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Legacies and Bloodlines

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“Tell me, dear boy, do you hear the chirrup of birds, or the breath of wind through grass, in this still and haunted place? I do not, my apprentice, I do not.” 

Etran Olrani, “The Tale of the Wanderer” from Ordish Children’s Stories

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Talon had not mouthed a word, but his intent had been perfectly clear. He dropped a tin bucket, stained with grime, into Link’s hands, and shoved him toward the stable doors. Link knew the inevitable errand had been coming—they had used the last of their allotted drinking water to wash the beautiful, fire-red mare for her exhibition, since the animals’ water was likely to leave her coat dirtier than before. Link had no qualms with the decision; he could stand to drink the well water, with the translucent, gelatinous muck bobbing at the surface (it was easy enough to scrape off), he could even stand its metallic, almost moribund taste. But he could not tolerate seeing a filthy horse presented to the King.

So it was with a spirited acceptance that Link trotted across the muddy compound, bucket bouncing against his stained pants. His boots sank into the wet dirt, and he fervently hoped a well-meaning guard mage might send a few gusts of wind across the corral to dry it—Link had spent so long polishing the warhorse’s hooves he would break down if he had to see them muddied at the last minute. He made a mental note to tug at Talon’s waistcoat when he got back with the water, and let him know his concerns.

Two men guarded the paddock gates, glinting in dark armor. They let Link pass with nothing more than a bob of their helmeted heads—stableboys like him came and went freely, barely heeded. They caused no trouble for the King’s soldiers, except, occasionally, when one tried to flee the city.

Link lugged the bucket down the street, toward the well. Behind him faded the sharp smell of mud and fresh hay, the grassy breath of horses, their dusty flanks—and before him rose the familiar acrid stink of the city, the thick sourness of men and women, the softer, more palatable scent of their animals, the occasional waft of weekly washing, the fetor of waste disposal. As he descended the cobblestone slope, from the high echelon of the palace grounds down into the city proper, the smell grew more pungent.

A pair of young girls ran across his path, dark-skinned and red-haired, leaving a faint aroma of freshness in their wake. Link knew it would be a few years before the city robbed them of that smell—he himself was losing it, day by day. Even after he had sprung through pubescence, seemingly waking up taller each morning, growing broader each evening, he had maintained his own scent of bright childhood until very recently. Perhaps his constant proximity to animals provided him with the means of avoiding smelling bewilderingly human.

While the feeling and scent of his early youth was marred by the stifling aura of the city, he could still recognize and enjoy other smells and sights that seemed to be all but lost on others. He could catch a whiff of a kitten on a high windowsill, see its thin fur bristle when he looked up and gave it a smile. He could smell a storm coming, when the air thickened and the sharp sting of electricity permeated the atmosphere. He knew when to hide himself under a roof, while others seemed oblivious to the coming deluge, still wandering in the streets, unprotected from the inevitable heavy rain thickened with acid from the city’s many factories.

Whenever he was unsure of a scent, he would turn his attention to the stable hounds and watch their movements. He’d read the thin twitches of their whiskery noses, their lips curling above teeth, black fur on their necks raising slightly, tails lifting in anticipation. The hounds told him when to make himself scarce, and when it was safe for him to wander the stable and corral freely.

For everything else, he could rely on Talon. Throughout the day the man would provide Link with tasks, looks and gestures, hand him a plate of gruel when work was done, make sure he was sufficiently wrapped in his ratty blanket when he settled down in the hay amongst the hounds and horses for the night. Even when Talon left for his own quarters at the other end of the yard, his presence lingered, the soft scent of mud and sweat, the warmth he brought to the air. He would often light a candle and place it on the high shelf, beside a faded, ripped pictograph of a young girl, red hair outshining the candlelight even from its discolored frame. Talon left the candle burning all night, providing Link with enough light to watch the rise and fall of the animals’ ribs as they sank into sleep. Link always rested best on the nights when the candle flickered gently in the corner.

The evening before the warhorse’s exhibition, he had hardly slept at all. Talon had not explicitly expressed to him the mare’s rapidly approaching meeting with the King, but he didn’t need to. Link could tell by the way Talon’s hands shook slightly, almost imperceptibly, when the stable master visited him, that something was afoot. The stable master was tall, slim, thin hair pulled back into a ratty ponytail, but his presence was always commanding, and always prefigured some grand event or another: a long hunt for the King, a countryside expedition, a reception, parade, exhibition. No matter the occasion, its success invariably depended on the form and fettle of the beasts involved. Whether or not the King’s pages and guards returned smiling or grimacing hinged ultimately on the stable master, and by extension, Talon and Link.

They had made doubly sure the fire-red mare had been prepared for her presentation. Talon spent hours gathering her pale mane up into knots, and bunching her tail into the traditional tight bun used to keep it out of the path of swords and spears during battle. Link had washed her himself, sponging her muscular flank and polishing her hooves to an unmatched sheen.

In the preceding months, Link taught the warhorse all he knew about people and what they might want from her. She had been a kind, understanding creature, responsive to the flicks of his eyelids, the waves of his hands and the nudges of his heels on her sides. He had only to tug on the base of her mane, gently, in one direction or the other, to get her to turn, he merely had to lean forward to coax her into a gallop, press himself into her to make her slow. Sometimes when he slid off her back and gently bumped his forehead against hers as thanks, Talon would approach from the other end of the corral, awed, eyes wide, mouth opening and closing meaninglessly. Link hadn’t the means to explain to him the nature of his relationship with the large warhorse—it seemed to be something so natural to him and so foreign to others, that expressing to Talon how he behaved with the horses would be like trying to teach a fish to breathe air.

Link knew this horse would serve the King well. She was strong, intelligent, kind, humorous in her own way, and responded to the slightest kicks and nudges with utmost avidity and promptness. He knew he would miss the magnificent creature during those times when the guards would lead her away by the harness, out for a fox hunt or other such expedition. But, horse or otherwise, they all had to serve the King in their own ways.

Link had only seen the King once, from a distance. He had been so splendid, standing grand and absurdly tall atop the royal carriage. His entire procession had been ornamented in the winter festival’s colors, glowing with the light of modern magic. People had poured out onto the snowy street to watch him ride by, white fur draped across his shoulder, arms spread in celebration. Bits of colored paper flew from windows as he was carried down the city’s main boulevard, landing in the wet snow at the feet of his team of black horses.

Link had been small then, perched on Talon’s shoulders as the cavalcade danced by, backlit by the deep lights of the winter festival, red and green and royal blue. A team of guards followed the King’s carriage, shining tubes of brass raised to their pursed lips, marching in unison. Link did not remember much of that celebration—food and drink flowed freely, and when an older stablehands weren’t trying to force mugs of hot mulled wine down his throat, his memories were coated with the dreamlike half-mysticism of childhood. But he did remember, very clearly, the swell of love and loyalty that burst in his lungs, that made its way up his throat and watered his eyes. He had leaned forward on Talon’s shoulders, reaching out to the King so eagerly he’d tumbled right off and crashed into the spectator cheering in front of them.

It had taken the celebration days to die down. Even now, years later, as Link walked toward the well, he suspected that there was still the stray scrap of confetti from that very festival under his muddy boots, wedged between cobblestones or hiding in the gutter. He didn’t remember a winter festival so lively, so full of joy—then again, he didn’t remember another winter festival when the Great King himself had made an appearance.

Link turned a corner and departed from the main avenue. Above him a few unseasonal clouds gathered, and he felt the trembling energy of an imminent storm in the air. It was subtle, and told him he still had plenty of time to fetch the water, bring it back and witness the King’s approval of the warhorse before the first drops fell. He took a deep breath, the acidic wet air filling his lungs, and turned the last corner to the well.

Thankfully, there were few people gathered around its edge. Link trotted up to the grey masonry, laying his bucket on the side and waiting his turn. A little boy, pale and thin, stared at him with gigantic black eyes from the other side of the well, thumb stuck so far into his mouth it looked like he was trying to eat his own fist. He wore no clothes but what looked like a pillowcase wrapped around his middle, mud streaked on his pale skin.

Link tried to smile at the kid, but he continued staring him down with his uncanny, sunken eyes. Link decided that his attention was better allocated to getting his bucket tied to the lowering rope, slopping up enough water to keep him and Talon alive for the night and getting back to the palace before the action started. Link lowered his eyes to well, the heat of the little boy’s impoverished stare burning his skin. He quickly lowered the bucket, gathering a swell of black water, and pulled it back up. A stern, angry tap on the shoulder told him he’d done something wrong.

Bucket in hand, he turned to see a tall, wide woman behind him, hands on her hips, light hair drawn back into a tight bun. Her thin lips parted and twisted like two pale worms over her yellowed teeth, and an occasional bead of spit flew from her mouth. Link could tell by the way her eyebrows drew together, almost meeting in a wrinkled puff of hair in the middle of her forehead, that she was less than pleased with him. Her lips formed shapes unfamiliar to him, her sagging second chin flapping like a cock’s wattle against her neck. She gesticulated, pointing the starving little boy at the other side of the well, and Link could see her ruddy palms were worn and rough with work. 

He just bowed, like he always did when in doubt. He lowered his head, quickly, sincerely, and made his escape. He grabbed the bucket of water, sloshing a bit over the side, and sidled out from between the woman and the well. Before she could stop him, he held the bucket as firmly as he could and trotted back up the street.

He did not look behind him. He ignored all sights and smells that risked enticing him to tarry, and hurried up the main boulevard. Mercifully, he reached the gates to the palace grounds, and the guard nodded at him to pass without motioning for him to put the bucket down and show his mark.

When he arrived back at the corral, he saw no one out in the yard, save for the fire-red warhorse, saddled and ready, eyes closed, back hoof bent slightly into the dirt, as it always did when she prepared for something. Link could tell she knew an important event lingered on the horizon, but she may have thought it was only the oncoming storm they both could feel brewing in the air.

Link dropped the bucket at the stable doors and sauntered over to her. He approached from her side, as she preferred, and lay his hand on her quivering flank. He brushed a few flies from her hair and lay his head against her. He could feel the pulse of her blood through her side, minuscule ripples of skin and muscle, rhythmic and deliberate. He stroked her, and she contentedly shook her head.

Link knew he should make himself scarce for the arrival of the King, especially since he could see no other stablehands about. He patted the warhorse goodbye, but when he turned to make his way back to the stable, he noticed one of her knots of mane had come undone. Link looked around for any other stablehands, and saw none.

He could not let this horse—his favorite horse, his greatest friend—go before the King looking disheveled and worn. So he retrieved his bucket and stood on it, feet balancing precariously on opposite edges, and craned his neck to survey the damage. It looked like a quick fix—he could retie her knot and get out of there well before the King arrived. He pulled out a streak of white mane and twisted it tightly, wrapping each hair with great consideration. Less than a minute later, he tightened the finished knot and let it sit atop the crest of her neck. Link stepped off the bucket, admiring his own work, and realized with an inner sigh that now his knot was the only one that struck him as decently executed.

