelda hesitated, then penned a glyph.
She set the tablet aside. She didn't want to talk about it anymore.
"Here," said Link suddenly, rising from the cot. "Have some fruit. Have you eaten any yet?" He moved to the table, where the basket of fruit that he'd given her earlier that day sat. Zelda shook her head. Link spotted the etiquette primer lying next to the basket of fruit and grinned.
"Have you figured out the meaning of the gift?" he asked her impishly, clearly intending to distract her. Zelda shook her head again. Link lifted two fruit from the basket and came back to the cot. Zelda leaned forward, easily making room for him. Their bodies fit together again like two pieces of a puzzle.
She wasn't thinking about it. He was just being kind. Nothing more.
She made a little sign of thanks, then took the fruit from Link. It was about the size of a plum— small enough that she could eat it without filling up her stomach too much after her satisfying dinner. It was a light purple with a fuzzy exterior, much like a peach. Zelda cautiously bit into it. It was sweet and slightly tangy, almost light as air.
"Do you like it?" Link asked. Zelda nodded, taking another bite. "It's called Sky Fruit," he continued. "It's a close cousin of the green glowing fruit you've seen growing on the ground. That fruit increases your energy when you're tired. Sky Fruit makes you happy. Or, at least, peaceful."
Zelda nodded. As she felt the juices flowing across her tongue and down her throat, she felt a little calmer. She finished the fruit and leaned, limp and exhausted, against Link's chest, listening to the comforting beat of his heart.
Slowly, without even being aware of it, she drifted to sleep.
Aryll came in several hours later, a few patches of blood still on her arms that she hadn't managed to scrub off. Her hair was matted to her forehead in sweat. It hadn't been an easy birth, but Orielle and the babe were fine— though she wouldn't be able to carry another child.
"How is she?" Aryll asked Link, looking at the fragile, willowy figure curled up under his arm. He was leaning back against the wall, eyes mostly shut, though Aryll knew he was awake.
"A bit better," Link responded. "She finally let some of it out." He gestured to his tear-stained tunic. Aryll noticed that the arm that Zelda was curled under was draped protectively around her, his fingers tangled in her hair.
"She's been struggling," Aryll agreed softly. "But she wouldn't seem to admit it to herself. I don't know. It's hard to tell what's going on in her head."
"Yes," Link agreed, looking down at the top of Zelda's mouse-brown head. "She said she was the history keeper in her home village. She also said she taught the children. She misses them."
"It has to be lonely," Aryll said. "Carrying the weight of her people's history when she's the last one left."
Link just nodded, leaning his head back against the wall and shutting his eyes. He ran his free hand through Zelda's hair again, and Aryll smiled.
"Has she figured it out yet?" she asked. Link shook his head mutely, sighing. He opened his eyes again after a moment, studying his sister with his wolf-blue gaze.
"I don't want to scare her away," Link said. "She's already been through so much. But Brother is quite determined… and so am I."
Aryll shrugged helplessly, then finally moved from her position in the doorway. She began to quietly set out the pallets next to the smoldering fire.
"There's stew in the kettle," Link suggested. "Zelda made it. It's a recipe from the Surface."
"I ate at Orielle and Fledge's," Aryll said, though she picked up one of the wooden spoons drying on the hearth, dipped it into the kettle, and sampled a bit. "It's good," she admitted, moving to wash her spoon in the basin. "Different, but good. She's been seasoning some of the food I've made lately— unique seasonings, but good ones."
"They're probably not all that unusual to her," Link responded as Aryll went back to setting up the pallets. "She misses home. At least let her have her food."
"I never said she couldn't," Aryll responded. She paused in her work, looking up at Link cradling Zelda's sleeping form protectively, and sighed. "Do you want me to talk to her? Try to explain some things?"
"Only if she asks," Link said. "Let her try to work it out on her own. I don't think she can stand pity. But don't let her get the wrong idea, either."
"I'll do my best," Aryll said dryly. "It's hard to know what ideas she has when she doesn't talk and will barely write to us."
"I know," said Link with a frustrated sigh. He looked down at Zelda again. "Do you think she can't talk, or just won't?"
