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The Conviction to Save

Chapter Text

The Conviction to Save

 

Chapter One: Blue, Red and Green

 

Blue.
Blue like the sky. Blue like the sea.
Blue like hope. Blue like despair.
Blue like the eyes of beasts and heroes and princesses.

Blue like wisdom.

Dark birds circled overhead as Princess Zelda tore her ivory hilted rapier from a monster carcass and swung it harshly through the air to dislodge the blood. She could hear heavy hoof falls gaining and she swiveled around before taking off through the field of corpses. Her skirts trailed behind her, their regal cream color long since dyed claret by monster entrails. The sky above swirled with angry black clouds and the little light that bled through cast a grim twilight upon the formerly lush and summery plains of Hyrule.

In the distance, she could hear the cries of soldiers and the sharp clang of swords on axes; swords on spears; swords on swords. The metallic cacophony gave her hope. Her army was still fighting; her soldiers were still giving their hearts and their lives for Hyrule. For her.

How many times would she watch this? How many times had she watched it already? In how many lifetimes?

She pulled her sword from the neck of a bokoblin and swung it in a deft arc to rip a long gash in the bulbous belly of a moblin. The hoofbeats grew louder and this time she didn’t pause to clean her blade before taking off once more, trying to put as much distance as she could between herself and her army before she was caught.

Above her, keese flittered about waiting for an opening to strike. Their clumsy wings beat the air, making the same raucous flapping noises as disgruntled cuckoos but horrible. So horrible. She didn’t waste time trying to swat them out of the air. She just continued to run.

The very earth shook from the hooves that continued to advance on the princess at great speed. Zelda sheathed her sword and unhooked the bow strapped to her back. She deftly nocked an arrow and aimed it at the sky, syphoning power into the tip until it glowed golden white. She released the string and the strained wood snapped back to its original shape, launching the arrow up, up, up, high into the atmosphere where it exploded with brilliant light; a shining beacon in the cloud-choked twilight meant for a pair of eyes that she already knew wouldn't see it.

The shrill cry of a horse alerted her from behind and Zelda whipped around to find her pursuer not seven paces from where she'd stopped, his large, bulky form looming atop his enormous black war steed. Zelda pursed her lips and nocked another arrow, readying her bow at her side.

Red.
Red like earth. Red like the sun.
Red like passion. Red like obsession.

Red like power. 

The King of Evil looked just as she expected him to: his form that of a Gerudo man; hair red as fire and skin dark like ash. His piercing eyes burned gold, full of power and wickedness and something nearly pitiable. Nearly. He was a man lost to hunger; his story the only one she'd never learned.

“Princess,” he acknowledged her with a respectful nod that was only half mocking. Zelda wondered if given infinite lifetimes of meeting like this, they’d wind up as friends. Perish the thought.

“The day of judgment is upon us once again,” was her response. She would waste no breath on righteous speeches today. She’d long ago learned that pretty words would not sway this man. And after all this time, what was there left to say, really.

“You’re alone,” the great, foolish man remarked, turning his head in a show of taking in their surroundings. As if anything escaped his predatory gaze.

“Armies are useless against you. I’ve brought our battle to a place where my soldiers won’t get swept up in it,” she said plainly.

The Gerudo king's mouth curved up into a little smirk that told her he thought her effort to be useless but he commended her for it all the same. “And what of your hero?”

Zelda sucked in a breath but kept her features carefully blank. Her hero. Link. A thousand memories and emotions were tied to that name.

Green.
Green like trees. Green like sprawling plains.
Green like deep, dense forests. Green like life. Green like promises.

Green like courage.

“I’ve stopped waiting for a hero,” she declared augustly. “I am not a princess who hides behind castle walls and waits for deliverance. I will fight for my kingdom.”

The truth of the matter was that she had yet to meet Link in this life. Every day she prayed that he had been spared this time around, but she knew in her heart it wasn’t so. Whenever there was a darkness, there was a princess, and whenever there was a princess, a hero arose to save her and defeat the darkness. This was the exceptionless rule. Just as there were three pieces of the Triforce, so were there the three Chosen of the goddesses.

“You don’t appear to be in your usual form today,” the evil king commented, sounding the slightest bit curious. “Have you become jaded, Princess?”

Zelda’s grip on her bow loosened as the demon king's question struck close to her core. Yes, her heart sang in answer. All she'd ever wanted was to live out her days peacefully; to bring joy and prosperity to her people; to bear a child with the man she loved—a daughter whose line wouldn't be doomed to a fate of endless repetition—to grow old with a heart full of happiness and contentment. All the things she'd been denied time and again, in every Nayru-cursed lifetime. She must surely be the most sinful woman in Hyrule as she'd not failed to curse the goddesses every day since she gained awareness of her ensnarement.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This was not the fate that Hylia had wished for. But Hylia had been nothing more than a tutelary goddess. And now she was merely another mortal caught in the Three’s game. No, even before she’d shed her divinity, she’d never been more than a pawn, had she?

“I’m tired, Ganondorf,” she confessed. “I feel weary in my soul. I have no wish in my heart anymore but to rest, but by the goddesses’ own will, I may not.” She looked the demon king directly in the eye and beseeched him. “You who are trapped in this circuit the same as I—do you not feel a similar exhaustion? Or are you too many parts monster now to feel anything at all?”

Ganondorf studied her in silence for a long moment and Zelda unconsciously held her breath in anticipation of his answer. Her grip on her bow tightened again as she readied her muscles to spring into action at any moment. The evil king had never been one for drawn out conversation, so she was nine parts out of ten sure that he would answer with battle.

She was surprised, then, when he lowered his head slowly and said, “Aye, Princess.”

His answer caught Zelda so off guard that she failed to react in time when he raised a hand and sent a crackling orb of dark magic shooting toward her too fast to dodge. She hurriedly summoned a magical barrier to protect herself, but it was too weak to shield her fully and she was thrown by the force of the blast. Her back scraped painfully against the jagged bits of rock littering the field but she ignored the hot feeling of broken skin and rolled to her feet. She hurriedly brought her bow up and shot a sloppy light arrow at the Mad King which he dodged easily with an amused smirk.

Zelda's heart was pounding, both from the sudden rush of epinephrine that came with battle as well as Ganondorf's response. Was his answer an acknowledgment of his monstrousness, or did he in fact tire of their destiny just as she did? She was inclined to believe the former, as without the demon king's evil ambition, there would be no loop. It was he who kept them in this cycle, and should he wish to break it, he need only abandon his quest for power.

Zelda's eyes flashed in anger at the beast of a man before her. It was because of this terrible, insatiable man that she and Link couldn't rest. It was his fault that they must fight again and again and again without ever truly knowing peace. Why could he not let go of his addiction to power? What could possibly cause a heart to fill with so much darkness and desperation?

Ganondorf dismounted his horse and drew his sword. He stalked toward her with the relaxed confidence of a predator who knew his prey had no hope of escaping. Zelda responded by pointing a glowing arrow at his face and charging magic into it threateningly. The wind picked up and blew her skirts, still wet with monster guts, against her bare ankles. The sensation was nauseating.

The King of Evil's smirk widened as he observed what to him must look like a pitiful play at bravado from the lonely, weak monarch of Hyrule. The mark of the Triforce of Power glowed on the back of his right hand, serving as a bitter reminder that he too was a soul blessed by the goddesses—though he'd stolen that power for himself rather than having it bestowed on him like the Hero and herself. But the fact that a man like him could receive such a blessing was proof that for all their meddling and seemingly righteous designs, the goddesses, and by extension, the Triforce, did not discriminate when gifting their power.

Which begged the question: why trap the three of them in a loop? Ostensibly, she and Link were reborn in each era to liberate the land from evil's grasp—that was the knowledge bestowed on her by her guiding goddess, Nayru, as well as the lingering divine will of her own past life, the goddess Hylia—but if defeating the evil king was the sole purpose of her and Link's existence, then the cycle should have been broken many times over. However, no matter how many times they defeated him; thwarted his plans; locked him away; the curse continued. Whatever wish was in Ganondorf's heart was too strong to be defeated. Was a simple thirst for power really enough to keep a person fighting through lifetimes? To pick a beaten man up again and again and again?

Could a man really run on such empty ambition, or was there something else?

Unbidden, a memory from a lifetime long passed emerged from the depths of Zelda's mind. It was a memory that by all expectations should have been lost to the ages, but it chose that moment to resurface. Just once, in a Hyrule sunk to the bottom of a vast blue ocean, she recalled an instance in which Ganondorf had spoken of a wish in his heart that had nothing to do with power. His words from that time echoed in her ears with startling clarity. My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing...death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose.

That Ganondorf had perhaps been the evil king's most compassionate incarnation. He stuck out in her memory as being more human than the others; more tragic. Could it be that beneath all the layers of greed and lust and darkness and monster, there was the pure wish of a man? Was it that same wish, but warped and tainted by madness until it became something grotesque that still drove him to this day?

Dare she believe that there was some small good in this man's heart?

Ganondorf charged up another electric ball of energy in his left hand, heedless of the arrow pointed at his crown. His terrible gold eyes looked down at her as though she were a bug he intended to squash. Zelda knew that in a one-on-one battle against the King of Evil she stood no chance, but she glared stubbornly back all the same.

“Facing me without your hero was a markedly unwise decision, Chosen of Nayru,” Ganondorf stated as he bore down on her. “Your defeat today will make my victory all the easier. After I steal the Triforce of Wisdom you carry, I need only find the boy and tell him of your demise. We'll see what becomes of his courage then.”

Zelda's blue eyes flashed but she didn't react. Ganondorf talked a big game, but she knew he was just trying to rile her up. The Link of this lifetime, wherever he was, did not know her. News of her death would mean little to him. They both knew this, and though the thought stung her, it was fact. The hero was the only one still spared the curse of knowledge. Likely it was the will of the goddesses to preserve his pure heart, as courage was the most fragile of the three virtues.

Behind Ganondorf, the last of the sun's meek light was fading behind the mountains. Soon, Zelda's visibility would be compromised. If she was going to shoot and still have any chance of hitting her target, she had to do it now. Channeling all her will into her bow, Zelda focused on Ganondorf's wicked face and let the arrow fly.

Faster than a lightning strike, the King of Evil jerked his head to the side and the arrow zipped harmlessly past, streaking off into the gloom. Zelda watched it disappear and her heart sank. She'd missed. It was over.

Ganondorf's terrible eyes gloated at her failure and he raised his ball of energy above his head. Zelda clenched her teeth and turned her chin away, mentally preparing herself for the end. What a disappointing lifetime. She would die in this bloodstained field all alone without even knowing her hero's face. But there was one small spark of hope for her, at least. Perhaps with this, the chain would finally be broken. It was unprecedented for the princess to die before her hero. Without her to divide up and scatter the Triforce of Courage, all three pieces would fall into Ganondorf's hands and he'd finally get what he'd always wanted. There'd be no need for anyone to stop him after that, right? She would be released. This thought caused tears of shame to well up beneath her eyes. What a terrific coward I am, she reprimanded herself, closing her eyes against the hot sting. When she opened them again, she saw Ganondorf's triumphant expression and knew it was time.

“Goodnight, Princess,” the King of Evil said and brought his hand down.

Zelda saw the crackling energy orb come hurtling toward her and turned her head away, not bothering to draw out her suffering by raising a shield. In her last moments she sent out a prayer to her hero. Be safe, Link. You're the only hope Hyrule has now. You mustn't let Ganondorf take the Triforce of Courage.

 

Chapter Text

The princess is dead. The low murmurs filled the usually lively tavern with an atmosphere of weighted dread; one that had become all too familiar in recent days. The princess is dead.

The news had spread through the kingdom like a wildfire. Princess Zelda, heir apparent to the throne of Hyrule and beloved by all her citizens, had fallen. To the feared tyrant; the demon king of the desert, Ganondorf Dragmire. With the news of her passing, an ominous wind had swept across the kingdom. Without the princess, who would protect them from the evil king's wrath? Who would lead the soldiers to victory? Who would rule in her stead? It seemed to most, if not quietly all, that Hyrule was running on borrowed time. Already, monsters were sweeping the streets of Castletown and Kakariko Village. The number of safe places was dwindling fast; soon to be gone entirely. Soldiers had begun deserting the army, seeing no hope for Hyrule without a monarch to lead them. Some civilians tried running for the great forest in hopes of escaping the encroaching darkness, only to fall prey to starvation or the creatures within. The kingdom had entered into a downward spiral; one from which nobody could see a way out.

The princess is dead.

The cloaked figure of a man stood from his seat at the back of Kakariko's single tavern, no longer able to stomach the whispers.

The princess is dead.

No matter where he went, those words followed. They were like a plague, poisoning everything they touched. They churned his gut and haunted his thoughts.

Princess Zelda is dead.

The man collected his worn leather bag and his small case of medicines and ducked through the throng of other patrons until he could taste crisp evening air. He pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders as the soles of his thick brown boots crunched through a light dusting of snow—the first of the coming winter. Around him, residents of the town scurried for their homes, no doubt praying that there would be no raids that night. The cloaked man hoped that as well.

He made his way to the edge of the town where his lonely hut sat apart from the other houses and buildings of Kakariko. The hut had been very clearly abandoned when he'd found it some months ago, and seeing as nobody seemed keen to take over the place, he'd elected to borrow it for the time being. The other villagers were more than fine with him taking up residence there when they learned he had some medical experience. He earned his keep in the town by treating the sick and wounded with his homemade salves and potions. A few of the townsmen were a tad wary of his craft—they weren't comfortable with his offbeat remedies, especially when they learned that he was more or less self-taught—but so long as the potions worked, they held their tongues.

Admittedly, the man's knack for healing was a mystery even to him. Binding wounds and grinding up medicinal plants came naturally to him, almost as though these skills were ingrained in his very being. All he had to do was look at a plant, and something inside him knew exactly what it was and how it could be used. Even setting bones and healing burns and aches was second nature to him, as if he'd experienced all of these injuries himself a thousand times over. This wasn't true, of course—the only real injury he'd sustained in his life was a broken arm after falling out of a tree as a child.

The man had long sufficed to chalk his skills up to the mysterious workings of the goddesses. Each person had a purpose on this earth. Healing was clearly his.

As he walked, he overheard a trio of women talking in hushed voices outside a baker's shop. He recognized one of them as the mother of a little boy whose leg he'd healed after the child had taken a tumble into the small river outside the town.

“—don't know how we're going to survive this winter,” she was saying as he passed. “Those horrid bokoblins trampled most of our crops during the last raid.”

The other two women nodded along, looking grim. “Falo and I are still waiting for my husband to return with his military pension, but each day passes with no news. We can't live off what we saved much longer, and every day I fear my husband's name will be on that goddess damned list!” one of them confessed, her throat tightening at the end of her statement.

Every three days, an updated list came in with the names of the soldiers lost in the recent battle against King Dragmire’s forces. It had been a week and a half already since then—the bloodbath that had taken the life of their young princess, the goddesses rest her spirit—but the body count was still nowhere near complete. The man felt a wave of pity for that woman. If her husband hadn't returned by now, chances were he wouldn't.

The third woman covered her mouth with her hand and when the man saw the sorrow in her eyes his chest tightened. He knew exactly what she was going to say.

“If only the princess were still alive.”

The man clenched his teeth and hurried past them, keeping his head down as if staring only at the ground would spare him from the whispers of the townsfolk.

It didn't, of course. All the way back to his hut the whispers continued, pressing in on him like the slowly closing door of an iron maiden. The princess is dead. The princess is dead. They went on and on, sucking the hope out of everything and everyone and twisting like a knife in his gut.

That was another thing the man couldn't explain if asked; why the news of Princess Zelda's death affected him so—why it felt like a blade ripping through his soul. Her death was a tragedy, everyone was in agreement on that, but every time he heard the whispers, a great, soul-shuddering anguish swept over him accompanied by an irrational feeling of guilt. He felt like he'd messed up somehow; like those were words he was never meant to hear.

The man shook his head of these thoughts as he reached the door to his hut. Now wasn't the time to be getting his mind all jumbled with matters no longer in anyone's control. He had patients to treat, and for that, he needed a clear head. He stepped into his hut and shook the snow off his cloak before stepping into the main room and quickly lighting a fire in the hearth. He removed his cloak, revealing a mess of shaggy, wheat-colored hair and a youthful face. He hung the wet cloak on a rack in front of the hearth and took off his boots, placing them on the floor just outside the reach of the flames.

His long ears perked up when he heard light footsteps approach from an adjoining room. “Mr. Pipit, is that you?” a high pitched voice called as a young face peeked out at him from behind the doorframe.

He smiled warmly at the child. “Hello, Agitha,” he greeted fondly. “I see someone is ignoring my orders and wandering the house again.”

Agitha stepped into the room and shuffled her feet with a pout. “Lying in bed is boring,” she lamented. “And I feel much better now.”

Pipit chuckled and walked over to ruffle the girl's hair. “Yes, I know,” he allowed, poking her forehead lightly. “I suppose it's okay to be up for a little while. But if you start to feel faint, even a little bit, you go back to bed, you hear me?” When Agitha's mouth looked like it was about to turn to a pout again, he added, “I know you're practically all better, but just humor me, okay?”

Agitha nodded reluctantly. Pipit smiled again and patted her head. Agitha was an escapee from Castletown who had taken a bad blow to the head from a moblin's club. Some townsmen out on patrol had found her and rushed her to his hut. The wound had been grievous and even he hadn’t known if she'd pull through in the beginning, but she was a tough child and she'd fought hard. Now she was on the road to recovery but she was still weak and frequently suffered spontaneous fainting spells. He could only hope those would lessen with time—and if she was lucky, eventually cease altogether.

Changing the subject, he asked, “Did anything happen while I was gone?”

Agitha's eyes brightened and she nodded. “The lady moved in her sleep,” she reported excitedly.

Pipit's eyebrows rose. This was news, indeed. As it happened, Agitha wasn't the only patient the doctor was currently harboring in his home. There was one more; a woman he'd discovered collapsed on the side of the road he frequented when he went scavenging for ingredients in the forest. From her torn, muddy dress, he judged that she was probably a rancher's daughter who had run into trouble on the highway. The state of her clothing suggested that she'd been attacked by bandits. His jaw clenched when he thought of how sickeningly common it had become for unsuspecting women to be ambushed and assaulted on the roads these days. This woman had escaped with her life at least, but depending on her mental state when she awoke that may or may not have been a blessing.

That had been just over a week ago and the woman had yet to regain consciousness for more than a few minutes at a time. Even then, she was hardly lucid when she woke. Once, he'd caught her mumbling something that he couldn't understand, but she'd fallen back to sleep quickly. It was likely for the best that he didn't hear. Whatever she'd been through, he thought he probably didn’t want to know.

“I'll go check on her,” he told Agitha as he circumvented the small girl and made for the door to the room where his second guest was sleeping. He grabbed a lamp before quietly entering the room and his eyes found the figure of the woman lying motionlessly beneath the covers of the lone bed.

Pipit brought the lamp over and set it on the bedside table, positioning it so that it cast its light over the slumbering woman, and performed his usual examination. She certainly didn't look well. Her skin was abnormally pale and her face was gaunt. She needed food and water, but she never stayed awake long enough to consume more than a few spoonfuls of broth. Her hair was matted and streaked with mud and her bare arms were covered in slowly fading bruises. When she'd first come in, she'd had scrapes along her back as well, though those had mostly healed. She was in a sorry state to be sure and it pained him that he could do little to help her until she woke up.

To be honest, her long sleep baffled the good doctor. Judging from her physical injuries alone, she should've woken long ago. The fact that she hadn't caused Pipit to wonder if perhaps she'd sustained damage that went beyond merely physical. He decided that tomorrow he would call on the town's shaman to take a look at her.

Inspection complete, he gathered his lantern and left the room, closing the door silently behind him. It was time to make some dinner and then round up Agitha and send her back to bed before she wore herself out. Tomorrow, he would get to the bottom of his second patient.


∆ ∆

Thankfully, the night passed with no raids and the next morning was busy enough that Pipit didn't have time to reflect on his lack of sleep or troubled dreams—his dreams were always troubled these days. He visited two patients; a frail old man whose health had been steadily declining and the reclusive son of the town's head carpenter who had come down with a bad case of influenza. Pipit got the strong impression that Mutoh—the carpenter—also hoped he could help fix his son's odd personality while he was at it, but alas, Pipit wasn't much of a therapist.

Come noon, he checked back in on Agitha and the two of them shared a modest lunch of bread and cheese. To both their delight, Agitha reported that she hadn't felt sick or faint even once that morning. This was very promising news and Pipit told her so, even promising that if she continued to feel well and not have any incidents, she could go with him into town the next day. He didn't think he'd ever seen her look so happy. The sight of her wide smile and shining eyes made his heart glad.

After lunch, he called on the town shaman, a man named Renado who he'd become fast friends with upon setting up shop in Kakariko. Renado wasted no time, appearing at his door just over a quarter of an hour later with his daughter at his side, a girl named Luda who was just a little older than Agitha. Agitha beamed at the sight of her friend and quickly dragged her off to go play in her room while Pipit led the shaman to the room where his second patient lay.

“I'm glad you could come, Renado,” he said, stopping just outside the door. “I'll admit that I've never seen a case quite like this and I'm beginning to suspect that the cause of the girl's slumber is magical or spiritual rather than physical.”

Renado folded his hands within his sleeves and nodded. “Let's take a look and I'll see if I can't shed some light on the matter.”

Pipit opened the door and the two stepped into the dimly lit room where the woman still lay exactly as she had the night before; not a single hair disturbed. Renado approached the bed and appeared to study the woman with a somber expression. Pipit walked up next to him and examined her himself, frowning sadly at her woeful state.

“You say she's woken a few times since you brought her here?” Renado asked, briefly looking up at the doctor.

“She has, but only for a few minutes at a time. Just long enough to swallow a little broth.”

Renado nodded slowly. “I see.”

The shaman lowered his large hand to the bed and laid it over the woman's chest, a look of concentration appearing on his face. He held it there for a few moments—moments during which Pipit watched with curious fascination—and then withdrew it with an expression of understanding. “The cause is magical,” he revealed, turning back to Pipit. “Luckily it's not severe. Just a case of blockage from residual foreign energy in her system. I suspect she was attacked by a rogue wizard—or perhaps a wizzrobe. The goddesses know both have become increasingly common of late.”

Pipit looked at the older man hopefully. “So you can help her?”

Renado smiled. “I already have. The blockage should be unraveling as we speak.”

Some of the tension left Pipit's shoulders and he smiled in relief. Leave it to Renado to be perfectly on his game. “Thank you, my friend. Your craft is invaluable.”

Renado laid is a hand on the younger man's shoulder. “As is yours. This town would be missing more than a few dear faces were it not for your medicines.”

Pipit's smile waned and he cast his gaze to the floor. “It still is.”

The two men returned to the main room and conversed over a pot of tea while the girls continued to play in Agitha's room. Renado caught Pipit up on all the recent events and town gossip he'd missed while he was busy with patients. Apparently Kafei and Anju were now officially engaged and Uli had entered into the last term of her pregnancy. Malon had brought news from Lon Lon Ranch that one of the mares had foaled late and given birth to twins. The two of them shared their relief that for once all the news was good. Hyrule desperately needed positive energy right now. The two chatted for another hour and then Renado collected Luda and departed for his own house, but not before promising Agitha that he would bring his daughter over to play again soon.

It was as the good doctor was dumping the pumpkin into the night's stew that Agitha ran into the room with excitement clearly written on her face. “The lady's moving!” she reported, tugging on his arm frantically. “I think she's waking up!”

Pipit's eyes widened and he rushed to put the lid on the stewpot before discarding his apron over the back of a chair and following her back to the room. Sure enough, when he arrived the woman was groaning and tossing her head restlessly. He hurried to her bedside and watched in anticipation as she continued to thrash around until suddenly her body stilled and her eyes shot open.

For a moment she just stared dazedly up at the ceiling, not reacting to anything around her, but after a few heartbeats her eyes cleared and she blinked several times as though shaking off a bad dream. It was the first time Pipit had seen her look lucid since he found her.

Gently, so as not to shock her, he greeted, “Good evening.”

The woman's head turned toward him and he watched her mouth open as if to say something back, but the words seemed to die in her throat when her eyes landed on his face. She gave him a look of such confusion that he worried he'd somehow managed to smear pumpkin stew all over his face while he was cooking.

“You,” she croaked, her voice hoarse from disuse. “What's your name?”

An odd first question, he thought, but not unreasonable. “Pipit,” he answered. “I'm more or less the working doctor in Kakariko Village.”

“Pipit?” she repeated, her confusion only seeming to grow. “Pipit... I see. You're Pipit.”

Pipit couldn't help his small frown at the woman's odd behavior. Was she perhaps expecting someone different? Rearranging his mouth back into a benign smile, he asked, “How are you feeling?”

The woman glanced around the room, taking in her surroundings. Her eyes stopped briefly on Agitha, who was watching her with an openly intrigued expression from the foot of the bed, and then returned to him. “Overwhelmed,” she admitted. “And hungry.”

Pipit's smile turned genuine at her frankness and he nodded. “I'm certain you are,” he said. “Do you think you can hold on for a few more minutes? I've got a nice big pot of stew on the fire right now that will be done very soon.”

The woman nodded, still looking rather dazed. Pipit didn't blame her. In fact, she was taking the situation quite well, all things considered. Had he woken in an unfamiliar place after no doubt quite a traumatic ordeal to strangers staring at him, he probably would've reacted a lot less calmly. But perhaps she was simply still in shock.

“Agitha,” he addressed the little girl still watching their newly awakened housemate curiously. “Would you mind staying with our guest while I check the stew?”

Agitha smiled brightly and nodded. As Pipit left the room, he heard her round on the woman and excitedly ask, “Do you like bugs?”

Pipit chuckled and padded back the main room, grabbing his discarded apron and ladle and tending to the stew. He would have to hurry and get dinner served before his little patient overwhelmed his big one.

When he reentered the room some minutes later balancing three wooden bowls on one arm, Agitha was sitting impatiently on one of the room's two stools and the woman was lying in bed with her eyes half-lidded looking pale and somewhat sick. But at least she was still awake, he thought with relief. He handed Agitha one of the bowls, which she took with delight, and set his on the bedside table before handing the woman her bowl.

“It's a little thick,” he told her apologetically. “I tried to give you mostly gravy, but if it's too much for you I can heat some broth.”

The woman took her bowl with a grateful smile. “Thank you. You're very kind, Doctor.”

Pipit pulled the remaining stool over to the table and took a seat, grabbing his own bowl. “If you don't mind me asking, miss,” he said, filling his spoon with stew, “what may I call you?”

The woman paused in the act of bringing her own spoon to her lips. “I'm... Please call me Milda.”

Pipit didn't fail to notice the brief hesitation when giving her name. Times are tough, indeed.

“Milda,” he addressed her, testing the name on his tongue, “I imagine you're wondering why you're here,” he started, and at Milda's nod, he continued, “I happened upon you lying wounded and unconscious on the woodsroad.” Her expression tensed and he added, “I won't make you relive unpleasant memories by asking you what happened. Your business is your own.”

Milda visibly relaxed. “Thank you.”

He nodded and continued, “I brought you back to my hut in Kakariko Village and I've been treating you here since. You've been here for just over a week.”

At his mention of the length of her stay, Milda's face paled even further. “I've—for over a week, you say?”

“That's right,” he confirmed. “You wouldn't wake until I called on the town's shaman to take a look at you earlier today.”

Milda lowered her head to her hands, her face as white as a sheet. “A week,” she repeated. “Goddesses.”

Pipit regarded her worriedly. “Are you alright?”

Milda suddenly snapped into action, setting her bowl aside and struggling to throw off her sheets. “Thank you, good doctor. I will make certain you are paid well for your troubles, but I must leave at once.”

“Hold on,” he protested, hurriedly setting his own bowl down and attempting to restrain her. “You're not well enough to be exerting yourself yet.”

“I must!” she repeated, struggling against his hands. “There is someone I absolutely have to find and I fear I may already be too late.” Her blue eyes danced with panic as she fought him off. She finally managed to circumvent him only to fall to the floor in an ungraceful heap when her legs gave out promptly upon receiving her weight.

Pipit wasted no time, lifting her from the hard wood and placing her back in bed. “Like I said, you're still unwell. Your body is weak and horribly undernourished and I doubt you will make it ten steps from the door if you try to leave now,” he told her sternly. “Please stay here and recover for at least a few days. Nothing is worth more than your own life.”

Milda lowered her head. “Many things are worth more than my life,” she said lowly, but to Pipit's relief she didn't attempt to leave her bed again.

Pipit handed her her bowl again. “Eat,” he instructed. “Doctor's orders. Afterward, if you're feeling up for it, I'll draw you a bath and find some fresh clothes for you to change into. Being covered in mud and grit can't be comfortable.”

The promise of a bath seemed to mollify her, and Milda picked up her spoon and resumed eating. Pipit thought he saw her cheeks color slightly, but it was hard to tell through her wild, tangled hair. He made a mental note to be more tactful with his words in the future.


∆ ∆

After dinner, Pipit drew a bath as promised and supported Milda to the washroom, leaving her in the enthusiastic hands of Agitha for the actual act of bathing. In the meantime, he embarked on a mission to find clothes for her to change into. Unfortunately, he didn't own any ladies' clothing aside from the few meager articles he'd purchased for Agitha, which of course would be useless to a grown woman. The tailor would already have closed shop some hours ago, so he was forced to choose a tunic and breeches from his own closet which he dropped off outside the washroom. Hopefully his guest wouldn't be opposed to wearing men's clothing.

While he waited for the girls to finish, he washed the bowls from dinner and changed Milda's bedsheets out for fresh ones. When he was done, he sat down by the fire with one of Agitha's dresses and a needle and attempted to mend a tear in the right shoulder seam. Sewing was never a forte of his, unfortunately, and he knew any proper seamstress would have a heart attack at the sight of his bulky, uneven stitches. Still, they got the job done and now at least the sleeve wasn't in danger of falling off.

Pipit set the dress aside and pushed his sand colored hair out of his eyes wearily. The girls were sure taking their time in the washroom he thought as he sat back in his chair. But then, poor Milda had been covered in grime to the roots of her hair and she'd festered in that bed for over a week, so he supposed a good thorough cleaning was long overdue.

As he sat, his mind wandered, and despite himself, it drifted to precisely the one matter he'd been trying to avoid thinking about for some weeks. How much longer would he be able to stay in this town? With so many people from other areas seeking shelter in Kakariko, it was only a matter of time before someone recognized him. Now that Princess Zelda was gone... Well, it would be best to move on as soon as possible. He would need to begin looking into finding a permanent home for Agitha soon, as well as—

He was broken out of his musings when he heard the door to the washroom open. A second later Agitha trotted into the room and announced, “We're all done. You can come help Milda back to her room now.”

Pipit smiled and stood from his chair. “Yes, Princess,” he said teasingly.

He followed Agitha back to the washroom where he found Milda leaning heavily against the doorframe with his too large clothes hanging from her too slender frame and hair swept up in a towel. She looked exhausted. He put a supporting arm around her shoulders and walked her back to her room. He tried to be as gentle as possible, but he could tell the contact hurt her. He could plainly see the remnants of bruises where the collar of her borrowed shirt slipped down one shoulder. When they arrived, he carefully sat her down on the bed before taking a couple steps back to give her space.

“Is it warm enough in here? I can put an extra log on the fire,” he offered, noting the stray droplets on her skin.

Milda shook her head. “It's fine. Thank you.”

