DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE

 

As Link followed the cold, grime-slick wall deeper into the cave, he began to notice a foul odor in the air—a heavy, ominous stench that grew stronger as he pressed on into the darkness. He couldn’t turn back now. This was the cave—he was sure of it—that was marked on the map given to him by Zelda’s nursemaid. The old woman had pointed to it with a gnarled finger and wheezed the words: “The sword of legend. Without it, she is lost forever.” Link ignored the smell and pushed forward.

Up ahead, a faint orange glow. Link stopped, listened. At first he could hear only his breath and the drip from stalactites, but as he advanced toward the glow, he began to make out the faint crackle of fire.

Deep into the cave, the tunnel began to narrow. He walked as far as he could, and then he had to crawl, pulling himself along the cave floor as the walls closed around him, funneling him toward the blotch of amber light. The cold stone squeezed his shoulders. He began to breathe faster, trying not to panic. The entrance was so far behind him, and now he could barely move. The smell was sickening. Just a few more feet to the light.

And then he was through, the tunnel dropping off suddenly and depositing him into a medium-sized chamber lit by two flickering torches. Link rose to his feet and immediately gagged.

In the corner of the chamber was an old man, emaciated and feral, rocking on his haunches in a pile of rat bones. A few half-gnawed carcasses lay on top of the heap. The man was gaping in Link’s direction, but his eyes were unseeing—filmed over and leaking pus. Clutched to his chest was a wooden sword.

Link approached the man slowly, his sleeve held to his face. The odor was overpowering. At the sound of Link’s footsteps, the man rose. He was dressed in the filthy remains of a green Royal Guard uniform, the same style that Link himself was wearing. The man’s beard was a mass of white wires, crusted with drool and the leakage from his eyes. He grinned in Link’s direction, exposing the few gruesome teeth left in his mouth. He tried to speak but only managed a grunt before a coughing fit seized him and he bent over, hacking violently.

When he regained his voice, he held out the sword.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said, his voice weak and rasping. “Did you come for this?”

“I did,” Link said, avoiding the man’s face and looking instead at the sword. Wooden and crudely carved, you could mistake it for a children’s toy except for the sharpness of the blade, its fine edge apparent even in the wavering torchlight. He reached for the handle, but the man, sensing the movement, pulled it back.

“Wait,” the man said, and then bent down to cough again. “I’m supposed to tell you something. It’s dangerous… What was it? It was so long ago.” He swung the sword in front of him, slicing through the air in Link’s direction. “This sword, maybe. Dangerous, dangerous. Too dangerous for you, boy.”

“Give it to me,” Link said. He followed the sword’s movements through the air but didn’t retreat.

“Why do you want it?” the man said. He stopped swinging the sword and stroked the length of its blade with a craggy gray hand.

Link thought of Zelda—the sweet sound of her voice in his ear, the softness of her skin after a bath, the smell of her hair like coral fresh from the sea. He pictured her in the grip of Ganon, the towering boar-like demon cackling madly as he slung the girl over his shoulder.

“To save the princess,” he said.

“There is always another princess,” the man said. “Go home, boy.”

“There is only one princess,” Link said. “And I love her.”

“Love?” the man cried. He staggered against the cave wall and began gulping and wheezing horribly. It took Link a moment to realize the old man was laughing.

 “Do you know where love will get you? Just look around you, boy!” The man lashed the sword wildly through the air, and Link had to jump back to avoid the blade.

“This is madness,” Link said. “There is nothing so noble in the world as love.”

The man lowered the sword and leaned against the wall, taking deep rattling breaths. “Nothing so wicked,” he said. “You die a thousand deaths and still it asks for more.” He brought the sword to his face and ran it along his cheek. He pressed his lips against the flat of the blade once, and then tossed the weapon to the ground.

Link lunged forward and grabbed the sword by its hilt. He tested its weight in his hands and nodded. The old man slunk away along the wall, and as Link watched, he felt a dark anger rising inside him.

“What do you know of love, old fool?” he said.

The man began laughing again, choking on the sounds, drool running from his mouth into his beard.

Link stepped forward and, shaking with rage, held the sword’s tip under the man’s chin.

“Answer me! What do you know of love?”

But the man did not answer. He slouched onto the pile of rat bones and sat there clutching his chest, laughing wretchedly, gaping up at Link with his useless eyes.


Robert Hinderliter's previous work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Night Train, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, decomP, Annalemma, and other places. He teaches English at Chosun University in Gwangju, South Korea.