"I don't know," Aryll said. "I've heard her humming a few times, but she doesn't seem to realize that she's doing it— and when she notices, it's almost like she chokes. It may be entirely psychological. I'm not sure. But hopefully we'll hear her voice someday."
Link nodded in agreement. Aryll turned down the blankets for Zelda, and Link stood, easily lifting her with one arm.
"She's so light," Aryll said in wonder, not for the first time.
"She said her bones are hollow," Link responded. "She said she's a wind elemental and has more in common with birds. It would explain her weight, and her build, too."
"And her heart rate," Aryll agreed, watching Link lay Zelda down in the blankets. "She reminds me of a hummingbird."
"Do you need to change her bandages?" Link asked Aryll, noticing the way that his sister was frowning at Zelda.
"No," Aryll said. "There isn't much more I can do for the burns— the skin will never look the way it did before. I keep the bandages on so she doesn't have to look at the scars, and I put ointment on the burns to keep them cool."
"Oh," said Link, his heart sinking. He pulled the blankets up over her and touched her forehead once with his hand.
"How is work on the house coming?" Aryll asked.
"It's coming," Link said. "I'm done dusting it out and I've polished up most of the furniture. It needs new mats, though, and the roof and chimney need some repairs. I'll invite you both to see it sometime next week once I've patched it up a bit more."
"That sounds good." Aryll hugged Link as he stepped back from Zelda.
"Don't worry," she said quietly. "She'll come around. It'll all work out."
Link nodded once, but didn't respond otherwise. Aryll yawned, and Link pulled away.
"Go to sleep," he said. "I'll be back tomorrow for lunch. I don't want Zelda to think she's done anything wrong by grieving."
"Alright," said Aryll softly. "I'll make sure we're here. Good night, Link."
Link waved once, then quietly let himself out of the dim cabin. Aryll banked the fire for the night, then turned to look at her sleeping ward. The elemental sighed in her sleep, and a soft wind whispered through the cottage as she did. Aryll smiled sadly to herself.
How horrible it was for Zelda to have lost her people, she thought as she changed into her nightgown. But at least here in Loft she could do some good, and she would be cared for.
It would have to be enough.
Zelda woke up early the next morning feeling drained. Her eyes were swollen and they hurt. For a moment she couldn't remember why, and then it came back to her. Dinner. Link.
She buried her face in her hands and suppressed a fresh bout of tears. Now that they had started, it didn't seem like she would ever be able to stop crying, stop grieving; it was only just hitting her now, months later, that she would never have her home back, never see her friends again.
Zelda wept silently into her hands for a few moments, but the shift of Aryll on her pallet roused her from her self-pity. Grief or not, there were things that needed doing. With a pathetic sniffle, Zelda rose and stoked the fire, then checked the large barrel of water beside the fireplace. Not much left— they'd used a lot yesterday. Zelda noticed she was still in her clothes from the previous day, and recalled falling asleep on Link's shoulder. He must have put her to bed. Deeply embarrassed, Zelda changed from her light pink shift and rose-colored dress to the yellow and blue that was her only other outfit. Then, grabbing a bucket to take to the well in the square, Zelda slipped on her thick boots and tromped out into the cold dawn.
Her breath streamed out before her face, thick white in a cloud of wispy fog that had settled over the village that morning. She tied her bucket to the rope and then lowered it into the well. She listened for the familiar splash, and felt the bucket get heavier as it filled with water. She began to haul it up, hardly thinking as she went through the familiar motions.
A noise overhead, like the sound of a large insect wing flitting through the air, roused her from her chore. Zelda looked up, but couldn't see anything through the dense morning fog. She heard the noise again, and, out of curiosity, stirred up a small wind to let her peek through the cloud cover.
Above her floated a nightmare.
Zelda dropped the rope, letting the bucket land in the well with a splash, and turned, sprinting for the cabin. The sky had been filled with the creatures, horrible, centipedal monsters with jewel-like eyes and massive wings. Zelda banged into the house, bolting the door shut behind her. The noise roused Aryll.
"What's wrong?" Aryll asked groggily. Zelda tried to speak, but fear had grabbed her and her throat was firmly locked. She squeaked, then gave up and grabbed her tablet.
Flying monsters. Sky full of them. Look like centipedes.