Talon had done this job himself, but he was dreadfully inept at plaiting of all sorts. Link knew he had no choice but to redo her entire mane; there was no way the King would approve of her in this unacceptable state. So Link glanced around him furtively, and then undid all of Talon’s hard work, letting the horse’s mane hang unrestrained along her neck. He gave her an encouraging pat before slowly, carefully starting the whole process again.

He began at the top, where a puff of white forelock fell over her black eyes, and moved down along her neck, each knot perfectly spun, twisted into a beautiful point. Even constrained to tiny buns, her striking hair shone, each knob glinting like the tall lamps that lit up the city’s streets at night.

He had made his way almost to her withers, leaving a perfectly composed mane behind him, when over the elegant crest of the warhorse’s curved neck he spied Talon emerge from the stables. He ran, waistcoat wrinkling over his bulging belly, waving his hirsute arms in a panic. Link squinted at him, at his frightened, shining eyes, and realized he must’ve done something terribly wrong. He glanced back over his work—no, that wasn’t it, it was absolutely perfect, so…

He felt a presence behind him. Strong, intimidating, he could tell the shape and mien of his visitor by the tiny, pulsating waves of heat that made him stiffen slightly. Almost imperceptibly, the hair on the back of his neck shifted—breath touched his hackles, but not the familiar, calming rush of air from horse’s nose. It was slow, human.

Link’s hands fell to his side, trembling slightly. He forced himself to tear his eyes away from the infuriating, unfinished puff of mane near the horse’s shoulders, slowly stepping down from his bucket. He swallowed a lump in his throat and forced himself to turn around.

He didn’t see much, since the man behind him was so large, so close, but he saw enough. He caught a glimpse of the dark skin, the bold copper hair, the royal jewel glinting on furrowed brow. With a jolt of terror and awe, he threw himself down into the dirt, pressing his forehead into the mud desperately, prostrating himself at the feet of his King.


 A horse and her boy

Chapter Text

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“Of all the tribes scattered across this great land of Hyrule, the Sheikah are by far the most mysterious. Secretive in their ways, deft in the arts of illusion and espionage, it is that very mystique that defines the clan. To know too much about the Sheikah is to desecrate the very essence of the culture.” 

Lady Ronia of the House of Faron, The Historical Atlas of the Peoples of Hyrule

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Lingering in the gray shadows of the stable’s roof, tucked against its panels and shingles, a dark-clad figure crouched. A loose black hood obscured her features, the jutting column of a chimney hiding the rest of her body from prying eyes. She leaned over the rotting wood, spying intently into the paddock below. Her slender, long ears perked inside her hood, listening earnestly.

The King in all of his glory, draped in a sanguine cape, stood across from an equally red warhorse. Thick, armored arms crossed, lips drawn into a tight scowl, he towered over nearly everything around him, with the exception, of course, of the magnificent horse. The King’s trusted general, Haema, dressed perpetually in his panoply, stood at his side, face darkening with fury. She could see the Ordishman’s hand clench, knuckled armor clinking, as he stepped forward, laying a foot on the shoulder of the prostrated stableboy.

The spy sorted through the reasons Haema might accompany his King to something as mundane as the showing of a new horse. There were few explanations, and all of them discouraging. Perhaps Palo had been right when he insisted there was something terrible brewing on the horizon. She did not want to have to concede to Palo—he could be such a terror when proven right—but she could not help but share in the sinking feeling this was no ordinary meeting, and that was no ordinary horse.

The King’s eyes did not remove themselves from the magnificent beast’s body, whereas Haema seemed more engaged in punishing the stableboy for his insolence. The large, red-faced general stomped on his shoulder, demanding to know why he had seen fit to show such disrespect to his divine ruler.

Another man, hairy and squat, sporting a thick mustache, sprinted desperately to the King and his general, throwing himself into a supplicant bow.

“Esteemed sires,” the man stuttered, hands wringing, eyes on the ground. “Permission to speak.”

Haema, foot still on the prostrated boy, turned to the King, who gave a slow, regal nod.

“I am not worthy,” the stablehand stammered, bowing ever deeper. He waited a moment in deference before continuing: “He is deaf, your majesty. He did not hear your approach, otherwise he would’ve shown the proper respect. I will punish him appropriately for his misbehavior, rest assured.”

“If he cannot anticipate the approach of his King, he should not be left to wander unchecked,” Haema growled, driving his heel into the stableboy. He twitched in pain, but didn’t cry out. He remained pressed against the ground in the most reverent kowtow, hands folded in the dirt above his blond head.

“Calm yourself, Sir Haema.”

The King’s voice was calm, suffused with the confidence of absolute power. He tore his eyes away from the horse and lowered them to the stableboy. The servant didn’t look up, didn’t move—he remained prostrate, shaking ever so slightly.

“Remove your foot from the poor child,” the King commanded. Haema, still rubicund with anger, obeyed. The King turned to the other stablehand, still locked in a deep bow. “You may assist him to his feet. He cannot help his condition.” The man scrambled to pull his underling from the dirt, nodding his head profusely and thanking the King. The monarch himself merely turned back to the horse, putting one giant foot in the stirrup and hauling himself onto her back. He settled into the saddle, and glanced down at the stableboy slowly wiping the dirt from his face, eyes still downcast. “Make sure he is more aware of his surroundings in the future.”

“Yes, your majesty, of course,” the stablehand replied, pushing his underling into the safety of the shadow he cast.

You’re one to speak of awareness, the figure found herself thinking. She watched the King deftly maneuver the warhorse around the corral, turning her this way and that, pushing her into a gallop and slowing her to a trot, cape flinging behind him like a wake of fire. The charger glided in a perfect ring, elegant, obedient, muscles twisting in the grey light. Even with the unkempt portions of unfinished knots in her mane, she was still singularly awe-inspiring. This steed was bred for battle—there could be no other use for so strong a creature. Truly this was the only horse worthy to carry a man like the Great King to war.

Palo had most definitely been right. There was blood glistening on the horizon.

The horse loped back to where Haema stood, metal-plated arms crossed, next to the timid stablehands. The King slowed her, and she obeyed with a vigorous snort. He slid from her back, something of a smile crossing his broad, dark features. He replaced a stray strand of bright red hair and brushed a few specks of dirt from his shoulder.

Haema bowed slightly. “Is it all you wished for, sire?”

“And more.” The King’s yellow eyes settled on the two stablehands. “Give the stable master my regards, if indeed he is the one who has trained her.”

“Your majesty…” the servant started quietly.

“Spit it out,” Haema commanded.

The man meekly stepped aside and gestured to the golden-haired boy.

“Is that a joke?” Haema spat. “Him?”

“Yes, sires. Longeing, bitting, backing—all his doing. He is… rather gifted.”

“Fascinating.” The King stepped forward, leaning over the stableboy and examining him. From the spy’s vantage point on the roof, she could see the young man lower his head even farther, obviously uncomfortable at the close proximity to his godlike ruler. He seemed to be doing all he could to keep himself from falling back into the dirt at the King’s feet. The King stared at him for a few seconds, at the back of his lowered head, before turning again to his general.

“Haema, give the boy a gold coin for his efforts.”

“Sire.”

Reluctantly Haema threw a shining coin at the stableboy’s feet. He didn’t move—at this point paying attention to the money rather than his King would’ve been an affront so impudent it might warrant a hanging. The boy just remained bent in his bow, ignorant of the words exchanged over him.

“I expect to see similar excellence in the future,” the King said, turning toward the stable gates. “Do not disappoint me.”

“Yes, your majesty,” the stablehand stammered, following the pair, bowing obsequiously.

When the King made his way out of the yard, back into the safety of his grand palace grounds, the figure drew her cloak tighter around her and slid down the side of the stable roof. She was blind to the King’s movements in his palace, and worse yet, his guards would be winding their way about the battlements at this hour. If she stayed on the roof, they would no doubt see her and raise an alarm.

She would’ve liked to stick around and spy on him, but she knew better. She had so much to do before she left the city—and spying on the King was the lowest of necessities. If her information was correct, they would have plenty of time for that in the near future. But she couldn’t banish the feeling that she was wasting precious time, and jeopardizing her clan’s entire strategy, by letting the King live a little while longer.

She knew she could try to snip the bud before it bloomed, to cut off the King’s ambitions before war reared its head. But to try would be to risk herself, her entire tribe, and the fate of Hyrule. Despite her eager hand wandering to the knives on her thigh, despite her imagining flying from the rooftop to drive a blade into the back of the tyrant’s neck, she dropped to the ground harmlessly. She slipped away from the palace grounds unseen, out to the main boulevard of the city, just as the first droplets of a rainstorm began to fall. She knew soon enough it would freeze, and the city streets would be soggy and piled high with grimy, dirt-smeared snow.

She detested the snow of the Capital. It was so different from the soft, pure mounds that blanketed Kakariko in the winter, swallowing all sound and worry. She even preferred the blizzards of Mount Eldin to the wet, dirty hail that fell angrily from the skies above the city.

If she was quick, if she was smart about her mission, and if she was just a little lucky, she could escape the city before winter rolled around. She could return to her village with Palo at her side, and a shard of hope.

According to those operatives who came before, the last carrier of the old royal bloodline lived somewhere in the eastern quarter, safely integrated into middle-class life and ignorant of her heritage. Hopefully, for her sake and that of the country, her enemies remained equally uninformed—if the King got word of the remnants of the deposed bloodline, he’d no doubt sack the entire quarter and put to death any Hylian unlucky enough to vaguely resemble the portraits of toppled kings of old.

But as it stood now, the last scion of the old royal family was alive and well, and—if the other Sheikah spies were correct—rather young. She could still be taught, stripped of any loyalty she might harbor for the King, still be brought up knowing her duty. She would hone her skills in the hidden precipices of Kakariko and face her obligation to take back her kingdom. But that was in the far future. For now, the steps toward Hyrule’s liberation were small, and seemingly inconsequential.

The cloaked figure slipped against the wall, skirting a group of passing guards. She glanced up at the darkening sky, knowing she would have to return to Palo with her report, with the admission that he’d been right about everything—about Haema’s involvement with the King’s recent escapades, about the threat of war looming on the horizon. She couldn’t deny that she, too, had a strange, elevating feeling that they were close to  some precipice, close to stumbling upon something crucial.

Stupid Impa, he’d reply, smiling. You’re supposed to be the one with the intuition.