Pipit nodded and took a moment to steal a glance at her face, now cleaned of all mud and who knew what else. Now that she was in proper light, Pipit could see that her face was quite pretty. She had pale skin and a straight nose and high cheekbones. The sallowness was still there, but he imagined that would be fixed with a few good meals. Her eyes were sharp and very blue. Bluer even than his. He could certainly see how she might become a target on the road. It perplexed him that her attackers would let her go without trying to sell her in the underground market. Pretty girls fetched a prettier penny in the underground. No bandit worth their bounty would let an attractive young woman go free no matter how badly they'd roughed her up. But then, considering the state he'd found Milda in, perhaps they’d been unaware that she still lived.

As he watched, Milda pulled the towel from her hair and let the damp locks fall down over her shoulders. Before, Pipit had thought her hair to be brown, but the absence of mud and oil revealed a wealth of yellow-gold that might've made Princess Zelda herself envious. The thought crossed Pipit's mind that she seemed familiar to him; like he'd met someone who looked a lot like her before, but just who, he couldn't recall. He'd seen many people in his travels; perhaps he'd glimpsed her in a market or inn somewhere in the past.

He must not have been as secretive in his observation as he thought because Milda caught his eye and cocked her head to the side questioningly. His cheeks heated slightly and he waved his hands in front of him dismissively. “Ah, sorry,” he apologized. “I didn't mean to stare. It's just...you're very pretty,” he blurted before his brain could catch up to his mouth.

Milda blinked once as she processed his unexpected remark and then he smiled at him. “Thank you.”

Pipit returned her smile bashfully and rubbed the back of his neck. “Anyway,” he said, changing the subject. Now would be a good time to bring up a concern that had been in the back of his mind since he found this woman. “There was something I wanted to ask you when you awoke.” He waited for Milda to nod for him to go on before he continued. “I mentioned before that you were on the woodsroad when I discovered you. You weren't seriously thinking of entering the forest, were you?”

Milda's smile slipped from her face and she turned her head down with a troubled expression. “The...person I'm trying to find...” she started vaguely, “I have a feeling that's the best place to begin looking for him.”

Pipit frowned and sat, lacing his fingers together over his knees. “I shouldn't have to tell you that entering those woods is a foolish plan. One should never go in less than fully prepared. That forest eats people.”

Milda nodded. “I'm aware,” she said. “But I must go all the same.”

Pipit sat back and folded his arms over his chest. This girl seemed determined to go into the woods, but he wasn't sure she entirely comprehended just how dangerous a plan that was. News of people going in and never coming out was common as the baker announcing fresh rolls. Milda clearly thought this person she was searching for was in there, but if he really did go in, the chances of anyone seeing him again were poor at best. The problem was, how could he tell her that? She was set on finding this guy no matter the cost. Obviously he was very important to her.

Milda must have guessed what he was thinking, because she said, “The man I'm looking for knows the forest better than anyone. If he is there, he is safer than he could be anywhere else in Hyrule. I do not share his knowledge of the place, but the spirits of the wood will not harm me.”

Pipit regarded the young woman before him critically. She certainly seemed assured of her safety, though he couldn't think of why the forest would treat her differently than any of the countless other fools who ventured within. Still, the determination in her eyes didn't waver. He didn't want to watch her throw her life away, especially after he'd saved it, and the gears turned in his head as he considered what to do. A thought struck him then; a way to give her what she wanted without her rushing in unprepared. “I have a proposal,” he said, leaning forward over his knees. “I'll need to go into the woods in a few days to collect herbs anyway, so why don't you join me? I'd be happy to guide you and you'll have time to recuperate before we go.”

Milda seemed to chew on this idea for several seconds and then hesitantly she said, “You won't mind having me on your heels?”

He cracked a smile and shook his head. “I'd feel a lot better if you joined me rather than going off on your own.”

Milda studied him in what seemed to Pipit a rather appraising fashion for a moment and then nodded. “Then I accept,” she said awarding him with another smile. “Thank you.”

“Just focus on getting better,” he said, standing from the chair. “I'm not taking you anywhere near those woods until you do.”

Milda laughed softly and wriggled her way under the covers. “Yes, Doctor.”

Pipit rewarded his patient with a friendly smile as he closed the door behind him.

The forest, he mused as he walked back down the short hallway to the main room. What an odd guest he'd happened upon. Never before had he met a person who wished to enter those woods to look for someone. Most went there fleeing from something. But these were strange times.

Movement outside the small window at the end of the hall caught his eye and Pipit looked out to see the shadows of keese briefly obscure the moon as they flapped about just past the glass. Strange times, indeed, he mused, turning away from the window and walked into the living room.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Three: Milda

Pipit left Milda with Agitha as he once again went out to see to patients. If there was one thing Kakariko had in plenty, it was sick people. Every day, more and more ill and injured refugees came to the town, and Pipit knew the flood was just beginning. Everyone knew it. He still heard the whispers on the streets as he walked through the town. We're doomed, they said. Nowhere is safe anymore.

That morning, however, he heard something new. Something unexpected. As he passed the town square, he saw a caller shouting over the bustle of the market, drowning out the whispers. "The Hero will come!" the voice of the man carried to the edges of the square. "The hero will save us!" A curious crowd had gathered to listen to him.

"My friends, remember the stories from generations past!" he continued to shout. "In each era, the Hero of Legend has appeared to liberate Hyrule from the clutches of evil! Now is that time!"

Pipit stopped for a few moments to listen as the man continued to wax poetic about the supposed coming of the Hero. Of course Pipit had heard all this before. Who hadn't? The legend of the Hero was one of Hyrule's dearest and most celebrated tales. It spoke of a boy clad in green who would come to Hyrule's aid when the kingdom was in peril. It was a story that predated the oldest history books. But to most it was just that; a story. No one seriously expected a green-clothed kid to pop out of the ground and save the day. No one except maybe for Ganondorf himself.

But now that Hyrule was facing dark times, it seemed that the people were starting to fall back on the legend. Pipit could see in the faces he passed that the citizens of Hyrule were looking for hope. They were reaching the point where they would take whatever they could get.

Pipit turned away from the crowd and continued walking. He still had two more patients to visit before lunch.

When he returned to his hut at noon, Agitha met him at the door. She was bouncing on her toes in excitement. "Can we go to the market now?" she asked, hope sparkling in her eyes. "You said yesterday that I could go if I was feeling well, and I'm feeling well!"

Pipit laughed and patted her head. "Hold your bugs, kiddo. Let's have lunch first and then we'll leave."

Agitha looked like she wanted to insist that they go now, but she held her tongue. The two of them walked into the house and Pipit caught sight of a head of golden hair peeking over the back of the couch in the main room.

"Already up and about?" he questioned his second patient, who appeared to be reading one of the books left in the hut by its previous owner.

Milda looked up and greeted him with a smile. "Agitha helped me," she said, tossing a wink at the younger girl.

Agitha smiled widely and plopped onto the couch next to her. "I like Miss Milda. She knows lots of bugs," the small girl told him, nodding at the young woman approvingly.

Pipit laughed. "Indeed?" he remarked as he made his way into the kitchen to prepare lunch.

Lunch ended up being leftover stew and bread. The three of them conversed casually as they ate—though it was mostly Agitha detailing the pair of caterpillars she'd discovered in the clover patch behind the hut that morning and Pipit and Milda acting appropriately excited for her. Agitha was in a positively stellar mood and Pipit was glad to see her so cheerful after everything she'd been through in recent weeks.

It was after Agitha's bug story had come to a close that Milda spoke up about something that had apparently been on her mind. "You said last night that a shaman helped heal me," she said to him. "If it isn't too much trouble, I would very much like to meet this shaman."

Pipit looked at her, a bit surprised at her request. "Of course," he answered. "Agitha and I can stop by his house while we're out. I'm sure he'd love to see how you're doing."

Milda smiled. "I'd appreciate it. I want to thank him for helping me."

Next to Pipit, Agitha's face broke into a huge grin and she tugged on his sleeve. "We're going to Mr. Renado's house? Really?"

Pipit nodded down at her. "It seems we are. Go ahead and get your shoes on, Princess. We'll leave in a few minutes."

Agitha wasted no time leaping off her stool and running to the door to get her boots. Pipit chuckled as she did so. "That girl," he said, shaking his head. He then turned back to Milda and asked, "Is there anything I can pick up for you while we're out?"

Milda shook her head. "I wouldn't want to burden you any more than I already am."

Pipit tossed her a grin. "It's really no trouble. I make more than enough money with all the business I get in this town to afford a few luxuries. At the very least, I intend to talk to the tailor about getting a dress made for you.

Milda's eyes widened. "A dress?" She dropped her spoon and waved her hands in front of her. "No! You don't have to. I cannot in good conscience allow you to throw your hard earned rupees away for my sake."

Pipit laughed outright at her protests. "It's not throwing them away if it's going toward something you need. And I can't in good conscience leave you to wear those too-large clothes any longer than you have to. Besides, I'd like to think I'm getting pretty good at picking out ladies' clothing."

Milda just looked at him for a moment as though he were something unbelievable, then she nodded reluctantly and said, "If you insist."


∆  ∆

Milda was relaxing on Pipit's couch with a book about 5th century Hyrulian poetry when she heard a knock at the door. She looked over at the door warily and wondered what she should do. She hadn't been given any instructions about how to handle visitors. Would Pipit want her to answer the door or ignore it? Luckily, her dilemma was solved when she heard the visitor call, "Milda, dear! Are you in there? Pipit sent me to see about a dress for you."

Milda hurriedly stood, but she nearly fell back down when her legs wobbled under her weight. "Yes!" she called back instead. "Please, come in!"

The door opened and a plump, middle aged, red-haired woman shuffled in. She caught sight of Milda balancing on an end table and hurried over. "Oh, you poor thing. Sit down, dear. Pipit told me you had a bit of a nasty accident."

Milda lowered herself back onto the couch with a sigh of relief. "Thank you. It appears my legs aren't quite ready for me yet."

The woman, who Milda assumed was the town's tailor, pulled a measuring tape from her handbag along with a small book and a pen. "Not to worry. That's why I'm here," she said merrily. "Pipit told me you'd have trouble getting to my shop, so I've come to measure you for your dress." Her eyes widened suddenly and she gasped. "Oh! Pardon me. I haven't introduced myself yet, have I? My name is Marie—finest tailor in Kakariko. I used to be a school teacher, you know, but fashion was always my true calling so I gave up my school and now I make fabulous dresses for pretty young things like you." She ended her introduction with a high pitched chortle.

Milda blinked, head spinning from the unimpeded flood of words that somehow managed to come all on the same breath.

"Now then, dear," Marie said, getting down to business. "I'll need you to remove your shirt so that I can get your bust. After that we'll do waist and torso length—"

Surrendering all control of her body, Milda allowed herself to be swept along by the energetic woman's knowledgeable hands and critical eye. As she measured, Marie asked her questions, both pertaining to the gown and also about herself in general. "How did you come to be in Kakariko? Do you prefer pink or yellow? Isn't Agitha just the sweetest girl? How about blue? Goodness, those bruises look painful. I'm not hurting you, am I, dear?" Milda answered her questions to the best of her ability as she was turned this way and that and had her arms and legs raised and lowered. The whole experience felt more getting sucked up by a tornado than a measuring.

When Marie finally put her tape away, Milda breathed a sigh of relief at having endured what was possibly the most intrusive experience of her life. Marie nodded to herself and jotted a few final notes in her book before putting that away as well and shouldering her bag. "Alright, I'm all done with you," she announced. "I'll return in two days with your gown—though hopefully you'll be up and about by then." She chortled again and began heading for the door but stopped in the doorway and turned back to Milda with a smile. "Once you're feeling better, do stop by my shop. I rarely get the chance to talk with new people and you'll surely go off if you stay cooped up with Pipit. He's a dear boy but a lady needs female company to keep sane."

Milda smiled indulgently. "I'll surely do so. Thank you, Marie."

The older woman nodded approvingly. "It was lovely meeting you, Milda. I'll return in a few days." She opened the door, and then with a wink and a parting "Toodaloo!" she was gone.

Milda just stared at the door for a few seconds after she left, her mind processing the whirlwind of a woman she'd just experienced. It was a little overwhelming but also refreshing to meet someone with so much energy. It had been so very long since she'd had the pleasure of being in the company of a lady of such bold character. It reminded Milda of a part of herself that she'd shelved long ago.

The crippled young woman picked up her book and flipped through the pages until she found the one she'd dog-eared. Reading about old Hyrulean poetry was fascinating but her mind wasn't wholly in it as her eyes traveled over the words. The waiting was torturous. She was running against the clock and yet her injuries kept her confined in this house. She supposed she should be happy to be alive, but all she felt was desperation. She was alive, yes, but that meant her duty was not yet finished. And now the situation was more urgent than ever. The most she could hope for was that Renado would be able to offer some answers when she saw him.

Her eyes stopped as she encountered a poem that she recognized amidst the typical flowery stanzas of heroic deeds and fearsome beasts. She touched the page delicately as her eyes moved slowly over the familiar lines. "The rising sun will eventually set," she recited as she read, "a newborn's life will fade. From sun to moon, moon to sun, give peaceful rest to the living dead." She looked down at the text in wonder and bafflement. This was a poem that only three people in the world could possibly know; herself being one of those people. She hastily flipped the book over to look at the name on the back and her eyes widened when she read the neatly printed characters. "So this is what you did with your days, my old friend," she said as she examined the name wistfully. "I never knew."

She closed the book and set it on the table she'd used as a crutch before, no longer interested in reading. Instead she looked around the room, taking in the sparse furnishings and meager scattering of personal effects. No matter how she looked at it, the place couldn't have been lived in long. There were just too few things in it. Particularly for two residents.

Milda wondered, not for the first time, what Pipit and Agitha's relationship was. Father and daughter came to mind, but Pipit seemed far too young to have a child Agitha's age. Brother and sister, then? That seemed much more likely, except for the fact that Agitha always referred to Pipit as "Mr. Pipit". One doesn't typically address family so distantly. They were a bizarre duo to be sure; a child and a boy barely old enough to be called a man living together in a hut on the outskirts of town. A seemingly recently acquired one, no less. But times were hard. Perhaps they'd fled here together seeking safety. Maybe their original homes were gone. They wouldn't be the fist. Adding to their strangeness, though, was the fact that both seemed familiar to her. Particularly Pipit. When she'd first seen his face she'd thought for sure that he was—but she'd been mistaken. In a land as vast as Hyrule it wasn't uncommon to encounter similar looking people. Moreover, although the man she'd confused him for had many skills, medicine, to her knowledge, wasn't one of them.

Again, her mind drifted to her current predicament. Pipit had promised to help her navigate the woods when she became healthy enough, but the clock was ticking. If there was just some way to replenish her energy more quickly…but she doubted she'd find anything of use here. She'd just have to tough out the wait and hope for the best.

At least she was in good hands. Though she'd only just met them, it was clear to her that Pipit and Agitha were good people. Agitha was a sweet, lively girl and Pipit had already proved to be one of the kindest souls she'd encountered in a very long time. It warmed her heart to know that people like them endured even in the darkest times.

A shadow passed over Milda's face. Dark times, indeed. By now the news of Princess Zelda's defeat would have spread across the country. She could only imagine the damage that news had wrought on the people's already fragile morale. The princess had been a pillar of strength for the whole kingdom and now she was gone. There was no one left to protect Hyrule's citizens. They would be picked off town by town until all that remained was a haunted wasteland. Perhaps the Gorons and Zoras would rally to help them, but they too would fall.

Milda shook herself from her dark thoughts and picked up her book once more, thinking that perhaps she was in the mood for poetry after all.


∆  ∆

It was some hours later when Pipit and Agitha returned, each of them carrying a basket of goods from the market. It had been quite a productive outing. They'd first stopped by the tailor's to see about getting a dress made for their new friend, and after that they'd killed nearly an hour at the town's famous shooting gallery where the intimidating looking but kind hearted shop owner instructed Agitha on how to use a bow, much to her delight. Following that, they paid a visit to Renado and Luda's house where they spent another hour talking, or in the girls' case, playing. Renado promised to stop by and see Milda the following day, professing his interest in her recovery. Finally, they went to the market and picked up ingredients for dinner along with some red potion that Pipit would infuse later with plants from the forest to increase its potency.

The moment they stepped through the door, Agitha deposited her basket on the table and ran to Milda to tell her all about the day's adventures. Pipit chuckled and set his basket down next to hers, beginning to sort the items into their respective places. Agitha had certainly taken to Milda quickly, the young doctor observed. It was a good thing their guest didn't appear to mind the attention and Pipit was glad his young charge now had another person to talk to. Poor Agitha had been stewing in boredom with him as her only regular company for far too long.

Milda continued to be entertained by Agitha as Pipit started on the night's meal. To celebrate Agitha's accelerating recovery, he'd picked up a side of pork in the market to have in place of their usual stew. The price of meat had risen obscenely with all the raids, but as Pipit had told Milda before, he didn't mind spending a few extra rupees for the occasional luxury.

Soon, the hut smelled of sizzling pork fat and roasted root vegetables. Pipit could feel his mouth watering as he turned the meat for a final time before transferring it to a large platter. It had been far too long since he'd been able to enjoy some good animal sustenance. He'd always been a pretty big fan of meat. Before he left, he'd been the best small game hunter in his village. He'd always had an instinct about that sort of thing. It had made the other boys so jealous. A smile appeared on his face as he thought back to days long passed and he wondered if his life would ever be so peaceful again.

The meal was enjoyed with relish and easy conversation. The girls both tucked into the pork and veggies with many compliments to the chef. Surrounded by good cheer and good food it was easy to forget that there was anything wrong in the world, and the three of them enjoyed the evening for everything it was worth.

After dinner, Pipit herded Agitha to bed while Milda returned to her book. When he returned, he plopped down onto the chair across from her and let out a sigh of contentment. There was a feeling of peace in his heart that hadn't been there in a long time. He wasn't sure just what had caused it, but he was satisfied chalking the feeling up to a day well spent.

Hearing his sigh, Milda glanced at him from over her book. "You look happy," she observed.

Pipit blinked. Happy? ...Was he? "Yeah, I guess I am," he answered.

The golden haired girl smiled and there was an amused twinkle in her eye. "You sound surprised by that."

"Not much to be happy about these days," he responded, glancing out the window into the night. "And less every day."

He heard Milda make a sound of agreement and his eyes traveled back to her. "Hey," he segued. "Now that we actually have a moment to talk, why don't you tell me a bit about yourself. All I've got is your name."

Milda was quiet for a moment before she nodded. "Very well." She set her book aside and surprised Pipit when she straightened her back in a very prim fashion and screwed her face into the most pompous look he had ever seen. "My good doctor, had you knowledge that you are, in fact, in the presence of royalty?"

Pipit raised both his eyebrows. "I hadn't, no."

The golden haired young woman crossed her legs and lifted her chin in a way that allowed her to look down her nose at him in an exceedingly snooty manner. "I'll have you know, then, that you are speaking to Queen Milda of the Kokiri tribe."

Pipit felt a smile tugging at his lips. "Is that a fact?"

"Quite," she replied, sniffing condescendingly. "You see, I left the forest in search of my no good fiance Fado, only to learn that he'd never left and has been hiding from me in the woods all this time. I was just on my way back when you found me."

The good doctor could no longer hold in his amusement and chuckled at Milda's outrageous tale. Milda crossed her arms and mock glared at him. "You do not believe me, sir?"

"My apologies, your majesty," he said, playing along, "but there are several flaws in your story."

Milda raised an eyebrow. "Oh? And what are those?"

"Well, firstly, you couldn't possibly be a Kokiri as the Kokiri never grow up, and you, my lady, are no child," he started. "And secondly, the Kokiri don't have a queen. They are presided over by the guardian spirit of the forest."

Milda dropped her arms and looked at him in bewilderment. "How do you know that?" she asked, leaning forward in her seat. "It was my understanding that nobody has heard anything of the Kokiri tribe in a thousand years."

Pipit as well regarded her oddly and cast his thoughts back in time. Where had he obtained that information? He couldn't recall. He shrugged helplessly and said, "I actually can't remember." Likely, someone in his village had told him. They had always been fond of stories. He smirked slightly and said, "In any case, I have a very hard time believing you're from the forest."

Milda cocked her head and regarded him with amusement. "And where do you suspect I hail from then, good doctor?" she inquired.

Pipit folded his arms over his chest and gave her a scrutinizing look. "Well, when I first found you I had you pegged for a rancher's daughter," he admitted. "But your manner of speech is all wrong for a country girl. And the way you carry yourself, too. Those things combined with that expertly disdainful look you just gave me lead me to believe that you're more likely a member of the Castletown aristocracy."

His patient smiled ambiguously but didn't comment, so he continued. "I think you tired of your dull life of wealth and privilege and found a lover to spice things up, but he fled when the situation in Hyrule began to decline and now you're on a quest to find him."

Milda's expression didn't change. "I see. So you think me the foolish maiden chasing her lost love into the maw of tragedy?"

Pipit shrugged. "Am I right?"

Milda's smile didn't falter and she turned her face away mysteriously. "Something like that."

The doctor opened his mouth to comment further but he was interrupted when Milda suddenly sat up straight and her expression changed to one of confusion. "Do you hear something?" she asked out of the blue.

Pipit closed his mouth and listened. "No, I don't—"

A loud crash cut him off, and both he and Milda jumped in surprise. Pipit leapt to his feet and ran to the window to see what had happened. At first he didn't see anything, but then several glimmers of light streaked past and he swore loudly when he recognized the lights as torch fire.

Not wasting any time, he ran back to Milda and hurriedly scooped her up in his arms. "What's going on? What's happening?" she questioned as he carried her out of the main room and toward Agitha's bedroom.

"It's a raid," he explained as he threw open Agitha's door and shook her awake. "Quickly, Agitha! Get to the cellar," he instructed the groggy young girl who looked like she'd only just fallen asleep. She obeyed without question and darted out the door. Pipit followed her, shifting the woman in his arms when she started to slip. They made it to the narrow staircase leading to the cellar and Pipit ushered Agitha down first before carefully but swiftly descending into the dark himself. When they reached the bottom he gently set Milda down and hurried back upstairs to get a lantern.

When he returned, he passed the lantern over to the girls and then rushed over to the old chest on the far side of the room. Inside was the old hunting bow and quiver he'd brought with him when he left his village. He buckled the quiver's belt across his chest and slung the bow over his shoulder before reaching into the chest once more and pulling out one last item; a worn but sturdy pair of gauntlets given to him by the mayor of his village as a farewell present. He slipped them on and clenched and unclenched his fists to stretch them out.

"You're not really planning on going out there, are you?" he heard Milda's ask from behind him. He turned around and saw her leaning on Agitha with a worried look on her face.

"I can't just sit here when I know there's something I can do to help," he said resolutely. "I'll be fine, so just wait here until I come back."

"But you're a doctor," she protested. "Do you even know how to fight?"

Pipit smiled and patted her on the shoulder reassuringly. "I'll manage." He gave Agitha's hair a comforting ruffle and then took off for the stairs.

He'd known it was only a matter of time before Ganondorf's army organized another strike, though he'd been hoping for a few more days of peace. As he ran up the stairs, he prayed his patients would be safe while he was gone.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four: Attack

Milda watched the cellar door close with trepidation. Fear for the kind young man who had rescued her tightened her chest. Ganondorf's monsters were fearsome and strong, but more than that, they were merciless. They would rip an unprepared soldier apart in seconds. She didn't want to see Pipit get hurt trying to play hero. She felt a small hand nervously squeeze her pant leg and she put a comforting arm around the small girl at her side. What would become of Agitha if something happened to Pipit? Did she have anyone else she could turn to? The last thing Milda wanted was for her small friend to left alone in such a turbulent time.

However...

The look on Pipit's face when he'd brushed past her...that glint in his eye...it was so familiar that it made Milda's heart hurt. The way his cobalt eyes shone with confidence; that spark that told her he didn't fear the terrors in the night...it was his look. For a fleeting moment it had stolen her breath and stilled her fear. His eyes had told her that everything would be okay. It was an expression that she couldn't help but trust.

Milda forced her gaze away from the door and focused instead on Agitha. The poor girl was still clutching the fabric of her pants like a lifeline and when Milda looked down at her she saw that the girl's face was white as a sheet. "Come, Agitha," she said gently, beginning to hobble toward the nearest wall. "Let's go sit down."

Agitha helped her along silently and the two of them gladly took seats against the wall, huddling together both for comfort and warmth. They sat in tense silence, both listening to the distant sounds of shouting and monstrous shrieks that could now be heard coming from the direction of the town. Occasionally, they heard the thundering of boar hooves outside their hut and Milda prayed the owners of those boars wouldn't decide to stop and check inside.

It was after about twenty minutes of waiting like this when Milda felt a tug on her sleeve. "Miss Milda, I don't feel so good," Agitha's voice came from beside her, sounding oddly urgent.

Milda placed a reassuring hand on the scared girl's head. "Be calm, Agitha. I know it's scary but I'm certain Pipit will be back soon."

Logically presuming that the girl's professed unwellness was a product of the stress of their situation, Milda was not at all prepared when Agitha suddenly jerked under her hand and her eyes rolled back in her head and she began spasming alarmingly.

She watched wide-eyed as the young girl's body twitched violently and she slipped from the wall to land in a writhing heap on the stone floor. "Agitha!" she cried in alarm and confusion. "Oh my goddesses!" Her hands hovered uselessly over the thrashing child, not knowing what she should do as she'd never been in a situation such as this before. Suddenly as the fit started, it stopped, and Agitha's body stilled. Milda looked the now unconscious girl over anxiously to make sure she was still breathing and hadn't hurt herself and then shook her shoulder gently. When Agitha didn't respond, she shook harder. When she still failed to get a response, Milda's panic center kicked into gear and she cried out, "Pipit! Pipit, where are you! Something's wrong with Agitha! Pipit!"

Of course, there was no response. Pipit was far from the house, fighting the raiders in the town. Her mind wild with worry, Milda grabbed a jutting stone in the wall and pulled herself to her feet. Her legs wobbled dangerously but she willed them to support her as she followed the wall toward the stairs. Each step was a feat, and when she nearly collapsed for the third time she clenched her teeth and glared down at her legs angrily, uttering a curse. "Goddesses help me, I don't have time for this!" Making a spur of the moment decision, she channeled the small amount of magical energy she'd been able to recover into her free hand and ran it up and down her legs, immediately feeling the damage and fatigue in them soothe.

Now able to support herself, Milda sprinted up the stairs, taking them two at a time until she reached the top. She rushed to the main room and saw that the fire had been extinguished. That helped explain why no monsters had bothered with this house. Seeing no sign of Pipit, she proceeded to the door and yanked it open, stepping out into the frosty night. She had no shoes, but she ignored the chill on her feet as she ran for the main part of town where she could see fires blazing and hear the shouts and screams of the townspeople louder than ever.

"Pipit!" she called as she ran. She could taste smoke now. "Pipit! Where are you!"

As she ventured further into the chaos, she realized it was going to be nearly impossible to locate the good doctor among all the people running and screaming and the harsh clangs of weapons literally surrounding her on all sides. The town was a mess. Houses were burning and bodies littered the streets—though they mostly appeared to belong to monsters, thank the spirits—and the air was filled with a cacophony of screams and squeals and battlecries.

Milda looked all around desperately trying to spot a cream colored shirt or a head of goldenwheat hair, but it was difficult to distinguish anyone through the smoke-choked air. "Pipit!" she tried again, cupping her hands on either side of her mouth. "Pipit!"

She heard a screech off to the side and a large bulblin carrying a club emerged from the wreckage of a house. Its beady black eyes were trained straight on her. The horrible, bulbous thing screeched again and charged at her, club raised.

Milda sucked in a breath and cast her gaze around for a weapon or anything else she could use to defend herself. The best she found was an old miner's shovel and she hurriedly picked it up and held it in front of her like a shield. The beast seemed to smirk at her, it's ugly green lips pulling back to display two rows of jagged and putrid looking yellow teeth. She set her stance, preparing for impact, but the monster was halted in its tracks when an arrow whizzed through the air and embedded itself deep in the thing's skull.

Milda barely had time to be confused before she heard a voice call her name. She turned and saw none other than Pipit jogging over to her from an adjoining street.

"Pipit!" she called back to him. "Thank goodness!"

"What are you doing out here?" he demanded when he reached her. He was breathing hard and Milda could see specks of blood scattered across the fabric of his shirt, although the boy himself appeared unharmed.

She grabbed his hand and looked urgently into his eyes. "You need to come back to the house. Something's wrong with Agitha."

Immediately, Pipit's eyebrows furrowed and he nodded seriously. "Explain on the way."

The two of them took off for the hut. Pipit deftly took out any monsters they passed with expertly aimed arrows, not even needing to slow down. Milda was amazed at his skill with that old bow of his. He wielded it with the same level of expertise as the Hyrulian army's most skilled archers. Better, even, as he barely appeared to glance at the monsters as he felled them.

As they ran, he listened to her recount what had happened in the cellar. His face was grim, but he didn't seem surprised by what she told him. They made it back to the hut in a matter of minutes and Pipit threw open the door and made straight for the cellar. Milda followed him down the steps and crouched beside him worriedly as he inspected the unconscious child.

"She didn't hit her head at all, did she?" he asked as he felt around Agitha's skull, seeming to be looking for bumps.

"No," Milda answered. "She just kind of slumped over, twitching."

Pipit breathed a relieved sounding sigh and lifted the girl into his arms. "She should be fine then. I'll take her to her room. The monsters have already begun fleeing, so it should be safe for her to come out now."

Milda followed him back up the stairs, less concerned now but more confused than ever. "What happened? Why did she faint?"

Pipit nudged Agitha's door open with his foot and proceeded to lay the girl on the bed. "She got into an accident a couple weeks ago and received a bad blow to the head," he explained as he tucked the covers around her. "Since then she's suffered from fainting spells. It's the reason she's currently staying with me."

"So... she's your patient?" Milda asked, digesting this new bit of information. "I thought perhaps she was your sister or some relation from your town."

Pipit smiled slightly and fondly patted Agitha's head. "No, I've only known her for a short time. She's an escapee from Castltown. She has no relatives that I know of, so I've offered her a home with me for as long as I can continue to provide for her."

Milda looked down at Agitha with sorrow. "I see. You truly are a good man, Pipit."

Pipit turned to her and smiled. "Maybe. I just do what I can to help. A little kindness goes a long way in times like these."

The doctor brushed past her, heading for the door, and Milda took that as her cue to leave Agitha to rest. She followed him out and back to the main room and watched as he picked up his discarded bow. She hadn't even remembered him dropping it.

"I'm going to go help the rest of the townspeople drive out the remaining monsters and put out the fires," he said, walking to the door. He turned back to her and with that gentle smile of his said, "Get some rest. Agitha will be just fine."

Milda nodded and watched him go for the second time that night.


∆ ∆

The next day was busy for Pipit. The raid the night before had resulted in many wounded and the poor doctor had his work cut out for him as he ran around the town tending to everything from mild burns to large gaping gashes from rusty bulblin machetes. There was a grim air in the town as he passed blackened buildings and men still loading monster carcasses onto carts. The damage was extensive, but everyone knew it could have been much worse. Thankfully, the people of the town had been prompt in banding together to drive the brutes out. As he hurried from house to house Pipit received several nods and pats on the back for his prowess with his bow. With each raid more and more of the town's skeptics were warming up to him. Even if they didn't always trust his medicines, they recognized his value in battle.