"Skytails," Aryll said suddenly, sitting up and throwing off her blankets. The blue pendant she used to communicate with Link hung on a thong by the door— without hesitation, Aryll went to it, and immediately began to speak into it.
"Link," she said urgently. "Link, wake up. Link, can you hear me? Link, this is an emergency. Wake up."
"What's wrong? Is Zelda hurt?" Link's voice came through the pendant suddenly, raspy and concerned.
"Skytails," Aryll said. "Zelda saw them outside. She said the sky was full of them."
Link cursed. "Thank you, Zelda," he said through the pendant. "I'm going to wake the others. How many, would you say?"
Don't know, Zelda wrote. Foggy. Saw at least ten but through a small hole. They were flying around. Probably more.
Aryll read the response off to Link, and Zelda heard him exhale.
"They must be spawning," Link said with a groan. "And they need to feed— just great. Alright. Zelda, thank you. You've saved a number of lives today. Stay inside where it's safe. Skytails are nasty creatures and will carry you away to feed their young so don't go outside. Do you understand?"
"She understands," Aryll relayed. "Link, keep us informed of your progress. If you need more flyers…"
"You stay on the ground too, Aryll," Link instructed. "We'll need you for healing. Thank you."
The pendant stopped glowing. Aryll sighed. Zelda began to scribble frantically.
What's going on?
"Humans and Loftwings aren't the only creatures that live in the sky," Aryll said with a sigh. "We've got our fair share of monsters, too— that's why we have the Wing Warriors. The worst of these monsters are the Skytails. They're long-lived, very tough, very hungry beasts. Once a generation or so, they spawn in huge numbers and need to feed their young. They usually invade Loft and make away with whatever they can use to feed on. And, since they eat meat…"
Zelda had a sudden horrible flash of those monsters swirling down on her, lifting her in their pincers, and carrying her away to be thrown into a pit full of the writhing things, torn apart…
She shuddered, feeling ill. Aryll touched her shoulder in consolation.
"You've saved a lot of lives by noticing them this early," Aryll said. "With the fog, nobody would have seen them until it was too late."
I wouldn't want the people of Loft to die the way my people did, Zelda wrote. The warriors can win, can't they?
Aryll sighed. "Yes," she said. "But mature Skytails are very difficult to kill. They have tough exoskeletons, and spikes on their wings. Their weak spot is a large, pulsing bulb on their tails, and if you can hit it, it paralyzes them and they fall from the sky and die."
Zelda nodded. Just then, a desperate cry outside roused her. She rushed to the window in time to see the Zeffa in combat with a Skytail.
"Oh, the poor thing," Aryll said in horror. "Zelda, don't look. This won't be pretty."
The Zeffa wasn't faring well, as it kept attacking the tough skeleton around the outside of the Skytail. Anger overwhelmed Zelda, and she called up a wind, flipping the Skytail around in midair. The Zeffa's beak plunged into the sensitive orb at the end of the Skytail's body, and it froze in midair, then fell to the stones below, where its brittle body shattered and dissipated into mist.
Zelda hurried to the door and opened it, sweeping the Zeffa towards her with a gust of wind. The bird let itself be carried into the cabin, and Zelda slammed the door shut behind it.
"Zelda," said Aryll, more shocked than upset. "What was that?"
Zelda closed her arms around the lithe bird and buried her face in its neck, surprised to find that she was shaking. The Zeffa, too, seemed rattled, though it began to preen Zelda's hair after a moment.
"I don't believe it," breathed Aryll. "It's impossible."
Zelda looked up at Aryll, even as her hands automatically began to rove across the bird, checking it for injuries. It seemed unharmed. Zelda exhaled in relief.
"Zelda," Aryll said slowly. "Try to get on her back. I want to see something."
Zelda strode around the Zeffa, and carefully clambered up onto its back. The Zeffa flapped its wings once, sending a few dishes sliding off a counter, and then stilled. And then, something blossomed in Zelda's mind, a warm link to the bird. Zelda's eyes widened in shock.
"Incredible. She's Imprinted on you, Zelda. She's your Sister."
Zelda looked at Aryll, then slid off the Zeffa's back. The awareness in her mind remained. Aryll was pacing back and forth, muttering under her breath. Zelda grabbed her tablet.
What do you mean, Imprinted? I can feel her in my head.