Her grandmother, or so her family told her, had a remarkable gift of foresight. Time and time again, Impa wished that she had at least a modicum of that woman’s talent—it would save her plenty of hours of frustration and headache—but the only things resembling premonitions she got were vague senses of restlessness, uninterpretable feelings, unsupported guesses. 

They were sometimes wrong, sometimes right—no different from that unremarkable gift that all people shared: good old gut feeling. She had no proclivity for prognostication, no belief in the intricate plans of gods and demons, no certainty regarding her own guesses. So she did not find it odd that no visions came to her regarding the location of the royal heir. She would not expect her mission to be so easy. What really struck her as remarkable was that the presence of that deaf stableboy stayed with her, like the pieces of a meaningful dream fractured upon awakening. As she crept down the street, wrapped tightly in shadow, he was the closest thing she had to a supernatural vision.

The boy himself was unexceptional—just another young sycophant in the King’s employ, showering the monarch with adoration while ignoring his own oppression. He was probably just as loyal to the Dragmire family as any other citizen, just as helpless, but for some reason, his mud-streaked face reappeared in Impa’s mind again and again. When she blinked she saw his strong jaw and kind eyes, a posture and vigor indicating he was on the cusp of manhood, and the timidness and humility to downplay the fact. She had not personally seen the brand that marked him as palace property, but it was reasonable to assume he had one. He seemed so uninteresting, interchangeable with any other well-meaning Hylian youth, it struck her as odd she would find herself thinking about him, especially when more crucial things should occupy her mind.

Perhaps what little gift for premonition her grandmother had left diluted in her blood was trying to tell her the boy had something of a future, besides remaining crushed under the heel of the King and his henchmen. And of course, she wished him all the best. Despite whatever her gut was trying to tell her, she knew she couldn’t worry about such an inconsequential peasant at the moment.

Impa had better things to do with her time. She had to report back to Doctor Balras for the night, settle down with Palo in his back room and get what little rest she could before she resumed her reconnaissance in the morning. She would have to tell both of them about Haema, and the King, the showing of the red warhorse, and then apologize for not having gathered more information. Palo might just cross his arms and shake his head, but Doctor Balras was usually more obliging.

The good doctor was Hylian in origin, with pale skin and chestnut hair common to the people of the northern plains provinces. Impa never knew from which region he hailed, but he had lived in the Capital for the better part of three decades, and knew the city well enough to prove an invaluable ally. He provided hints, rumors, maps, secrets, whatever she or Palo might ask of him, with no complaints, and with strangely unwavering politeness.

Balras had known Impa’s father when they were both young, even before Mandrag Elgra’s advance on Death Mountain. They had both practiced as medics on opposite sides of that battle, but Balras had since turned his coat, preferring instead to assist the Sheikah rather than shrink in quiet obedience to the King’s demands. She had never met the man before her most recent trip to the Capital, but she was nothing but thankful for his help.

In this city, under this crown, she could use all the help she could get.


 In the Shadows

Chapter Text

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“There is a habit, among the citizens of the Capital, to refer to a pub or other such establishment as a ‘milk bar.’ The origin of this monicker is unknown—perhaps it is a remnant from a stricter, more subdued era, for milk is certainly not the foremost item on their bills of fare. But I did not travel to the most disreputable establishment in town to discuss linguistics with the locals. I came to confirm if the famous Chateau Romani is as enticing or fantastical as the rumors that precede it.”

T. L. Malona, Life and Travels of a Wayward Bard

*

 

The smile on Talon’s face and the way he held his newly-acquired gold coin to his heart told Link that despite the day’s failures, despite his unpardonable disrespect toward his divine King, something had gone right. Link had been a little distracted staring at the mud, wishing that the King’s general would take his foot off his shoulder, to know if the King truly approved of the fire-red warhorse. Talon’s expression after the exhibition had been complicated—he’d beamed for a moment, but his eyes were wide with fear and anxiety, his face red with anger.

After a few stern knocks to the head (Link was very sure he deserved much, much more), Talon drew him up in his arms and squeezed him tight. Link had been dumbfounded at the interaction—it was rare, charged with emotion that he hadn’t the means to interpret. But it didn’t last long, because Talon quickly turned his attention to the gold coin halfway buried in the mud.

Link led the horse back into the stable, untangled her smooth white mane, removed her saddle and brushed her off, unwilling to let the image of the King in all his finery slip from his mind. Talon hurried him along with his chores, preferring to help him bustle through the stables with the evening’s tasks rather than let him linger on the strange interaction he’d shared with the King and his hard-faced subordinate.

When Talon motioned for Link to don his only good waistcoat and change out of his soiled clothes, he knew they would be leaving the palace grounds for the remainder of the night. Link did not mind accompanying Talon to the building a half-mile down the boulevard, alive with light and drink. Even though he knew he’d be deprived of a restful sleep among the hounds, he was often provided with something hot and tasty to keep himself occupied. The warm drinks made him torpid and content, and the proximity to other people, even for a short time, sometimes refreshed him. He was allowed to sit in the corner nearest the fire, which was a treat in the early winter. Sometimes there would be a band on the raised stage near the west wall, toting strange devices of wood and brass, and their movements would send comforting vibrations through the floor to his feet. He’d fallen asleep more than once on the cushions by the fire of that place, which was just as well, since if Talon spent too much time at the bar, he would splay himself across its length and refuse to get up until late morning. The barkeep and his wife, either out of natural kindness or their fondness for Talon, would provide both of them with blankets and let them stay the night, if it wasn’t too busy.

Rain gathered as Talon and Link left the palace grounds. Link’s nose told him to bring an umbrella, so he opened it above both of them as they made their way down the cobblestone boulevard, minutes before the first drops fell. The bar, adorned with colored lamps, stood at the end of the street, sandwiched between two dilapidated brick buildings, nearly hidden in the shadows of torn awnings and rotting wood beams.

When they arrived at the familiar double doors, stained glass glowing with color and warmth, Talon took the umbrella from Link and led him inside. The place seemed especially crowded that night, alive with the vibrations and movements of patrons tapping their feet, picking up and setting down their mugs, shifting on the wooden benches. Talon made his way up to the bar, pushing his way between the broad shoulders of two working men to get the attention of the barkeep.

Link found his usual spot by the fire miraculously unoccupied, so he sat down, massaging his sore shoulder and reveling in the warmth of the flames. He yawned, thinking he might fade away even without the help of a hot drink. He sank back into the worn cushions and watched Talon at the bar, motioning to the people behind it. Link closed his eyes for just a moment, feeling the floor tremble softly under his feet, enjoying the deep scent of the fire, the smells of food and ale wafting from the kitchens, and his stomach rumbled.

Then Talon was standing over him, mug of mulled wine in hand, barkeep’s wife at his side. He gestured toward Link, leaning over to the woman’s ear, lips moving quickly. Link sank deeper into his seat, hoping that he hadn’t done something worthy of punishment, but when the barkeep’s wife knelt down beside him, she only reached out and gently touched his bruised shoulder. Link sat still as she unbuttoned his waistcoat and loosened the ties on the tunic beneath, tugging the cloth down over his arm.

Link had seen the injury while he changed earlier in the evening—he dismissed it as a mild soreness that would heal in a few days. But when the barkeep’s wife saw the discoloration that crept from the top of his shoulder down to the black curves of his brand, she made a face as if he’d lost his entire arm. She prodded it gently, frowning at his mild flinches, before gathering her skirts about her knees and rushing back off into the crowd. Link watched her go, distracted only by the cup of wine that Talon shoved into his hand. He drank slowly, as usual, but the wine tasted different tonight, sweeter than usual—often, when the barkeep served more aromatic drinks, it meant the coming of winter.

Winter wines were his favorite. They had been, ever since that night so long ago when, after he’d had a few sips of an older stablehand’s drink, he’d had the privilege of seeing the Great King and his cavalcade march down the street, decked in the finest festive paraphernalia. And now, even after he’d botched his first personal encounter with his divine ruler, the drink comforted him. Even if the King would never see him again, never condescend to suffer his inferior presence, he would remember how Talon had used their gold coin—an actual, physical sign of the King’s approval (Link found himself growing giddy at the thought)—to buy an evening of relaxation and fine, spiced wine.

When the barkeep’s wife returned with a hot compress and lay it on Link’s shoulder, he gave her a nod of thanks. She smiled at him, pausing to muss his hair for a moment, running her fingers through the waves of gold.

The woman had taken a liking to him the previous year, following her first pregnancy. Over a year ago, on a night quite similar to this one, when she was still swollen with her first child (Link could tell it was her first because she had that peculiar smell about her that older mothers often didn’t), he had sensed a shifting in her abdomen, a strange twisting of mass, an odd and new feeling. Link, unexpected and uninvited, rushed behind the bar to make sure she was all right, and surprised at the visit, especially in such a vulnerable state, she shooed him out. He had tried to express his concerns to her, that something anomalous was happening, that the baby was preparing to arrive early, like foals sometimes did for the horses, but she only waved him away. He was so insistent and obnoxious, she had him (and consequently, Talon) thrown out of the bar. Later that night she had her first child. It had been a painful delivery, and the baby was small and sickly, but it had somehow survived its first year. Now, the infant was probably tucked away, sleeping peacefully upstairs as his mother tenderly attended to Link’s bruised shoulder.

When she had satisfied herself with her nursing, she returned to her place behind the bar, serving other customers. Link adjusted the compress and took another sip from his mug, content. He finished the last gulp of wine and Talon took his mug. When the man retreated back to the bar, Link settled back, the heat of the fire on his face, and prepared to fall asleep.

Then something—something that was not a vibration, not a sight, not a smell—forced his eyes to snap open. He sat up, a disturbing jolt of strange energy running through him, throbbing past his shoulder and down his arms. He looked around for the source of the sinking feeling, trying to figure out if a patron had come in with the pox, if a customer would miscarry later in the day, or if a fight would break out between two belligerent drunks. He spied none of the usual wellsprings for his unease, but he did manage to catch a glimpse of the bar door swinging shut behind an enigmatic figure. The cloaked person swept unheeded through the establishment—the men and women drinking on either side of it took no notice of the cape or the long, almost supernatural shadows it cast. Link narrowed his eyes, the sinking feeling deepening in his stomach. He tried to catch a glimpse of the face under the hood, to at least identify the entity forcing his heart to twist in knots. He gripped the arms of his chair, leaning as far as he could without being suspicious, to get a better view of the figure.

The cloak collapsed on a bench on the opposite side of the room. A thin arm, wrapped in grayish cloth, emerged from the cloak and reached out to the adjacent table. Gloved fingers wrapped around a mug of ale and brought it to the figure’s face, so deftly and quickly the act did not catch the notice of the man to whom the drink belonged.

Link watched the stranger sip at the oblivious man’s drink for a few minutes, stunned. He looked around him—no one else seemed to have noticed this mysterious visitor. He certainly had never seen anyone like it at this establishment before—much less the entire city.