Several times he was forced to pass through the square in transit between patients and he occasionally paused to listen to the man by the statue who, after the night's excitement, was now raving more excitedly than ever about the return of the Hero and how they all needed to have faith and wait for deliverance. The man's words sparked a strange mixture of feelings in Pipit. Of course he agreed that people shouldn't give up hope, but the idea that they should all sit back and wait for a savior didn't sit well with him. He felt there was something inherently wrong with counting on a single person to take care of your problems for you. In times of hardship, Pipit believed that it was each individual's responsibility to help where they could. If there really was a hero, why would he want to save a kingdom who couldn't be bothered to try and save themselves? Something deep in Pipit's soul told him that destiny wasn't achieved by waiting. It was achieved by going out and doing everything you could. Still, a little faith wasn't a bad thing. If the legend of the Hero helped people find the strength to make it through the day, then it was doing some degree of good in its own right.

While Pipit was out tending to his patients, Milda was at the hut keeping an eye on Agitha. The girl had awoken just fine that morning full of energy as usual. Pipit had left her with instructions that Agitha could play outside so long as she didn't tire herself out too much and now the cheerful girl was out back merrily overturning rocks in search of bugs. Milda kept an eye on her through the kitchen window as she stirred a pot of broth and vegetables that would be their lunch. Pipit had mentioned that he might not be able to make it back in time to eat with them, so Milda had offered to cook for her and Agitha.

She was pulled momentarily from the fire when she heard a knock at the door and she crossed the room to answer it. The door opened to reveal a tall man and a little girl. Milda smiled when she saw them. "Renado! It is so very good to see you, my friend," she greeted warmly. She stepped aside and allowed the two to enter.

Renado returned her smile. "Likewise. It is a great relief to see you as well, your h—."

"Please, call me Milda," she stopped him with a casual wave of her hand. She swept away from the door to return to her pot. "Lunch will be ready shortly. Won't you join us?"

Renado regarded her for a moment with his dark, steady gaze. "It would be our pleasure, Milda," the big man replied. He turned to his daughter and his lips turned up into a smile once again. "Luda, why don't you go outside and play with Agitha. I'll call you when it's time to eat."

The dark haired girl nodded and ran back out the door, leaving the two adults alone. The moment the door shut, Renado approached Milda and took her hand. His grip was firm as he bowed respectfully before her. "Truly, I am more relieved than you know to see you safe," he said after he'd straightened. "There is hope for us yet."

Milda pulled her hand from his grasp and threw her arms around his neck. "Oh, Renado. I am so glad to find you well." She pulled back and clasped her hands in front of her. "You must tell me all that has happened in the kingdom in the time that I have been away."

Renado's expression turned grim. The tight line of his mouth told Milda everything she needed to know before he even uttered a word. "It hasn't been good, my lady. King Dragmire has taken control of Hyrule Castle and is sending his armies in relentless waves across the land. Castletown has fallen, as have many of the smaller villages on the peripheries. The Gorons have holed up in their mountain while they debate plans of action and the Zoras have cut all connections with the rest of the kingdom, as an invasion of their domain could lead to a corruption of the water supply. Chief Daruga and King Ralis XII have expressed their intent to help us, but they require direction." Renado looked at her pointedly as he said, "We may lose their support if we don't pull our people together under a ruler again soon."

Milda furrowed her brows and looked at the floor, her feelings warring within her. "You're right," she agreed, pulling her gaze back up to the shaman's face. "Someone needs to replace Princess Zelda and lead the people in a counterstrike against Ganondorf."

Renado's eyes widened. "My lady, you can't possibly be suggesting that Hyrule find a new ruler." He waved a broad hand in protest. "Nobody could replace the princess in the people's eyes. There is no other for whom the races would unite."

Milda shook her head and captured Renado's eyes, gazing up into them with surety. "They would for the hero."

Renado's eyebrows shot up. "The hero," he repeated. "You don't mean..."

"I do," she said with conviction. "Even if...Princess Zelda returned, nothing would change. The most she could do on her own is delay the inevitable. Hyrule needs its hero. You and I both know that without him we are doomed. I called on you because I knew that if anyone had been in contact with him, it would be you. Please tell me, Renado. What do you know of Link?"

Renado looked down at her wordlessly and Milda knew he was digesting her argument. She bit her lip as she waited for his reply. When the large man finally looked off to the side sadly, her heart sank in her chest. "I see your reasoning, Milda," he spoke at last. "Indeed, if there were anyone else the people would follow, it would be him. But I'm afraid that I know nothing of his whereabouts."

Milda deflated. She'd known not to get her hopes up, but it seemed she hadn't been able to stop herself.

"If you truly mean to look for him, you should know that it will be no easy task," the large man warned, resting a hand on her shoulder. "Ganondorf began a headhunt for anyone with the name Link long ago. If he's out there, I doubt that name will help you find him."

Milda looked at the shaman in astonishment. Ganondorf had done such a thing? It had never occurred to her that the Evil King might employ such a tactic, though in hindsight, she'd been foolish to ignore such a possibility. By putting a price on the hero's name he had effectively blocked the easiest way for her to identify him. She cursed under her breath. It was no wonder that she hadn't heard anything of him even after all this time.

"Regardless, I must find him," she stated, her determination returning. "I will begin by searching the woods. It was my original plan to look there first and now that I know he may be in hiding I am even more convinced that he will be found there."

"And if he has been caught already?" Renado asked, playing Din's advocate.

"He hasn't. Ganondorf told me so himself."

Renado sighed deeply. He looked so much more worn than the last time Milda had seen him. "I can see I won't be able to talk you out of this," he said, shaking his head slowly. "So instead I humbly my assistance in any area which I may be of use."

Milda smiled. She'd known she could count on Renado. "Actually, there is something you can do," she revealed. "I need the key to the house of this town's founder."

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Five: A little slice of happiness

When Pipit finally was able to make it back to his hut late in the afternoon, he discovered Renado and Luda just leaving. He shared a greeting with his friend and asked how his visit with Milda had gone.

"It was very informative," was the shaman's somewhat confusing reply. "She tells me you're going to take her on one of your excursions into the forest."

Pipit scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "Yeah, I am. I know the dangers, but if I hadn't made that offer she would've bulldozed right in all on her own without even taking time to recover. I didn't have much of a choice."

Renado's lips twitched into a smile briefly and then his face turned serious. "Please, watch out for her, Pipit," he requested, looking straight into the younger man's eyes. "Believe me when I say it would be a great tragedy if she were to lose her life in there."

Pipit regarded the shaman with confusion. "Of course I won't let anything happen to her. That's why I'm going with her."

Renado nodded once and clapped Pipit on the shoulder. "I'm counting on you."

He and Luda left after that and Pipit watched them go feeling quite bewildered. After a moment he shrugged and headed inside.

Agitha was on the couch looking at a picture book about bugs that he'd bought her the week before when he entered, but she set it aside and ran over to him when she saw him. "Mr. Pipit!" she greeted jovially. "I found four caterpillars today! Two perfect pairs!"

"That's great, Agitha," he praised, ruffling her hair as he always did. "I hope you left them outside."

Agitha scrunched up her nose but nodded. Pipit smiled in approval and gave her hair another ruffle. He knew how much she wanted to keep the bugs she found, but he'd been able to convince her that they'd be happier outdoors. Mostly.

"Don't fib now, Agitha," Milda's amused voice came from the other side of the room where she was putting away the dishes from lunch. "I caught you and Luda trying to sneak them into your room red handed."

Pipit looked from the golden haired young woman back to Agitha with a raised eyebrow. "Is that so?"

Agitha scowled at Milda. "Tattler."

Milda just smiled and continued to return the bowls to their rightful places.

Turning back to Milda, Pipit said, "I talked to Renado just now. It appears you left quite the impression on him."

Milda chuckled. "He enjoyed my cooking that much?"

"Sure must've," he agreed, setting his medicine bag down near the fireplace. "How are your legs, by the way? I've been meaning to ask. You really surprised me last night when you were suddenly on your feet and running when before you could barely stand."

Milda finished putting the last bowl away and turned to him. "I thought you might ask about that," she answered. "The truth is, I healed them myself. I'm a bit of a magician, you see."

Pipit's eyebrows rose. "A magician?" he repeated. "How remarkable. I don't think I've ever met a magician who could heal before."

Milda showed off her healed legs by twirling playfully once and then dropping into a curtsy. "Now you have. Pleased to meet you."

Pipit folded his arms and cocked his head in confusion. "If you could heal yourself the whole time, why didn't you do so earlier?"

Milda had been so gung-ho about going to the woods before that she'd been ready to run off the moment she woke up. She'd been very reluctant when he'd asked her to wait until she had recovered, but she'd agreed. If she'd had the ability to heal herself the whole time however, he wondered why she'd chosen not to.

"I'm trying to conserve my magic as much as possible and healing uses up quite a lot," she revealed. "I was hoping to let my legs recover naturally so that I would have plenty of energy for our trip to the forest, but when Agitha collapsed, I couldn't just wait for you to return."

Ah, Pipit thought. That answered that question. He suddenly felt guilty for being the cause of her spending the energy she'd so carefully saved up. He crossed over to where Milda was standing and took one of her hands in both of his. "I'm sorry to have forced you to deplete your magic on our account," he apologized. "But I thank you for doing it. I'm very grateful that you came and found me. I should have warned you of her condition."

Milda patted his clasped hands with her free one. "It's quite alright. At least now I can get around on my own again. Being handicapped wasn't terribly fun." Changing the subject, she asked, "How's the situation in town?"

Pipit dropped her hand and ran one of his own through his hair. "Not great, but nothing we won't recover from. Ganondorf's monsters usually go for our crops and livestock, so it's a little weird that they ignored those and went straight for the town this time, but we managed to drive them off and rescue most of the buildings."

"That's good news, then," she said, offering him an encouraging smile, though it seemed a bit forced.

Pipit shook his head. "On the contrary, I fear last night's raid only shows that Ganondorf's minions are growing bolder. We managed to fend them off this time, but what of the next? What of the time after that? Many of Kakariko's defenders were injured in this attack. Ganondorf has monsters to spare, but this town is limited in able-bodied men. The people are beginning to fear that it's only a matter of time before we end up like Castletown."

Milda's face darkened and she shook her head vehemently. "No. Kakariko will never end up like Castletown. Not once in all of Hyrule's history has Kakariko fallen, and it certainly won't now."

The golden haired girl's sudden passionate outburst startled Pipit and he raised a hand to the back of his head unsurely. "Well, I certainly hope you're right, but..."

"I'm sorry," she apologized sheepishly, looking down at her feet. "I just...don't want the people of this town to lose hope."

"They won't, Miss Milda," Agitha piped up. She'd moved from her position on the couch to latch onto Milda's tunic. "The people here aren't wimps like the stuck up nobles in Castletown."

Agitha's unexpected statement coupled with the earnest look on her face as she said it caused a peal of laughter to rise up in Pipit's throat. "Agitha, you shouldn't say such things," he scolded. His eyes flickered up to Milda and he conspiratorially stage-whispered, "She's one of those stuck up nobles."

Milda blinked once and then she crossed her arms over her chest and glowered playfully down at him. "How rude!" she declared, sounding perfectly outraged. Sticking her nose in the air she added, "You had best watch your tongue or I shall have you flogged."

This time Agitha laughed as well. She clapped her hands together and held them to her cheek. "That was great, Miss Milda! You sound just like them!"

Milda uncrossed her arms and chuckled along with them. "I'll admit that I did know a fair number of people who acted that way," she confessed.

Agitha's eyes widened and she turned to Pipit with an awestruck look. "You mean...she's actually a lady?"

Pipit just shrugged and Milda bent down to Agitha's level to give the girl a wink. "Something like that."

Agitha appeared to ponder this for a moment, then she asked, "So, does that mean you can sing and dance and play instruments and do all that other fancy lady stuff?"

Milda lifted a finger to her lips. "Well," she said thoughtfully. "Yes. I suppose I can do those things well enough."

Agitha grinned excitedly at her reply. "Can you sing a song for us? Right now?"

Pipit placed a hand on Agitha's head and rocked it back and forth chidingly. "You can't just ask her to sing for you, kiddo," he reprimanded.

"No, it's quite alright," Milda assured them with a little wave of her hand. She curtsied to Agitha and said, "It would be my pleasure to sing for you." She gestured at the couch. "Won't you both please have a seat?"

Playing along, Pipit and Agitha took their seats on the couch and Milda walked over to stand in front of them. "What would you like to hear?" she asked, clasping her hands in front of her.

"Sing your favorite song," Agitha answered, kicking her feet in anticipation. Pipit smiled at her enthusiasm.

Milda thought for a moment. "Well, I can't perform my very favorite song, as it requires the accompaniment of my harp, but I know another that you might enjoy." At Agitha's approving nod she closed her eyes and began to sing.

"The fairies of the forest have gathered,
To Din we sing our prayer,
Lend us your strength,
And with your arms,
Defend and keep safe the land.

"Nayru the wise,
Teach us the ways of law,
Show us the spirit of peace,
And our tears will be dried.

"Goddess of courage, Farore,
Maker of life and souls,
Send us a hero,
Give us hope,
That someday the sun will shine."

When she finished, she opened her eyes and curtsied once more.

Agitha squealed and broke into applause and Pipit joined her gladly. "That was outstanding, Milda," he complimented the now smiling young woman. "You have a lovely singing voice."

Milda's face flushed in happiness and her gemstone eyes seemed to sparkle. "I'm glad you enjoyed my singing. I love to sing but I hardly have the occasion to anymore."

"You can sing for us as much as you want," Agitha told her, clapping her hands together delightedly. "We'd be happy to listen, right Mr. Pipit?" She looked to him with a large smile.

Pipit nodded. "Of course." With a sheepish grin he added, "The goddesses know I can't sing."

Milda beamed down at them. "Well, if you truly don't mind, I do know a few more songs..."


∆ ∆

The rest of the afternoon was passed in music and merriment. Milda entertained them with many more songs; songs of every type from silly little ditties to heartfelt ballads. More than once Agitha joined her when a song came up that she knew. Even Pipit contributed some of his less than stellar singing for one song that had been a particular favorite of his as a child.

The next morning found the three of them snoozing together in the main room. It had snowed again the evening before and the cold had quickly seeped in through the hut's thin walls causing Pipit to drag the mattresses from their beds and shove them together in front of the fireplace for warmth. Agitha woke first, toastily sandwiched between the two adults. Feeling too warm, she delicately wriggled her way out without waking them and padded to the door to put on her shoes. After a brief trip to the outhouse she returned and plopped onto the couch with her picture book while she waited for her unofficial guardians to wake.

About ten minutes in she looked up from her book to see if either looked ready to get up but all they'd done was move to fill the space she had vacated. Agitha watched them sleep for a few moments, privately amused by the juxtaposition of their sleeping habits and the silly image it created. Pipit was sprawled on his back, limbs jutting out in all directions, while Milda lay neatly on her side huddled up against his arm.

She looked back at her book but was pulled away from it again a moment later when she heard stirring from the mattresses. She looked back down to find that Milda's eyes were now open and she was looking at Pipit drowsily. As Agitha watched, she delicately raised one of her hands and placed it in Pipit's larger one. The curious child heard her mutter a word that sounded like "Link" and then her eyes closed and she didn't move again.

It wasn't until another twenty minutes had passed that the adults finally pulled themselves out of bed and began preparing for the day. Agitha was the only one who noticed when Pipit flexed his hand and stole a glance at Milda as he headed to his own room to get a change of clothes.

After breakfast, Pipit went out to check on his patients as usual and Milda and Agitha entertained themselves by sharing a bath and then doing each other's hair with colorful ribbons that Agitha had extracted from her room. The two giggled as they invented silly hairstyles for each other, each time assuring the other that whatever style they chose would become the next big trend in Hyrule. After Milda was certain they'd successfully exhausted every conceivable silly hairdo possible, an idea came to her. She ran her fingers delicately through Agitha's blonde locks and deftly pinned the top portion back before winding ribbons around the two wayward locks she'd left to dangle in front of Agitha's ears. She scooted back to admire her work and nodded approvingly. "There. You look just like a princess."

Agitha held up the hand mirror they'd been using and evaluated her new look. "Amazing! This is just like Princess Zelda's hair."

Milda nodded. "How do you like it?"

"I love it!" the little girl declared, turning her head from side to side in an effort to see her hair from different angles. Suddenly her eyebrows furrowed and she looked up at Milda in concern. "But wouldn't the princess be mad at me for copying her?"

Milda smiled and patted her head. "I think she'd be flattered to be emulated by such a cute girl."

Agitha's smile returned and she went back to admiring herself in the mirror. "Miss Milda, did you ever meet Princess Zelda?" she asked after a moment, peaking back at the older girl curiously through the glass.

Milda's smile turned sad. "Once or twice," she answered. She brought her hands up to comb through Agitha's hair absently.

"What was she like?"

Milda hummed as she considered the young girl's question. "Stately," she answered simply. "Always composed. Lonely."

Agitha frowned down at the mirror. "Oh. That doesn't sound very nice."

"Being a princess is hard work," Milda informed her, replacing her fingers with a comb. "You don't get much time to do the things you want to do or see the people you want to see." She stopped combing and tugged on the tips of Agitha's ears playfully. "But I think if she'd had friends like you and Pipit she would've looked much happier."

Agitha turned abruptly and thrust the mirror into Milda's hands. "I'm going to do your hair like hers, too," she announced, getting up from the bed and circling around behind the taller girl.

Milda's lips parted slightly in surprise at Agitha's sudden zeal but they quickly came together again in a warm smile as her young friend dutifully pinned back her hair and wove white and blue ribbons around her forelocks. When she was done, she scooted back and announced, "There. This way we can both make her happy."

Milda looked at her reflection in the mirror and delicately touched one of the newly bound locks. In a soft voice, she said, "I'm certain she already is."


∆ ∆

Later, after Pipit had returned from his work and the trio were finishing lunch, Marie dropped by with Milda's new dress. While Pipit paid her, Milda took the dress back to her room to change. It was a modest blue gown of cotton with a white collar and matching white underskirts but it was flattering and it fit magnificently. More than happy with it, she returned to the main room and modeled it for its creator.

"How do I look?" she asked, performing a little twirl.

Marie's eyes lit up. "Oh, dear, you look exquisite!" She bustled over to tug and prod here and there, making sure everything was just right. "It fits you like a glove. Better, even!"

"It looks much better than Mr. Pipit's ugly clothes," Agitha submitted approvingly. "And it matches your ribbons. I like it."

Milda looked at Pipit for his opinion and found him looking her up and down with a pleased expression. "Well?" she asked, striking a pose.

"It really suits you," he replied brightly, placing his hands on his hips. "Seriously, you look great. I can hardly believe you're the same girl I found collapsed on the road just a week and a half ago."

"Goodness, Pipit. Is that how you compliment a lady?" Marie shook her head disapprovingly.

Pipit made a confused face and Milda laughed. "Thank you very much for the dress, Marie. It's lovely," she told the older woman who clasped her hands together and beamed at the compliment.

"If you need any more clothes be sure to tell me, dear," she instructed happily. "Accessories, too! I might even be willing to part with one of my precious joy pendants...but only for you!"

Milda and Pipit thanked her again and the busy woman went on her way. As she departed, Milda absently touched her bound hair again and thought that she really hadn't felt this happy in a very long time.

The following two days passed in peace. There were no monster attacks and no breaking news from outside the town. Milda used the time to recover as much energy as she could for her upcoming trip to the forest. At Agitha's request, there was much singing during the course of her stay. Agitha was full of enthusiasm for music and wanted to be taught every song Milda knew. Milda graciously complied and the two could often be found together brushing each other's hair and singing whatever little ditty fit their humor.

Pipit went about his work as usual but kept a watchful eye on his two live-in patients. These days his home seemed radiate a sort of happiness that was entirely different from before Milda's awakening. Agitha was smiling more and meal times were full of laughter. Each day seemed brighter and his mind was less troubled. Even his dreams had become less disturbed in recent days.

Pipit had never had much of a family—that he could recall. He'd been raised from infancy by his uncle, but the kind, brown-bearded man he only vaguely remembered had passed away after an accident when Pipit was merely a boy. Following his death, Pipit's village became his family, and while every member did his or her best to make Pipit feel loved and included, going home every evening to an empty house served as an ever present reminder that he was alone in a way that the other children weren't. Now, though, he could feel some of that loneliness fading. Having Agitha and Milda around was almost like having a little family of his own. Watching the two girls interact and sharing his home and his life brought a feeling of warmth and fondness that grew more potent with each passing day.

Now that Milda was nearly recovered and Agitha was having attacks with less frequency, the two of them began accompanying him in the mornings when he went out to tend to his other patients. They would walk with him to the house of whichever patient was first on his list and then break off to go explore the town together while he worked. This often included a trip to Renado's house so that Agitha and Luda could play as well as a brief stop-in at Marie's tailor shop for some good old fashioned "girl time" as they called it. The three of them would then reconvene at lunchtime and spend the afternoon and evening together.

Since they had begun making more frequent appearances in public, Milda and Agitha had become something of a hot topic in the town. Pipit was increasingly finding himself the recipient of friendly torment from his patients and their families about the two lovely young ladies sharing his roof. Even the formerly skeptical men of the town would stop him in the streets to scruff up his hair and grinningly tell him how jealous they were of him and his pair of golden haired houseguests—to which he would blush and rub the back of his head in embarrassment. Nevertheless, the comments and fledgling approval from the men of the town made him happy and brought a feeling of inclusion that hadn't been there before.

Thanks to Milda and Agitha, Pipit's life had become fuller and his outlook brighter despite the hard times. He found himself wishing he could do something special to thank them for their friendship and it was as he was contemplating ways to do that that he happened upon a particular item at a market stall that immediately snagged his attention. As soon as he saw it, he knew it would make the perfect gift and he purchased it without even the barest hesitation.

The moment the object was in his arms, he was overcome with a feeling of such familiarity that it could even be called uncanny. The weight and feel of it tugged at something in his memories, but he was unable to summon an image or anything else that might explain the feeling. He brushed it off and continued along the path to his home, excited to present the girls with their gift.

Their reaction played out even better than he'd imagined. Agitha gazed at the object in awe as he presented it to Milda who took it with an almost reverent look in her gemstone eyes. "A lyre," she uttered, stroking the golden bow delicately. She looked into his eyes, speechless.

"You said before that you play," he said, resting his hands on his hips as he watched her continue to stroke the instrument in satisfaction. He nodded at the gift. "I figured you and Agitha could derive some entertainment from that."

"I... Thank you," she said, her eyes seeming to return of their own volition to the object in her hands.

"Now you can sing that song that you like," Agitha said, clapping her hands together gleefully. "The one you said you couldn't sing without your harp."

Milda blinked and tore her gaze away from the instrument to look down at Agitha. "Ah, yes. I could, couldn't I."

Agitha grabbed Pipit's hand and tugged him down onto the couch with her. "Sing it, Miss Milda," she demanded excitedly. Pipit made himself comfortable on the seat and nodded his head in agreement. He wished to hear it as well.

Milda glanced back and forth between them and then took the lyre in her left hand and seemed to hesitate for a moment before she slowly began to pluck out a tune with her right. The melody was sweet and simple and evoked once again that same feeling of familiarity from the market but even more acutely. Each strum sang in Pipit's mind like the notes of a dear but long forgotten lullaby resurfacing from the depths of his memory.

A lullaby...

The final note rang in the silence of the room for a long moment, then suddenly Milda began to play again, the same melody but in reverse this time, and her high, clear voice joined the sound of the strings.

"Oh youth, guided by the servant of the goddess,
Unite earth and sky, and bring light to the land.
Oh youth, show the two whirling sails the way to the Light Tower...
And before you a path shall open, and a heavenly song you shall hear."

As Milda repeated the verses again, Pipit closed his eyes and let the achingly familiar tune echo in his ears. The melody brought to mind blue, blue skies and colorful birds soaring freely in and out of clouds. It brought an overwhelming sense of peace and joy to his heart, and in his mind's eye, he saw Milda's blue and white gown change to a deep magenta and her features become just the slightest bit softer.

"Oh hero, chosen by the goddess,
Teach us courage and guide us,
Help us to know humility and love,
Lead us to peace."

The song finished and the image immediately fell apart, depositing Pipit back in his own home with a bashfully smiling Milda and a starstruck Agitha enthusiastically demanding an encore.

Milda looked at him awaiting a response to her performance and Pipit swallowed before saying honestly, "You play beautifully. I've never heard a more talented musician."

Milda smiled prettily and bowed her head. "You flatter me, Pipit."

At both his and Agitha's insistence, Milda played a handful more tunes for them before handing the instrument off to Agitha to pluck at curiously. While the youngest member of their household busied herself with the lyre, Pipit's curiosity got the best of him and he turned to Milda and asked, "That first song you played...what's it called?"

Oddly, Milda's face flushed slightly at the question and she turned her head away. "Oh, that... It's just a silly song I learned a long time ago. I'm honestly surprised I still remember it," she answered dismissively.

Her strange nonchalance confused him as she'd definitely said previously that it was her favorite song. "It seemed really familiar," he pressed, wanting her to reveal more. "I swear I've heard it somewhere before."

Milda seemed surprised by this and she looked back at him. She appeared to examine his face intently for a long moment and her eyes told him she was puzzling something out in her head. "Pipit," she muttered under her breath, but he got the feeling she wasn't speaking to him so much as testing the name on her tongue. "Yes, perhaps you have," she said after a drawn out moment.

He waited for her to say more, but she didn't. Instead she turned her attention to Agitha and the lyre. A smile appeared on her face as she offered to teach the girl how to play. Pipit scratched his head but didn't attempt to resurrect the subject. He could always ask her about it again later.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Six: Into the Woods

The next day it snowed again and Pipit returned home from tending to his patients to find Agitha on the couch with her nose in a book. Milda was nowhere in sight.

"She went out to pick some stuff up," was the small girl's response when asked about the young woman's absence.

Pipit wondered where Milda had gone without bothering to bring Agitha but shrugged it off and went about preparing lunch as usual. However, when his bigger patient still hadn't returned after they'd finished their meal, Pipit decided to go out and see if he could find her. He doubted Milda would've run into much trouble within the limits of the town, but one could never be too sure these days.

He tried the market first. Several people informed him that they'd seen her pass through sometime earlier but according to their reports that had been a while ago and nobody he talked to had seen her within the past hour. Frowning, Pipit left the market and scoured the town but failed to find her in any of the expected places. On an impulse, he headed toward the town's West gate—the original gate, if he wasn't mistaken—which led out to the river and the woodsroad. Following a several minute trek through the town's outskirts he finally discovered her sitting on a fallen tree by the riverbank. She wore a pensive expression as she stared out across Hyrule Field.

Pipit breathed a short sigh of relief as he approached her. "I hope you're not thinking of making a break for the woods dressed like that," he joked, remarking on her lack of coat.

Milda turned her head back to look at him and greeted him with a soft smile. "No, just thinking," she replied. She patted the spot next to her in invitation.

Pipit walked around the log and brushed the snow off the proffered seat before plopping down beside her. Away from the bustle of town, the air was quiet. Even the sounds of their breathing were muffled by the snow that was still falling lightly from the heavens. Pipit turned his gaze to the white sky to watch the puffy flakes descend from high above. He broke the silence again by saying, "You're really determined to go, huh?"

Milda took a while to answer. Eventually she replied, "I must. I need to find him."

Pipit felt an unpleasant twinge in his chest at her words but he covered it with a playful smile. "He's really that important to you?"

Milda lowered her head, her twin ribbon-wrapped locks falling in front of her and swaying slightly as a chill wind swept over them. "He's been many things to me," she answered quietly. "But yes, important is always one of them."

Pipit scratched the back of his neck awkwardly and then transferred his hands to his lap. "Why don't you tell me about him?" he suggested. "If I'm going to be assisting you in your search, I think it would be helpful to know a bit about the guy."

Milda looked up at him and another moment passed in which she just stared at his face. She seemed to like doing that. Turning her gaze back to the field, she answered, "He has blue eyes. He's partial to the color green." She stopped and seemed to think for a moment. "I suppose he has blondish hair. Probably."

Probably? Pipit thought, raising an eyebrow.

"He's young," she continued. "Around our age. And he's handsome...in a boyish kind of way."

Pipit gave his companion a flat look. "Right. I'll be sure to keep my eye out for only the cutest boys," he remarked dryly. This earned him a laugh and a playful swat which brought a grin to his face. "Well, in any case, I doubt we'll run into too many other people in the forest," he reasoned. "And even if he's hiding, I'm sure he'll come out when he realizes you're looking for him."

Milda's smile fell away and she looked down at her snow covered feet wistfully. "No," she said, shaking her head. "I doubt he remembers me."

Both Pipit's eyebrows rose this time. "You doubt he remembers you?" he echoed incredulously. "That seems pretty hard to believe. How could anyone forget you?" He quickly realized how that had sounded and lifted a hand to scratch the back of his head. "Er..."

Milda's smile returned and she brushed his statement off with a shake of her head. "We haven't seen each other in a very long time," she explained. "The circumstances change frequently, but he has a habit of drifting in and out of my life—appearing suddenly and disappearing just as suddenly." Her eyelids lowered slightly and Pipit was momentarily distracted by the way her true blue irises peeked out through her thick lashes. "Or perhaps I am the one who drifts in and out of his. Whatever the case, I can no longer wait for him to come to me. I must seek him out myself, and goddesses be good, I will find him soon."

Pipit was silent for a time as he puzzled through Milda's account of her relationship with this man she so ardently sought. He'd assumed they were lovers—she'd neither confirmed nor denied it when they'd spoken before—but if that was the case then theirs was by far the most mystifying courtship he'd ever heard of. Milda made it sound like her search for him was born of necessity more than desire. She felt she needed to find him, even at risk of great personal injury. From what he'd learned of Milda, she was an intelligent, rational woman. In all matters except those pertaining to him, that was.

Pipit was torn. Could he, as a doctor—no, as a friend—allow her to put herself at risk for a man whose character he knew nothing of? In all honesty the guy sounded like a total flake. If he appeared and disappeared as he pleased and couldn't even remember her... Pipit shook his head to clear away those thoughts. He was being unfair. It's not like he'd ever met the guy. And anyway, the decision wasn't his to make. If Milda said she needed to find him, then he would take her words at face value. All he could do was help her and make sure she didn't get hurt in the process.

Still, it couldn't hurt to try to talk her out of it one last time. He thought carefully about how to word what he wanted to say before he began. "You said before that you were confident this guy knows his way around the forest, but..." he shifted slightly to face her more, "to be honest, I only know of a handful of people who have ever returned after going into those woods and none of them match this guy's description." He bit his lip briefly as he considered how to continue without upsetting her. "Milda," he said, catching her gaze and holding it to demonstrate his sincerity, "this is the Lost Woods we're talking about. I'm not saying for sure that the guy you're looking for is gone for good, but the odds aren't in his favor. Are you sure you're willing to risk following him to his doom?" He forced himself to keep looking into her eyes as he said his next bit. "You know...you could stay in Kakariko. Keep living with me and Agitha. We wouldn't mind one bit. In fact, Agitha would be ecstatic. We really like having you around, you know?"

Milda regarded him with wide eyes as she absorbed his offer. A large part of him doubted she would take him up on it, but he allowed himself to hope nonetheless. He continued to watch her expectantly but his heart squeezed uncomfortably when her eyelids fell and she smiled sadly. "The Lost Woods," she repeated, the wistfulness returning to her voice. "I didn't know there were people who still knew it by that name. Do you know why the forest is called that?"

Confused and wondering where she was going with this unexpected shift of topic, he ventured, "Because people get lost and never come out?"