"The bird has made a connection to you," Aryll answered. "Like what the people of Loft have with our Loftwings. She'll come whenever you call her. She's the animal half of your soul. But… we thought that only humans from Loft could be Imprinted on, and only by Loftwings. But you're not human. You're lighter than a human, and the Zeffa can carry you. This… this changes everything."
Zelda looked at the Zeffa, then out the window. The fog was still thick, but she could hear, distantly, shouts. Battle. She thought of what it would mean to fly on the back of the Zeffa, to turn the winds in the favor of the Wing Warriors. She thought of the children of Moruge, saw them in her mind's eye, saw the bodies of all the people she hadn't been able to save. She remembered the stories of children who climbed a tree too tall and fell, and vanished into the wind. Then she put her stylus to her tablet.
I can help.
"Out of the question," Aryll said. "You've never flown. You don't know how to fight. Link would kill me."
I couldn't help my people. I can help yours.
"Didn't you hear me?" Aryll asked, frustrated. "You don't know how to take care of yourself."
I have the wind, Zelda wrote. I can move the monsters' bodies in the air. I can send wind to speed the warriors along. I can help.
Aryll bit her lip, looking at Zelda.
"You're the last of your kind, Zelda," she said bluntly. "If you die, your whole history of your people dies with you."
Zelda stepped away from the Zeffa and fetched her journal out of the small wooden box where it stayed. She passed it to Aryll.
Everything I could remember, she wrote on the tablet. All the songs and legends and rituals. If I die, we will still live on in this book. I couldn't save my village, and it nearly killed me. If I do nothing again, I'll die for certain.
Aryll looked at Zelda. Zelda set her jaw in determination, trying not to think of what it would be like to be flying on the wind, to have her element tugging at her ferociously, trying to pull her body apart.
"I don't like it," Aryll said. "But… you need to do this, don't you?" It wasn't much of a question, but Zelda nodded anyway. Aryll sighed.
"Go," she said. "Now. Before I change my mind. If… if the Skytails weren't so dangerous, I would say the Wing Warriors could handle it on their own. But…"
Zelda nodded once, then embraced Aryll. Then, she moved to the door of the cabin and opened it. The fog outside was still dense, and Zelda swept it away with the movement of a hand. The sky above was clear of Skytails. The Zeffa strode forward and Zelda mounted up.
"If you get hurt, come back immediately," said Aryll. "No heroics. Stay high— the Skytails can't fly much higher than the top of the Goddess Statue's head. You should be safe there. Hold tight to your Zeffa, and stay seated in front of her wings. I wish you had a saddle."
Zelda nodded, then touched the Zeffa's mind with her own. The bird took off, propelling herself skyward with powerful strokes of her wings.
It was harder than she thought it would be. There was no good place to hold on to the Zeffa, and she didn't want to pull her feathers out, so she clung to her neck, careful not to choke her. They were high in the sky within short minutes, and Zelda could soon easily see the battle— or part of it. The humans and their Loftwings were struggling as the Skytails darted in and out of the thick cloud cover.
It was easier to feel the winds up here, Zelda noticed. It was so much easier to call them. With a little effort, she'd created a gentle breeze that swept most of the fog away, leaving the Wing Warriors with greater visibility.
She heard the cry of a child and turned her attention to the Skytail carrying away a small child by its ankle. Fury filled Zelda, and she blew a strong wind against the Skytail keeping it from flying away. A Wing Warrior saw the child, and he and another warrior peeled away from the main battle. One warrior flew beneath, and the other quickly punctured the Skytail's rear orb. The creature dropped the child as it fell, and the warrior below caught the child and quickly returned the young boy to the ground, where his mother waited in tears. She seized the child and ran indoors. Satisfied, Zelda returned her attention to the fight.
Nobody seemed to have noticed her yet, which was good. For all of her bravado, she was scared— she could feel the wind pulling at her, begging her to lose herself in it. And even worse, she didn't want to face Link's anger. He had asked her to stay safe on the ground, and after he had done so much for her she couldn't even give him that. But this was more important. The people of Loft were more important than she was.
So she kept calling the winds.