Apparently he did not escape the stranger’s notice. Considering the rest of the crowd was incognizant of this cloaked newcomer, he should’ve known he’d draw attention to himself by staring. The stranger raised its head, the hood rising high enough for him to make out a dark pair of lips and a wide bridge of nose. He could see the curve of an almost feminine chin, a long red mark streaking down a brown cheek—perhaps paint, or a tattoo—and a pair of unnervingly bright eyes. He’d never seen anything like them—only the crimson eyes of the crows that flocked the palace grounds, seeking food and refuge from the rain.

He tried to tear himself away from those disturbing, avian eyes, but found himself locked onto them. The stranger held his gaze, and the sinking, painful feeling in his gut intensified. But as much as he would’ve liked to, he could not tear himself away from her.

He could not tell how long he sat there, helpless. This mysterious newcomer seemed to be picking him apart, peeling him layer by layer, unfolding him, searching through him, and then stitching him back up. It was almost painful, enduring this scrutiny, unable to move.

Then, as unexpected and enigmatic as the cloaked figure herself, a smile appeared on her face. It was calm, natural smile, and it immediately dissipated the terrible feeling in his gut. Instead, something else, something much more mysterious, grew inside him. This feeling had an urgency Link had never experienced before, but it was also strangely exhilarating—he couldn’t pin down why exactly his heart started to race excitedly.

A short tap on his shoulder drew his attention away from the stranger and back up to Talon, who carried two mugs of wine in one large hand, and a platter of steamed vegetables in the other. He set the meal down before Link and urged him to drink. He accepted the offerings with grace, but couldn’t help but look back over to the other side of the bar, seeking the mysterious cloak and the person inside. When he found the bench where she had sat only moments ago, he found it empty. Whether she had sunk back into invisibility or left the bar entirely, he couldn’t guess. All he knew was that now that she had disappeared back into the crowd, he suddenly felt inexplicably, utterly alone.


 The Stranger

Chapter Text

*

“If history is written in blood, and laws in stone, then what in all the goddesses’ names do we use to pen the poetry of the heart?”

Dietrich Aren, “On Verse”

*

 

Link searched for the mysterious woman for days. When he finished work at the stable, when Talon waved him away to make some free time for himself, he crept along the alleys of the city, visiting and revisiting the pub where he had first glimpsed her, stalking the square around the marbled, mossy fountain clogged with grime.

The King had not visited the stables since the day his warhorse had been presented, leaving the animals and their caretakers in a quiet state of anticlimax. The horse herself lounged in semi-somnolence, perhaps lulled into restful idleness by the sense of relief that permeated the stables, or the silent complacency of a horse that knows she’s done right. There was little work to be done, little inspection to worry about. Even the stable master hadn’t shown his face in a while, which meant Link could spend less time shoveling waste and more time seeking out that stranger.

He didn’t have much to go on besides the memory of the sensations her presence brought on at the bar. So when he wandered through the cold, cloudy streets, blue scarf wrapped tightly around his neck, he would follow his gut and the inexplicable emotions inside him—wherever they would lead.

Most of his escapades were fruitless and left him cold, hungry, and discouraged. He could not shake the thought that the stranger had left forever, and he was again alone in the crowded city. But he did not give up. There was something about her, something he instinctively sought out; it almost felt as if he couldn’t give up seeking her even if he tried. He knew the likelihood of finding one person in a city this big, and with nothing to go on, was hopelessly minuscule, but he would not stop searching until he faced her again.

What he would do when he found her, however, he hadn’t the vaguest notion. Perhaps he would simply stare at her as he had before, perhaps grab her hand and squeeze it in a desperate grope at communication, perhaps bow to her in deference, the way he had been taught to greet all those superior to him.

He stopped in his tracks when he got an inkling of that familiar stress deep in his gut. He stopped, clutching at his stomach, and surveyed the street. He raised his gaze to the wet awnings, scanning stairs and alleyways, but saw no one. He kept onward, following his gut where it led him.

He found himself wandering out of his district, into the inner ring of the commoner’s quarters. The houses here were large, stately, but not quite as expansive as those of the noble district, which surrounded the palace grounds. Window boxes full of herbs hung below the tinted lattice casements, over walls smeared with stucco. The houses seemed sturdy, free from decay, and the cracks and roof tiles were not caked with bitumen as they were in Link’s own district. Few people wandered the streets in this part of town—the ones he came across seemed either mildly confused by his presence or disinterested altogether. Passersby were all well-dressed and seemingly purposeful, trotting off to wherever the professional classes went for the evening. Thankfully, no one tried to stop and question him—they accepted his bows with a hurried grace, and left him alone.

It struck Link as odd that the woman he pursued, who had so nefarious a demeanor, should be traveling the brightly lit and clean streets of the upper quarters. Perhaps she was a thief, scouting for a lucrative target to burgle before slinking back into her element of poverty and shadow. Perhaps she was something worse than a mere robber—but the strange feeling inside him urged him toward her not only with caution, but with admiration, even enthusiasm. Inside the fearful memory he had of her shadowy face, there lingered the image of her kind smile. She had instilled fright in him, yes, but she had also banished it.

At the end of the street, he caught a glimpse of a robe, black as night, hem still discolored with the mud from the poorer neighborhoods. He picked up speed, dashing down the road and turning the far corner, only to see the mere suggestion of a shadow disappear beyond another bend. He carefully trotted after it, sidestepping a hurried pair of men dressed in silk. He ducked to avoid a swinging wooden sign, danced around a shopkeeper closing her windows for the night, and reached the alleyway where the figure had disappeared.

Of course, she was not there. He entered the alley cautiously, wondering if she had set a trap for him. Obviously, she knew he was following her—the urgency in her movement and the rhythm of her steps could tell him as much. But he still had no idea whether or not she was going to harm him for it.

Link slowed to a stop when he saw the street ended in a high wall of stone. If the woman had climbed such a structure, he could not follow her, but if she lay in wait, perhaps he could kneel and show her he meant no harm. He crept to the end of the alley, searching for any sign of her, but all he saw was the cobblestone street, the high wall, and a few wooden waste bins. He sighed, slipped his hands into his pockets and turned around. The strange feeling he got from her presence no longer hovered in his stomach—he had lost her.

As he started back toward the entrance to the alley, a sharp scent caught his attention. It was fresh, a little citrusy, like the flowers that bloomed in window boxes in the springtime. The scent came to him from above, and he lifted his eyes.

His mouth dropped open when he spied a girl, pale and long-haired. She opened the window and leaned out, pinning her dripping laundry to the thin ropes that stretched between the walls of the alley. The enticing scent of soap drifted down to him, and he watched her carefully hang out her clothes to dry, holding the pins in her mouth when she needed both hands to stretch the fabric over the line. Her hair hung beautifully down past her shoulders—straw-yellow and silky.

There was a smell about her that reminded him of newness, of nobility. She seemed to be the only creature in the city untouched by dirt and grime, unencumbered by the burdens of overwork. Her slender arms were white and smooth, her dress embroidered with colored lace. Link had never seen a girl like her up close—occasionally he got glances of upper-class ladies at festivals and other city-wide gatherings, but  now, standing merely a few paces away from her door, a story down from her window, he could swear he was in the presence of a supernatural beauty. He resisted the urge to bend one knee as his heart rose into his throat.

By divine blessing or incredible luck, she happened to glance down at him. Her blue eyes were bright, large, undiminished by the city’s hardships. When she matched his stare, he guessed she must’ve been about his age, but her eyes seemed older, so much wiser, than the rest of her. She looked at him a moment before giving him a wide smile. He smiled back, suddenly remembering to take off his hat as a sign of deference. He bowed slightly to her, and she put a hand over her mouth, grinning.

Suddenly, she averted her eyes and turned, distracted by some happening in the room behind her. She gave him one last kind glance and retreated into the shadows of the house, closing the casement behind her and leaving her laundry to dry in the feeble, chilly sunlight.

Link breathed a sigh of something like relief, but his heart did not stop pounding in his chest. He took a deep breath and made his way back to his own district, memorizing the route.

*

Late in the afternoon the next day, Link retraced his steps to the girl’s window. The casement was shut tight, glinting in the late autumn sunlight, yesterday’s laundry missing from the line. He stood beneath the window anyway, searching for any sign of movement behind its flat, opaque crosshatches of color. He saw a few shadows move beyond the glass, but no one appeared.

The tense gnawing in his gut returned, and a terrible thought struck him. Perhaps that mysterious woman, who engendered so much anxiety in him, had laid her eyes on the girl and meant her harm. He couldn’t fathom why, but he had long since learned to accept his inability to understand many things around him.

So he stood guard under the window, waiting for another bout of that passing stress in his stomach, waiting for the subtle smell of his own neighborhood that no doubt clung to the woman’s cloak. He curled his toes inside his boots, feeling for the minuscule vibrations of approaching feet.

But he felt, and saw, nothing. He lingered under her window until the sun crept behind the distant steeples of the palace, until he spied the glint of glass pass over the opposite wall. He turned his eyes upward to see the window open, reflecting the red sun.

To his utter joy, the girl poked her head out and looked down at him, long hair tumbling about her shoulders. She seemed happy, unharmed, and he couldn’t stop himself from grinning at her. She opened her mouth, lips forming shapes he couldn’t make out. He pointed to his own ears and made a negative gesture. She squinted but seemed to understand, so she held out her hand. Wait. He knew that signal well enough.

She disappeared back into her house and he crossed his arms, leaning against the wall, heart pounding furiously. It seemed like an eternity before she returned, small object in hand. He raised his palms to her as she dropped the thing delicately from her window. It fluttered down in a streak of violet, and he closed his hand around it gently, feeling the familiar smoothness of a flower petal against his skin. Between his fingers, he saw the curl of a small purple lily—she must be growing them in that room of hers, away from the freezing air.

He smiled up at her, bowed his head in thanks, and she gave him a wave before shutting the window and disappearing into her room.

*

Over the next week, he returned to her window every afternoon. The vague, disconcerting feeling he’d had in his stomach the past few days had almost disappeared entirely, and he had not seen so much as the shadow of the enigmatic stranger in as long. He was more interested in the girl at the window, who, without fail, leaned out the casement every afternoon to greet him.

After she had gifted him with the lily, he had nearly skipped back to the palace stables, not willing to take his hand off the soft petals. He held it in his pocket against the cold, even though he knew all too well the flower would not last long. Still, she had gifted him with something sweet-smelling and beautiful, and he had every obligation to return the favor. So when he got back to the stables, well past sundown, he collapsed in the hay and held the flower to his nose, thinking furiously.