"It's because the forest protects its secrets through deceit," she answered, twining her bare fingers together in her lap. They had to be cold, he thought. "In the woods, there are many secrets worth protecting. It's a magical place mostly untouched by man, and through the centuries it has guarded many things. Countless men have ventured within. Some seeking to steal its secrets, others searching for reprieve from a world in which they no longer have any wish to reside. The magic of the forest traps them and warps both their flesh and their minds until all that remains are shades full of regret."

Shades full of regret. Strange, how Pipit's heart seemed to shudder at those words. Unconsciously, his hand found the cloth of his shirt over his chest and clutched it. His mind conjured up an image of a man lost in the woods; his body slowly decaying as he wandered day after day until all that was left was a skeletal husk. All at once, his thoughts no longer felt like his own. For reasons he couldn't explain, his heart felt heavy with sorrow. He knew what it was like to live with that kind of regret. To die with it.

The feeling passed as suddenly as it came and he tuned back into reality in time to hear Milda continue her explanation. "But the forest isn't an evil place. While it is harsh in its treatment of adults with dark hearts, it is merciful to innocents. In the past, every now and then, a child would stumble into the forest and become lost in its labyrinth. Over time they too would be changed, but into a different entity." Milda looked up at him from beneath her lashes. "Perhaps you have met the playful child spirits of the woods?"

Pipit thought about it. He'd encountered many strange things in his visits to those woods, but the spirits of lost children? "No..." he started, but an image flashed in his head that stopped him. "Or, maybe? Sometimes I see flashes of light between the trees as if from lanterns... And several times I swear I've heard the notes of a woodwind through the trees."

Milda smiled widely. "Yes. Those are skull kids. It's good that you see signs of them. That means the forest welcomes you."

Pipit smiled wryly. "You sure are knowledgeable," he observed. "If you keep talking like this I'm really going to believe that you're the Kokiri Queen."

Completely unexpectedly, a warm weight collided with Pipit's chest. He let out an oomph and just barely managed to stay on the log as he found his arms full of Milda. She hugged him tightly for a moment and then released him and sat back so she could look him in the eye. "Dear Pipit," she spoke, her voice full of fondness. "You've done so much for me and your concern warms my heart, but I must go into the woods. I must find him. If I don't, I fear for us all."

Pipit shook his head, still not understanding. "For us all? I'm afraid I don't follow."

Milda chewed her lip briefly, a conflicted expression crossing her features, then her eyes filled with resolve and returned to his. "The man I'm searching for... he's the hero, Pipit. The Hero of Hyrule."


∆ ∆

Silence pervaded in the hut as Milda laced up her new stiff, leather boots and threw on a cloak. Beside her, Pipit adjusted his bow on his back and slung his pack over his shoulder. Today was the day. Agitha had been dropped off at Renado's with a list of careful instructions for her care and now Pipit and Milda were completing preparations for their several day long trip to the woods.

Pipit cast a concerned look at Milda as he finished fastening his gauntlets. After their chat two days ago he now had a better understanding of her urgency regarding her quest, but the thought of the danger he would be leading her into still perturbed him. To be honest, he hadn't known what to think when she'd told him it was the hero of legend she sought in those woods. Had he not already known her to be a sensible, rational person, he'd have thought her unhinged. After all, the hero was hardly more than a story; a recurring character in the annals of history, and one shrouded in mystery at that. Who could say how much of his legend was truth and how much was the fiction of romantically minded historians. Certainly such a person had existed at some point, of that there was no doubt. He'd been mentioned by name frequently in the surviving records of a princess from ages past; a journal which's authenticity had been verified by the royal family as well as numerous scholars.

Link, the princess had called him. A youth who'd risen from obscurity when Hyrule was in danger and single-handedly saved the kingdom before once again vanishing like a phantom at dawn. Hardly anything was known of this young hero, but the late monarch had written of him fondly, even explicitly stating that he'd become a dear friend to her—and apparently to the leaders of the Gorons and Zoras of the time as well.

But was that youth the same hero who appeared again and again in Hyrule's history books? Ganondorf seemed to think so, as he'd ordered a headhunt on anyone sharing the name of the hero in the princess' journal. But then, Ganondorf was a madman. He would gladly accept any excuse to murder and it wouldn't surprise Pipit in the slightest to discover paranoia on the long list of the Evil King's character defects. Pipit personally had never put much stock in the legend of the hero, but this quest was important to Milda and the good doctor would see her through it safely regardless of his skepticism. Besides, in the event that they did in fact somehow stumble upon the hero of legend, ostensibly Hyrule would be saved and all their problems would disappear.

It was disconcerting and a little disturbing, Pipit thought, how easy it would be to shove all the kingdom's problems onto one man and simply wait for salvation.

"Are we going to walk or ride?" Milda asked, pulling him from his thoughts. "Do you have a horse?"

Pipit shook his head. "I have a horse, but she's not too fond of those woods. Something in there spooked her once and it's been a struggle to get her to go back since. And since she's the only horse I'd trust around there anyhow, our only real option is to walk, if that's okay with you."

Milda nodded. "I trust your judgement."

Preparations complete, Pipit and Milda bade temporary farewell to Pipit's small hut and set off for the Lost Woods.

The journey across the plains took just over a day. Pipit was impressed by Milda's stamina. He'd anticipated it taking closer to two. Whatever magic she'd used to heal her legs had done its job fantastically. They ran into a few bokoblins along the road, but those were easily dispatched by Pipit's bow. The bigger problem arrived with nightfall when roaming stalchildren dug their way to the surface in their nightly hunt for living flesh. The two spent an uneasy evening stealing what rest they could in turns while keeping an ear out for rattling bones.

They reached the entrance of the Lost Woods around midmorning on the second day. The dense, ominous looking line of trees greeted them with an aura of foreboding and Pipit suppressed a shiver as he stood before it. The woods hadn't always been this way. Certainly they'd always been regarded with apprehension and superstition by the locals, but aside from an air of mystery and caution Pipit had never felt anything particularly malicious from them. Now, though, he could feel the evil that had permeated the place with Ganondorf's invasion. It scuttled along his skin like a cold and clammy thing and left gooseflesh in its wake.

"How horrible," Milda's soft voice came from beside him. "Those who have fled will find no solace here."

Pipit turned in time to catch the sorrowful look on his companion's face as she gazed wistfully up at the trees. Her golden hair swayed in the chill winter wind, contrasting with the stillness of her features.

"Come on," he beckoned, pulling her gaze to him as he nodded to the large, hollow tree marking the entrance. "Inside at least we'll be sheltered from the wind."

Milda nodded and fell into step with him as he followed the path though the treeline and into the dark woods. Though Pipit had visited these woods many times, entering the forest always brought with it the same odd and uncanny feeling; as if he were coming home but to a home that wasn't his. He'd always attributed this feeling to having grown up in a heavily wooded area. The tall trees and dense foliage were nostalgic and caused a sharp pain of wanting for the home of his childhood.

Beside him, Milda let out a breath which Pipit imagined was born out of amazement at the sheer magnificence of the wood. The forest was nearly silent. All natural noises were muffled here as if out of respect to the ancient sanctuary. All around them, small pinpoints of soft light drifted lazily through the air; some the muted gold luminescence of insects and others simply the mysterious glow of the forest itself. Fairy lights, Pipit privately called them. Following the foreigners' entrance, the whole wood seemed to still as though watching them. After a long moment, during which Pipit thought he could almost feel the forest's judgement, there came a low sighing whisper from the leaves high above and the odd, bated stillness ended.

Motion out of the corner of Pipit's eye caught his attention and he turned his head to see Milda rise from a respectful bow, her hand falling delicately from the area over her heart. At his curious look, she smiled softly and said, "I was simply paying my respects to this hallowed ground and asking forgiveness for my intrusion."

Pipit's mouth quirked up in amusement. "And did the forest give it?"

Milda's eyes twinkled. "I do surely hope so."

Not for the first time, Pipit found himself unwittingly captivated by Milda's loveliness. The forest lights danced around her, illuminating her face and hair in gentle gold and green and making her look ethereal, as if she really could be the forest queen. Turning away slightly and clearing his throat to hide his thoughts from her, he asked, "So, where shall we begin our search for your legendary hero?" He raised a hand above his eyes and made a show of peering around at the countless trees surrounding them. "Do you have any idea where he might be hiding?"

Milda shrugged a delicate shoulder and smiled mysteriously. "Perhaps if we start walking the forest will lead us to him?"

Before Pipit could question if her answer was meant to be joking or not Milda had already begun walking, leaving him to hurry after.


∆ ∆

Milda's stride was sure and purposeful as she picked her way around tall, gray tree trunks and over thick, writhing roots coated in dark green moss. Occasionally, Pipit paused to trim leaves off the plants they passed and pick mushrooms, collecting them in a series of glass jars he'd stowed in his pack. Milda watched him do this curiously, frequently asking about the plants he harvested and what they were used for. Pipit indulged her curiosity. He patiently pointed out leaves and roots and fungi with medicinal properties and explained the various salves and potions they could be boiled or ground into—forest caps for soothing headaches; deku fern seeds for inflammation; juniper sap for burns. Milda listened with interest and compared him to an old professor she'd once known who had studied the marine life of Lake Hylia. According to her, he too had been quite good at making medicines. He'd even made eyedrops for Gorons once. Pipit listened to her speak animatedly about the various potion masters she'd had the good fortune of meeting and how valuable she considered their craft and he found himself smiling at the thought that his humble profession was so impressive to a woman of so many talents herself.

They'd been walking for a good hour when a sudden rustling in the surrounding brush made Pipit stop. He hurriedly grasped Milda's arm, halting her as well. So far the pair of travelers had been lucky; nothing had popped out to try to make a meal of them. But both knew that could change at any time. More than a few times as they'd walked Pipit had caught movement in his periphery and was forced to sweep his eyes around the surrounding woods and train his ears for signs of lurking monsters. Now, Pipit's metaphorical hackles were raised as the rustling stopped and the air stilled ominously. Slowly, Pipit drew his bow around from his back and deftly pulled an arrow from his quiver in preparation. His blue eyes flashed as they swept over the thick bushes. With more dexterity than Pipit was aware she possessed, Milda moved silently around him to stand at his rear, her body tensed and ready to react. To fight or flee, he did not know.

After a few tense moments of waiting, the bushes rustled again and a squirrel leapt out. It froze when it saw them and cocked its furry brown head to regard them with beady black eyes for a moment before its tail swished once and it darted away.

In tandem, Pipit and Milda let out the breaths they'd been holding and shared an amused look as their postures relaxed. "That was hair-raising," Milda remarked as she began walking again. Pipit returned his unused arrow to his quiver.

"Tell me about it," he agreed, joining her once more. "I was expecting a wolfos to pop out. Thank the goddesses for small favors, right?"

To Pipit's confusion, Milda's expression turned grim for the briefest moment. Pipit's own smile faded and was replaced by a concerned look. "Is something wrong?"

Milda shook her head, her smile returning. "No, no," she assured, deflecting his concern with a wave of her hand. "I apologize. I was just...remembering something unpleasant. Don't worry about it."

Pipit regarded his companion with a look of momentary scrutiny before turning his head away and bringing his arms up behind his head in a show of mock indifference. "Fine, then. I won't. A woman isn't a woman without secrets, after all." He pretended to cast her an unconvinced glance out of the corner of his eye.

Milda raised an eyebrow at him. "And just what do you know of women and secrets, good doctor?"

Pipit shrugged. "That women have them and men don't," he answered airily. "You women are all about your secrets and mysteries and gossip. But men...men don't need all that. We're direct, honest, everything-in-the-open sorts."

"Is that so?" Milda posed, her eyes twinkling again. She surprised him when she asked, "So you don't have a single secret, then, doctor? Not one?"

Pipit faltered at that, his hands slipping from behind his head.

Milda cocked her head prettily. "So, you do have secrets," she surmised.

The young doctor glanced at her warily, unable to guiltlessly deny her accusation. "If a man does have a secret, he keeps it out of necessity, not vanity," he conceded after a time.

Pipit was sure Milda was going to reply with some form of witty rebuttal, but both fell silent when a loud, ominous giggle split the air, reverberating off the trees in an eerie echo. At once, Milda was at his back and Pipit had his bow out. Both of them peered into the dark trees with full alertness. As Pipit's sharp eyes roamed their surroundings he wondered when it had become so dark. He'd been so preoccupied with his companion that he hadn't been paying attention to the time. Once again, the air was filled with the sound of warped mirth as another cackling giggle echoed around them.

Behind him, Milda pushed closer, her back pressing firmly against his own. He could feel the tension in her shoulder blades as well as the soft tickle of her hair against the back of his neck. He tried not to let it distract him as he intently perused the dusky wood for any sign of whatever was stalking them.

Milda whipped her head around suddenly, drawing his attention to a spot off to the left. There, among the trees, a light was dancing across the trunks, swinging back and forth as though cast by the lamp of an impatient child. A noise of recognition issued from his companion at the sight.

"A skull kid!" she exclaimed in a low, excited voice. The giggling came again, now in time with the swaying of the light, and this time it was followed by the low, musical shrill of a horn. Pipit turned to look over his shoulder at Milda, unsure how to act in the situation.

Milda pulled away from him and stepped toward the dancing light but Pipit shot forward and grabbed her hand, holding her back. "Wait! It could be dangerous."

Milda shook her head in a reassuring manner. "Don't worry. Skull kids are mischievous but mostly harmless. He may be able to give us guidance."

Still unsure, Pipit loosened his grip but didn't let go. Milda ventured forward again, her slender arm sliding through his hold as if to leave it, but instead of breaking away she caught his hand in hers and pulled him along. Pipit joined her cautiously, his eyes trained on the dancing light. As a general rule, Pipit did his best to not interfere with the denizens of the wood. He kept to himself, taking only what he needed, and the forest creatures didn't bother him. He'd always seen it as a compromise; he thinned the forest's monster population and he was allowed to abscond with a few herbs. He was wary of breaking that delicate alliance.

As they approached, the light stilled and the giggling came again, then with a taunting flicker, the light disappeared. A little confused but no less wary, Pipit and Milda jogged over to where the light had been and looked around.

Nothing. The spot was empty.

Suddenly, the sound of the horn split the air again. This time, it came from somewhere behind them. The two swiveled around to find the dancing lamplight had appeared once more several meters off within a particularly dense copse of trees. Unlike before, the sound didn't fade out after one note, it briskly transitioned into another note, and another, until the woods were alight with music.

Again, they attempted to go to the light, and again, there was a giggle accompanied by a single blow of the horn and the light vanished. This time, though, Pipit's ears picked up a sharp rattling sound from somewhere behind them and he swiveled his head in time to barely dodge a blow from the arm of a creature he'd never seen before but made his skin prickle as it stared him down with hollow eyes and a wide, twisted grin. Its body appeared to be made entirely of wood and its perfectly round mask-like face cocked to the side as it seemed to size Pipit up, preparing to strike once more.

A sharp intake of breath beside him brought Pipit's attention back to his companion and he turned his head to see three more of the things advancing on them from the opposite side. One of them swung a gangly limb at Milda and Pipit hurriedly blocked it with his bow. "Are these things skull kids?" he questioned as he swung his bow back and forth to keep the creatures at bay.

Milda shook her head. "No," she answered, kicking at one that managed to dodge around Pipit's bow and knocking it back. The things were persistent but not very strong. "I don't know what they are."

They heard another peal of giggling and then the horn sounded again and suddenly four became eight as another quartet of wooden fiends dropped from the trees. Pipit grabbed Milda's wrist and broke through their ranks at a run, trying to put distance between themselves and their grinning adversaries. "We can't fight them like this!" he called over the din of rattling bodies. "My bow won't work at such close range!"

"Pipit!" Milda called suddenly, pointing ahead of them. "There! It's the skull kid!" Pipit followed the line of her finger and saw a small figure dancing atop a short cliff several meters away. A horn was held to its mouth and a lantern swung at its side. "I think it's controlling them!"

The skull kid looked over at them and cackled once before blowing the horn again. Another group of wooden fiends dropped from the trees, surrounding them. Milda cried out as one of their flailing arms caught her shoulder, its long, sharp fingers tearing through the fabric of her dress.

"Shit!" Pipit swore, batting the thing away with his bow. He needed a stronger weapon; something sturdy he could use to beat them off. His eyes searched the surrounding area and landed on a large stick, nearly as wide around as his wrist. He lunged for it and managed to snatch it up just as the hoard of creatures descended upon him. Quickly, he swung out, the stick sweeping out in a great arc. The weapon connected, smacking his assailants back. They crashed to the ground in pieces, broken apart by the force of the blow. Pipit hurriedly rose to his feet and hefted the stick like a club as another wave of the strange creatures advanced on him.

Milda ran for cover behind him as group by group he beat down the swarm, sending limbs and chunks of wood flying. However, no matter how many he defeated, more came to take their place. "This isn't working!" he called back to her as he realized the futility of fighting off the endless hoard. "We need to get that skull kid! If we can just get to some cover, I can use my bow—"

Pipit stopped when he saw precisely the bow in question in Milda's hands, an arrow already nocked and pointed at the figure still dancing on the cliff. The young woman's eyes narrowed and her lips tightened and she let the arrow fly. It whistled through the air like a bolt and struck the skull kid perfectly on point. Instead of being hurt, however, the skull kid let out another gleeful cackle and vanished.

Pipit's head snapped back to Milda. "What on—what was—you can shoot?" he asked eloquently.

Milda smiled and flipped her hair. "I'm a lady. Of course I can."

Pipit wanted to question her further, but he was forced to save that conversation for another time as all around them the puppet-like monsters suddenly froze. Their round, wooden faces with their lightless red eyes and maniacal grins remained trained on the pair, perfectly still. Pipit regarded them warily, wondering what they were going to do now, and beside him Milda tightened her grip on the bow. Then, as one, the puppet creatures gave them a rickety, rattling bow and leapt back into the trees, leaving Pipit and Milda alone on the forest floor.

Before Pipit even had time to be properly confused, another, smaller figure dropped down in front of them, causing the two to step back in alarm.

Standing before them was a creature not unlike the puppet monsters. Its face was round and wooden, partially covered by the brim of a tall, patchwork hat. A lantern swung from one of its long, gangly arms and tucked in its belt was a long horn. It wore the same maniacal, fiendish grin as its servants and its eyes were the same lightless red, but Pipit sensed no hostility from it; only curiosity.

"Good shot," it said, bowing to Milda with a flourish and startling Pipit. He hadn't expected it to speak.

Milda inclined her head respectfully. "Good evening, Skull Kid," she greeted with more politeness than Pipit himself felt he'd be able to muster after what they'd just been put through. "It's been a very long time. I see you've learned some new tricks."

The skull kid cocked its head. The gesture seemed appraising. "New, old..." It trailed off. "As you said, it's been a very long time." Its claret eyes flicked to Pipit momentarily before returning to Milda. The doctor wondered what it was thinking.

"I apologize. I've been...preoccupied." Milda seemed uncomfortable as she said this and Pipit got the impression they were having a second conversation, the nature of which he was not privy to. Not waiting for the skull kid to speak again, she continued, "I am sure you have already guessed the reason for my visit. I seek the Hero. Is he here?"

At this, the skull kid hopped as if vastly amused by her question and let out another cackling giggle. The sound sent a shiver up Pipit's back. "Is he here?" it repeated and then giggled again. "Is he here, she asks!" It hopped twice more, clearly entertained. "Is he here? Which one! Clearly you are inquiring after the deceased, for there can be no other explanation as to why you would ask such a thing. Is he here? Is he here, indeed!"

Milda's expression tightened. Pipit could see the hope draining from her. "Then...he is dead?"

Skull Kid cackled again gleefully. "Dead? Yes. A hundred times. And yet he comes and goes from this place without a thought to how dead he ought to be."

Pipit looked back and forth between the skull kid and Milda, finding himself woefully incapable of following the conversation unfolding before him, but Milda's eyes brightened again at the creature's perplexing words. Her face practically radiated hope as she exclaimed, "So he is alive! Please! Can you take me to him?"

Skull Kid gave her a look that despite his ever present grin could only be read as perplexed. "Take you to him? You might as well ask me to take a fairy to the forest. I wonder if you are asking the right question, my lady. Perhaps you intended to inquire as to whether or not I could help you find him? Because while I couldn't conceive of taking you to him, finding him is a matter with which I may be able to assist you."

Just as she had done upon entering the forest, Milda placed a hand over her heart and bowed to the childlike forest spirit. "Please. Whatever assistance you can give, I eagerly accept. The hour is very late. Too late. If Link is not found soon, Hyrule will fall."

"Then you'd best be on your way." The skull kid hopped backward a few feet and then flipped gracefully up onto a sizable boulder. Putting one foot forward, it swept into a bow. "Best of luck to you!" it called down to them. Then, to Pipit, it winked and said, "Play with me again sometime," before vanishing.

Pipit stared at the spot the skull kid had just disappeared from and then looked at Milda, bewildered. "I thought he was going to help us."

Milda smiled knowingly. "He has. Look around you."

Pipit did as she suggested and was shocked to find that their surroundings had completely changed. They now stood in something of a clearing. To the north, west, south, and east, the trees bordering the clearing opened into distinct passageways. "Where...where are we?" He'd never seen such a place in all the times he'd ventured within the forest.

"The heart of the Lost Woods." Milda walked over to one of the passageways and stroked the trunk of a tree with an expression Pipit could only describe as wistful. The very quality of the young woman's voice was melancholic as she said, "It's been a very, very long time since I last saw this place. And yet, it doesn't appear to have changed in the slightest."

Pipit looked around the clearing again in bewilderment. All the passages looked identical. As he stood appreciating the scenery, his ears picked up the faint sound of the skull kid's horn playing the same tune from before coming from one of the tunnels. Milda grabbed his hand. "Come on," she urged, moving toward the tunnel. "We need to follow the music or we'll become lost in here." Not needing further incentive, Pipit sped up to keep pace with her.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven: The Forest of Secrets

Pipit was understandably surprised when he and Milda emerged from the passage the skull kid's music had led them through into another clearing identical in every way to the one they'd just come from. He did a double take when he saw that even the stray rocks and shrubs that littered the forest floor appeared to occupy the same patches of ground as the first clearing.

"You see what I mean?" Milda remarked, observing his reaction with amusement.

Pipit nodded wordlessly. No matter how he looked at it, everything was the same. The only difference between this clearing and the first was that now the distant melody of the skull kid's horn echoed from a different passage. Milda wasted no time following the sound and Pipit hurried to keep up with her.

So, these were the Lost Woods. Pipit had visited this forest many times and he'd thought he knew it fairly well—better than most, to be sure—but he'd never suspected the wood held such a place. All this time, he'd thought it a combination of monsters and the unpreparedness of those who chose to venture within that earned this forest its reputation for eating people. Now, he thought he was beginning to understand what Milda had meant when she said that the forest protects its secrets through deceit. This place was clearly magical. It defied the very laws of nature.

Tunnel after tunnel they trekked through the wooded labyrinth. It wasn't long before Pipit completely lost track of the seemingly arbitrary series of rights and lefts they'd taken along the way. Without the skull kid's help he'd be entirely and hopelessly lost. The dark trees that lined each clearing stood silent guard over their progress and Pipit almost felt as though the forest was watching them. A morbid part of him wondered how many Hyrulians had fallen victim to this maze.

Just how many had been left to wander day after day, night after night in these woods? As they continued to be led deeper and deeper into the labyrinth, Pipit could almost imagine the despair felt by those who had become trapped here. He imagined himself walking and walking and walking until his body finally stopped working...until he couldn't walk any longer. He felt the aching loneliness of the lost as the forest stripped them of everything; hope, happiness, anger, determination...until all that was left was the dull emptiness of regret. It brought him to his knees, sapping what remained of his strength. The dampness of the soil bled through his pants. He could feel vines wrapping around him, reclaiming his body for the earth. It had all been pointless. What had he been fighting for?

He'd just wanted to go home. He was so tired of being alone.

Pipit jumped when Milda's hand came to rest on his arm. He blinked and realized he was still walking. Milda walked beside him, watching him with a frown. "Stay alert," she cautioned. "Don't let your mind wander too much. The lingering will of the lost will try to corrupt you if you aren't careful."

Pipit nodded. He shook his head to clear it. This forest was more dangerous than he'd imagined. He did his best to keep his mind fixed in the present for the remainder of their journey.

It was well past dark by the time they finally made it out. Pipit didn't think he'd ever felt gladder to see the haphazard chaos of nature after trekking for so long through the near maddening uniformity of the Lost Woods. Though the sky was black, the fairy lights illuminated the forest enough that they could see with relative ease. It was a good thing, too, because the moment they stepped out from the final tunnel they were forced to dodge out of the way of a large, jagged-toothed mouth that lunged at them with great speed. They threw themselves to the side to avoid the gaping maw and were forced to roll apart when it promptly struck again.

"Deku baba!" Pipit cried out as he used the momentum from his roll to get his feet under him again. Instinctively, he reached for his bow but his hand grasped only air. Belatedly he remembered that Milda had yet return the weapon to him.

"Toss me an arrow!" he heard Milda call from where she'd risen to her feet a short ways away.

Quickly, he retrieved an arrow from his quiver and lobbed it across to her. She caught it easily and in one fluid motion nocked and fired it right into the deku baba's bulbous head, felling the plant monster swiftly and cleanly.

"Seriously, where did you learn to shoot like that?" he asked her as he stepped around the dead plant to rejoin her.

Milda shrugged. The gesture was an uncharacteristically casual one for her. "The well-rounded education of the rich and affluent," she answered nonchalantly.

Pipit scratched his head. "I thought noble girls all learned posh, feminine things like embroidery and painting."

Milda raised her chin in that aloof manner she was so good at imitating. "Of course. So that we may beautify our blades and arrows."

Pipit laughed. "Alright, fine," he conceded, letting the matter drop. "Honestly, I can never tell when you're being serious."

His companion handed him his bow which he accepted gratefully. "You were the one who said that all women have secrets."

The good doctor made a show of rolling his eyes but the effect was ruined by his persisting smile. Slinging his bow back over his shoulder, he took a moment to examine their surroundings. The forest labyrinth had deposited them into a large grove entirely empty of trees. Here, the grass had grown tall and completely carpeted the forest floor. Ahead of them, Pipit could just make out the entrance to another path leading into the trees. "Where do you suppose we are now?" he wondered aloud, taking a few steps forward but treading carefully so as not to be tripped by hidden rocks.

Behind him, Milda frowned. "I'm not sure," she replied as she followed after him. "This place feels familiar...but I can't put my finger on it."

Finding nothing of interest in the grove, the two made for the path. They followed it as it wound like a serpent through the trees before bringing them to something that Pipit had definitely not expected to find in the middle of a forest; a long set of stone steps. The stone of the steps was worn from ages of exposure to the elements and moss blanketed the majority of its surface, but Milda's eyes brightened when she saw it. She grabbed his hand and pulled him eagerly toward the stairs. She let out a soft, "Ah," of excitement. "I think I know where we are," she announced as she tugged him up the steps. Pipit made a noise of protest as he nearly slipped on the wet moss.

The steps deposited them into a clearing larger than any they had encountered thus far. The first thing Pipit noticed was that it was empty save for a single withered tree trunk and a worn stone platform. Just like the steps, the platform was blanketed in moss. Behind these lay a large and ancient looking stone structure. All around them the fairy lights drifted lazily, more numerous here than any other part of the forest. They bathed the clearing in a fluttering golden glow. Just like the Lost Woods, Pipit could sense that this place was full of magic. The clearing almost seemed to pulse with energy.

Intrigued, he left Milda's side and ventured over to the platform to examine the worn stone. There were markings etched onto its surface but the full picture was obscured by the moss. The strangest sense of deja vu swept over him as he followed the paths of the markings with his eyes. Something about this old stone platform felt oddly...familiar? Perhaps familiar wasn't the right word. He could sense that it was important somehow, even though he knew he'd never seen anything else like it. He wondered if the forest was sharing some of its incomprehensible wisdom with him.

"I know this place," Milda's voice cut through his musings. She sounded breathless suddenly. Pipit turned around to see her gazing past the tree in awe to where the stone structure loomed. To Pipit, it looked like some manner of castle or manor long abandoned. He wondered who would choose to construct such a thing here of all places. Gazing up at it, he was again hit by a feeling of not quite familiarity. This structure too was important. It was as if the forest itself was telling him it was.

"You've been here?" he questioned, tearing his eyes from the entrance and back to his companion.

Milda nodded. To his confusion, her expression of awe had faded and she looked somewhat troubled. "Yes. A very, very long time ago. I was unaware this place still existed. I had thought this particular incarnation lost, but it seems the forest guards its secrets better than even I had imagined."

Pipit shifted his weight unsurely, not understanding what she was talking about or the sudden shift in her demeanor. "This particular incarnation?" he questioned. "What is this place, exactly?"

"The Forest Temple," she answered simply. "And the home of an old friend."

Pipit's eyebrows shot up. "The hero?"

Milda smiled slightly and shook her head. "No. But perhaps she can help us find him."

He watched her dig in her bag and was immediately confused when she pulled out, of all things, the lyre he'd given her. Before he could question her about it, she stepped forward and lightly hopped up onto the platform. She held the instrument in position with her left hand and proceeded to pluck out a simple melody one string at a time. With the very first note, the fairy lights floating all around them brightened. Each note echoed in the clearing as if the wood itself were taking the sounds and enhancing them. The tune was lighthearted and playful and called to mind images of mischievous forest sprites and sunny spring days. It was also achingly familiar in a way that made Pipit's heart feel inexplicably heavy with sadness.

Milda played the tune once more, this time adding more strings to flesh out the melody. Pipit couldn't have been more shocked when the sound of another instrument joined her playing, though he could not see the player or tell where the music was coming from. This new instrument sounded like...was it a woodwind? It sounded almost like a flute, but no—more like a whistle. A...

"An ocarina," he realized all at once, the memory clicking into place from somewhere deep in his subconscious. He'd definitely heard this instrument before. Someone in his village had played it. Someone...he couldn't remember who now. But someone had, he was sure of it. His memories were full of it.

Milda finished playing and her last notes hung in the air for several seconds, accompanied by the hollow, haunting whistle of the ocarina. As both sounds died, Milda looked up at the temple entrance. "Saria," she spoke, and the fairy lights brightened again in response. "I require your aid. Please, I must find Link. Can you guide me?"

There was no answer, but as Pipit looked on, a loud grinding sound suddenly filled the clearing and, to his amazement, stone steps rose from the earth leading up to the entrance of the temple. The grinding stopped and the young doctor took a few steps back in wonder. When he looked back up at the temple, a shudder ran up his spine, as though a malevolent spirit had just passed through him. While before the large structure had simply piqued his curiosity, now that it had been connected, something about the place gave him the creeps.

"I'm going to assume we're meant to go in?" he spoke up.

"It does look that way, doesn't it?" Milda confirmed, taking a few steps toward the entrance.

Pipit cringed slightly as another shudder passed through him. "Great," he said without enthusiasm as he followed her.

Together, they climbed the steps and approached the ruined portal. The stone was old and cracked and Pipit could only hope that the whole temple didn't come crashing down on them the moment they stepped inside.


∆ ∆

Upon entering, they were immediately plunged into darkness. There were no fairy lights within the temple and no daylight to help from the outside. Just as Pipit was wondering how they were going to proceed, their surroundings were suddenly illuminated by a small sphere of light that hovered benignly above Milda's palm.

"You're just full of neat tricks," he observed.

Milda smiled. "Light is my specialty."