Even with her freezing the Skytails in place, or flipping them so that the Wing Warriors could have a better shot at their tails, the battle was long and difficult. One bird's wing was cut partially by a Skytail's pincer, sending both bird and human plummeting to earth. Another rider lost a limb to the pincers. A number of injuries, some mild, some horrible, were sustained. And worst of all, as the battle wore on, the humans tired, while the Skytails seemed to have infinite reserves of energy.
Zelda occasionally saw the Warriors throwing glowing green fruit to each other— the fruit that increased energy that Link had told her about the previous night. Heartily wishing that she had some, Zelda circled her Zeffa through the sky some distance above and away from the fight, causing a small whirlwind that dizzied and confused three Skytails making for the ground in Loft. Then, watching a group of Warriors charge, she gently built up tailwinds around them, speeding their charges.
Slowing the Skytails, speeding the warriors, using sudden bursts of wind to manipulate the battle; it was difficult work, far more difficult than Zelda would have thought. Her hands were getting sweaty on the Zeffa's feathers. Her legs were getting tired. And the Zeffa's wingbeats were slowing. Zelda looked again at the battle. The numbers of both Wing Warriors and Skytails was substantially reduced. Zelda could see Link on his Crimson Terror blasting through the battle, taking down Skytails left and right. There were more men than monsters; exhausted, Zelda determined that the battle could continue without her. With a touch, she pointed her Zeffa back in the direction of Aryll's cabin, and they slowly began to descend.
A Skytail slammed into Zelda, piercing her arm with its pincer and knocking her off the Zeffa. The bird, exhausted already, dove to catch her but was too weak to pull the two up into the air, and Zelda couldn't create an updraft. Zelda touched her bird's mind, directing her to the Skytail charging after the two. The Zeffa understood, and whirled around, engaging the Skytail in battle, diving for the orb.
Zelda fell and fell through the clouds, the mist tearing at her hair, her clothes, her flesh. She could feel the spirits of her people around her in the sky, in the wind, wrapping her in their love and forgiveness. She was the last Wind Elemental, and she was about to die.
Zelda opened her mouth, feeling the wind rush into her lungs as a whirlwind built around her, pulling at her, and sang the familiar funeral song of her people, voice cracking with disuse as she sang the Wind's Requiem.
Grant them eternal rest in wind, and let perpetual light shine upon them. A hymn becomes you, Goddesses, and to you shall a vow be repaid in the Golden Realm. Hear my prayer; to you shall all flesh come. Eternal rest grant unto them, Great Ones and let perpetual wind dance upon them.
Her words were carried away on the wind as her body began to dissolve. Just before the world went black, Zelda felt two warm arms close around her.
"Don't go. Please, Zelda." whispered a voice in her ear as everything disappeared.
Zelda woke suddenly to the dim interior of an unfamiliar cabin. The banked fire smoldered sleepily in the fireplace, which was in a very different location from Aryll's cabin. She laid not on a pallet, but on a wide, soft bed. Someone was asleep in the bed beside her, someone large and warm. The electric smell of a thunderstorm was all around her. Zelda exhaled quietly.
"Link?" she asked. Her voice croaked. Link awoke with a start, inhaling suddenly. He sat up, then looked down at her.
"Did… did you just speak?"
"Yes," Zelda whispered. She sat up too, looking at him in the darkness. "What happened?"
His arms closed around her, bare and burning like fire. Zelda didn't pull away. He buried his face in her shoulder as she embraced him as well, marveling at the rightness of it.
"You were falling and singing. I thought I was hallucinating, but I saw that Zeffa— that little blue one that's been following you— fighting a Skytail, and I realized that she was protecting you, that you had been captured. I was diving to save you when you began to sing and there was this… this incredible wind, like a tornado, and your body began to thin out, but I caught you. For a moment, it was like holding air, and then you became solid and… and I took you to Aryll and finished out the fight. We got them all, I don't know how. Every last adult Skytail. The spawn will starve, hopefully, and that will be the end of that menace. Not even one got away."
Zelda sighed, relieved.
"And after the battle," Link said slowly, "I brought you here. Aryll's cabin was full— so many people were injured. And you seemed fine, except that you wouldn't wake up. I was worried you never would. I was watching over you, but I fell asleep… I'm not dreaming, am I? I must be, if you're speaking."