There were plenty of smells he enjoyed in the stables—the fresh scent of newly turned hay, the earthy musk of a horse’s flank, the calming odor of Talon’s candle. None of these he could bring to her very easily, but he had to deliver something to her—neglecting that duty would be like withholding tributes from the gods themselves. So he settled on one of his favorite smells of all time: one that was seasonal, and fleeting, which made it all the more valuable to him.

The next afternoon, when he had finished his chores, he motioned to Talon that one of the hound’s puppies was coming down with something. He picked out the largest one, the one whose smell was strongest, and wrapped it in his arms. Talon gave him a reluctant nod of approval (Link’s leisurely escapades out into the city had not gone unnoticed), as he left with the tiny creature under the pretense of finding it a veterinarian. Of course, the palace had its own, but Talon seemed to trust him when he took the pup under his arm and waved his hand toward the city, toward help.

He held the little dog close to his heart as he sauntered down the street. If he had not been such a familiar sight to the palace guards, him leaving with one of the King’s creatures in hand would’ve gotten him arrested—or even beheaded—on the spot. But when it came to animals, the palace denizens deferred to him. It was something of his own kingdom.

The black puppy snorted eagerly, trying to wiggle out of his jacket, pink tongue dangling, the mild, milky smell of its indefinable breath filling Link’s nostrils. He took a deep inhale, tugging the animal closer, nuzzling it to keep it calm. It settled back down in his jacket, still curious, still trying to poke its head between the buttons, but he gripped the nape of its neck gently but sternly, as he had seen its mother do many times.

He trotted quickly through the crowds, cross stone boulevards to the upper quarters, and arrived at the girl’s window in good time. He stood under it, waiting for her to notice him, and when she unfastened the casement and leaned outside, a bright look of delight crossed her face. It only grew brighter when he lifted the puppy out of his jacket and held it up for her to see.

She put her hands on her cheeks, smile broadening, and he could see her jump up and down, just slightly, in excitement. The lace on her collar shuddered as she covered her mouth, cheeks reddening. Link grinned back, cradling the puppy against his chest and motioning with his free hand for her to come down. The mere presence of a creature as young as this must’ve been a treat, but in his opinion, it did a disservice to all dog-kind to not appreciate the truly sublime smell of a puppy.

She lowered her hands and shook her head sadly. He motioned again, hoping that she simply did not understand. But she didn’t relent, whipping her head forcefully back and forth, hair flying like yellow silk. Link’s smile faded at her refusal, but she leaned out the window and mouthed something to him, intensely, earnestly. He pretended to understand, giving her a calm nod.

Her delight faded quickly, and her eyes fell, the hints of a pout on her lips. A look of anguish crossed her face, and she grabbed the sides of the casement and shut it quickly, retreating back into her house.

Link stood in shock for a few seconds, cradling the puppy, but eventually tucked it into his coat and dragged himself away from her window. He hung his head, trying to figure out why she refused to join him on the street. The disappointment that washed over him was not a result of her missing out on a most delightful scent, but the fact that if he could not lure her down from her window with something as undeniably attractive as a puppy, he would never lure her down at all.

It shouldn’t surprise him. There were myriad reasons she could be confined to the upstairs of her home. She might be chronically weak or ill—although he caught none of the usual telltale scents of sickness on her. Her family might not allow her to leave their house without explicit permission, or perhaps she simply did not like the idea of going outside.

But the most likely possibility, the one what lingered at the forefront of his mind despite his best efforts to push it back, was that she simply could not be seen in the presence of a boy like him. He admittedly did not know much about the intricacies of the city’s castes—all he knew was that he was expected to bow to those above him. He did not have to worry about responding to anyone below himself—even most of the stable animals garnered more respect than he did.

He really should’ve known better. It wasn’t her fault—she seemed to tolerate his presence well enough. It was his fault for being what he was. He should’ve considered himself lucky enough to stand outside her window and stare. He could barely believe he’d had the audacity to bring a dirty animal into her presence.

He hugged the little dog tighter to himself and made his way back to the stables, where he belonged. He punished himself thoroughly on the walk home, but resolved that if all he could do was linger on the street adjacent to her house, he would have to be happy with that.

So he returned. Again and again, he returned, and each time, she greeted him at the window, smiling and waving to him. She gifted things to him now and then: another flower, a scrap of parchment, at one point a piece of candy wrapped in lovely yellow paper. He had come to her woefully under-equipped, devoid of gifts, but he brought her what he could. The perfect feather of a crow that had alighted on a stable fence, a fresh, unlit candle, a shining horseshoe, which he thought about tossing up to her but reconsidered when she waved her arms in a laughably frightened way. He could imagine the metal crashing through the latticed window in a pray of sharp glass, so he just held the horseshoe in the sun, letting her look at its glint. They both shared a laugh at the theoretical disaster.

Of course, Link’s now common disappearances did not escape Talon’s notice. When he came home every night, he would grab him by the shoulder and turn him around, searching his eyes for any hint of culpability. But he had nothing to show in his eyes, and even when he’d dared to go so far as to bring a puppy out of the King’s kennels, he returned it safe and sound—he had never done anything to warrant suspicion. But Talon, watchful animal as he was, was not so convinced.

He had tried to keep Link busy the entire afternoon with chores both of them knew were unnecessary. He had to sweep and re-sweep the steps, turn the hay over more times than he could count, and clean every stall, every corner of the stable. He was tasked with brushing the red warhorse more than needed. The horse would stand contentedly, shuddering under his brush, and he knew by the way she held her head she understood that he had other things to do. He got nothing but good wishes from that horse, and thanked her profusely for it.

Link knew he had no choice but to obey Talon’s demands without protestation, but he worked so diligently and so quickly, by the time his usual time for escape rolled around, Talon could not cook up anything more for him to do. Reluctantly, shaking his head, the stablehand let him go, crossing his large, hairy arms and frowning widely.

*

She had met with him every day for more than a week. No matter what time he managed to show up, she was always there, always up in her window, waiting for him.

Except for today. When he skidded to a halt in his usual place, he looked up at the glass and saw no movement, no sign of her presence. He waited, leaning against the opposite wall, as the sun sank behind him. He put his freezing hands in his pockets, rubbing them against his thighs to warm them. He jogged in place for a while, before giving up and reaching down by his feet to pick up a stray pebble. He threw it gently at her window, and although it hit the glass and bounced off, she didn’t come. He waited until nightfall, then tried again. Still, she didn’t come. Eventually, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to scope out the smell of the place. He focused his attention not on the window, but on the house, the street, the entire neighborhood.

Slowly, he realized something was wrong. Not just because of the girl’s absence, but because of the unusual stillness about the place. Link lowered his head, looked to his left, then right, then dared himself to walk up to her front door. He knew shouldn’t, but he wasn’t about to give up on his one human friend, the one person besides Talon who had shown him any kindness. He stood before the massive oak slab, heart pounding. Reluctantly, he reached out for the knob and turned it.

Something clicked against his palm, and the door opened of its own accord. He backed up, again looking around him for any sign of people, but he saw none. The smell of wrongful stillness intensified in his nostrils, and he forced himself to push the door open fully.

He wrinkled his nose at the overpowering scent of flowers and fresh wood. Not sure exactly what he was thinking, he slipped inside, closing the door behind him. He stepped through the empty front entrance and moved onto what he assumed to be living quarters.

The room was in a state of complete chaos. Cushions lay strewn on the floor, an overturned wooden table had one leg snapped off—the leg, tinted at its edge in something wet and red, lay discarded in the corner, splinters scattered across the floral carpet. The chairs sat in ruined pieces, shards of glass dotting the floor. Ornate cabinets lay face-down over their broken contents. There was no sign of anyone—whatever had transpired here had done so well before Link arrived.

Fear twisted in his stomach. He forced himself to tread across the room, tiptoeing around shards of broken glass and porcelain, heart fluttering in his throat. As he made his way toward the curving wooden stairs, he thought of the mysterious, cloaked stranger, without whom he never would’ve found his way here.

Anger boiled in him. If anyone had done something of this sort, it would’ve been her. She was shady, she had those weird, red eyes and that unnerving stare… She certainly looked like a thief, but if it had been her, Link should’ve felt her presence. She had such a strong impact on him the first time he’d seen her, he was certain he would recognize her proximity. Perhaps he was merely too late.

He clenched his fists, wondering what to do. If he dragged Talon to this place and showed him the destruction, he would be in for a beating. He wasn’t even supposed to be anywhere near this neighborhood in the first place. If he brought a palace guard or one of the neighborhood militiamen, they might forgive him for pointing out the chaos, but he’d still have to face reproach for trespassing… Either way, he knew he was in for trouble.

His predictive skills proved accurate, if not premature. He saw the pale shadow on the wall only fractions of a second before, in a swift and concise motion, he was struck on the back of the head. He barreled forward, tumbling into the wooden stairs, as pain spread from the base of his neck to the corners of his eyes, blurring his vision. His forehead met the corner of a stair, heavily, painfully, and the world went black.


 The Girl in the Window

Chapter Text

*

“The great castle at the heart of the Capital stands proudly behind stone walls, its three black towers reaching so earnestly for the sky they seem to end only at the clouds themselves. The royal palace is split into thirds, each portion representing a facet of the great golden power of legend. The buttresses that connect each of these portions are stylistic of the pre-war period, but boast many features that define them as distinctly Gerudo in origin. At the very center of the courtyard between these immense structures stands the metal-wrought colossus of the conqueror king himself, Mandrag Ganond.”

 Wenstan Illar, “The Architecture of Lanayru Province”

*

 

Link struggled to open his eyes. His head throbbed, his lips cracked painfully when he moved them. He reached up with a shaking hand and lay it over his forehead, wincing at the pain.

There was hay around him. There was hay, and dirt—but old, rotten, foul-smelling dirt. There was dry wood and more than a little iron, torches, the smell of vomit and decaying food, of other people. And there was something more bizarre, a scent that was both strange and still recognizable to him. With that scent came the familiar twisting in his stomach, the fear and excitement that told him that after his long week of searching, he had finally found the stranger once again.

He turned his head, forcing his eyes open, and there she was. She sat opposite him, brown hands folded. He didn’t move, but drank in her image—her peculiar red eyes, the short, messy shock of almost-white hair contrasted against her dark forehead. A distinguishing mark lay on the skin above and below her left eye, streaks of red reaching almost up to her hairline, and one sharp triangle arcing down, toward her jaw.

He tore his eyes away from the mysterious woman and instead focused on his surroundings. They seemed to be confined in a room about the same size as a horse’s stall, and with twice the filth. Metal bars ran from floor to ceiling over the only entrance, and mud (and something else, something that smelled far less pleasant) seemed to be smeared across the stone floor. Link pulled himself painfully to a sitting position, and he appeared to be on some sort of splintery bench that may have been meant to act as a bed.