She held her hand up higher and Pipit saw that they were in a sort of enclosed courtyard. There was grass growing on the ground and vines covering the walls—there were even a few trees—though the sky was hidden by a stone ceiling. He wondered how the plants received enough sunlight to grow in here. Probably more forest magic, he reasoned. Directly ahead of them was a wooden door set into a facade of white marble.

"Do you really think the hero is in there?" he questioned, eyeing the door apprehensively.

"Saria wouldn't mislead me," Milda answered. "He must be here. I have to believe that he is."

Pipit's brow furrowed. The idea that Hyrule's greatest warrior might be hiding out in an old, ruined temple in the woods seemed wrong to him and he decided to voice this thought. "This guy is supposed to be a hero, right?" he pointed out. "So then why would he be hiding in the woods? Doesn't that seem, you know, kind of cowardly?"

Milda's face fell slightly. Pipit frowned, hoping he hadn't offended her. The guy was a friend of hers, after all.

"Link...the hero...may not know of Hyrule's plight," she revealed. "It's possible that it's the will of the goddesses themselves to keep him away until the time is right." There was bitterness in the way she said goddesses that lit a spark of curiosity in Pipit, but he held his tongue. "However, I cannot wait any longer. I have waited and waited time and again and I am done with it."

Pipit set his mouth in a line and nodded. That was something he understood. You couldn't wait for the things you wanted to happen for you. You had to make them happen. He recalled the man preaching by the statue in Kakariko telling the people to believe in the hero and wait for salvation and how wrong that had sounded to him. One couldn't expect to receive help without first trying to help themselves. If everyone simply waited for someone else to do the saving, there would never be a hero. Clearly Milda felt this way as well. "Well then, let's hope this hero is as great as everyone says he is," he said, walking up to the door with fresh determination.

Milda hesitated. "Wait, Pipit," she called to him. A note of uncertainty had entered her voice. Pipit stopped and turned around to see what was up. "You...um," she started before faltering. She licked her lips and tried again. "I mean, this temple...it might be dangerous. You've already helped me come this far, and I very much appreciate everything you've done for me, so if you'd rather wait here where it's safer, I—"

"No," he cut her off with a shake of his head. He'd never heard Milda sound so unsure about something before, and to tell the truth her concern was a little endearing, but he'd made up his mind to help her and he wasn't going to back out now. "I want to help you." He cracked a smile. "And anyway, I'd probably go nuts with worry if I waited out here."

Milda smiled gratefully. "Alright," she conceded. "Then let us make haste."

Pipit opened the door and allowed Milda to enter first. Inside, the duo was met with a long, narrow hallway made up of shallow steps. As they walked, Milda kept her guard up and her eyes carefully roamed the tight corridor as though she expected to be attacked at any moment. No monsters revealed themselves, however, and they made it to the end of the passage without incident. There, they found another door identical to the one they'd just entered through. Pipit opened it and they found themselves in an enormous hall, too big for Milda's small sphere of light to illuminate in its entirety. This proved not to be a problem, however, because as soon as they entered, four torches magically lit themselves at the center of the room, bathing the whole place in soft light. At the center of the flames was an open, boxlike structure that looked to be some manner of carriage.

"We're in luck," Milda spoke, walking in behind him. "The way is open." Despite the optimism of her words, she still looked apprehensive. Her eyes travelled around the room, checking every shadow for signs that they weren't alone.

Pipit looked around as well, noting the multitude of doors situated around the chamber. There was no sign of any monsters—nor heroes, for that matter—just the flickering torches and enough cobwebs to make the place look like it was owned by Mallara. "Where do you think we should start?" he posed. "There're an awful lot of doors to choose from."

Milda began walking down to the center of the room toward the brightly burning torches. "The heart," she replied. "It's just a hunch, but I think we should begin our search there. Follow me."

Pipit nodded and they made their way down the stairs. They arrived at the boxlike structure and Pipit discovered that it was indeed a carriage. Milda motioned for him to step inside, and the moment they were both situated within its frame the carriage began to drop, ferrying them to a lower level. Pipit swallowed uneasily as the floor passed his line of vision, taking the torchlight with it. An ominous feeling filled him once more. Little alarm bells were going off in his head. Something wasn't right.

The lift stopped and Milda summoned her light sphere again. They were in an octagonal room with a floor that reminded him of a circus tent. Its colors alternated between blue, white and red. In front of them lay a blue path that stretched into a hallway. Pipit trained his ears for any suspicious sounds, but the place was deathly silent.

"Pipit, I have an ill feeling," his companion broke the silence, stating what he himself was thinking. "The temple is too quiet. The fact that we haven't encountered any monsters is odd."

Pipit nodded to show his agreement. "Maybe our hero has been taking care of the place. Doing a little pest control," he suggested hopefully.

"Let's hope so," Milda responded. She looked uneasy. Nervous. Pipit wondered if some of that nervousness didn't stem from the fact that their journey might very well be close to an end. There was a very real possibility that the hero of Hyrule waited somewhere within these walls. Pipit couldn't lie and say that he wasn't a little bit anxious himself about meeting the guy. He would be meeting a bonafide legend. Now that they were so close, he found himself wondering what kind of person the hero was. Would he be tall and dashing and heroic? Would he take up arms immediately to save the kingdom or would he need to be persuaded? Would he really not know Milda even though she said they'd met before?

Milda led him forward down the hallway, at the end of which they found, surprise of surprises, another door. The one difference between this door and the countless others they'd passed so far, however, was the broken lock that lay on the floor in front of it. It was large and coated in a thick layer of dust, but Pipit could make out its golden sheen from under the filth. Clearly whatever lay—or used to lay—beyond this door was important. Enough to warrant a lock the size of Pipit's head. He shared a look with Milda and she nodded, silently telling him to go ahead and open the door.

Pipit grasped the knob and turned. The door swung open as easily as if it had been installed that very day. On the other side was another set of stairs. At first Pipit thought they'd been deposited into another corridor, but the top of the stairs dead ended in a spacious circular chamber. As they cleared the last step, a ring of sconces lining the walls burst to life with a soft whoosh and the chamber was flooded with light.

The place was certainly not among the top five things Pipit had expected to find in an ancient temple in the middle of the woods. It appeared to be a kind of gallery, each wall hosting a large, framed painting barred by red velvet cord. Rather than the paintings, though, the thing that succeeded in snagging his attention was the pair of items carefully position in the center of the floor; a pedestal with an ancient looking sword sticking out of it and a small, oddly shaped blue object. There was no sign of any heroes.

Next to him, Milda sucked in a breath. Pipit turned to look at her but she was already running over to the sword and the blue lump.

"These—! It can't be..." she muttered to herself, kneeling before the items. Pipit joined her and looked first at the sword—it was long and bore a thick, strong looking hilt shaped like a cross—and then at the object resting beside it. An ocarina. "This sword," Milda spoke again, her voice catching. "It was his."

Pipit looked again at the sword. So, this was the legendary hero's sword? It looked so plain. Not at all like the kind of blade a celebrated warrior would carry. And what did Milda mean by 'was'? Was it not still his sword?

"And this..." Milda's hands trembled as she lifted the ocarina from the dusty floor. "The Ocarina of Time." Her voice was small and full of amazement. "I'd thought it lost long ago. He never..." she trailed off and just looked at the instrument in wonder.

A shudder went up Pipit's spine. That same feeling from the lift was back; this time even more potent. His long ears perked up as a noise like scuttling reached them, sounding like it was coming from inside the walls. Something was definitely not right here. He reached for his bow. "Milda," he called to his companion cautiously but urgently. He placed a hand on her shoulder. "I think we should get out of here. Something's—"

He was interrupted by an earsplitting crack. Both of them started at the sound and cast their gazes around the chamber. They hardly had time to wonder at the cause when the wall to the side of them burst inward, sending chunks of rock flying. One slammed into Pipit's left thigh, sending him to the ground. He gritted his teeth as tremors of agony shot through his whole leg.

"Pipit!" Milda cried, rushing to his side. She appeared to have avoided getting hit by shrapnel from the blast. She quickly assessed his injury and then looked back at the broken wall. Pipit followed her gaze and almost forgot to breathe when he caught sight of the creature standing there. It was a giant, no, enormous monster that looked as if a mad scientist had attempted to cross a spider with a crab but failed extraordinarily. The thing didn't have a proper face, just a single, gigantic yellow eye with a pupil that was simultaneously both red and green. Its body was completely red and two pairs of nasty looking pincers protruded from the backs of its shoulders. It was eyeing the two of them like a starving man would eye a whole roasted cucco.

Pipit tried to get up but the pain in his leg sent him back to his knees. Milda didn't even hesitate to grab his bow and send an arrow flying straight at the ugly beast's eye, but the monster simply closed it and the arrow deflected harmlessly off its eyelid with a metallic sounding clang. Undeterred, Milda hurriedly snagged another arrow and tried again, but to the same effect. Pipit felt his heart drop into his stomach when the creature raised a giant foreleg and prepared to slam it into her. Milda saw the attack coming and made to dodge but the toe of her boot caught the hem of her dress and she stumbled. Pipit could do nothing but watch as the massive appendage bludgeoned her right in the side and sent her flying at the wall, which she hit with a sickening crack before falling to the floor in an unmoving heap.

Pipit's eyes widened and he stared at the place where she'd landed in horror. He thought his brain must have short circuited because one moment Milda was just fine and fighting and the next she was on the ground, unmoving, and he couldn't for the life of him connect those two states of being in any meaningful way. All he could think was, 'Oh, goddesses, this can't be happening. This isn't happening.' Then the monster let out a terrible shriek and all of Pipit's brain functions switched to rage as his focus zeroed in on the beast. He couldn't feel the pain in his leg anymore; only fierce hatred for the monster that had hurt his friend.

He didn't even notice when Milda groaned and pushed herself up with her arms. He was already running. He yanked the sword from the pedestal and rushed the beast, slamming the blade into its protected eye with a loud clang. The monster wasn't hurt, but the force of the blow caused it stumble back a few steps. Pipit didn't relent. He swung at the eye again and again, pushing it back toward the wall. Each time, the eye would close just in time, keeping him from damaging it, but he pressed on like a man possessed. It wasn't until he had the beast backed against one of the paintings that his fury cooled enough to let reason back in and he realized he needed a plan. Relentlessly wailing on the thing wasn't getting him anywhere; it was only exhausting him. He pulled back and the beast's eye opened once more. Pipit wracked his brain, trying to think of any way to get past its defenses when an arrow whizzed past him, catching both him and the monster completely off guard.

With a wet thunk, the arrow sank into the tender membrane of the monster's eye and the beast howled in agony. Pipit jumped into action and thrust his sword deep into the yellow tissue beside the arrow. The monster shrieked before falling to the ground and bursting into countless pieces of monster flesh that immediately turned to dust and dissipated into the air. Breathing hard, Pipit lowered his sword and turned around to look at the woman who had saved him. Milda was on one knee, her arms still raised in firing position. She too was breathing hard. A trickle of blood was seeping from a gash in her forehead. "Milda!" he called, running to her, sword still in hand. He fell to his knees in front of her.

"I'm—I'm alright," she said, only now lowering the bow. She wiped at her face with her hand and grimaced when it came back coated in blood.

Pipit raised his hands as if to touch her but instead they just hovered uselessly over her. His brain was still playing catch up from the battle. "That was—your head—you might have a concussion. How do you feel? Do you feel nauseous at all? How's your vision? Goddesses, that was some amazing shooting!" He was rambling, he knew, but he couldn't stop himself.

"I'll be fine," she assured him. "This is nothing that I can't heal." To demonstrate, she passed her hand once more over the gash and it vanished instantaneously, leaving perfectly unmarked skin.

Pipit stared at the spot in wonder. This was the second time Milda had used magic to heal herself but it was the first time he'd seen her do it firsthand. He still couldn't wrap his mind around it. In all his years practicing medicine, he'd never encountered a magician or wizard with curative magic. According to legend, the art of healing was known only to fairies, and to his knowledge it had been centuries since a fairy had last been seen by anyone. This young woman...just who was she?

"That monster," Milda continued, "I think it was a Gohma. Did you see how big it was? It must be the reason for the lack of other monsters in the temple. It's been devouring them and growing for decades, at least."

"Then..." Pipit started, seeing the path of her reasoning.

Milda lowered her head. "Link is not here," she confirmed, sounding defeated.

She looked so pained, Pipit felt his heart go out to her. She'd been banking on the hero being here. From the moment she'd awoken, her whole being had been set on coming here and finding him, and now it was looking like it was all for naught. His eyebrows knit in sympathy and he reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder. "Milda..."

Milda shook her head. "I'm sorry, Pipit. This is all my fault. I—I'd really begun to think that this time would be different."

Pipit wasn't sure exactly what she meant by 'this time', but it was clear that she needed comfort and that's what he focused on. "There's still time," he reassured her. "We can keep looking—find somewhere else to search."

Milda continued to look at the floor. He could see her wilting; giving up hope. He moved the hand on her shoulder to beneath her chin and gently lifted her face to look at him. "Hey, he's the hero of legend, right?" he said, giving her a half smile. "He's bound to pop up and save the day. It's, like, his job."

That earned him a little chuckle and Pipit celebrated his small success. "Come on." He stood with some difficulty as his injured leg protested his weight and held out his hand. "Let's get out of here and come up with a plan."

Milda nodded and took his hand. He pulled her up. With his other hand, he hefted the sword and took a moment to admire the blade. It was simple but it was a good sword. Well balanced and sturdy. He turned to Milda and said, "You don't think the hero would mind me holding onto this, do you? It seems like a shame to leave it here to continue to gather dust."

Milda smiled and shook her head. "You handle it well. I think he'd be happy to see it go to good use."

Pipit nodded and reached into his bag. He grabbed one of the long strips of leather he carried on him in case he needed to bind bushels of herbs and used it to fasten the sword to his back. "I'll need to get a scabbard made for this when we get back," he observed as he rolled his shoulders to move the blade into a more comfortable position.

"Out of curiosity," Milda said, watching him. "Just where did you learn to wield a sword? Or a bow, for that matter? I can't help but think those an odd set of skills for a man of medicine."

Pipit shrugged. He'd figured she would ask that sooner or later. "There was a sword master living in my village. He taught me the basics. And our mayor was skilled with a bow. He gave lessons to all the children of the village." It had been a long time since Pipit had talked to anyone about his home. Thinking about it caused a pang of sadness in his heart. He wondered if the village had managed to escape attack from Ganondorf's forces or if it had succumbed like so many others. "We used to have an annual hunt and all the boys would compete to bring back the most impressive game."

Milda didn't say anything to that and Pipit saw that she was looking once more at the sword on his back. She had a look of deep contemplation on her face. He was about to ask what was on her mind when she said, "You wield your sword with your left hand."

Pipit shrugged again, not seeing anything strange about that. "I'm left-handed."

Milda's eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "But you shoot with your right."

"Oh," he said, suddenly understanding what she was confused about, "That. It's because that mayor I told you about is a bit of a traditionalist. He wouldn't let me shoot with my left. The sword master, on the other hand, didn't care so long as I whacked the targets with enough gusto."

Milda seemed surprised. "You're very good for someone who shoots with his off-hand," she observed.

Pipit chuckled at that. "Well, when you practice something enough it eventually starts to stick. But to tell you the truth, I'm actually not too bothered by which hand I use. I favor my left for most things but if I have to switch I can without much difficulty." He gave his companion a wry smile as he hefted his pack onto his back over the sword. "Man of many talents. That's what it says on my card."

Pipit's heart gave a little flutter when Milda brought a delicate fist up to mask an amused smile. Now that they were out of danger, he could appreciate the way the blue of her irises seemed almost to glow in the torchlight. He liked watching her eyes dance with mirth whenever he said something she found amusing. He wished he were more of a comedian so that he could see her make such an expression all the time.

He cleared his throat to mask his thoughts and held out his hand to her again. "Anyway, I vote we get out of here. I don't know about you, but I'd rather not stick around to test your monster theory."

Milda took his hand and nodded. "Right. Let's go."

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight: The Hero's Possessions

The trip out of the woods was much quicker than the trip in. It almost seemed as if the wood itself led them to the exit. After everything that Pipit had seen here he wouldn't be surprised if that were in fact the case. But even though their progress was quicker, Milda's gait was noticeably slower. She had failed to find what she was looking for and her confidence had taken a big hit. At least, that's what it seemed like to Pipit.

What Pipit didn't know was that Milda was panicking. While they'd been gamboling about in the woods, who could say how much more of Hyrule Ganondorf had claimed? He could very well have found the hero and stolen his piece of the Triforce. Without a leader, the kingdom's first line of defense was already in shambles. It was only a matter of time before all of Hyrule's towns would be swallowed by darkness.

Despair was beginning to creep back into her heart. Powerful as she was, she was just one woman. Without her soldiers, without her people, without Link, she didn't stand a chance against Ganondorf. She knew that now. She'd been foolish to ever presume to challenge him alone.

Alone. That's what she was. She was alone and weak and out of time.

"Hey," Pipit's voice called, snapping her out of her head. His blue eyes were filled with sympathy and kindness. "It's going to be okay. Look." He gestured around them at the serene, wintery plains of Hyrule Field. He directed her attention to the gently rustling trees and twittering birds scouting for worms in the early dawn light. "Hyrule is still standing. Ganondorf hasn't won. We didn't find the hero, but that doesn't mean we won't. We just have to keep looking until we do."

Milda cracked a smile and nodded, touched by her companion's attempt at optimism. She realized suddenly that she was being unfair. She wasn't alone. Pipit, this kind young man whose life she had stumbled into completely by chance, had promised to help her. He may not be the hero and he was a far cry from an army, but he had already saved her life twice. More than that, he had given her his friendship, and that was something she hadn't had in a very long time. She'd grown to cherish both him and Agitha and she owed it to them to keep trying; to keep fighting. She couldn't give up hope after a single setback.

She shifted her bag to a more comfortable position and winced when something hard poked her in the back. She brought the bag around to her front and drew it open to fish around for the culprit. As if drawn by magnetism, her fingers closed around the cool, smooth belly of the Ocarina of Time.

She pulled it from her pack and held it delicately before her. How long had it been since she'd last held this instrument? So much had happened since that time. So many years and faces and memories. She wondered how much remained of the woman she'd been back then and how much had been lost to time. Sometimes her memories got so jumbled that she couldn't put everything in its right place, but that particular incarnation...those memories would always come back clearer than the rest.

"I am the Hero of Time. No matter when, no matter where, for Hyrule and for Princess Zelda…I will fight."

Link, she thought, a wave of emotion crashing over her. Don't promise me that.

If only he weren't bound to her and the kingdom. If only he could live peacefully. She wished for his happiness more than anything. She wanted freedom for both of them. The last thing she desired was for Link to be pulled back into her and Ganondorf's battle. Sometimes she thought it would be better if she never found him. In the past, she'd even prayed to the goddesses: please, let him rest. Let him be spared this time. But they never listened. Now she knew that she could never hope to defeat Ganondorf without him. For the sake of her people, she was forced to ask for his aid once again. She hated it. She hated the goddesses for demanding it of her.

Pipit was now looking at her with concern in his eyes. She wondered what kind of expression she was making. She thought she probably didn't want to know.

"Let's stop here and rest for a while," he suggested, dropping his bag by a large rock. "We were up all night. We can afford to take a little break."

Milda simply nodded and dropped her bag next to his. It took several moments for her to realize that she'd yet to return the ocarina to her pack. She looked down at it again, turning it over in her hand. It looked just the same as it had centuries ago; polished and smooth and beautiful, like it hadn't been a day since she'd given it to the Hero of Time. He'd taken good care of it.

When she looked up again, Pipit had already gathered wood for a fire. She wondered how long she'd stood there entranced by the relic. "It's a lovely instrument," he remarked casually as he lit the kindling. The fire was slow to start but the flames were strong. Milda moved closer to absorb the heat. The morning was a chilly one and she was feeling the weather now that they'd stopped walking.

"Yes," she agreed. "It's still in such good condition. I'm surprised."

"It's old, then?" he asked, leaning toward her to get a better look. "It looks brand new. Can you play?"

Milda smiled at his inquisitiveness. "Yes, it is quite old," she answered his first question. "And I can play. Would you like to hear?"

Pipit nodded. "I'd love to."

Milda thumbed the ocarina once more before lifting it to her lips. The motion was so achingly nostalgic that she felt her throat tighten. To be perfectly honest, she hadn't touched an ocarina since back then. As far as she was concerned, this was his instrument. She'd passed its legacy to him and she had no part in its hereafter. Link had tried to return it to her but she had refused to accept it. Now, ages later, here it was, back in her hands, and she wondered what that meant.

Playing was as easy and natural as it had ever been. Her fingers hadn't forgotten the notes and she allowed her eyelids to fall shut as the melody nearest and dearest to heart was reported through the ancient clay. The sound wrapped around her like an old and comfortable blanket, whisking her mind away to a different time; a different Hyrule; a different her.

When she opened her eyes again, Pipit was smiling knowingly. "You really are fond of that lullaby," he observed. The shadows had moved and the morning sun lit up his eyes like glacial lakes. Odd. She didn't think she'd ever told him that it was a lullaby.

Maybe it was his expression, so gentle and warm, or the color of his eyes, or perhaps it was the way his thick, wheat-colored hair framed his honey-tanned face, but she found herself holding the instrument out for him to take. "Would you like to try?"

Pipit hesitated. "You don't mind?"

Milda shook her head. Quite on the contrary, she suddenly felt very eager to fall into the role of teacher once again. Nostalgia caused her heart to yearn for the old comforts of days long passed.

Pipit hesitated only slightly before delicately lifting the ocarina from her palm. He held it with the utmost care, as though afraid the slightest pressure would shatter it.

Milda's fingertips felt hot where they'd brushed the flesh of his hand around the ocarina. She unconsciously drew them into a loose fist, momentarily savoring that heat, before turning away and drawing her lyre from her pack. "Just follow along. I'll play the notes and you repeat."

The good doctor repositioned the instrument in his hands and brought it to his lips. As Milda strummed out the melody on her lyre, Pipit copied her, stumbling a few times in the beginning but quickly memorizing the fingering. Each note of the ocarina was clear and strong, and by the third time through he was able to reproduce the melody flawlessly. When they finished, Milda beamed at him proudly. "You're a natural," she praised, rewarding him with a friendly nudge. "Have you played before?"

Pipit shook his head. "No, the only thing I've played is grass," he admitted, a small, bashful grin appearing on his face. He handed the ocarina back to her.

Milda took it and looked down at it wistfully. "Music has power, you know," she said, turning the instrument over in her hands. "More than any king or princess. There isn't a force in this world that doesn't bow to it." Making a spur of the moment decision, she grabbed Pipit's hand and placed the ocarina back into his palm. "Keep it," she instructed. "Until we find Link, at least. I'll teach you to play."

Pipit looked down at the ocarina and then back up at her uncertainly. "Are you sure?"

"Yes." She enclosed both the ocarina and his hand in both of hers. "You are a just and good man, Pipit, and I know in my heart that the spirits will listen to you."

Pipit still looked hesitant, but he placed his free hand atop both of hers and his eyes lit with determination. "Then I will gladly accept it. Thank you, Milda."

Milda smiled. "I have done nothing to earn your thanks."


∆ ∆

It was nearing evening. Pipit and Milda had been walking for hours. Both were looking forward to sleeping in a bed again after so many days of roughing it in the wilderness. Pipit's shoulders were beginning to ache from the combined weight of his pack, now full of forest plants, and the broadsword he'd picked up in the temple. The sword was not a light weapon. Clearly it had been designed for someone larger and stronger than him to wield. Pipit was no slouch, but he'd need to build up his strength or he ran the risk of exhausting himself faster than he could slay his enemies.

Again, he wondered at the nature of the hero whose sword he now carried. He reached over his shoulder to finger the silver and gold hilt that protruded from the weapon's makeshift harness. It was thick and strong and well worn.

In his mind's eye, he pictured a large man in glittering armor. Milda had called the hero attractive in a boyish way so he removed the big, bushy beard from his mental image. He would be noble and valiant—the type that made girls swoon and married women weep. He probably had a large, white warhorse decorated with banners and trophies from the monsters he'd slain. He would be fierce, with a glower that could stop Moblins in their tracks; the perfect heroic image of the warrior chosen by the gods.

Pipit's mouth turned upward in an amused half smile and he shook his head. He'd seen men who matched that description. In his travels, he'd met all kinds of people, small and meek, round and greedy, big and commanding, but they all shared one thing in common: a healthy fear of the King of the Desert. Even the noblest soldiers fled after the princess fell.

At the thought of the princess, Pipit felt that old, familiar ache settle in his chest. It had been a while now since he'd thought of Princess Zelda. He'd become so caught up in helping Milda that for a time he was able to forget about her death and his feelings of guilt. Milda's presence had made his world brighter and eased the burden on his soul. She helped him find the hope he'd lost when Hyrule's monarch was cut down well before her time. But even though she'd lifted him out of his depression, the state of Hyrule remained unchanged. The princess was still dead and the kingdom lacked direction. If there was a hero, he needed to show himself soon.

The duo was half a league outside Kakariko when they crested a small hill and saw something that made them both stop short. Hardly a kilometer from where they stood, a small army of monsters—roughly five hundred strong from the looks of it—had set up camp on the plain. Moblins patrolled with torches casting dancing lights across the scattered rocks and boulders and bulblins and bokoblins sat around fire pits fletching arrows and sharpening blades. A gust of chilly air carried the stink of rotten meat and sweat and Pipit and Milda immediately ducked out of sight behind some large rocks.

Pipit's heart thumped loudly in his chest. It had taken only a brief glimpse for him to ascertain the reason why Ganondorf's monsters had gathered here. He'd seen such assemblies before.

"What are they doing there?" Milda looked up at him with fear in her eyes. "You don't think…? The town—"

Pipit nodded gravely. "I'd bet all the rupees I have that they're planning a strike on Kakariko." He swore under his breath and lifted his head over the rock to get another peek at the army. "I knew it was only a matter of time before they organized a proper attack. The raids up until now have just been nudges; them feeling us out. Seems they're tired of playing."

"We need to warn the town!" Milda was already rising to her feet but Pipit grabbed her arm and pulled her back.

"Wait," he said, calming her with his steady gaze. "I have an idea. Assuming you've got a fire spell in that arsenal of yours, that is."

Milda gave him an uncertain look but nodded.

"Great. Then here's the plan."

Milda listened attentively as Pipit laid out his scheme. He explained that monster camps almost always had a stock of explosives and a camp this big was sure to have several. If they could sneak in under the cover of night and set one ablaze then it should set off a chain reaction, making short work of the rest of the camp.

As they waited for dusk to fall, Pipit drew up a strategy for how to get past the roaming moblins. "They're not very smart," he explained. "And their guard is always full of holes." They poked their heads out from behind their cover and he pointed to several such locales. They ducked back out of sight and he continued, "The only problem will be your dress. It'll be hard to move in a crouch in it. That's going to cut down our speed...but as long as we're careful I don't think it'll be a problem."

Milda had more than proved already that she had the athletic endurance and competence to carry out the kind of plan he had in mind. He didn't doubt that she would be able to keep up.

Milda looked contemplative for a moment and then nodded. "In that case, I will remove it."

Pipit almost choked when her unexpected declaration caused him to swallow wrong. "Remove it?" he repeated dumbly. He gave her a once over, his eyes taking in the travel worn cotton and various small tears from their trek through the forest.

"Yes," she confirmed and began deftly unbuttoning the back. "Worry not. I came prepared." She finished unbuttoning the dress and let the periwinkle material slip from her shoulders. To Pipit's surprise, the dress fell away to reveal a kind of body suit in a deeper blue color. In the fading light, it appeared almost black. It was comprised of strips of leather and a strange, elastic-looking material he didn't think he'd ever seen before. She stepped out of the skirt and folded it neatly over her lap before stowing it in her travel bag. With the dress gone, Pipit could make out what looked like the frayed remnants of a white tabard hanging over her chest; held in place by similarly colored wrappings. There were dark markings on the white fabric of the tabard but the poor angle and lighting kept him from being able to make out the design.

"Have you been wearing that this whole time?" he asked, staring at her. "When did you even get it?"

"It's mine," she answered. "It's something that I've had for a long time. A friend of mine in Kakariko had been holding on to it for me." She fingered the material with a faraway look in her eyes.

"A friend of yours?" Pipit echoed. "So, you know someone living there?" She'd never mentioned such a thing before. If she'd known someone in the town all along then he wondered why she'd chosen to continue staying with him and Agitha.

She shook her head. "She doesn't live there anymore. It was...a very long time ago."

Pipit's eyes widened momentarily in realization and then narrowed, his expression becoming somber. "I see," he said simply. He could guess at the implication in Milda's statement. There were many houses in Kakariko that lacked owners these days. "In any case, that solves the wardrobe problem," he switched back to the matter of the moment.

"Yes," she answered. She flashed him a smile and said, "I'll be relying on you from here on out."

Pipit grinned and nodded.

They waited out the next ten or so minutes in silence until Pipit deemed it dark enough to make their move. With a final nod, they abandoned their hiding spot and began picking their way down the rocky hillside.

Sneaking into the camp was easier than Pipit had anticipated. As usual, the careless Moblins had left huge gaps in their patrol and the bokoblins and bulblins had mostly gone to sleep and were snoozing soundly by their fire pits. They clearly did not expect to be attacked on the plains. Pipit didn't fault them for their lack of caution; not many were foolish enough to attempt what he and Milda had schemed. A pity, he thought privately, because if Hyrule could muster just a few brave souls to do what he and Milda were doing, they wouldn't have to wait for a hero. He was sure they could take their land back with their own hands.

It didn't take long to find what they were looking for. Indeed, the camp was littered with barrels full of explosives. They located a particularly generous store and Pipit swiftly and silently unsheathed the knife he used to cut herbs and slipped it under the lid of one of the barrels while Milda kept watch. He quickly pried the lid off and signaled his companion. She nodded and joined him by the barrel. "Alright," he said quietly, "You're up. Take the gunpowder from this barrel and make a path to the edge of camp. I'm going to go steal a pig. Be ready to ignite it at a moment's notice."

Milda nodded and immediately set to work at her task. Pipit gave her a thumbs-up and silently slipped away further into the camp where he could hear the low grunts of the bulblins' preferred mounts. Ganondorf's monsters weren't the smartest of creatures, but Pipit had to give them credit where credit was due—if there was one area where they did their job right, it was protecting their boars. There was no way he was going to steal one of these animals without raising the alarm. But that was fine. He was already prepared for such a situation.

Pipit slowly and quietly crept up behind the group of pigs and began sawing at the harness of the closest one with his knife. He imagined he only had a few more minutes before Milda would be ready. He continued to saw, keeping a wary eye on the bokoblins standing guard just a few feet ahead of him, until the last tether was severed and then he shot a quick glance back to where Milda would be waiting. He couldn't see her in the dark, but he was counting on her being there. He was just about to coax the pig into turning around when one of the other boars gave a sharp snort, causing the bokoblins to turn around. Pipit knew before they even had time to comprehend his presence that the time for waiting was over. Before the bokoblins could begin squawking in outrage, Pipit had already mounted the beast spurred it into motion with a sharp smack from the flat of his blade.

Horns blared as Pipit and his boar charged through the camp, mowing down sleeping monsters and dodging the sloppily aimed arrows that were already whizzing down at him from the watch towers. It was all he could do to hang on as the boar stampeded along its decided course. With more and more torches being lit, he was finally able to see Milda waiting about fifty meters behind him. He gritted his teeth and yanked hard on the boar's harness. The boar gave a loud squeal but complied with his signal to change directions. Now on a path to his goal, Pipit let go with one hand to wave at his companion. "Now!" he shouted over the din.