"You're not dreaming," Zelda rasped. "Or we both are. I shouldn't be alive. Wind Elementals dissolve when they fall. I don't know how you kept me from coming apart."
Then she looked around in discomfort. She was in Link's house, alone, in a bed, with Link. She shifted away from him. He caught the sudden movement, though didn't say anything.
"I should go," Zelda said, swinging her feet out of bed. "I should help Aryll. It isn't right for me to be here."
"Why not?" Link asked, rising as well. He wore a loose tunic and long, baggy pants, but his arms were bare to her by the firelight. Zelda swallowed thickly.
"You're courting," she said quietly. "Your lady won't like this."
Link raised a brow.
"What makes you think I'm courting?" he asked, taking a step towards her.
"You and Aryll… the way you were smiling at each other on market day," Zelda said. "I recognized that look. You've got a lady."
"Only if she wants me," Link agreed mildly, taking another step towards Zelda. She backed away. "Do you know who that lady is?"
Zelda shook her head.
"No guesses?" Link asked, stepping towards her. Zelda shook her head again, stepping back and bumping into a shelf mounted on the wall. The shelf's occupants rattled. Zelda gulped.
Zelda felt her way along the wall, back pressed up against the smooth plaster. Link stopped before her, not so close that she couldn't get away, but close enough that there was nowhere for her to look but at him. He reached forward and took each of her hands, and then guided her back into the center of the room.
"There aren't many women in Loft," Link said quietly, letting go of Zelda's hands. She resisted the urge to back away again. "Not nearly enough for all the men here. When I found you on the surface, Brother knew immediately that you were the one for me. It didn't take me long to see that he was right."
"You don't even know me," Zelda pointed out pragmatically, voice still raspy. "You don't know me at all."
"I know enough," Link said. "I know that you're fiercely stubborn, and incredibly strong, and that you care deeply for those around you. I know that you don't like feeling like you've shown weakness, and that you're deeply lonely, but that you're determined to make the most of your life here in Loft. And I want to help you make the most of that life by your side."
"I Imprinted," Zelda babbled, stepping towards the door. "On the Zeffa. I called the winds in the fight. I couldn't sit there and let more people die when I could do something. I wasn't falling because the Skytail carried me away. I was falling because it knocked me off my bird. Maybe… maybe my Sister doesn't want your Brother. Maybe this is all wrong."
Link stared at Zelda for a moment as though she had grown a second head.
"You were flying?" he asked, and for a moment Zelda was stunned at his vehemence. "During that battle?"
"I helped," Zelda said stubbornly. "Or maybe you didn't notice that your flyers were moving faster than normal, and that the Skytails kept flipping at opportune moments?"
"I…." Link's face went from angry to awed, then back to frustrated. "I asked you to stay on the ground. To stay safe. You're the last of your kind."
"And I'd rather serve the memory of all of them than cower," Zelda fired back. "I couldn't save them but I could help you."
"Yes," said Link, the fight going out of him. "Yes, you did help. I'm going to kill Aryll for letting you out, but you helped. And you were injured."
Zelda looked at her right arm. It was bandaged thoroughly from where the Skytail's pincers had cut into it. Zelda shrugged.
"I've had worse," she said, thinking of the burns beneath her nightgown. "I'll always have worse. But I'm whole."
Link suddenly looked uncomfortable. He took Zelda's hands again and pulled her before the fire where it was brighter.
"No," he said quietly. "Zelda. You aren't."
She could see now in the firelight what she hadn't noticed before. Her left pinky, half of her left ring finger, and the top joint of her middle finger were gone. Zelda turned her hand over and over in the firelight, looking at the neat diagonal. Flesh grew over the stumps as though there had never been anything there.
"I'm sorry," Link said quietly. "Aryll and I didn't even notice until after we'd bandaged your arm."
"I'll…" Zelda said shakily. "I'll be fine. It's just… because I fell. When I came apart in the wind. Some of me didn't come back."
Link reached for Zelda's left hand and closed his fingers over it so that she couldn't see the damage. She looked up at him, wondering how he could still want her even after this.
"You mentioned that the Zeffa Imprinted on you," Link said casually. "Aryll told me as much after the battle— though not the bit about you flying." His expression was, briefly, thunderous. Then his brow smoothed. "I've something to show you that may soothe some of the concerns you've voiced about our relationship."