The woman watched him carefully, her uncanny eyes following him as he sat up and blinked, forcing his vision to clear. The smells around him, the vibrations in his feet, the distinct feeling of the black stone as he lay his hand on the wall—he knew that if he wasn’t in the palace itself, he was somewhere close.

He didn’t know exactly why they confined him, but he knew it was ultimately because he dared to find a friend in a girl who clearly outranked him. He didn’t see what was terribly wrong with that in principle, since she never physically stooped to his level, but evidently that didn’t matter.

The image of her home, torn to pieces, emerged in his mind, and somehow he knew it was his fault. He didn’t know if they had taken her whole family just because she gave him a flower or two, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that if he had merely left her alone, she would be safe and sound in her room, perhaps waiting by the window, combing her lovely yellow hair. He doubted they would punish her the same way they would punish him, so the why, the true why of this whole mess still eluded him.

He knew he didn’t understand much, especially about laws and customs and manners, and he never would, but he longed to know why a girl so innocent had to have her possessions destroyed and her house ransacked. He hadn’t smelled or sensed her nearby when he’d explored the ruins of her house, so perhaps she’d escaped before the violence started. He knew there was no sense in guessing, but he couldn’t imagine her in a pen like this one, cooped up like a common animal.

He realized the woman across from him was moving her mouth, rhythmically, deliberately. He pointed to his ears and shook his head, and she nodded in understanding. She pointed to him and stared deeply at him, holding his attention. Like the fateful moment in the bar when he’d seen her from across the room, she seemed to hold his gaze on her by force, as she carefully mouthed what he knew was her name or title.

Imma.

It was an odd name. Then again, he could be mispronouncing it in his head. He slowly raised his hand, palm facing toward him, to her mouth, and nodded for her to repeat herself. The quick puff of air that tickled his skin corrected his pronunciation.

Impa.

An equally odd name. He opened his mouth and pushed out his breath, mimicking her lip movements, to confirm he had it right. It was the only way he’d ever learned Talon’s name, through careful correction and plenty of mouth movement practice. Still, he preferred to keep the names inside, because if he opened his mouth and released them, invisible and untrustworthy, into the air, he could not account for where they would go and who would catch them. Names were much safer in his head, where he could keep them and mull them over to his heart’s content.

Impa nodded slowly, not taking her eyes off him. The slight twitch in her brow told him he’d said it wrong in some way, but she hadn’t the inclination to correct him. It appeared she had other things on her mind.

She closed her eyes, momentarily, and Link was released from that powerful stare. She took a breath, then lifted her hands and began to move them. Although gestures were by all means not universal, he considered himself something of a polyglot in that aspect. The way Talon waved his hands was quite different from the barkeep or his wife, who in turn motioned in nearly an opposite manner as the succinct stable master. Link spent a few moments looking the woman over, and was able to piece together her intent and her motions.

You. Follow. Me.

He’d been told that many times before. Follow, obey, do not question. Her gaze left no room for protestation, and he bowed his head. Perhaps if she knew what she was doing, she could get them both out of this miserable place, and he could find Talon, fly into his big, protective embrace and beg for forgiveness. He knew the palace guards would have mercy on him—he hadn’t done anything to warrant this treatment—at least, he thought not. They knew him, they knew he harbored no ill-intent against his King or any other palace hands. He was their friend, their ally, their faithful stableboy. As long as he kept quiet and did what he was told, they would forgive him. He could go back to his friends, go back to the new litter of puppies sleeping in the back of the stable, go back to the fire-red warhorse and her exquisite mane.

But what of his human friend? He could not know where she was or if she was all right. He knew that it was too early to disregard the possibility that Impa had been behind the ransacking of the girl’s house. Perhaps she had simply been caught at the wrong time in the wrong place, and like him, thrown in this prison. But he had no way of knowing.

When Impa reached out and took both his hands in hers, his heart seemed to stop for a moment. The intensity in his gut increased, but instead of fear, he was filled with a mysterious, invigorating awe. The commanding stare she gave him made him certain that she had some sort of plan, and he couldn’t help himself from collapsing under the weight of her will, promising both to himself and to her that he would help carry it out.

She seemed satisfied with his subtle consent, and gave him a weak half-smile. He tried to return the favor, but he couldn’t banish the image of her sneaking into the girl’s house, destroying the rooms, forcing her family out into the street. Smile tainted by that tweak of his imagination, he must’ve given her more of a grimace than anything.

Her gaze suddenly moved toward the bars. Link tried to follow her eyes, but she quickly slid over to his side of the cell and pushed him back down on the bench. She made a motion over her eyelids and hung her head—evidently she wanted him to pretend to be asleep. So he lay back down, folded his hands under his cheek and pretended to close his eyes.

Impa, not taking her gaze off the bars, slowly reached into the black band at her waist and pulled a thin cord from the folds of cloth. She wrapped it around her wrist, slowly, subtly, fist clenching. She perched on her splintery seat like some sort of bird of prey, eyes locked on the gloomy hall beyond the bars. She sat perfectly still for an agonizing few seconds before Link felt the faint but steady vibrations of footsteps shudder through the wooden bench and into his bones. He lay still, watching Impa as her shoulders moved slightly forward, her body tensing. Link recognized the scent of armor-sweat, the torch-kissed, smoky flavor of a well-worn cape, and knew a guard was about to pass by.

Impa was ready for him. Before the guard even registered that their particular cell was occupied, she was at the bars, gripping one horizontal slab of iron with one hand, cord unwinding with uncanny elegance in the other. She snapped it between the bars, its length stretching meticulously through the air, catching the guard on the wrist. The cord wrapped around his arm with such quickness, such precision, he did not notice he had been snagged until Impa yanked him toward their cell. With one fluid, powerful movement, she pulled the cord taut, and the stunned guard flew toward them. Impa twisted the rope slightly in her hands, and his arm’s trajectory changed, sliding smoothly between the bars and into her waiting grasp.

She sidestepped around his arm, now halfway in the cell, wiggling helplessly, and reached for the back of his cape. She took a handful of thick cloth and jerked him toward the bars, his helmeted head smacking against the metal so hard Link could almost see the strips of iron vibrate. Impa wrapped one arm around the guard, in the vulnerable gap between his helmet and breastplate, and squeezed.

Link did not know how long she sat there in almost intimate contact with the guard. She held the  man against the bars, unmoving, while he flailed desperately. She crouched calm and still, like a cat gripping a helpless, fluttering bird. Her eyes narrowed, her body unmovable, tranquil, and for a brief moment, a pang of jealousy struck Link. He was a nervous mess himself, and couldn’t help but sit up, heart pounding, anxious nausea twirling in his stomach. He knew he was panicking, shaking like a mouse, but Impa paid him no mind. She merely held the guard against the bars, arm wrapped tightly around his neck, until his struggling stopped, his arms fell to his sides, and he went entirely limp.

Link’s heart was pounding somewhere in his dry and aching throat. He knew by letting this woman harm the King’s guard, by sitting back and watching as she defied the divine ruler himself by destroying his property, he was implicit in something akin to treason. He did not know exactly how mercilessly they would punish him for falling in with this mysterious and heretical Impa, but he knew he had little choice now. When she glanced back at him, still clutching the limp guard, he fell into those determined eyes, and knew in his gut he would go with her, commit the same crimes as she did, whether he wanted to or not.

He watched her intently when she reached into the folds of the guard’s cape and pulled out a shining  set of keys. She stood, releasing the limp body of the guard, and looked back at Link. He nodded to her and she reached out on the other side of the bars, trying one key after the other, until a smile crossed her face. She leaned, sliding the heavy bars to one side, and motioned for Link to follow her.

Unsure of what else to do, he obeyed. She led him out into the torchlit hall, smelling of piss and dirt. A few other cells lined the walls, ratty, filthy people clinging at the bars, but he did not see the girl among them.

Impa dragged the body of the guard back into their own cell and lay it in the near corner, positioning him behind the stone pillar that functioned as a doorframe. She tucked his legs under him and sat him up in the shadows, and sprinkled hay over the limbs she could not shove into into the darkness. Link looked back at the body—he had to squint to really see it poke out behind the pillar, so it might escape the notice of an unmindful guard or two.

The other prisoners may point it out, though. He supposed that was a risk that Impa was willing to take, because when she led him down the prison hall and up the stairs, she ignored the filthy prisoners clutching at the bars, shaking them so hard dust fell from the ceiling. She ignored their reaching hands,  their open mouths, and moved on. She stuffed the set of keys into the black band about her waist where she kept her cord, and jumped up the stairs toward the prison door.

She lingered at it for a moment, head pressed to the bars, watching for any sign of an oncoming guard. Link slipped safely into her shadow, heart pounding. He couldn’t see nor sense anyone coming, but then again, his nose only worked best when its target was so close that, in this case, it might be too late to run. The only person he could smell was Impa herself, and it was indeed a peculiar smell. The air around her had a freshness to it he didn’t recognize, it almost seemed cold, biting. She smelled like the palace gardens—of course, a lowly stableboy like him had never been allowed inside them, but occasionally, when the wind was right, he would get a whiff of enticing, crisp scents he couldn’t entirely place. She smelled a little less floral than the gardens themselves, but she retained that air of growth, of life—

A tree. She smelled like a tree, he realized. He had once seen a tree, when he was a child. He had stumbled across it, squat and strong, growing from a neglected alley, roots clinging to the earth between displaced cobblestones. He did not know how the thing grew to such a size without anyone noticing, but shortly after he discovered it, the palace guards came and cut it down. He had spent the next few days racked with guilt, knowing that had he not stumbled upon it, it might still be standing, unnoticed and thriving in secret.

Impa, almost sensing his distraction, turned to him and squeezed his shoulder. Still bruised from his encounter with the boot of the King’s general, he flinched a little, but the look she gave him inexplicably comforted him. She stared at him a moment, as if assessing his readiness, then slid one of the keys into the prison door and opened it.

She grabbed his wrist and led him out into the stone hallway. Enveloped in grey shadows, they made their way down the cold, damp-smelling corridor and came upon a second door. Link saw the sky, clouds lit silver with sunlight, through the thin, barred window at its top. He took a deep breath, and fell into step behind Impa as she creaked open the door.

Link could smell the rain. He could smell the grass, the sweet, lively scents of plants. His heart pumped furiously in his chest, pounding against his ribcage so hard he could swear he felt it vibrate in his head. He followed Impa out into the palace grounds, green and lush, and stayed in her shadow, looking around for any sign of guards. He saw none—which was probably just as well, because he was unsure if he would try to run from them or throw himself at their feet in suppliance, to secure some mercy for himself.