Milda nodded, and as he watched, she made a foreign gesture and the trail of gunpowder lit like a candle. Pipit's boar let out a pained squeal as a moblin's spear glanced off its flank. Pipit tightened his grip and rode straight for Milda. Adrenaline was pumping through his veins now. He hadn't experienced this kind of excitement in a terribly long time. It set his soul aflame. As he drew near, he let go of the harness to hold a hand out to her. There was a loud shriek of anger from behind him as Milda turned and began running away from the camp in the direction he was speeding. Pipit caught up to her and managed to slow his mount to run alongside her. In the torchlight, her golden hair shone and her normally calm blue eyes were filled with a wild excitement. Pipit felt a rush at seeing her look at him with those eyes. It had been far too long since he'd last seen her wear such an expression. "Zelda! Grab my hand!" he commanded over the howls that backed them. His companion didn't miss a beat. She stretched out her hand and just as his hand found hers, the camp exploded behind them. He yanked her roughly into the saddle with him and they sped off into the night as the monster army went up in a sea of flames.

Chapter Text

Pipit was feeling pretty good. His blood was still alive with adrenaline as the boar he'd stolen slowed to a trot just shy of a kilometer outside of Kakariko Village. He couldn't help the laugh that bubbled up from his chest as he tossed his head back to look in the direction they'd just come from. They'd done it. They'd annihilated Ganondorf's troops. He could still see the glow from the fire on the horizon and smell smoke in the air. Milda too looked pleased, if slightly out of breath.

"Perhaps that was more excitement than the doctor ordered, eh?" he joked, grinning at her.

"Were it the order of any other doctor, I'd certainly say so," she replied, loosening her grip on his waist now that they were no longer in flight. "But I happened to find the one who enjoys engaging the evil king's minions when he's not setting little boys' broken arms and changing the elderly's bedpans."

"Guilty as charged," Pipit agreed. He could just see the tips of Kakariko's windmill rising over the top of the hill. At long last, they were nearly home.

"About that," Milda prompted. "You're awfully familiar with the routines of Ganondorf's monsters for a mere town physician. And you're also a little too good with that bow of yours for one who claims to have learned to shoot from the mayor of a rural village. I wonder if I'll ever be treated to the full story of this humble medicine man."

Pipit looked back at her again and raised a brow. "While we're on the topic of things that don't make sense, wouldn't one normally call into question the quality of a man's character before placing their life in his hands?" One corner of his mouth quirked up in an amused half-grin.

Milda met his challenge with a wry look from beneath thick lashes. "And while we're answering questions with more questions, are you honestly in need of an explanation as to why a pampered noble girl from Castletown would lack discrimination with regards to who she ought or ought not to blindly award her trust?"

The doctor's grin widened. This Milda… she never failed to one up him. He would probably never be a match for her. Pipit wasn't bothered by that in the least. He was utterly comfortable in this dynamic of lighthearted teasing they'd fallen into. It felt natural and effortless. Funny, he thought, how close they'd become when they still knew so little about one another. Perhaps it was time to rectify that.

"Alright, alright," he conceded. "I suppose I can grant you a boon and tell you a little more about myself. Though it's probably nothing so exciting as what you might be imagining." He turned his face back to watch their path again. In a few minutes, they would come up on the river. He decided he'd rather not accidently lead their mount straight into it. "After I left my village, I traveled around for a while. There are many dangers on the road and you can bet I ran afoul Ganondorf's monsters more than a few times. That's why I more or less know my way around them. As for my skill with a bow…" He trailed off briefly as he thought back to the days before King Dragmire had led his army of horrors out of the desert. The world had looked so different to him back then. Recalling his motivations from that time caused his tongue to still and that old familiar shame to creep back. Shaking it off, he continued, "Well, I once harbored this silly fantasy…"

There was a lengthy pause which Milda broke. "Silly fantasy?" she coaxed.

He cleared his throat. "Well, I was always pretty good with a bow. And with a sword, too…for my village, anyway. I thought I could make something of myself out in the world, so I practiced every day. You see, I actually hadn't planned on becoming a doctor. Originally, I was going to travel to the castle and train to be a knight."

Milda seemed surprised by this. He felt it in the way she shifted behind him. "A knight?" she echoed.

Pipit nodded. "Yeah. Maybe it was just my inflated ego, being the best in my town, but I dreamed of becoming a celebrated knight and one day receiving the honor of protecting the princess."

Pipit felt pressure on his shoulders and he turned his head to the side to see Milda's face hovering just beside his. She was looking at him with open curiosity. "You wanted to become the princess' knight?" She sounded astonished. "What stopped you?"

Pipit chuckled lowly. "About that… I guess you could say destiny stopped me." He offered Milda a shrug and a wry smile. "When Ganondorf declared war on Hyrule…well, everything changed after that. I did try to go to the castle, but I never made it. With Ganondorf's monsters roaming largely unchecked all across the land, people's quality of life plummeted quickly and drastically—particularly those living in the rural provinces. On my journey, I encountered many injured and sick on the road and in the process of caring for one person, I would inevitably be approached by more people in need of help. There are so many sick these days and so few doctors to go around. I could never justify continuing my quest when there were so many people who needed my medicines. Eventually I just settled down and gave up on becoming a knight in favor of becoming a doctor. That's all there is to it, really."

Milda hummed and her fingers left his shoulders to find purchase on his back as she sank back down into the saddle. "I see," she said. "I can't possibly fault you for your decision. The path of a doctor is among the noblest. But it is a pity. You'd have made a fine knight. The princess would have been lucky to have you."

Pipit smiled down at his boar. He appreciated her kind words. "Hey," he said suddenly, remembering something, "Agitha told me that you met the princess. Is that true?" He turned his body to look back at her questioningly.

Milda seemed caught off guard by his sudden inquiry. "Yes, I…I did," she confirmed a little hesitantly. "I knew her."

"Truly?" Pipit said with some surprise. He felt a wash of heat rise in his cheeks. "Then I guess my confession about wanting to be her knight sounds pretty silly to you, huh? It's easy to say something like that when you only know a person by reputation, but to you who knew her personally, I probably come off sounding like a fool chasing a lofty ideal."

Milda shook her head. "No," she disagreed. "Not in the least." She was silent for a moment, then she asked, "If I may, I'm curious to know…why the princess, in particular? If it was glory you sought, you would have been far wiser to prove your mettle on the battlefield and aim for an officer position in the military. You certainly have the skill."

Pipit shrugged again. "Maybe," he conceded. "But it wasn't glory that interested me, it was the princess herself. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that Princess Zelda was well loved throughout the kingdom. To us, she was this immovable force of light and generosity, and even though she could never know us, we all respected and cherished her." He felt his cheeks warm again and he turned his face to look bashfully back toward the town. "For any of us, it would have been the greatest honor to serve her in any way we could, but I always had this feeling…like destiny was pulling me toward her. I know it sounds crazy."

Milda was silent again and Pipit had to stop himself from looking back at her once more. He could see the torches of the town's guardsmen now and he needed to scout out a spot to dump the pig before the guards caught sight of them and mistook them for Bulblins.

"Not so crazy," she spoke at last. "That is, having a feeling like destiny has drawn your path for you."

Pipit settled for a craggy spot just outside the guards' line of sight and he and Milda slid off the animal. Pipit gave its flank a fond pat for a job well done before delivering a swift slap to its rump that caused it to take off back the way they'd come. He figured the least he could do for the animal in return for carrying them back to town was make sure it didn't end up on someone's dinner table. "Well, it hardly matters now," he submitted as Milda pulled her dress over her head and began buttoning it up. "And anyway, there's no way someone my age would have been selected to guard the princess. It would have been years before I'd even be allowed to breathe the same air as her. Forget protecting her."

Now properly attired once more, Milda followed him as he began walking toward Kakariko's gate. It didn't take long for the men on guard to spot them once they were out in the open. "Who goes there!" one shouted, brandishing his torch.

Pipit raised his hand above his head in a non-threatening manner. "It's me! Pipit!" he called back. "Is that you, Bradshaw?"

The man's stance relaxed and he came forward to meet them halfway. "Pipit?" he echoed. "What in Hylia's name are you doing out at this hour?" He looked past Pipit to where Milda walked just a few steps behind. His eyebrows shot up. "And Miss Milda, even."

"We've just come back from a trip to the forest," Pipit explained, brandishing his pack demonstratively. "My stock of herbs was running low and Milda accompanied me to resupply."

The man gave a visible shudder. "You and that forest. Ain't any other person ballsy enough to go in there but you. I can't believe you convinced Miss Milda to go with you."

Pipit thought about telling him that it was all her idea from the beginning, but Bradshaw spoke again before he got the chance. "By the way, Gordo and I have been smelling smoke for a while now and we could have sworn we saw a glow on the horizon about twenty minutes ago. What in the world is going on out there? You just came from that direction, right?"

Pipit nodded, his expression becoming serious. "That's right. I'm afraid I bring troubling news. We ran across a monster camp on our way here. The whole camp was up in flames when we got there, but it looked like they were amassing a force in preparation to invade Kakariko. From the looks of it, they accidentally set fire to a store of blasting barrels."

Bradshaw took a step back in alarm. "A monster camp?" he repeated. "You say they looked to be readying for an invasion?"

Pipit nodded again. "Yes. I'd estimate roughly half a thousand. Mostly moblins and bokoblins. We got lucky this time, but I think this may be a sign that they're getting serious. We'll need to be prepared in case they try to organize another attack force in the future."

Bradshaw cursed and kicked the frozen ground. "Holy hell." Looking back up at Pipit, he said, "We're lucky the two of you were out there tonight. I'll go inform Renado at once."

"Thank you," Pipit laid a grateful hand on the man's shoulder. "Tell him I'll be by to see him in an hour. He'll want to hear the details, I'm sure."

Bradshaw nodded once seriously and then turned and jogged back to the gate where his watch partner was waiting. He exchanged a quick word with Gordo before scurrying off into the silent town to find the mayor.

Pipit and Milda followed at a more leisurely pace. Now that they were home, Pipit was beginning to feel weariness set in. He imagined Milda felt the same. He for one was looking forward to the modest comfort of his hut.

"You didn't tell him that we were the ones who ignited the camp," Milda spoke up as they walked through the darkened town.

Pipit just shrugged. "It doesn't really make a difference either way," he pointed out. "It's not like we're going to get medals for it. And this way we can avoid any extra hassle."

They made it to the house and Pipit unlocked the door with a sigh of relief. The hut was just as they'd left it. Wooden bowls sat neatly on their shelves waiting to be used and the charcoaly remains of a large log still sat in the fireplace. Pipit grabbed a fresh one from the stockpile as Milda removed her boots.

It was good to finally be home. A large part of Pipit was relieved to hear Milda bustling about behind him as he lit some kindling. When they'd left nearly a week before, he'd thought for sure that the woods would be where they parted ways. Milda would run off with her hero and he would return alone to pick up his old life. Though their quest had ended in failure, he was grateful that she would remain here with him for the time being.

Perhaps this too was destiny, he mused. He hadn't wanted to part ways. The longer he spent with Milda, the more strongly he felt that he wanted to stay by her side and help her. It was a feeling not dissimilar to his previous wish to become a knight. The goddesses worked in mysterious ways. Who could say it wasn't some invisible hand of fate that had led him to her on the woodsroad those weeks ago. He remembered thinking it was a miracle that she'd been found by him. Had her discoverer been anyone else, she surely would have perished.

He shook his head at himself as he at last pulled off his boots and hung up his traveling cloak. Fate. Destiny. He was far too fond of those words. He'd thought it was his destiny to protect Princess Zelda but he'd never even come close. Destiny, indeed. More like egotism. What reason would the goddesses have to craft a destiny especially for him? He was just a nobody from a rural village. No, the goddesses didn't give destinies to people like him.

Milda, though… He could believe that she was a part of something bigger. She had all the right qualifications—noble-born, intelligent, beautiful, courageous… Maybe it was not his destiny but hers that drew him to her that day. Perhaps it was the will of the goddesses that she live, and he had merely been the instrument of that will.

Though Pipit had told Bradshaw that he would visit Renado himself, he and Milda had barely finished unpacking their bags when the man himself showed up at his door with a short knock to announce his presence.

Milda was the one to answer and Renado was swift to greet her. He took her hand and as Pipit watched he bowed over it almost reverently. "My lady," he addressed her. "I am relieved to see that you are unharmed. I could not contain my unease in the time the two of you were away."

Renado turned to Pipit next. "Pipit, Bradshaw relayed to me what you told him. It appears we have much to discuss."

"Yes," the doctor agreed. He pulled out a seat from the table and gestured for Renado to sit down. Once the larger man was comfortably situated, he and Milda joined him.

"So," the shaman began. "King Dragmire has finally decided to turn his sights on Kakariko. We all knew it was only a matter of time."

Pipit folded his fingers together and rested his hands on the table. "Yes. With Castletown out of the way, Kakariko was always the logical next step in his takeover. I fear the attacks will only get worse from here on out."

Renado nodded gravely. "Then we must plan accordingly."

Milda drew both males' attention when her hands tightened into fists and she bit her bottom lip. She looked troubled.

"My lady?" Renado questioned her gently.

Milda started when she noticed their eyes on her and her hands relaxed. "I apologize. It's nothing. Do go on."

Renado nodded again and continued. "Our options are limited," he stated plainly. "Kakariko does not have the manpower to mount a counteroffensive should Dragmire's forces attempt a large-scale invasion. We are sitting cuccos with our large number of women and elderly and the number of strongholds remaining to us are few. It's a hard thing to admit, but we will need help if we are to continue to hold out."

Pipit pursed his lips as he chewed on Renado's frank report of their situation. Of course, he agreed that Kakariko was undermanned and stood little chance against an organized attack, but finding help was much easier said than done. Apart from Castletown which had already fallen, Kakariko was the most populated town in Hyrule. All other Hylian settlements were small and scattered. A mere dotting of villages like the one he himself had grown up in. He highly doubted any of those villages would have soldiers to spare.

"You mean to seek aid from the Gorons," Milda spoke up, surprising Pipit with her unexpected contribution. The look she leveled at Renado across the table confused Pipit in its familiarity. The golden haired young woman sighed. "But for that, the hero is crucial. The Gorons will not put themselves at risk to help us unless we can prove to them that we have both the support of the people and the power necessary to fight back against Ganondorf. As they are now, Hyrule's people are scattered and living in constant fear of the next attack. They need someone strong to rally them and give them hope and that person must be the hero."

Renado shook his head with a deep frown. He didn't appear surprised by her declaration. Had he known that Milda was on a quest to find Hyrule's hero? Pipit was getting the strong impression that Milda and Renado had talked about this before.

"I understand what you are saying. But, my lady, the hero's whereabouts remain unknown. I fear if we wait to find him then we will squander what little time we have." He leveled his own pointed look at her, his large eyebrows furrowing seriously. "There is still one other for whom the races would unite…"

Milda stopped him with a raised hand. "No," she disclaimed. "The only reason that Ganondorf is taking his time right now is because he believes that the hero is the only obstacle left to achieving his goal. He thinks he's already won. Were he to find out otherwise, he would go to any lengths to neutralize all remaining threats. Hyrule has already lost enough good men."

Renado exhaled and lifted a large brown hand to rub his temples. "Then what do you propose we do, my lady?"

Pipit looked back and forth between the two with a small frown. It was becoming clear to him that Milda and Renado were not strangers as he'd been led to believe. The way Renado deferred to her spoke of faith in her opinions. So then why, he wondered, had Renado made no indication of knowing her when he'd brought him in to have a look at her?

And what did Renado mean about there still being one other for whom the races would unite? Pipit didn't pretend to know much about Hyrulian politics, but from the way Milda had been acting since she awoke and the lengths she was willing to go to find the hero, it seemed unlikely to him that any other routes to salvation still existed. Losing the princess had dealt a devastating blow to Hyrule's morale as well as their relations with the other races. Until Milda had come along with all her talk of finding the hero of legend, Pipit, like everyone else, had resigned himself to the understanding that without the princess, they were out of their only hope, but could it be that there was, in fact, still someone besides the hero who could stand against Ganondorf? If such a person existed, then why was Milda against enlisting their help? Why would it matter to Ganondorf whether the person who stood against him was the hero or someone else?

"It will take some time for another army to be mobilized," Milda continued, her gaze still focused on the shaman and therefore blind to Pipit's confusion. "So long as Ganondorf has not found Link yet, there's still a chance for us to get to him first. Ganondorf is in no hurry. It's possible that Link may be found among the Gorons or Zoras."

Renado closed his eyes and sighed. "Milda… I know you believe that it is your duty to find him. But consider this." He leaned forward over the table, his large hands spread on its surface. "Has Link not always shown up precisely when he's meant to? Without fail? As you say, Kakariko will be safe for some time yet. I feel it would be prudent to take some time to think through your next step."

Milda's brow furrowed and she looked down at the wood of the table. Pipit could see the battle in her eyes. He wondered how she would respond to being, for a lack of better word, snubbed by Renado. She said nothing for several moments before finally, in a low, melancholy voice, she said, "When he's meant to and when he's needed do not always align." She closed her eyes and set her hands on the table, mirroring Renado. "But," she conceded, "I will do as you say. It would be…unwise…to rush off again without a solid plan."

There was another episode of silence following this statement and Pipit once again looked between his guests wordlessly. Milda still appeared troubled and Renado wore a sober expression. Finally, the large shaman exhaled and stood up. "I must be getting back to Luda and Agitha," he said, sounding suddenly very weary. He turned to Milda and bowed his head. "I am sorry that your search bore no fruit. I don't know how much good it will do, but I will send messengers to Death Mountain and Zora's Domain to inquire about the hero. Let us wait for their return and plan from there."

Milda nodded. She looked a mixture of defeated and resigned. With a final bow, Renado took his leave.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten: The Man Named Pipit

Despite being exhausted from the combination of their long journey and staying awake well into the night, Pipit's sleep when he finally retired to bed was fitful and restless. It had been nearly two weeks since he'd last been troubled by nightmares and he'd begun to think that maybe he'd moved past them, but something—perhaps it was the familiar scenery of his room after so many nights away or the stress of Kakariko's situation—had kicked his brain back into its old pattern.

His nightmares often were largely nonsensical; containing strange lands he'd never visited and the faces of people he couldn't recall. Tonight, they took him to a scene he'd witnessed before: a courtyard enclosed by walls of gleaming white stone decorated with the blue and gold banners of Hyrule's royal family. Pipit felt a familiar sense of dread as he opened his eyes to the deceptively beautiful scenery.

The courtyard appeared just as it did the previous times his subconscious had conjured it. A cheerful yellow sun shone from directly above, filling the serene space with light and enhancing the vibrancy of the grass and spring flora that carpeted the ground. Monarch butterflies fluttered lazily around neatly maintained tulip patches and the air smelled sweet with floral perfume. Pipit swallowed as his eyes slowly travelled over the scene to the short set of steps that lay off to his left. He knew before they reached their destination what he would find there.

His gaze landed on the figure of a woman. Her back was to him and she appeared to be studying a scene he couldn't see through a window set into the palace's wall. Her hair fell like a golden curtain over her back. It was so long that the ends nearly reached her ankles. She wore a simple gown of the purest white that covered all but her slender fingers which hung motionlessly at her sides. Long, pale ears extended from her yellow tresses and curved delicately upward like the wings of a swan. Pipit felt an ache in his heart as his eyes roamed her still form, and all at once he was overcome by an urgent need to flee before she could notice him standing behind her, but his feet failed to obey the commands of his brain.

Slowly, the woman turned around. Pipit tried again to move but his traitorous feet remained fastened to the ground as though his boots had grown roots. Apparently, he had no choice but to meet the phantom who haunted his dreams. The eyes that found his were the color of Lake Hylia on a sunny spring day. For a moment, all thoughts of flight left him. She would not allow him to look away. Her realm was one of perfect control and he was thusly tethered by her will.

She allowed him to blink, and when he opened his eyes, the face that greeted him was not a woman's, but a girl's. Where once an adult had stood, now a child gazed at him with eyes that were at once innocent and ancient. She said nothing still, but the sorrow he saw in those eyes was greater than could be expressed by any tongue.

Pipit shook his head, willing her not to look at him so. He couldn't handle the accusation thinly veiled under her look of sadness. He tried again to make his legs move but it was like he was being held in place by a hundred invisible hands. He tore his gaze away to look down and his eyes opened wide when he saw several pairs of red arms wrapped around his calves and thighs. The twisted, crooked-toothed faces of Ganondorf's foot soldiers snarled up at him and the arms tightened painfully. Pipit cried out in surprise and tried to push them off but more appeared to restrain his arms. Their knobby, crimson fingers dug into his skin with yellowed nails and soon their weight overwhelmed him, dragging him to his knees.

Pipit fought to raise his head and beseech the girl to help him, but when his eyes found her she was not looking at him. The scenery had changed, and instead of a courtyard they now were surrounded by the fine furnishings of a richly decorated bedroom. The girl was not a child anymore but a lovely young woman clad in a pink dress. A pair of Triforce shaped earrings dangled from her ears. Her gaze was trained out a large window to where gray clouds swirled angrily and a heavy deluge of rain poured from the heavens. He tried to call to her but she was deaf to his pleas. It was as though she was no longer aware of his existence.

Behind them, Pipit heard the sound of a door opening. A stern looking woman with stark white hair walked into his line of vision but she too appeared blind to Pipit and the hoard of bokoblins pinning him to the carpet. He continued to struggle, hoping that if he made a big enough commotion one of them would see him. The stern woman joined the finely dressed woman by the window. "The people are still waiting for him to come back and save them," she spoke. Her voice was rough but not unkind.

The golden-haired woman did not shift her attention from the storm. "He will not come," she spoke at last. Her voice was soft like velvet. "My mistake has doomed us all."

Pipit was having trouble breathing now. The bokoblins were still coming. The bodies piling on top of him were becoming a crushing weight. He thought his lungs would collapse from the pressure but then the floor opened up and he was falling, falling, falling into inky darkness. The weight of the evil king's monsters disappeared. He flailed a hand out to try and find purchase and instead found solid ground beneath him. He blinked his eyes open to find that he was now in a narrow stone passageway dimly illuminated by torches. There was a sword in his hand. The bloodied body of a man sat hunched against one wall.

Pipit recoiled in horror, shuffling back on his knees. The kind eyes of his uncle stared up at him from the man's wide, mustached face. The last time Pipit had seen his uncle was when he was very small, but he still remembered the man's cherry red nose and smiling gray eyes. Now his uncle's face was ashen and blood pooled around him, shiny and black in the dim light. "Listen to me," he wheezed. His breathing contained a wet rattling sound that made Pipit feel ill. "You must save the princess." His beefy hand clutched at the horrible hole in his torso. The blood was still pouring out of him, unstaunched by the appendage desperately trying to keep his life from leaking away. "Zelda is…your…"

He never got to finish. His grasping fingers stilled and the spark of life left his eyes.

Pipit felt bile rise in his throat. The hand holding his sword shook and the weapon nearly slipped from his grasp. He swallowed down the need to be sick. "The princess is dead, Uncle," he told the man's corpse. The words were like venom on his lips. Tears filled his vision and he clutched the sword's hilt to his chest with both hands.

Even though the man was dead, his blood kept flowing and flowing. It bubbled out of him like a fountain of gore and spread out across the stone floor, seeping into Pipit's pants. It was everywhere. The passageway and his uncle's body disappeared but the blood continued to spread, coating the world in claret. Pipit dropped his sword and fell onto his hands. They splashed into the sanguine fluid with a horrible wet plop. His nose was assaulted by the salty pungency of it and he nearly gagged.

Then, before his eyes, the color changed from deep crimson to cerulean as above him the blue, blue sky opened up and was reflected by the sea of blood. He could see puffy white clouds drift across its surface.

More splashing reached Pipit's ears and ripples obscured the sky's reflection as heavy footfalls encroached slowly and deliberately on the space where he knelt. He looked up to see two enormous black feet bare of any coverings approach him accompanied by a trailing robe of pitch trimmed with gold. His eyes followed the path of the legs up to a broad, heavily muscled torso and finally to a brutish face framed by a mane of dancing orange fire.

"My hate…never perishes," the creature spoke in a voice that could just as well have been the sound of a volcano erupting. He lifted one enormous tree trunk arm and Pipit's gaze was drawn to the massive, serrated blade he carried. He could tell just by looking at it that the weapon was heavier than him. The monster of a man flipped the sword in his hand so that the edge pointed down and raised the it above his head. He took a moment to stare down at Pipit with two cruel eyes that burned like coals in his slate colored face, then he snarled, baring black, pointed teeth, and in the following few moments Pipit knew only pain as the blade was thrust so deep into his chest that it skewered him straight through to his back. He stared up at the demon with wide eyes and a gurgle rose in his throat as his body tried to take in air despite the steel lodged in his chest. The demon's coal eyes glared back down at him. There was no pleasure in those eyes; no gloating at his victory. Just hatred. The demon bared his teeth again and then the sword was yanked free, the serrated edges tearing at Pipit's insides. More wet splashes reached his ears as his entrails tumbled out of him to join the ocean of blood.

Pipit gasped as his eyes flew open and the ocean and the demon disappeared to be replaced by the uninspired wooden walls of his bedroom. His heart pounded in his chest as his brain attempted to catch up to the reality that his body was still in one piece. He took a deep breath and then another and then promptly leaned over the side of his bed and was sick.

The good doctor shuddered and wiped a hand over his face. His skin was clammy to the touch. He took a few moments to just breathe. When his heartrate began to slow, he lifted a hand to his torso and felt the place where the demon's blade had skewered him. Of course, he found nothing but unmarked skin. No blood. No hole.

He groaned and hauled himself out of bed to find a rag.

Cleaning up was mindless. He scrubbed the wooden floorboards with practiced ease. The repetitive motions helped him ground his mind in reality and took the edge off the lingering visions of wicked swords and the sky reflected in a pool of crimson, though he couldn't stop a shudder when he recalled the demon's black blade sliding into him.

He'd thought these dreams were over. He thought his guilt had faded. It seemed, however, that his mind was not finished punishing him.

He cast the soiled rag into an empty bucket and sighed as he sank back onto his mattress. He threaded his fingers together and placed his elbows on his knees. With another deep exhale, he let his forehead fall onto his knuckles. He dearly hoped these nightmares wouldn't become a nightly occurrence. He really didn't want a repeat of the week following the catastrophe of a battle with Ganondorf.

A glance out his window showed that the sky was beginning to lighten. The sun hadn't yet broken the horizon, but Pipit decided it was close enough to dawn that going back to sleep would serve little purpose. He heaved himself up with a quiet grunt and headed for his closet to pull out clothes for the day.

When he stepped into the main room some minutes later he was surprised to find Milda already awake and sitting on the couch. She was staring into the fire with a faraway look and was so absorbed in her thoughts that she didn't notice him enter. Pipit stood and watched her for a few moments before continuing on to the kitchen to pour himself a cup of water. His fumbling finally caught his housemate's attention and Milda turned around to look at him over the back of the couch. "Oh, good morning, Pipit," she greeted.

Pipit managed to smile at her over his cup and cast a pointed look out the living room window to where the sun still had yet to rise over the hills.

Milda's own mouth quirked upward. "Not morning yet," she amended. "I didn't wake you, did I?"

He shook his head and set his cup aside. "No. My body took care of that on its own," he answered. "But I'm surprised to see you up so early. Trouble sleeping?"

Milda dipped her head in a shallow nod.

Pipit might have chuckled were he not still shaken from his own episode of poor slumber. So, he wasn't the only one who passed the night in restlessness.

"I am ill at ease in this situation," she confessed. She rearranged herself to face the fire once more as Pipit left the kitchen to take a seat beside her. "I am not satisfied to simply wait while Hyrule continues to suffer."

Pipit followed her gaze to the hearth where golden flames crackled as they slowly consumed a fresh log. He cast his mind back to the previous evening's discussion with Renado. Honestly, he didn't know who to agree with; her or the wise shaman. It was clear to him that Hyrule stood little chance of holding out if its peoples remained divided. They needed someone to rally behind. Both Milda and Renado seemed to agree that the best person for the job was the hero, but was it wiser to risk their safety in the hopes of finding the hero sooner or play it safe and run the opposite risk of Ganondorf finding him first? Like Milda, Pipit hated inaction. If there was something he could do, he'd much prefer to do it. But in this case, he wasn't so sure that was the correct choice. Ganondorf had always taken the threat of the hero very seriously. If he were to find out that someone was searching for him in order to oppose him, Pipit didn't want to imagine what he would do to that person.

The more thought he gave the issue, the more Pipit began to wonder if there wasn't a reason that the hero had yet to step forward. Perhaps he was purposefully hiding himself while he drew up some grand plan. If that was the case, they could be jeopardizing him by continuing to look for him. He wondered if Milda had considered such a possibility.

But even if that wasn't the case, there was one thing Renado had said that rang true and Pipit thought it deserved a second mention. He lifted his hand from the couch cushion and laid it on Milda's shoulder and the young woman looked back at him curiously. He offered her a reassuring half-smile. "Renado's right," he spoke. "If the appearance of the hero is ordained by the gods, then he will come whether or not we search for him. Perhaps rather than worry about him, we should focus instead on finding ways to help Hyrule in our own right. You never know…maybe he's waiting for us to help ourselves first before he decides to swoop in and save the day."

Milda's mouth curved upward again briefly but the echo of a smile soon fell away. "Perhaps you are right," she conceded. "It is true that he has always appeared to vanquish evil when it seeks to destroy our beautiful land. It is his role. But…" She bit her bottom lip, leaving the statement unfinished. Pipit raised an inquisitive eyebrow at which she sighed and reluctantly continued. "It's probably terrible of me, but I've begun to...to doubt."

Pipit frowned. His eyebrows dropped low over his eyes and he regarded his friend with confusion. "You think he might not show up?" After all the effort Milda had put into finding him and her professed faith in him, it seemed odd to Pipit that she now doubted he would come. He was Hyrule's hero, wasn't he? Saving Hyrule was supposed to be the reason for his existence.

Milda pursed her lips and drew her legs up onto the couch. Once they were comfortably settled, she explained. "History has not always..." She trailed off with a shake of her head. "No, very rarely has history been kind to him. Perhaps he has finally, simply...had enough."

"Had enough?" Pipit repeated, cocking his head inquiringly. "Did he say something like that to you?"

Milda slowly shook her head. "No, he didn't. Just..." She bit her lip again and looked up at him with an earnest expression. She seemed as though she were deliberating in her head about something. Finally, she released her lip and spoke again, but instead of continuing her previous thought, she said, "Pipit, you've been so kind and helpful to me these past weeks and now that it's come to this, I feel I owe you a proper explanation."

Pipit's eyebrows rose. "A proper explanation? About what?"

Her shoulders hunched just for a moment and then she relaxed and folded her hands demurely in her lap. "I haven't been entirely honest with you," she admitted. She looked up into his eyes seriously. "But if you are honest about wishing to aid me in saving Hyrule, then it's time I started. Will you listen to my story?"

Pipit could only nod dumbly. He was caught off guard by her sudden shift in attitude, but he would listen. He'd promised to help her and that was a promise he would stand by.

Milda smiled gratefully. "Then listen well. And please…do not repeat anything I am about to tell you. Firstly, how much do you know about the legend of the hero?"

Pipit frowned slightly as he thought back to the many times he'd heard the hero's story over the years. "Well, I suppose I know about as much as anyone," he started. "That he's a youth who always appears when Hyrule is in trouble. Some versions of the legend say he appears as a child and others that he's a young man from a distant province. Supposedly he is blessed with some fantastic power gifted to him by the goddesses. That's about the extent of my knowledge."