How could he tease her at a time like this, Zelda wondered. How could he want her? She was burned and scarred over most of her body. She was missing fingers.
Link led her outside into the darkness. Zelda didn't recognize the small courtyard around which the house's outbuildings were built; dense trees behind the house reminded her of Aryll's cabin. Link turned and pointed at the roof.
"Look," he said.
A large nest rested on the roof of the house. Lit by moonlight, Zelda could see that her Zeffa was tucked under the wing of Link's Loftwing. As Zelda watched, the Zeffa let out a coo of contentment and nestled closer to the Loftwing.
"She looks rather satisfied with the situation," Link said in Zelda's ear, brushing her hair aside. "So that's something you don't need to worry about. This is probably overwhelming for you— I wanted to ease you into the idea. But however long you need, however much you need me to court you, I'll be patient."
Zelda turned her attention from the nest to Link, who was watching her with bright eyes.
"I need to think about this," she said honestly. Link nodded, then stepped back.
"Take all the time you need," he said. "But I have one last question for you. Why are you talking? Why wouldn't you talk before?"
Zelda swallowed thickly.
"When… when the bulblins came, they burned the village down," she whispered. "My house was on the outskirts, far from where the beasts came from. The men were out hunting, and were taken down when they were far away. Then, the monsters rode in and slaughtered us. My house was the last one they reached— I was asleep. I didn't hear…" Zelda stopped, then took a breath. "A stray arrow hit the thatch from afar. The smoke woke me up. I grabbed what I could and ran out, hid in the bushes. I saw them cutting down my people as they tried to escape, saw them ride up to my home and ransack it. Then they rode away. I ran back to the village, and looked for survivors. The women and children had taken sanctuary inside the temple. Most of them burned alive, and the ones that ran out were slain. I called and I called and I called, and nobody responded. They were all dead. And every time I thought about speaking, or tried to speak, I remembered their burned bodies and my throat closed up.
"But… when I fell… I could feel their spirits in the wind. They're dead but they're not gone. I felt their love and forgiveness, and… and they don't want me to suffer anymore. I sang the Wind's Requiem. I put their spirits to peace."
Zelda wrapped her arms around herself, blinking her eyes against tears. "That's why."
Link embraced her, leaning his cheek against the top of her head as she breathed in the comforting smell of him.
"Thank you," he said. "For sharing that with me."
Zelda nodded into his chest, then stepped back.
"It's a lot," she admitted, looking up at him. "All of this. The loss… and then Loft, and the Zeffa, and now you. I need to think about it. But this isn't a no."
"I know," Link said gently. And in those words were what Zelda most needed to hear. She rose up on her toes and pressed her lips to Link's, enjoying the shock of her skin against his where they touched. Link kissed her back, gently and sweetly, and then let her go and stepped away.
"We can talk more in the morning," he whispered, voice rough. "And Aryll will need your help. We should sleep." He guided her back into the cottage, to the wide bed, and made to pull away, but Zelda caught his hand.
"Stay with me?" she asked, voice quiet. Link looked at her for a moment, face unreadable, then nodded. Zelda crawled into the bed, and Link slipped in beside her. She rolled up against him, and he wrapped his arms around her. Comforted, Zelda breathed in the scent of him again, and drifted off to sleep.
A/N: A (very very long) oneshot for your reading pleasure. A few quick notes: the lyrics of the Wind's Requiem that Zelda sings are from the Introit section of a traditional Roman-Catholic Requiem mass. (I obviously changed a few words here and there.) For anyone who confuses the Imprinting that Loftwings (and a Zeffa) do on their humans with Twilight, bear in mind that baby birds do it first as soon as they come out of the shell to the first thing they see.
For more notes on this oneshot, as well as news about other projects in the works, feel free to check my blog (which you can find at cobwebcity dot blogspot dot com). Otherwise, as ever, please review. Your reviews keep me going when I hit the sticky spots in a story: more reviews = more stories. Not even joking.
Thanks for reading!
Note on 11/27 and 12/2: Removed a stray "Zelda". Several reviewers pointed out that Aryll said Zelda's name before Zelda finally tells them who she is. Thank you for catching this error! Corrected.