Impa dragged him into the safety of the meticulously cut shrubberies that lined the grounds. She ducked behind them, pulling him into the prickly, leafy shadows, and crept along the wall. Link steadied himself on the grey stone, peering through gaps in the tight, small branches, until Impa deemed it was safe for them to emerge.

High above them loomed the three great towers of the palace. They were so tall they seemed to arc in Link’s vision, bending toward the clouds, black, thin, with silver-lined windows stretching along their length. He had seen them from afar—he had a fair view of two of them them from the stables, but the biggest, and the most magnificent, stood too far north for him to see from his own domain. Now, it loomed over him, sending his heart thumping in his chest, forcing his eyes to run up its spectacular height, all the way to where its tip kissed the sky. He almost felt like it would be proper to prostrate himself before the monument, the same way it was only proper to prostrate himself before the King.

But Impa did not afford him the time to tarry and genuflect. Link did not know where she was taking him so hurriedly, but he hoped it was somewhere near the stables. If he could make it as far as that, he could throw himself at Talon’s mercy. Yes, Talon would help him out of this mess. And the King might recognize him as the boy who had trained and groomed that magnificent warhorse, and forgive him. Or, he realized with a shudder, the King might recognize him as the servant that failed to show proper respect and bow when he made his entrance.

Either way, he saw little choice in the matter. He would stay with this woman until he could either secure his own safety, or find the girl with the yellow hair. Impa didn’t seem to be eager to let him out of her sight either, since every few seconds she would turn her head, making sure he was with her.

She sidled along a curving stone wall, looking left and right, and motioned for him to follow closely. She waited until it was safe, and then sprinted across the grounds, quick as a shadow, lowering her head and running nearly at ground level. He barely kept up with her, flailing clumsily, but he managed to catch up, diving into the shade of a massive, iron-wrought statue. He almost felt safe under its huge, raised arms, like he could stop and rest under its massive physique without worrying about discovery. He looked up at it briefly, at its absurd height, the raised weapons, the beard it shared with the current King, and wondered at the uncanny likeness. He didn’t have much time to compare the statue to the King himself, because Impa was whisking him off, tugging him by his wrist, across the grounds to the southeast tower.

They skidded to a halt before its doors, Impa pressing herself against the wall, between the black stone and the generous hedges. Link followed her, squatting in the leaves, and she turned to him, surveying him with those strange eyes of hers. She lowered her head, eyebrows furrowing solicitously—he supposed she was asking him if he was all right. He nodded back, and she led him, crouching, along the dirt, until she came upon a window. She peered through the glass carefully, eyes darting, and raised her elbow. With one quick snap, she struck at the window. A crack crawled along its length, and she struck again, shattering it. With one last survey of her surroundings, she jumped through, gracefully, with little effort. Clumsily, Link crawled through her, cutting himself more than once on a stray shard.

He only hoped he wouldn’t leave too obvious a trail of blood behind him. Impa snuck along the hall, past the suits of armor displayed on either side, standing tall above the lengthy blue carpet. The place struck Link as eerie, almost lifeless—despite the obvious presence of a few guards here and there.

Impa skirted around them deftly, dragging Link behind her, sprinting up steps and down halls, staying out of sight. Every so often she’d stop and look around—not for guards, Link could tell—but for something else, something a little subtler. She gripped her forehead, brow wrinkling in effort, and seemed to be thinking assiduously, before leading him down yet another hall, then up another flight of stairs.

It was all nonsense to him. Especially when Impa arrived at one of the upper floors of the tower and started to kick doors open, one by one, sticking her head in and retreating with a sour look on her face. Link merely followed her, unsure, fearing that any moment a guard might arrive and drag them back down to the dungeons. He wished she would stop lingering, wasting time in such a dangerous place. Whatever she was doing now, it was clearly pointless, whatever she was looking for could be anywhere, any room in this vast palace—

Until the faint, nearly unnoticeable scent of flowers reached him. His heart skipped a beat and he followed Impa eagerly; now he had half a mind to start kicking doors down himself. Impa made her way from one end of the hall to the other, stopping only when she broke down the last door. On the other side, curled on a lush bed overhung with drapes of silver fabric, lay the yellow-haired girl.


 Planning an Escape

Chapter Text

*

“Above all, silence is key. Where there is no silence, there is no knowledge.”

Sheikah Proverb

*

 

The girl lifted her head when she saw them enter, wide eyes inflamed with tears. She rubbed them once, twice, as if trying to clear the image of Impa and Link standing in her doorway. She pulled herself into a sitting position and blinked at them, mouth hanging open. At first she seemed startled at their arrival, but she quickly slipped off the bed (Link noticed her feet were bare, white as porcelain, apart from the bloodstains that dotted her ankles), and ran toward them. She flung himself to him, arms outstretched, and fell against him. The harsh trembling of her body and the wet bursts of air that flurried against his neck told him she was sobbing. He carefully wrapped his arms around her shoulders, tugging her close.

Her scent hit him full force—that soft, fresh odor nearly knocked him to the ground. But he held  her steady, staring at her shining hair, at the slender curve of her pointed ear poking out from her yellow locks. He felt himself heat up, his cheeks flushing, and he swallowed a lump in his throat. Slowly, carefully, he tried to pry her from him, but she only held tighter, heaving sobs forcefully into his shoulder.

It was Impa who finally peeled her off him. She grabbed the girl’s arm gently but emphatically, and twirled her so they faced one another. Impa lifted her chin, tilting her face up toward her own, and her lips started moving. Link kept his gaze on her eyes, on the resoluteness and stringency, and knew the girl would be coming with them. She bobbed her yellow head in affirmation, tears still streaming down her face. Impa wiped one or two, and the girl seemed to accept the touch, though not without reluctance. When the girl had calmed down enough to dry her eyes, Impa stood, leading her to the doorway. Link followed closely, afraid of being left behind in that cold, luxurious room.

Impa took the girl’s hand in her own, and the girl in turn grabbed Link’s, so they made a clumsy chain of bodies as they sprinted to the stairwell. He stumbled after the two, Impa occasionally glancing back at the girl and telling her something he couldn’t make out. He just followed along, trying his best not to trip over his own feet.

Impa led them both to the top of the great stairwell and stopped, peeking down the shadowy curve of steps in the dim light. The yellow-haired girl skidded into her, and Link followed, nearly forcing them to tumble down the stairs in a tangle of bodies. After giving him a brief, damning look, Impa crept down the stairs, sidling along the walls, ducking under the small, stained-glass windows that emanated a cold blue light. Impa stopped them at the bottom of the stairs, raising her hand and leaning out into the hall before motioning for them to follow her.

They dodged from shadow to shadow, ducking behind suits of armor, lingering in the nooks between windows and pillars. Link surprised even himself with how far they got before they came upon any guards.

Impa suddenly pushed them back into the shadows, pressing herself against the wall as two heavily armored men marched by, black metal glinting, red cloaks trailing on the carpet. Each held a massive halberd, sharpened and shining, but neither took notice of the movements in their periphery—Link wasn’t sure exactly how much they could see through the narrow slits in their helmets.

Impa watched them carefully, leaning out into the hall after they passed by. She stepped back across the carpet when she deemed it safe, and dragged the two of them behind her. Link could barely keep up, clutching madly at the girl in front of him. Every once in a while she’d turn her head to see if he was still with them, her bright, blue eyes shining, still swollen from tears. But she kept onward, in Impa’s long shadow, down the intricate halls and decorated corridors. Link thought despite his circumstances he should probably be thankful for the only chance he’d ever have at a tour of the finest architecture in the world.

Link had always dreamt of entering the royal palace. He’d harbored so many daytime fantasies, ankle deep in horse manure, of pleasing the great King so much he would personally invite him into its hallowed halls. Sometimes he saw the stable master dress himself up and make off toward the inner grounds with his head held high—Link liked to imagine that he would occasionally sit at the King’s banquet table as a reward for his service. He would dine on hen, pheasant, steaming potatoes and butter—maybe a wild boar the King had killed for himself on one of his hunts (many of Link’s fantasies were associated with foods—with the exception of the morning after the winter festival, when the palace servants were awarded the leftovers from the feast, he had to settle for cabbage, half-rotten tomatoes, garlic and onions, and occasionally a rabbit caught on the grounds by one of the King’s excellent hounds).

Link—not without a small jolt of terror—realized that at this moment he was the rabbit on the castle grounds. He didn’t belong here, he knew he was an unwelcome pest. And if the hounds smelled his fear, smelled his guilt, they would no doubt come tearing across the castle grounds and drag him back to the stable master, regardless of their former kinship. If he had taught the hounds anything, it was to be loyal to the crown. It seemed he had been a good teacher, but a terrible practician of such loyalty.

Impa skidded around a corner and sprinted down yet another hall, ascending a small, spiral staircase. The lush, vivid colors of the livable spaces of the castle—the tapestries, the carpets, decorative paintings and suits of armor, disappeared as they ascended to the more practical parts of the building. A thick, lovely smell of what must’ve been some sort of meat stew met Link’s nostrils, and despite his current situation, he couldn’t help himself from grasping at his rumbling stomach. Pervasive dilutions of steam and smoke hung at the top of the hallway, and the smell grew stronger. The stones around him seemed to warm with the proximity of stoves, fires and activity.

He thought perhaps they would make their break for freedom straight through the kitchen, mowing down surprised servants, tripping over stacks of food, but Impa skidded to a halt before a pair of cracked oak doors, peering inside before dragging the two of them aside. She seemed to want to circumvent the kitchens, and Link couldn’t blame her. He could smell the heat in those rooms, almost feel the vibrations of feet on the floor and the harsh plunk of knives on wood. It would undoubtedly be a convenient way to get caught.

So they stuck to the perimeter of the tower, slinking through the lesser-used hallways, following Impa’s lead. Link didn’t know how long they had been on the run—it seemed like hours, but he could attribute the time dilation to the furious acceleration of his heart and the panic pouring through his veins.

After they bypassed the kitchens, Impa slowed. She looked back at the both of them, making sure they were still holding tight to one another. She almost smiled—Link could see a ghost of hope in the way the edges of her lips curled. He knew by the look in her eyes that they were close to escape, and he felt his heart slow a little.

Suddenly Impa’s smile disappeared and she whipped her head around, foot sliding back, raising her fists. Link followed her gaze and saw, standing at the far end of the hall, a messy-haired kitchen boy, staring at them, mouth agape. His trembling arms held a massive pile of pans and utensils, his white coat was stained with smears of red and brown. His eyes widened, and he dropped his burden. Link could feel the floor shake as the utensils scattered, bouncing and rolling in every direction. With a panicked look, the boy left his supplies on the floor and began to run.