Milda nodded slowly. "Yes. As a matter of fact, both accounts are correct. The hero has appeared in many forms. Sometimes he is a child and sometimes he is a young man. Once, he even took the form of a beast. He is, just as you say, a soul blessed by the goddesses, and it is because of that blessing that he is able to appear time and again when Hyrule has need of him. However," she paused to take a breath, "he is not merely a phantom who comes and goes at the whim of the gods. He is a man who just like you and me struggles and suffers and does his best to live in a world that is often unkind. He is born, lives, and dies the same as anyone else. Over and over…" She closed her eyes and her mouth tightened into a grimace. "…and over and over."

Pipit furrowed his eyebrows as he digested her account. Over and over? So, the hero didn't just go into hibernation between catastrophes, he was actually reborn every time? If that was true, it would explain how he was able to appear in multiple ages. Admittedly, it was a little difficult to believe, but then, the goddesses did work in mysterious ways.

Milda laced her fingers together and looked down at them. She looked suddenly very weary. "A man blessed with a soul that never perishes," she continued without needing to be prompted. "Try to imagine it, Pipit. Imagine living and battling and dying over and over again; your only reward the few, brief moments of happiness you are able to steal for yourself along the way. Could you do it?"

Pipit tried to do as she asked. The task was unexpectedly difficult. It was as if his mind had a strong aversion to entertaining the idea. "…I don't know," he said at last. "I think that sounds dreadful."

Milda nodded. "Enough to break a person's spirit," she agreed.

Pipit's frown deepened. "So, you're saying that the hero has lived like this for centuries? How does be bear it?"

Milda bowed her head over her legs. The firelight reflected off her hair like a crown. "He bears it because he doesn't know of his own ensnarement," she answered. "Each time he is reborn, his mind is wiped clean. It is because he doesn't remember that he is able to find the courage to fight again and again."

Pipit's frown fell away and he blinked. Then he blinked again. He almost opened his mouth and said, "What?" but he managed to stop himself. He had heard her right…right? The hero who appeared time and again throughout Hyrule's history wasn't really the same person but rather different incarnations of the same person…okay. That made a certain amount of sense, he supposed, but it challenged every preconception Pipit had held about the guy. A sudden sense of foreboding rose within him along with a question that he suddenly wasn't so sure he wanted to hear the answer to. He chose to ask it anyway. "Wait a minute. If he can't remember anything…then how does he know that he's the hero?"

Milda looked back up at him and her lips twitched momentarily into a grim smile. "He doesn't."

Oh. A feeling like being slowly lowered into ice water swept over the good doctor. Suddenly, pieces of a possibility were beginning to click together in his mind; one that was as unsettling as it was outrageous. He closed his eyes and took a breath, shoving the feeling away. No, even the thought of entertaining such a notion was absurd. There was simply no way.

"When he is born, he is just a man," Milda continued her explanation. "It is destiny that guides him to fulfill the role assigned to him. Often, it is I who plays the role of destiny. Many times, I have been the one to set the wheels of his fate into motion. But the hour is late and I have run out of places to search for him. I wonder now if he is hiding from me. Perhaps he has finally become aware."

Pipit brought a hand up to grab at a tuft of his hair. "You?" He blinked dumbly. He was beginning to feel overwhelmed. "What are you? Some kind of oracle?"

Milda smiled slightly at that. She shook her head again. "No. But I suppose the function I serve is not dissimilar. Like the hero, I too am the possessor of a soul blessed by the goddesses."

The area behind Pipit's eyes was beginning to hurt. He was struggling to comprehend the things Milda was explaining to him, almost as if his brain was actively working against him. "Then…you have also lived multiple lives?" he questioned. At her nod, he added, "So, when you said before that you'd met the hero, you didn't mean in this life, but a previous one?"

Milda nodded again. "Yes."

Pipit exhaled. "Then, that's why you said he wouldn't recognize you," he surmised. "Because his mind was…reset…when he was born anew."

"That's right," she confirmed. "I'm sorry. I know what I'm saying is difficult to accept. I will understand if you choose not to believe me."

It was Pipit's turn to shake his head. "No," he denied quickly. "It would be foolish of me to begin doubting you now. You have demonstrated many times that you possess a vast amount of knowledge—more than any normal person, certainly. And the fact that Renado holds your opinion in esteem is proof enough that your word can be trusted. He would not seek the counsel of a mad woman."

Milda bowed her head. "Thank you."

Pipit forced a chuckle and rubbed the spot between his eyes. Instead of responding to her expression of gratitude, he instead said, "So, all this time you've been searching for the hero based on memories you have of him from other lifetimes. You don't know anything about the kind of life he is leading this time around."

"That's correct."

"And the hero, wherever he is, possibly has no idea that he is the one destined to save the kingdom."

"Yes."

Pipit took a deep breath. He felt lightheaded. This changed things. Oh, did this change things. Never once had he considered that the hero Milda believed would save Hyrule might not know of his own destiny. Now he understood why Milda had been struggling so to hang on to hope.

A whole kingdom to search for a single man. The hero could be anywhere. He could be anyone. It was a nearly insurmountable obstacle. The only clues they had were a sword, an instrument, and a name.

Link.

Pipit's mouth formed a thin line. It wasn't a common name—Link. Despite being the name of Hyrule's celebrated hero, it was one not often gifted to babes. The hero's name was treated with a kind of reverence by the people of Hyrule. How vainglorious, other parents would whisper, for any person to believe their own child deserving of such a grand and auspicious name.

How funny, then, that it turned out to be exactly the opposite. The name of the hero was not a blessing at all but a curse. How many boys had been hunted down and killed simply for being named for the legend? Pipit didn't know the exact number, but he'd heard plenty of stories. Ganondorf had been very thorough in making certain that every person in Hyrule knew well what was at stake should they be found sheltering anyone with that name. He had even gone so far as to put a generous price on it and many lawless bounty hunters had become very rich chasing down young men and delivering them to the evil king's underlings. Pipit had always thought the whole endeavor daft—not just because he felt the king was chasing a fairy tale, but also because if the hero of legend somehow did exist, there was no way he would let himself be caught so easily. How would rounding up a bunch of farmhands and milk boys help Ganondorf find Hyrule's savior? It was preposterous to think that the hero would be found toiling in the muck like a common peasant.

But now it all made sense. If the hero didn't know of his own destiny then there truly was no telling where he could be or who he could be found among. He was a hero who could be living any kind of life.

It changed everything.

Almost of its own volition, Pipit's hand slipped into the pocket of his trousers and wrapped around the smooth belly of the hero's ocarina. He pulled it free and took a moment to study it. He allowed his thumb to brush across the smooth varnish. There had to be a reason the forest had led them to this instrument and the sword he now carried. Somehow, they had to hold the key to finding Milda's hero. A spark of hope ignited in him as he squeezed the cold lump of blue clay.

"This ocarina," he spoke, drawing Milda's attention to the instrument in his hands. "You said it was his. Skull Kid told you that he would help us find the hero and he led us to a temple that just happened to house items that once belonged to him. By logical extension, these items must be meant to help us identify him. Do you think the hero would recognize this if he were to see it again?"

Milda looked thoughtful. She lifted a hand to her chin. "I don't know," she replied. "It's possible. The soul never truly forgets." She dropped her hand back into her lap. At his curious look, she explained. "Everyone has moments when they feel attachments to things that they can't explain. Fleeting feelings of familiarity to a particular place or object that you've never seen before. Have you perhaps ever considered that once there was another Pipit? Sometime long before you…living a different life?"

Pipit's eyebrows rose. He hadn't. Not really. From an academic standpoint, the concept of reincarnation was not an unfamiliar one, but he had never personally given much stock to the idea of past lives. Not until today.

"The number of souls that can exist in any given universe is finite," Milda explained. "Occasionally, history sees similar people crop up to individuals who have lived before. Often, it is the will of the gods when this happens. On very rare occasions, these individuals can be made to remember things about their past lives. It's normally not a complete recollection and the amount recalled varies by person, but it happens."

Pipit considered this. "So, you're saying that, for example, if I were to get a feeling of déja vu when I eat bacon one morning…it could be because I'm remembering eating bacon in a past life?"

For the first time since before Renado visited them the night before, Milda laughed. The sound caused some of the tension drain out of Pipit. "Well…yes. Though the items that trigger such feelings are generally objects or places that held a great amount of personal importance to our past selves. I suppose though that if eating bacon was for some reason profoundly meaningful to you or connected to a precious memory of the you of the past then it could be enough to cause a feeling of familiarity in this life."

Pipit set the ocarina in his lap and crossed his arms over his chest. If what Milda was saying was true, then there was indeed a possibility that the items they'd found could help them identify the hero in this life. A wave of relief swept over him at the thought. It was clear by their careful placement in the temple's innermost chamber that the sword and ocarina they'd found had been left there purposefully. That proved they were items that the hero deemed important. Surely seeing them again would spark some recollection in him.

Surely.

"Out of curiosity," he spoke again, lifting a foot onto the couch so that he could lean his head on his knee, "did you happen to know any other Pipits?"

Now that the idea had been put in his head Pipit found himself quite curious to know more about reincarnation. He wondered how similar, if at all, various incarnations of a soul were to each other. If, say, a man who loved mushrooms were to be reborn, would he continue to possess the same love of mushrooms in his next life? Were there certain aspects of a person that were immutable? Could a good man become an evil one and vice versa? There were so many questions he could ask.

"As a matter of fact," Milda answered, "I did know a man named Pipit. Though that was many lifetimes ago."

Pipit straightened in surprise. He hadn't been expecting her to say yes. "Wait, seriously?"

She nodded. She turned back to the fire and her face adopted the same faraway expression she'd been wearing when he'd entered. "He was very much like you," she spoke. "He was a good, honest man. A knight, in fact. He possessed a very strong sense of justice and he took his job very seriously. If ever you needed help, or even just a bit of friendly advice, he was always quick to offer his services."

Pipit raised an eyebrow, impressed by the extent to which she could recall the character of a person she hadn't seen in lifetimes. "Do you remember every person you've met or did that Pipit just happen to lead a particularly spectacular life?" he questioned, leaning back onto his knee.

Milda pulled her gaze away from the fire and smiled. The corners of her eyes crinkled in amusement. "The memories of that life are among my most precious. I keep them near to my heart. When you live over and over again, it's important to keep hold of the good memories lest the bad ones pile up and become a crushing weight. It also helps to remember as many people as I can just in case one of them should pop up again somewhere down the line of history."

Pipit thought back to his own first meeting with Milda and his eyebrows shot up in realization. When he'd introduced himself to her, he'd been confused by her reaction. She'd said, 'I see. You're Pipit.' Now he understood. She'd been placing him as a person from her memories. She heard his name and assumed he was the Pipit she'd known before.

Pipit felt a small tendril of guilt unfurl within him. That meant that this whole time she had carried that assumption with her; all the while probably looking for traits and traces of her old friend in him. Had that affected the way she treated him, he wondered? He hoped not. If her behavior around him was due to her thinking he was someone she knew, then he didn't know how he was ever going to tell her that she was mistaken. As similar as they sounded, he knew already that he wasn't the same Pipit from her memories. There was no way he could be, because he knew the man she'd just finished describing. The two of them had grown up together. It was his name that Pipit had adopted when he'd left his village just over half a year ago.

To him, Pipit was just a name, but to her, it was an identity that belonged to someone she'd once known and trusted. He suddenly felt like he'd been lying to her. It had never been his intention to deceive her or anyone else, but there wasn't any good way to correct her without revealing why he was certain that he wasn't the person she thought he was.

"You know," Milda spoke again, pulling him from his thoughts. "While we're on the topic of people who have been blessed to live multiple lives, that is actually another reason why I have begun to grow concerned about the whereabouts of the hero." At his curious look, she continued. "You see, when a soul is brought back into this world, it is their natural inclination to live in a way that is familiar and comfortable. This means that they will unconsciously seek out places and people that they knew in their previous lives. The same is true for the hero. He often encounters people he's met before, and though usually the number of those people is very small, this time I have already encountered an inordinate number of people who I know have lived and even formed close relationships with him before. By all logic, one of these people should have seen him by now. The fact that nobody has reported meeting him can mean only two things, really. He's either indisposed elsewhere, perhaps with the Gorons or Zoras, or he is trying not to be found."

Pipit felt his rate accelerate. The feeling of sinking was back. Though he tried to tell himself it was impossible, the pieces of the possibility he'd tried before to deny were rapidly assembling into a picture that even his uncooperative mind couldn't pretend not to see. His hand found the ocarina in his lap and he gripped it tightly. It was the only thing keeping the pieces from clicking nicely into place. It was with a heavy sense of trepidation that he asked, "By any chance…am I one of the people who knew him before?"

Milda lifted her chin to look at him more directly. She seemed caught off guard by his question. After a brief moment of looking at him in surprise, she nodded. "Yes. Pipit and Link were quite good friends. Pipit—or should I say you—were his upperclassman in a knight academy run by my father. You and he became close after…well, after he fulfilled his role as hero. But you were always friendly, even as children."

Pipit's mouth felt suddenly very dry. He'd been hoping very much that she would answer negatively.

She'd essentially said just before that people who were reincarnated often possessed similar relationships to those of their past selves. If the Pipit of the past had been friends with the Link of his time from childhood, then it wouldn't be strange if the same was true of the Pipit of this time, which meant…

Milda must have misread his thin-lipped frown as surprise because she smiled and said, "It's shocking, isn't it? You never dreamed that you yourself were once friends with the legendary hero."

Pipit's grip on the ocarina tightened until his knuckles turned white. Shocking? If his heart weren't pounding so hard, he might laugh. Shocking was certainly an adjective he might use if what she believed were indeed the case, but the reality of the situation was many levels beyond anything that 'shocking' could adequately describe. Though he still didn't want to believe it, it was looking far more likely that she had his relationship with the hero very much backwards.

He slowly lowered his foot back onto the ground and stood. He needed to go. He needed to think. Plastering a benign smile onto his face, he turned back to Milda. "I should start preparing to attend to my patients. Thank you for explaining the situation to me." He made a conscious effort to still the hand that held the hero's ocarina. It was shaking from the pressure of his hold on it. "We can talk more later when I get back."

The good doctor waited respectfully for Milda's nod before mechanically walking out of the room and back down the hall to his bedroom. He carefully opened the door and slipped inside before gently shutting it behind him. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself and then fell back against the door and put his head in his hands. He covered his face with his fingers and continued to breathe as his knees gave out and he slid down the aged wood to sit on the floor.

No guarantee, he told himself as he moved a hand to push his fringe back. What were the chances, truly? Hyrule was a big kingdom. There were lots of places for the hero to hide.

There had to be some way to know for sure whether or not a person was the hero. If Milda had met him in every life, then she must know of a way to identify him. The goddesses wouldn't leave their chosen savior to flounder with no memories and no guidance.

Right?

Surely not.

Pipit exhaled and picked himself up. He would think more on this later. As he'd told Milda, he had a responsibility to his patients. Whatever else he was, he was a doctor first. Taking another deep breath to clear his head, he pushed away from the door and began packing medicines into his bag.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven: Denial

Pipit rubbed his hands over his arms to warm them as he walked briskly toward the edge of town. He'd received word while visiting his final patient that there had been an accident over at the ranch and now he was on his way to go check on the situation. According to the ranch hand who had been sent to find him, Talon, the ranch's proud but lackadaisical owner, had taken a tumble while napping in the barn and had scraped himself on some farm equipment. Pipit could only smile and shake his head as the ranch hand, a flaxen haired young man prone to worrying, burst in all in a panic and relayed the accident to him. It was certainly not the first time Talon's propensity for snoozing had gotten him into a scrape. The young doctor predicted that rather than wounds from farm equipment, he'd end up devoting most of his examination to the bump on his noggin the old owner had surely received when his daughter found out that he'd been sleeping on the job again.

As he passed through the square he wasn't at all surprised when he heard the voice of the crier from his usual spot by the statue. He was surprised, however, when he saw the large group of people gathered around to listen. Many were looking at the man with expressions full of hope. Others were muttering skeptically.

"Believe in the goddesses!" the man beseeched the crowd. "The hero will come! We will not be forsaken!"

Pipit tucked his chin into the folds of his cloak and hurried past, not stopping to listen. He wondered if any of those people knew how close they'd come to being wiped off the map mere hours ago. He suddenly found himself regretting not telling Bradshaw the truth. If the people knew they'd been saved not by any hero but by one of their own, perhaps fewer people would be listening to this man talk about waiting for a hero and more would be working to prepare themselves for the next attack.

Was it really only the hero who could deliver Hyrule from evil's grasp? Was nobody else going to even try?

Pipit gritted his teeth. Absently, he scratched an itch on the back of his left hand. Hero this. Hero that. Gorons, Zoras, Hylians…the whole kingdom was holding its breath waiting for some god-touched savior to rally them. Where was the initiative? The hero could be anyone—Pipit knew that now—but in that same vein, he'd always believed that anyone could be a hero. A person didn't need to be blessed by the gods to go out and make a difference. In Pipit's opinion, the only thing anybody needed to be a hero was a little bit of courage.

Despite himself, Pipit cast a glance back at the square over his shoulder. The faces of the people gathered were all turned on the crier. Their hopeful expressions caused his stomach to turn. They looked like a crowd of swine, dumb and trusting, waiting for their master to come and feed them. Conditioned, he thought acerbically, surprising himself with his vitriol. He quickly shook his head to banish those thoughts. These were people he lived among; people he watched struggle every day just to get by. He had no right to fault them for choosing not to put their lives and livelihoods at risk. He was ashamed by his own dark thoughts.

Quickly, he hurried on, not looking back again.

He was met at the gate by the young hand who was just finishing untethering Pipit's horse which he'd brought along to ferry the doctor to the ranch. Lon Lon Ranch was situated about halfway to Hyrule Castletown and was nearly an hour's ride from Kakariko Village on horseback. All thoughts of heroes and banishing evil abruptly fled when Pipit saw the large, red mare. "Epona," he greeted the horse fondly. It had been nearly three weeks since he'd seen her last; the day he'd found Milda on the road. He always missed her whenever they were apart.

Epona snorted and shook herself free of the young man's hold to greet her master. Pipit's eyes crinkled in amusement at the ranch hand's dismay at having been snuffed by the horse. He raised a hand and Epona eagerly butted her nose against his palm. "I'm sorry for staying away for so long," he said, giving her neck an affectionate pat. Epona nudged his cheek and snorted again to show her displeasure. Pipit smiled apologetically. He gave her another pat before moving around to her side and deftly hoisting himself into the saddle. He gave a nod to the ranch hand and the boy mounted his own horse. Pipit directed Epona with a gentle squeeze of his feet and then they were off, galloping swiftly away from the town.

The two made good time and managed to make it to the ranch in just under forty minutes. It had actually been quite a long time since Pipit had last visited Lon Lon Ranch. Because of the distance, he usually made arrangements for Epona to be brought to him when he needed her. Unfortunately, his duties in the town kept him too busy to travel much barring his routine trips to the forest, so for the past couple months Epona had largely remained at the ranch. Pipit felt bad about being away from her so often but he knew the ranch was the safest place for her.

Lon Lon Ranch looked the same as it always did. Cuccos wandered near to the house and he could hear the low moaning of cows from inside the barn. Just past the large, wooden structure was the race track where the horses got their exercise. He didn't have time to enjoy the scenery however, because just as they were tying up their horses the door to the house opened and a fiery haired young woman stepped out. She smiled widely when she saw them and waved him over eagerly. "Pipit! Gosh, thanks so much for coming," she called, beckoning him inside.

The inside of the ranch house was sparsely furnished for a building of its size but comfortable nonetheless. Malon led him upstairs to the bedroom where her father lay with his leg propped up on a stack of pillows and one arm wrapped in rags. He promptly gave his daughter a look that was a hybrid of wary and guilty and Pipit smiled. Business as usual with these two.

Malon hovered like a disapproving shadow the whole time as Pipit performed his examination. Occasionally, when Talon would whimper in pain, she would scold him, saying things like, "This wouldn't have happened if you'd been doing your job," and, "Don't look to me for sympathy." Pipit stifled a chuckle and continued his examination. He, along with everyone else in Kakariko, was all too familiar with the pretty ranch girl's tough love approach to dealing with her father.

Pipit finished his examination quickly, diagnosing the man with a sprained ankle and relatively minor abrasions on his arm. Apparently he'd landed on a hoe. Pipit had him patched up in no time. He warned Talon to stay off his ankle for a while and he wrote a list of instructions for Malon detailing how to care for her father since Pipit himself would likely be too busy to come back and check on him regularly.

Talon thanked him sheepishly and Malon escorted him back to the door.

"Seriously, Pipit. Thanks for coming out to have a look at him on such short notice," she told him as he prepared to leave. "Honestly, I just don't know what to do with him. His laziness is always getting him into trouble." She rolled her eyes fondly.

Pipit shook his head. "Not at all. Let me know if any problems come up and I'll come back to have another look at him."

"Will do," Malon promised with a wave. "By the way, do you want me to send Lars with you to bring Epona back?"

Pipit held up a hand and shook his head. "No, that's okay. I'll walk back."

Malon raised an eyebrow. "You sure? There's only about two hours left till sundown, you know."

The young doctor nodded. In truth, he was of two minds about returning home. On the one hand, he wanted to get back quickly and check on Milda, but on the other, he wasn't sure he was quite ready to pick back up the conversation they'd had that morning. There were questions that needed to be asked and Pipit didn't think he was quite in the right frame of mind to hear the answers to those questions just yet.

Malon just shrugged and said, "Well, if you want to walk, I won't stop you. Take care, Fairy Boy."

Pipit nodded again and started to turn to go when he stopped abruptly and whirled back around. "Wait, what did you just call me?"

Malon blinked, startled. "Um…Pipit?" she answered, looking confused. "What else would I call you?"

Pipit regarded her with skepticism. "You just called me Fairy Boy."

The pretty redhead made a face at him. "Fairy Boy? Why on earth would I call you that?"

Pipit's eyebrows lowered. He searched the girl's face for any sign that she was joking with him but found none. She just looked perplexed. He crossed his arms and frowned. Malon had a terrible poker face. If she were trying to pull a fast one over him he would be able to tell immediately from her expression. "Weird. I swear that's what you said."

Malon just laughed and smacked his shoulder. "I mean, if there's something you want to tell me, I'm all ears. You always were a little too pretty…"

Pipit scowled at her and shrugged off her hand. He made a show of turning to go. This only caused Malon to laugh again. "Hey, hey, I'm just kidding. You look plenty manly," she assured him, reaching up to ruffle his hair. "Seriously, though, take care out there, okay? There'll be nobody to patch up my dad if you get kidnapped by stalchildren."

Pipit nodded and threw a wave back at her over his shoulder as he walked away.


∆ ∆

Pipit exhaled as he walked along the road to Kakariko Village. It had been a day just like any other. Nothing had changed.

Had he expected anything to? Did he expect to hear the voices of the goddesses in his ears? To be gifted a magical sword from the heavens? To be told to go and slay Ganondorf in his castle? He chuckled mirthlessly at the thought. He really had been reading too much into Milda's story. A bunch of speculation based on coincidences; that's all he had.

Other lives. A soul that never died.

He shook his head. He could believe in reincarnation. He could even believe in the possibility that he himself might have lived before. But to believe that he was somehow blessed…that he might have saved the world not once but many times…

He lifted his hands and opened them, examining his palms and fingers. They were the hands of a normal man. Completely average. He wasn't large or tall, nor did anything about him inspire awe. He wasn’t burly or commanding or even particularly charismatic. He was good with a sword and a bow—enough to think he might have had a shot at becoming a knight—but a legendary hero? The thought was so absurd that he almost laughed for real.

And yet…

Something within him had been inexplicably drawn to Princess Zelda. So much so that she continued to haunt his dreams even now. The legends always spoke of the Princess of Destiny who helped the hero seal evil away. That princess was always named Zelda. Everyone knew that their own late princess had been named for the legend. Now Pipit found himself wondering…what if the Princess of Destiny was like the hero? What if she too was reborn again and again to fight evil at his side? If that was the case, then wouldn't her death mean that the hero had failed? His nightmares…his irrational feelings of guilt at her passing…was that just another coincidence?

He was sure the woman in his dreams was the princess. Though he had never seen her himself, he'd heard men compare her golden hair to the sun and describe her eyes as sapphires. She was said to be a beauty without compare; fair yet fierce. Who else could the richly dressed young woman in his dreams be if not her? But still, that didn't necessarily mean that he was the hero. Hero or not, he had failed the princess by not seeing through his quest to join Hyrule's military. Who could say if his presence could have made a difference in the battle that stole her life? He was just one man, but he could think of many situations where one man was all it took to affect a different outcome.

He sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. He really did need to talk to Milda. If there was a chance, no matter how small, that he was in fact the hero she'd been searching for, she deserved to know.

But…

Telling her presented a risk that he wasn't certain he was comfortable taking when he was still so unsure. If it somehow got out that he'd been hiding his identity; if the people of the town found out who he really was, bounty hunters would be at his door faster than he could pack a bag. It wasn't that he didn't trust Milda, because he did, absolutely, but all it would take was one moment of carelessness; one person to happen to overhear, and it wouldn't be long before everyone knew. He'd carefully avoided staying in one place too long for that exact reason. The fact was, there were people who knew who he was and he couldn't risk exposure if one of those people were to find him. That was just the world they lived in now.

He didn't know what to do. What was the right choice? Tell her or wait and see if the universe sent him a sign?

Just as Malon predicted, night fell just as Pipit was entering the vicinity of the town. The walk back had been a peaceful one. No monsters had accosted him and he ran afoul no highwaymen. Not that he'd been unprepared should he encounter trouble. Like any smart man with a will to live, he kept a short blade hidden away in his bag. He was confident in his ability to handle the kinds of threats a typical traveler could expect to be met with on the road and he was more than a match for any skulking stalchildren that might hobble onto his path. It helped that most of the people who lived in this area knew him and relied on his medicines, villagers and bandits alike. Being the only doctor around had its perks.

He'd nearly reached the gate—he could see the torches of the night guard flickering in the distance—when an odd popping noise like the sound of displaced air caused him to stop abruptly. In the space beside him, where just a moment before there had been empty air, a person now stood. They were tall and slender and garbed in white and black. Pipit thought they might be a woman, but he couldn't tell for sure because their face was half obscured by a dark mask. The part he could see, however, was marked with very distinct tattoos that gave away exactly what kind of person he was dealing with.

"Sheikah!" he hissed, throwing himself back and taking a defensive stance. His hand slipped into his bag and closed around the handle of his weapon. He eyed the person warily even as his mind shuffled through his recent memories for any reason why one of the Shadow Clan would appear before him.

Generally, there were only two times a member of the King's special task force would willingly show themselves to anyone outside the royal family. The first was when they were hunting for information. The second was when they planned to be the last thing that person ever saw.

Pipit's hand tightened around his blade. There was no royal family anymore. He'd never heard of a Sheikah operating on their own.

"Stand down," the Sheikah commanded sharply. The voice was rough but clearly a woman's. Pipit hesitated to comply at first but when it became clear that she was not interested in attacking him, he slowly relaxed out of his stance. He kept his hand on his weapon, though.

"What do you want with me?" he questioned, keeping his eyes trained on her so as not to miss any suspicious movements.

"A favor," the woman answered without preamble. "You are this town's doctor, yes?

Pipit didn't wonder how she knew. Sheikah specialized in knowing. He just nodded. He, like every other child in Hyrule, had been warned from a young age to never be dishonest with a Sheikah. If ever you should meet one, he heard the voice of his village's mayor in his head, you do exactly as they say.

The woman reached into the folds of her cloak and withdrew a tall glass bottle colored in green. She stepped forward and held it out to him. "Take this. Keep it with you. A person close to you will have need of it very soon."

Pipit took the bottle and broke eye contact to look down at it curiously. Through the tinted glass he could make out a cloudy, shimmering liquid. Clearly it was some variety of potion or elixir, though it wasn't anything he recognized. He looked back up. "What—"

His question died in his throat. The woman was gone.

He whipped his head around to look for any sign of her but he found none. He was as alone as he'd been just minutes ago. The only proof he had that he hadn't dreamed the whole thing was the bottle in his hand.

Pipit took another look at the mystery elixir and then stashed it in his bag. His mind whirled as he hurried the rest of the way to the town. Just when he'd thought things couldn't get any more confusing, now it seemed that the Shadow Clan was keeping tabs on him.

The Sheikah… They were supposed to answer only to the royal family. Now that the royal family was no more, he couldn't think of any reason why any of them would continue to concern themselves with the affairs of humans. He stopped himself from reaching into his bag to finger the bottle. Just what kind of elixir had the woman given him and who was it meant for? How was he supposed to deliver it if he didn't know?

At long last, he finally reached his hut. He could see light through the windows and the smell of cooking hung in the air. His mood lifted at the thought of putting food in his stomach. He'd barely eaten all day. He smiled as he reached for the doorknob. First things first, he had to apologize to Milda for his lateness.

All thoughts of Sheikah and favors abruptly fled when the door flew open and a small form tumbled into him. A pair of thin arms wrapped around his waist. Pipit blinked in surprise and looked down to see Agitha grinning up at him. "Mr. Pipit! Welcome back," she greeted. Her eyes were full of excitement. He didn't need to ask to know the reason for her exuberant greeting.

Pipit laughed and patted her head fondly. "Hello, Princess. Let me come inside and put my bag away and I'll tell you all about the bugs I saw in the forest, okay?"

Agitha nodded and quickly released him to scamper back into the house. Pipit stepped through the doorway and was greeted by Milda's amused face from the kitchen where she stood tending to the stewpot. He quickly pulled off his boots and went to her.

"Sorry I'm late," he told her as he pulled off his cloak. "There was an accident at the ranch. Talon fell out of the barn."

Milda lifted a hand to her mouth. "Oh dear. Is he alright?"

"Oh, he's fine," he answered, waving off her concern. "A sprained ankle and some scrapes. Patching him up took barely any time at all."

Milda nodded and momentarily returned her attention to her soup. She gave it a stir and then dipped the ladle in and scooped a small amount. She held it out to him. "Here. Give this a taste and tell me what you think."

Pipit took the ladle and brought it to his lips. He gave it a quick blow to cool it and then took a sip. It was hot and thick and tasted of onions and herbs. He made a noise of approval and handed the ladle back to her. "Tastes great," he assured her. "Though I'll warn you I'm hungry enough to eat a dodongo."

Milda laughed and returned the ladle to the pot. "Then you'll be happy to hear that we'll be ready to eat in just a few minutes."

Pipit nodded and brushed past her to take his bag to his room. As he hurriedly put his medicines away and shucked several layers of winter clothing he thought about what a nice change of pace it was to come home and not have to immediately turn around and cook dinner for once. He had lived on his own for so long that it had never occurred to him until Milda came along how much easier life became when you had a partner to share the work.

But, he reminded himself, this arrangement was only temporary. As much as he'd love for Milda to stay forever, he knew she wouldn't. Even without her mission, she was still a noble. She probably had a family out there somewhere waiting for her. She surely had a life to return to. Assuming Hyrule didn't get completely overrun by monsters, that was.

He shook his head and smiled to himself. Maybe it wasn't forever, but for right now, he had a family to share his home and his happiness with. That was good enough for him. Whatever came, he would always have these memories.

The rest of the evening passed in much the same way as any other. Pipit felt as though a sense of normalcy had returned at last as he detailed forest bugs for Agitha and talked with Milda about his patient visits that day. By the time they'd finished with dinner, Pipit's insecurity from his talk with Milda that morning felt far away. The more relaxed he became, the more foolish he began to feel for ever entertaining the thought that he could be Hyrule's hero. This here was where he belonged. If he had nightmares about princesses and demons, that was merely psychological. At his core, he was a simple man who was content to lead a simple life.

Pipit paused in scrubbing a soup bowl to shove a few stray strands of hair out of his eyes with his right hand. Yes, there were so many young men better suited than he to take up the mantle of hero. His hand detoured in its descent to scratch at the back of his left before finding the dishrag once more.

An hour later, the dishes were all washed and Agitha had been sent to bed. Pipit exhaled contentedly as he sank into his chair by the fire. Everything was back to how it should be. Tomorrow he would attend to his patients again like usual and Milda and Agitha would probably go to the market and visit with Marie and then he would join them for lunch and after that maybe Pipit would pay a visit to Renado to talk about measures they could take to reinforce the town against monster attacks.

They would do what they could. They would hold out.

Milda's face appeared in his line of sight. Her blonde hair fell like a curtain around his head as she leaned over the back of his chair. She gave him a smile and then moved away to take the chair across from him. Pipit was reminded of the night nearly a week ago now when she'd sat in that same chair and joked about being the Kokiri Queen. Back then, he'd laughed at how absurd that claim had been. Now he knew the truth was much more fantastic.

"You look like you have something on your mind," she observed, pulling her legs onto the chair and setting a book atop them.

Pipit gave her a half smile and nodded. "I was just thinking about what you told me this morning."

Milda hummed in her throat. "You have more questions, I imagine," she said. She drummed her fingers lightly on the cover of the book. "I'll still understand if you feel that my tale was unbelievable."

He shook his head. "No. I believe you, truly. But I do have a few questions, if that's alright."

Milda inclined her head in invitation.

"Then," Pipit started, "I'm curious to know…you say you've lived many times and you possess memories of your previous lives. You've met the hero again and again but you also said he's different every time. How do you know him when you see him?"

Milda smiled and raised a hand to her chest. "It's a feeling. Right here." She tapped her breastbone. "It's a sense of knowing, when I see his face, that he is someone whose soul mine has touched in the past." Her beautiful smile faded and she dropped her hand. "But that feeling alone is not always reliable. As I told you before, there are many people I have met before. There is, of course, another way."

Pipit perked up. "What's that?"

She held up her right hand and displayed the back of it to him. Her skin was soft and white. "A mark," she said simply. "The mark of the Triforce will appear on his body to show that he is one favored by the gods."

Pipit frowned as she lowered her hand. "The mark of the Triforce? But isn't that mark only borne by members of the royal family? It's meant to prove their divine lineage, isn't it? Are you saying that the hero is someone with royal blood?"

Milda shook her head. "No. Just as there are three pieces of the Triforce, there can be as many as three people who bear its mark. While at least one of its bearers generally stays within the lineage of the royal family of Hyrule, one need not be royal to possess a piece of the Triforce."

Pipit crossed his arms and pondered this. "Then the hero is one of these bearers. And the princess was also one…"

Milda nodded.

"Then the third would be…you?"

Milda blinked.

"Because you said you were one who was blessed by the gods like the hero," he hurriedly explained. "I just figured…since the mark of the Triforce is supposed to be a symbol of their favor."

His houseguest made a noise of understanding and quickly shook her head. "Ah, no. I am not the third. Right now, the holder of the third piece of the Triforce is Ganondorf."

Pipit jerked forward in his seat. "Ganondorf? As in the evil king? He's blessed by the goddesses?"

Milda dipped her chin. Pipit could tell by the way the blood left her fingertips that she was pressing them into the cover of the book in her lap. "Yes," she answered. Her voice was soft and controlled despite her obvious agitation. "Whether a person is good or evil is of no consequence to the Triforce. It was my own failure that allowed one of its pieces to be taken by that man many centuries ago and now he has the piece that had been in the care of the royal family as well. Should he take the last piece for his own, he will have the full power of the gods at his command."

Pipit lifted a hand to push back his hair—his nervous habit. "So, you're saying that the only thing standing in the way of that guy possessing true ultimate power is the hero?" At her nod, he added, "Then wouldn't it be better if he were never found? If he remains in hiding, then his piece can't be taken."

Milda shook her head. "While it is true that Ganondorf needs the hero's piece of the Triforce to become all powerful, the hero is one of the only people with the power to oppose him. No other may wield the sword with the power to banish darkness. Its soul and his are forever bound."

Pipit cast a glance at the sword propped against the hearth. He frowned and turned back to Milda with a raised eyebrow. "If you mean that sword, I wielded it just fine."

Milda looked at him oddly for a moment and then her cheeks puffed out and she laughed.

Pipit made a face at her. "What?"

She lifted a hand and waved it dismissively. "That is not the Sword of Evil's Bane," she revealed. "That weapon was given to him when he became the commander of Hyrule's military back in the first Age of Sages. Other than being enchanted to maintain its sharpness, it is just a normal blade."

Pipit's eyebrows rose. "He commanded Hyrule's military? I thought he always faded back into obscurity after saving the kingdom."

Milda's smile slipped away. "Ah…well, it's complicated, actually. That time…" She trailed off, seemingly searching for the right way to explain. "It's a bit of an involved story, but the reason history doesn't remember that was because the citizens of Hyrule didn't know him as a hero. All record of him having saved the kingdom was lost due to a foolish decision made by the princess of that time. She thought she was doing him a favor, but instead she...well, suffice to say he was never the same after that." She folded her hands in her lap and stared down at them with a neutral expression. "I don't think he ever truly forgave her for as long as he lived."

Pipit watched her look at her lap with a curious expression. A part of him wanted to inquire further. Was the hero really the type of person to hold a grudge for life? And against the princess of all people? That seemed like an awfully strange way for a hero to behave. Particularly if like Milda said the princess hadn't acted with malintent. But he had more pressing questions about the princess' role in the hero's legend so his curiosity on that matter would have to wait. "About the princess," he started, "the legends say the hero Link sealed evil away with the help of a princess named Zelda—the Zelda our princess was named for. Is she also born again and again like he is?"

Milda hesitated to answer this time. Pipit cocked his head and waited.

"Yes," she spoke after a moment, lifting her face from her lap. "Your princess and the Zeldas of the past are one and the same."

Pipit had been afraid of that. He supposed that there was no way she couldn't be if she was favored by the gods. Everyone knew she'd carried the mark of the Triforce on her hand.

"Did she know?" he asked after a beat. "That she was the princess from the legend, I mean."

What Pipit really wanted to ask was if had she known she was meant to help the hero defeat Ganondorf when she led her soldiers into battle against him. Had she had so little faith in him that she decided fighting the evil king alone was wiser than waiting for him? Or had her death just been an accident of fate? A divine screw-up?

"She knew."

Pipit lifted his eyes from where they'd fallen to the old woven rug in front of the hearth. Milda was looking at the fire again.

"The foolish woman," she spoke, not looking at him. "She thought she could spare the hero by facing Ganondorf alone. Was that the right choice or has she doomed the kingdom in pursuit of her own selfish agenda? It remains to be seen."

Pipit frowned. His hands tightened into fists. "How could anything about it be right?" he asked, catching her attention again. "She's dead. The kingdom is leaderless and divided and Ganondorf is one Triforce piece away from becoming unstoppable. Even if the hero somehow manages to defeat him and save the kingdom all on his own, without the princess there is no legitimate claim to the throne. Hyrule has always prospered because the royal line had the favor of the goddesses. Now that royal line is no more. Everyone is looking for hope, Milda, but what hope is there, really?"

Pipit was surprised when Milda stood from her chair and closed the distance between them. She held out her hand. Pipit took it out of reflex and looked up at her questioningly. Her fingers were soft and pleasantly warm.

"There is hope, Pipit," she said. She wore an expression he'd never seen before from her. Her eyes held a spark of conviction that held him fast. He couldn't have looked away if he tried. "So long as there are people who love this land, Hyrule will never be lost. There is no power that cannot be defeated and Hyrule will always have the blessing of the gods. Do not lose heart. We will weather this storm."

Pipit stared up at her for another moment just basking in the light of her determination. Milda was magnetic. When she spoke, he listened. If she believed they could fight back against Ganondorf, then so help him, he did too.

For however evil he was, he reminded himself, Ganondorf was just a man. No man was invulnerable.

Believe in Hyrule, he told himself. The power to fight is a power that belongs to everyone. He squeezed Milda's hand and smiled. He looked up, past her face to the ceiling, and directed his own resolve as a silent prayer to the heavens. Give the people of this land the courage to find that power.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve: Night Terrors

Pipit paused to pass a hand over his eyes as he rewetted a rag for a little girl abed with a fever. He'd suffered another poor night's rest and today he was feeling it. As much as he'd been hoping the nightmares would be a one-off thing, it seemed now that wasn't to be the case. His dreams the previous night had been every bit as horrible as the night before; full of strange and terrifying monsters that lurked and hunted in dark, damp places. They oozed and crawled and stalked and shrieked and Pipit had spent his second consecutive night of restlessness learning all the unique ways a man could be made to scream. It was a miracle, he thought, that he hadn't woken his houseguests with the number of times he startled awake with a cry stuck in his throat.

He quickly finished with the little girl and mixed some medicines to leave with her father before bidding the small family a polite goodbye and continuing on his way. He still had three more patients to see before noon and he hoped if he got them out of the way quickly enough he'd have time to rest a bit before lunch.

Stepping out of the house, he was surprised to find the morning had become dark. Swollen clouds obscured the sun and the temperature had dropped. A sparse scattering of tiny white flakes were buffeted by an icy wind as they drifted down from the heavens. It was the clear beginnings of what could easily become a bad storm. He pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders and hurried on to the next house. He prayed that the storm passed quickly or it was going to be a long, cold night. That was the last thing he needed right now.

It appeared luck was not to be on Pipit's side. By the time he'd finished with his final patient of the day the clouds had opened up and the town was choked with white. There was already a blanket of snow on the ground several inches deep and the weather didn't look like it would be letting up anytime soon. As he passed through the market, he saw that shops were already beginning to close. Knowing it could be a while before the they opened again, Pipit made sure to pick up a large sack of potatoes, a smaller sack of onions, and a bundle of carrots which he hurriedly ferried to his home.

Milda and Agitha were waiting when he returned. Milda helped him by taking the vegetables so that he could shuck his cloak and remove his boots. Agitha took his bag and delivered it to his room for him, all the while chattering about the exciting change in weather. Pipit thanked them and wearily made his way to the hearth to hang up his cloak. He started in surprise when he felt a hand in his hair and he looked behind him to find Milda shaking snow from his head with an amused smile. He chuckled and joined her in batting away the white powder.

"It's really coming down," she remarked, turning to the window. Pipit followed her gaze and saw that the storm was only continuing to worsen.

He nodded. "I was hoping to talk to Renado this afternoon but it's looking like that might have to wait," he agreed.

Milda's smile transformed into a soft frown. She watched the falling snow almost appraisingly and Pipit imagined she was considering how the inclement weather was affecting the progress of the messengers Renado had sent to Death Mountain and Zora's Domain. He knew both routes would become impassible until the storm cleared.

She shook her head and turned away to look at the fire instead. "We're going to need to be more conservative with our firewood," she noted, casting a glance at the pile beside the hearth. "Storms this time of year can last days."

Pipit nodded. He knew this well. He'd learned at an early age to always keep his wood supply well stocked. Living alone in the outskirts of his village meant that the adults of the town couldn't always get to him with extra supplies when the weather turned sour. Wearily, he passed a hand over his eyes for the umpteenth time that day. He really hoped the storm passed before nightfall. Milda and Agitha didn't need to be woken by his night terrors.

Milda noticed the gesture and her head tilted inquisitively, her brow furrowing. "Are you alright? You look somewhat unwell."

He shook his head and swallowed a yawn before it could manifest. "Yes, I'm fine. Just a little tired. I was up late mixing potions," he lied. Returning to the kitchen, he picked up the bundle of carrots and tossed a smile over his shoulder. "Help me with lunch?"

His houseguest laughed at his hopeful expression and stepped away from the fire to join him.


∆ ∆

 The storm did not pass before evening. The falling snow continued to build over the course of the afternoon and by the time the sun began to sink below the horizon it reached nearly to the windowsill. Pipit had his work cut out for him keeping a pathway clear to the outhouse so that they wouldn't suffer any unfortunate accidents.

For Agitha, the novelty of the storm had quickly worn off and she turned her attention to designing an insect village at the kitchen table. Pipit kept an eye on her in between tasks as she drew little houses and shops with a stick of charcoal.

Milda spent the afternoon casting periodic worried glances out the window from the couch as she attempted to read a book about the role of the Gorons in the shifting geography of Death Mountain. Pipit attempted to join her at one point, picking out a book about possible evolutionary links between the Rito and Watarara tribes of the sky, but the more he tried to focus on the words printed in neat lines across the pages the harder it became for him to keep his eyes open. The text swam in his vision and he nearly nodded off before shaking himself back to awareness and setting the book aside in favor of shoveling more snow.

Dinner was simple. The three of them enjoyed a light meal of cheese and bread and dried meat. Pipit was glad for it as cleaning up afterward was a quick affair. When the last of the plates had been cleaned, he and Milda got to work pulling the mattresses off their beds and hauling them into the main room. As Pipit lined them up nicely and neatly he prayed that his exhaustion would keep the nightmares at bay. Surely, he told himself, there came a point when one became too tired to dream.

Some twenty minutes later, Milda was helping Agitha prepare for bed and Pipit was relaxing on the couch when his left hand found the smooth, cobalt clay of the Ocarina of Time sitting innocuously on the table just next to the armrest. He ran the tips of his fingers over it absently before making a decision and picking it up. He turned it over in his hands and thought about what Milda had said before about music having power. He recalled a bard who occasionally travelled through Kakariko saying something similar. The somewhat eccentrically clothed man claimed that there was a song for each aspect of the natural world and he could often be found in the tavern playing for anyone willing to shell out a few rupees to listen.

Pipit lifted the instrument to his lips. He let his fingers move over the notes Milda had taught him. He did not blow, but he could hear the tune in his head as his fingertips floated over the holes. It was a nostalgic melody. He felt like he'd heard it a million times. It was delicate and feminine and somehow it resonated with him.

His eyes fell shut and he let his hands and the instrument drop into his lap. He was so tired, he thought he might pass out right there on the couch. He long ears twitched as they picked up the sounds of Milda and Agitha chatting softly in the washroom. He was vaguely aware that Agitha was telling Milda about her insect town. Pipit smiled. That girl was an odd one. Come spring, perhaps he could procure some materials and help her build her town in the small space at the back of the house. She'd like that.

If they lived that long, he amended as his breathing slowed and his mind swam into unconsciousness.

It didn't take long for the dreams to start.

The first thing he thought as the scene materialized was that perhaps his tiredness had had an effect after all. He was in a dark place but his surroundings didn't seem malevolent. The blackness that cloaked the area was lifeless and quiet. He was aware of standing but his heartrate was slow. His mind was peaceful; untroubled. It was…nice. He let his eyes fall shut and he basked in the serenity. He thought he might be satisfied to stay in this place the whole night when all at once his ears picked up the sound of a bell chiming somewhere in the distance. The chimes were slow and deep and robust. He counted them.

Ding dong

One…

Ding dong

Two…

Ding dong

Three…

The sound grew louder.

Ding dong

Four…

Ding dong

Five...

"Hey!" a sharp, high pitched voice spoke next to him. He heard fingers snapping in his face and he opened his eyes. Before him was a small, devious looking imp with large, red eyes and hair the color of embers. She cocked her head up at him. "The world is ending, you know. Are you just going to stand there?"

Ding dong

Six…

Pipit blinked. The imp rolled her eyes and raised a dark-skinned finger to the sky. He followed the finger and recoiled in shock when his eyes found not the sky, but the broad surface of a devilish-looking moon, enormous and terrifying, hanging in the air just meters above them. How he'd ever missed it was beyond him. It had a face like a demon that snarled down at them with hateful red eyes set into two large, black craters.

Ding dong

The tolling of the bell changed, its quality becoming sinister.

Seven.

Ding dong

Eight.

"What are you, stupid?" the imp barked. "Don't let it see you!"

Pipit looked back at her in panicked confusion. The imp sighed again and pointed behind him. He spun around and saw that the floor was covered in masks. Hollow caricatures of Gorons and Zoras and various odd beasts stared up at him with empty eyes.

Ding dong

Nine.

He hurriedly picked one up and attempted to shove it onto his face but it knocked into something solid and wooden-sounding and fell to the ground with a clatter. He hurriedly picked it up and attempted to don it again but to the same effect. There was some kind of barrier around his face.

Ding dong

Ten.

"Oh, I see. You're already wearing a mask."

Ding dong

Eleven.

He swiveled back around to face the imp. She was hovering at eye level now and had somehow acquired an ornate, circular mirror. She held it up in front of him and the reflection Pipit saw caused him to lift his hands to his face in horror. His reflection did the same, coming into contact with the aged wood of a mask that chilled his blood. It was heart shaped with two horns protruding from the top and eight colorful spikes extending from the sides. Its large, yellow eyes seemed to stare back at him of their own accord. Something deep within him shouted that this mask was a cursed, evil thing. He attempted to rip it off his face but it had fastened hard to his skin. He tried again, his desperation to remove the thing such that his face might rip clean off along with it.

DING DONG

Twelve.

The moon roared. Its cruel eyes focused on him and it began to plummet toward them with intent. Pipit abandoned his effort to remove the mask and attempted instead to flee but he knew already that running was useless. The imp called after him, her voice full of annoyance. "Don't run, fool! Stand and fight! I didn't help you just to watch you muck everything up!"

But it was too late. The moon was already upon them. He could only watch in horror as it ripped the ground apart and tore into the very fabric of the universe. He couldn't even scream as he too was swallowed and his body became dust…

…A tree stood before him, large and imposing. It was so tall that he couldn't see to the top. He stood in a grove lit with fairy lights. He was whole once more.

Pipit exhaled. The sensation of his diaphragm contracting was a relief after the experience of being shredded into particles. He inhaled and exhaled a few more times before turning his neck to have a look at his surroundings.

Music reached his ears. A little girl sat on a stump playing a wooden ocarina. The tune was lighthearted. He knew it right away. It was the song Milda had played in the forest. The girl stopped playing and looked up at him. She smiled.

"Enough is enough, don't you think?" she spoke softly. Her voice was high and clear and sweet. "It's past time now. You need to let it go. You can't keep hanging on like this."

Pipit shook his head, confused. "Hanging on to what?" he asked dumbly. He hadn't the foggiest who this girl was or what she was talking about.

The girl stood from her stump and walked up to him. She was so small compared to him. He couldn't help but feel that their size difference was somehow incorrect. She beckoned with a hand and he knelt before her curiously. She raised her hand and held it to his chest, just below the juncture of his collarbones. "This bitterness inside you." Her blue eyes gleamed like precious stones behind her forest fringe. "You've suffered. You've grieved. You've been denied and in turn you've denied. You're still denying, even now. It's time to stop punishing her." She pulled her hand from his chest and used it to brush his hair away from his face the way a mother might. "It's time to stop punishing yourself, too."

Pipit blinked. He didn't think he could be any more confused. He wasn't punishing anyone. He'd never had any desire to punish anyone. And as for himself…was he? Was that in fact what these dreams were? He'd certainly considered as much before. He'd logically tied his nightmares to his irrational guilt at not having saved the princess. But even if that was the case, to inflict these marathon nightmares on himself seemed an excessive punishment. If he were honest with himself, the dreams seemed more like some severe form of PTSD than mere nightmares, but that made no sense because Pipit had never experienced anything nearly traumatic enough to cause such a condition.

Unless, of course, his traitorous mind reminded him, he simply couldn't remember the trauma.

Try to imagine it, Milda's voice echoed in his ears. Imagine living and battling and dying over and over again; your only reward the few, brief moments of happiness you are able to steal for yourself along the way. Could you do it?

Pipit willed the that line of thinking to terminate. There was no point in dwelling on what-ifs because he wasn't Milda's hero. His body didn't bear the mark of the goddess' favor. The hero was someone else.

The girl's eyebrows furrowed sadly. She looked at him knowingly, as if she could read his thoughts. She pulled away and turned from him to face the tree. She raised a hand and pointed to an opening in the trunk that Pipit had somehow missed before. Or perhaps it had only just appeared. "Enter. Her grace awaits."

No less confused, Pipit did as instructed and left the small girl behind to approach the tree. There was nowhere else to go, after all. He hopped up the roots to the opening and ducked inside. He just hoped that whatever lay within was less grisly than the scene with the moon.

The room that appeared around him was colorful and spacious. Barring the back wall was a counter that looked like the kind found in a library. Behind the counter stood a youthful woman with hair that nearly matched the little forest girl's in color. She had large, green eyes and she wore a dress of viridian with a skirt that resembled flower petals. This must be the person the girl had referred to as "her grace".

"Hello," she greeted pleasantly, beckoning him forward with a wave. She leaned over the counter and her eyes sparkled as they met his. "Do you have a secret for me?"

"A secret?" he echoed, taken aback.

"Oh!" The young woman pulled back and rose up on her toes. "It's your first time. Of course. Welcome to the Hall of Secrets. I am Farore, Oracle of Secrets. I am able to unlock truths and unveil deception. And I am, of course, a peddler of secrets."

It must have shown on his face that he was about to repeat her words back to her in question form again because she held up a hand to silence him. "If you don't remember, then don't worry about it. A matter for another time." Continuing again before he could get a word in, she said, "You have sought me out because you desire guidance, but," she held up a finger dramatically, "I can see that you are not yet ready to receive it."

Pipit crossed his arms over his chest and regarded the small woman with a raised brow. He most certainly hadn't sought her out and he was not aware he required guidance, much less desired it. He hadn't an inkling who this woman was or why his mind had invented her.

Although, he allowed, she did share the name of the goddess of courage. Perhaps that was no coincidence. He'd heard of people who claimed to have been visited by the goddesses in their dreams. Hell, with all of the strangeness that surrounded him lately he could almost believe them.

He stepped forward and laid his palms on the counter. He looked her in the eye. "Your grace," he said, echoing the words of the little forest girl, "I am probably out of my mind for trying to talk to you as though you are anything but a figment of my own messed up brain, but my only desire is for these nightmares to stop. If you are some kind of broker of information, then please tell me how to be rid of them."

To Pipit's confusion, Farore's friendly smile fell away and her eyes tightened seriously. The green of them almost seemed to darken. "They won't stop," she said frankly. "The nightmare will never end. Not for you."

Pipit recoiled slightly, taken aback by her sudden shift in demeanor.

"Neither you nor I can undo what has been done," she said, now with a touch of sorrow. "I can help you, but you," she poked her finger into his chest, "are," another prod, "not," she leaned forward onto her toes to press her finger softly to his lips, "ready."

She fell back onto her heels and pulled her hand away to set it on the counter beside his. "There's an ugliness inside you, Pipit. It is a darkness that has been growing for many centuries and only a heart of courage can chase it away. Cast away your doubts and false convictions. Come and see me again once you are prepared to accept the burden of my virtue."

She picked up her hand a placed her index finger on the back of his left hand. A hot, itchy feeling erupted at once from the point where her skin touched his and he abruptly pulled his hand back.

Farore smiled benignly. "You'll know where to find me," she said with a tone of finality, then the room peeled apart into ribbons and finally fell away into nothingness.

Pipit awoke with a start.

The living room was dark; lit only by the fire flickering in the hearth. All of the lanterns had been extinguished. He was still on the couch in the same position he'd been in when he'd dozed off, though a blanket had been tucked around him. A glance at the floor found Milda and Agitha soundly snoozing on their mattresses.

He rubbed his eyes and sat forward, allowing the blanket to crumple into his lap. His head was stuffy and his eyes itched. He felt like he hadn't slept a wink. He made to stand and the ocarina of time fell out of his hand. Luckily it was spared a collision with the hard floor by the blanket. He scooped it up and set it gently on the end table.

Making his way deftly around his slumbering houseguests, he went to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of water. A glance out the window told him that it was the middle of the night. He sighed and pushed his hair back wearily. His hand still itched where the woman from his dreams had touched it and he scratched at it with the rim of his cup.

Come and see me again once you are prepared to accept the burden of my virtue.

He was no fool. He knew what the jade eyed woman was trying to tell him. It seemed that despite his best efforts his subconscious couldn't let go of the idea Milda had planted in him with her story.

He set his cup on the counter and silently made his way back to the living room. As he passed Milda's mattress he paused. Her head was turned away from the firelight and she was breathing deeply and evenly. He exhaled again quietly and knelt down beside her. Softly, he ran the backs of his fingers over her hair just behind her right temple. "What are you going to do if it's me, Milda?" he asked her in a voice so low that it was almost lost in the crackling of the fire.

Milda didn't answer. She slumbered on, completely unaware of his words or his presence at her side.

Pipit smiled tiredly and stood with a low groan. He would try to sleep again. Perhaps his dreams would give him a break for the few remaining hours until dawn.


∆ ∆

Pipit awoke again some hours later to an armful of Agitha. The small girl had migrated to his side in the night and neatly tucked herself against his front. He blinked blearily up at the window and saw that the black of night had been diluted to the deep, dark blue of pre-dawn. Astonishingly, his prayers had been answered and he'd suffered no more nightmares that night. Although, considering how early it still was, he couldn't have slept more than two or three hours.

Another dragging day, then, he thought with an inward groan as he delicately wriggled free of his small charge and stood. The fire had died in the night and Pipit shivered as the cold seeped through his clothes. He made to drop a new log into the hearth but a sudden bout of vertigo caused him to stumble. Definitely need more sleep, he observed as he steadied himself on the wall.

Preparing for the day was a slow process. Pipit's muscles were achy with fatigue and several times he temporarily forgot what he was supposed to be doing and wound up sitting on the nearest flat surface in confusion until his brain kicked back into gear.

The storm appeared to have passed in the night and by the time the sun rose over the horizon the sky was mostly clear and only a small scattering of tiny flakes still fell. Pipit knew, though, that they'd likely just experienced a first wave and more storms would probably follow in its wake. The snow outside the window was piled high enough that he doubted any shops would open today. Unfortunately for him, weather like this often came with a steep spike in injuries and though he wouldn't be making any of his usual patient visits today he would need to be prepared to run out at a moment's notice to tend to any snow-related accidents.

The question at present was how he was going to remain alert with nothing of pressing concern to occupy him. The house was tidy and all the dishes were clean and put away. He couldn't take care of any outside maintenance with snow up to his thighs. His eyes drifted around the room and as if summoned they landed on the hero's sword.

He frowned. It seemed that either fate or his subconscious was very keen indeed to dress him up like the hero.

Careful not to wake the girls, he circumnavigated the mattresses to the hearth and quietly plucked the sword from its place against the wall. The hilt was cool and smooth in his palm. He hefted the blade over his shoulder and picked his way back around to the kitchen. There, he donned his cloak and boots and a thick winter scarf before stepping lightly across the floor to the front door and silently slipping out.

The snow was deep even with his shoveling the day before and his boots left powdery trenches as he trudged around to the side of the house. Living on the outskirts of town meant that he didn't have any neighbors to snoop on his actions and he was grateful for that as he kicked snow around to clear some ground for training.

When he was satisfied that he would be able to move about without tripping, he walked to the center of his manmade clearing and drew the sword off his shoulder. It felt like ages since he'd last wielded a sword. He'd had one when he left his village but he'd ended up selling it after he chose to abandon his quest to become a knight. It had been a fine sword, well-crafted and well-suited to him, but he'd needed rupees for potion ingredients and lodgings during his travels.

The hero's sword was longer and much heavier than his had been. It had clearly been designed for a larger, stronger man—the hero from the first Age of Sages, Milda had said. A man who had commanded Hyrule's military. This blade should by all rights be on display in the Royal Hall of History as an important relic of the past, and yet here it was in Pipit's hands, about to be used as a practice sword. A part of him wondered if it was really okay for him to be wielding it."

"Whaddya say, Link? Mind if I use your sword?" he muttered under his breath as he spread his legs and leveled the point at an invisible foe.

The first thrust was shaky as the weapon's weight and Pipit's own fatigue collaborated to drag the point toward the ground. He gritted his teeth and willed his muscles to hold the blade steady as he moved into a slashing position. His next few strikes were smoother as he grew accustomed to the weight and balance of the sword. He alternated between slicing and thrusting, twirling the blade deftly and fluidly as he transitioned between movements. When he was satisfied with the sword's handling, he switched his focus to his footwork, practicing lunging and feinting and falling back.

His muscles burned with the strain of wielding a weapon so ill-suited to his frame, but it was a good, familiar burn. It brought back memories of training out in front of his house as the children of his village ran about unsupervised. He recalled with fondness how they'd try to distract him by throwing sticks at his legs and then squeal with delight whenever he'd slice one out of the air. His sword master had been so proud of him…always comparing the other boys to him and scolding them for not being as diligent in their own training. He'd been the most supportive when Pipit had announced his intention to go to the castle. "You're going to be great someday," the old man had told him the night before he left. "I can feel it. You've the hand of the goddesses on you."

Pipit lunged one final time and froze, holding the blade perfectly parallel to the ground. His breathing was labored and his muscles screamed and his brow was coated in a sheen of sweat but he didn't allow the sword to tremble. He held it there for a long moment, counting backwards from five in his head before he finally allowed the point to drop into the snow.

"Hand of the goddesses. Hah," he breathed, hefting the sword back onto his shoulder. "What do you think, Princess?" He directed the question West to where Hyrule Castle lay past the river and across a long expanse of plains. "Real splendid job your hero's doing, eh?"

His only answer was muffled fwoosh followed by a thunk as nearby a tree branch gave way and a large pile of snow tumbled to the ground. Pipit watched the spot where it fell apathetically. The chilly air stung his skin where his sweat had cooled and he finally tore his eyes away and started for the door. Milda and Agitha would be waking soon. He needed to start on breakfast.

He didn't see the tall, slender shadow watching silently from the shade of his hut's stone chimney. Nor did he hear when they turned away and, just as silently, leapt from the roof and disappeared.

 


 

Bonus

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OMAKE 1 — Pipit Iglesias

He set his cup on the counter and silently made his way back to the living room. As he passed Milda's mattress he paused. Her head was turned away from the firelight and she was breathing deeply and evenly. He exhaled again quietly and knelt down beside her. Softly, he ran the backs of his fingers over her hair just behind her right temple. "I can be your hero, baby."

OMAKE 2 — An Actual Nightmare

For once, Pipit was having a good dream. His favorite dream, in fact. He was alone in a room full of pots—blue pots, brown pots, white pots, gray pots, big pots, small pots…there was every kind of pot imaginable. His fingers twitched in anticipation.

He grabbed the nearest pot, a small blue one with a lovely round belly, and held it high above his head as if exalting it to the gods. Letting out a giddy giggle, he turned to face the wall and slung his arms forward. His eyes fell shut and he smiled as he delighted in the satisfying crash of shattering porcelain. One down, about a hundred more to—

"Phew! Out at last!"

Pipit started at the unexpected voice and paused in leaning down to lift the next pot to look back at the spot where the first pot had shattered.

"Gracious… Once I got in there, I couldn't squeeze back out! You were a big help… Thanks! I've been looking for something in here, you see. Gracious, yes! You must need something here, too. Shall we try working together for a while, fellow adventurer?"

Pipit's eyes grew wide. His mouth gaped open as the muscles in his jaw seemingly forgot how to work. He stared down at the owner of the voice in abject horror.

"What…is…thaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAT!"