Impa gave them one last frustrated look and ran after him, stopping at the end of the hall only to call something back to the yellow-haired girl. Link could not make out her words, but evidently the girl understood, since she grabbed Link’s wrist and started sprinting down the hall, back where they came. Link managed to catch a glimpse over his shoulder, and saw Impa rush down to pick up a discarded butcher knife before chasing after the boy.

He hoped fervently she wouldn’t kill him, but he knew better than to rely on that hope. He wondered if he should go back and stop her, but the girl held tightly to him, dragging him onward. She seemed to trust Impa, and she didn’t look back as she rushed Link down the hall, hurried and purposeful. He wondered what the woman had said to her to make her so suddenly determined.

Regardless of her resolute gait, the angry look of purpose on her face, Link could tell she knew as little about where they were going as he did. But she seemed to follow her feet almost instinctively, and he had no other choice but to trust her. He might know for a fact that they were lost, but he also knew surety when he saw it. This girl was following her gut, the same way he had followed his when he first met her under her colorful, shining window.

He trailed behind her as she ran opposite the kitchens, avoiding the heat and smell. He didn’t know if Impa would catch up or when, but he let her drag him, faster and faster, up the halls and stairs of the southeastern wing of the palace.

She flung herself down a corridor, determination growing with each step. There was a strange glow in her eyes, a certain way her hand clenched his that almost unnerved him. She had become different, miraculously different, just in these past few minutes, running in what he perceived to be circles. But she, evidently, knew where she was going.

Unfortunately, she was not stealthy like Impa. She did not have the uncanny senses, the quickness, the slight of hand or the preparedness. When she tore around a corner and skidded to a halt, Link nearly bowling her over, he looked to the end of the hall and saw four armed guards, marching in formation.

It was almost in slow motion that they turned. Link could see every ripple of their capes, every glint of their armor, and when one of them started toward them, hand on the hilt of his sword, Link recognized the white robe, the intricate designs on his breast plate, the near-white, long hair that fell from the bottom of his helmet across his shoulders. This man had seen Link before, driven his foot into his shoulder little more than a week ago. And judging by the way he sprang forward, drawing his sword, he was not delighted to see him again.

The yellow-haired girl whipped around, dress twirling about her, lace bouncing. She grabbed Link and they both sprinted back down the hall, scrambling like mice. He didn’t look behind him, at what he knew was the general, sword raised to cut him down. He just panted, desperately flailing, tumbling after the girl.

He did not know how long they ran. With each corner they turned, with each hall they sprinted down, Link was more and more sure that that general was upon them, sword raised, ready to thrust down, end their lives. He skidded along the smooth stone of the hall, feet slipping, arms swinging, until the yellow-haired girl twisted herself sharply and pulled him into the safety between two pillars. A thick purple tapestry hung between the large columns of stone, and they slipped behind it.

The girl pushed him against the wall, and pulled a few inches of the tapestry aside to see the state of their pursuers. She whipped her head back into the shadows, let the tapestry fall, and pressed up against the wall. She slid along the stones, pulling him with her, hands probing the cracks. Suddenly she stopped. She grabbed his hand and thrust it against the wall, pushing it along the stone. He almost pulled away merely out of instinct, but she held him against the hard surface. He felt every crack and crevice under his fingers, and the stone did not feel odd to him, until she pushed his hand a little farther.

Then the whole wall opened up. Not big enough for a grown, armored man to fit through, but either by accident, deliberate destruction or architectural design, the wall opens abruptly into a thin, jagged passage. The girl, in the dim light behind the tapestry, nodded to him once before slipping inside.

She turned sideways and squeezed through without trouble, gathering her dress about her and pulling it tight around her legs. Link tried to wedge himself in behind her, but he couldn’t fit his shoulders. He pushed uselessly against the stone, reaching out to let her know he was behind her, when suddenly harsh light filled his vision. He whirled his head around, eyes wide, and saw the tapestry fly away, the gray, cloud-lit light of the hallway window bright and cold behind the figures of the guards.

He pushed as hard as he could into the crack, releasing all the air in his lungs. He felt the girl’s arm on his, pulling him into the safety of the stone. He felt the walls close around him, the cold firmness of rock push into his back. He saw the slow—eerily slow—descent of blades, glowing white with the sunlight that filtered through the windows.

But the girl pulled him through, stone scraping his skin, ripping his clothes. He almost rolled out the other side of the crevice, panting, heart thumping against his ribcage. He lifted his hand to his chest and took a deep breath as the girl supported him, raising him from the floor. She smiled slightly at him, and lifted her gaze. He watched the wet sphere of her iris brighten, could see a strange shape reflect in them, something glowing—golden, almost.

He turned around, following her stare. He did not know what he saw then, but it nearly forced him back down to his knees. The yellow-haired girl stepped toward it, eyes wide. Link scrambled to grab her hand and tried to pull her away—something that strange was certainly not to be touched, he was sure. But the girl kept walking toward it, undeterred by his protests. She reached out to the golden light, looking straight into its depths with an eternal fearlessness that Link could neither understand nor emulate.

Link could not look into the strange object’s light as she could; in fact, he could barely raise his eyes to it at all. He did not know what it was, but he did know that this—this thing, whatever it was—was the reason the King, and no one else, was the King. From what he could make out between his teary eyelids, it sat on a pedestal, light tapering as it rose from its wide bottom, ending in a bizarre delicate tip. He couldn’t make out the size of the thing, it was enveloped in such radiance. All he knew was that it was mysterious, it emanated power, and his friend was recklessly walking toward it, arm outstretched. When he grabbed her wrist and tried to keep her from that strange power, she just wiggled out of his grip. Her eyes were wide, her gait slow and deliberate—it was as if this strange light had possessed her, forced her to stare deep into it while Link could barely glance at it.

He couldn’t stop her. Her long, white fingers stretched out toward the bright triangular haze, and she leaned forward, mouth agape. But before her skin could brush against the strange golden object, before she could fall into the haze and let it consume her completely, the door on the other side of the room burst open and in sprinted half a dozen armed guards.


 The Girl Awakens

Chapter Text

*

“Goddesses grant me the power to fulfill my needs, and the courage to chase my desires. But most of all, grant me the wisdom to tell one from the other.”

Common Hyrulean Prayer

*

 

The ineffable golden light held the girl’s gaze so tightly, not even the flurry of danger in her peripheral vision could tear her away from its glow. Capes flinging, swords glinting, the guards advanced, and fear twisted in Link’s stomach. He grabbed the girl’s wrist and shook her, harder than he imagined he could, screaming in his head and hoping that she might receive the message he sent to her through his desperate grasp. Danger, danger is coming.

With a violent tug on her arm, he finally wrested the girl from the gravity of the strange golden entity. She retracted her white hand, eyes flicking back to Link, and he urged her away, to the other end of the room, away from the approaching guards.

Link knew better than to lead her back through the crack from which they emerged. If the guards knew where the crack opened up, they’d have a few men waiting on the other side for them. So he dragged her toward the only widow, the only possible escape he saw, the vibrations of armored boots against the floor trembling up his back and sending shivers through him.

The window arched before them, stained with blues and greens and golds, tall and thin. Link briefly harbored a terrifying image of them bursting through it, flying gloriously into the sunlight only to fall to their deaths, and his legs went weak. He skidded to a halt before the large window, turning to see if their pursuers had caught up. The men seemed to be running toward them in slow motion, capes billowing in the golden light, and Link started to panic.

The girl reached over to him and pulled at his arm, pointing to one corner of the window, between the decorative stretch of stained glass and the black, featureless stone. There seemed to be some sort of latch, some small area of window independent of the rest, lined in thick tar and polished wood. It might’ve been installed so a servant could climb out and clean the shining panes of glass—but Link did not have much time to muse on the origins of the small passage. He just pulled out the latch, pushed open the window, and, after checking to make sure there was an outcropping of stone to catch him, jumped out.

His heart leapt into his throat as the castle grounds spread out before him, almost infinite. The shadows of evergreens and the snaking blue of pools lay concealed under a semi-opaque haze of distance. Air rushed past his face, up his nose, and for a moment he was sure he’d just keep falling, falling past all the floors of the black tower, forever.

He was almost surprised when his feet touched solid stone. He landed on a wide carving of some sort of monstrous creature, snarling and leaning over the empty air. He stumbled for a moment, drawing in sharp breath, half expecting to tumble down the side of the tower, flailing past black stone and long windows, shattering himself on the grounds below. He quelled the nausea rising in his gut and looked back up to the window, where the girl jumped after him, skirts billowing, golden hair flying in the wind. He reached out his arms, clumsily catching her in a wrinkled bunch of cloth and lace. He stumbled for a moment, directing himself to the wall, where he steadied the both of them. He let her down, her feet touching the monster’s stone head, arms shaking. Above them, a ray of metallic light glinted, and an armored head poked out after them. The guard thrust his arm through the window, pauldrons catching on the frame.

Link didn’t waste any time finding out whether the guard could fit himself through the maintenance window. He just grabbed the girl and tiptoed across the monster’s outstretched wing, hugging the wall.

He tried to tell himself not to look down, but he couldn’t help it. The palace grounds stretched out under him, yellowed with turning leaves. The wide, deep moat arced along the edges of the castle grounds, a curl of dark water. Far beyond him, to the east, shadowy forests dotted foothills before giant, bare mountains, blue in the distant haze. The sky itself seemed endless—he’d never been so high up on anything before, and with the nausea and fear came the ineluctable realization of his own smallness, the awe of the astounding vastness of all the King’s land.

The most glorious sight of all, he realized with little surprise, was the King’s palace itself. The biggest and most magnificent of the wings stood tall in the north: thousands of windows, hundreds of doors and balconies, silver columns against black stone, beautiful arches, tile roofing sloping up toward the sky. He stared at it for a long, wonderful moment, admiring its complexity and size, before reminding himself to return to his own plight.

Link and the girl stepped carefully, slowly, against this marvelous backdrop of hills and castle, holding onto each other and the wall for balance. The harsh, cold wind ran through his hair and dried the already chilly sweat on his face, and the girl in front of him occasionally reserved one hand for keeping her skirts from flying upward. It confused Link to see her waste a good gripping hand on modesty alone, but he kept her steady, her hair flying into his face and mouth, whipping his skin like sharp pins. They pressed on, slowly, sliding their feet along the stone, leaning against the walls, occasionally stopping to catch their breath.

They reached the bat-like wingtip of the stone monster, and stepped out onto a thin ledge of roof. Link eyed his surroundings, but could see no way back into the building—just shining black stone. At the corner of the ledge, scraggly tendrils of ivy clung to the wall, small leaves fluttering in the wind. He trotted over the slanted roof to the plants, falling to his knees and examining them. He looked over their viny curls, so expertly gripping the stone, and knew for a fact these vines knew much more about climbing than he did. He could trust them.

He looked back at the girl and nodded. She clenched her hands together at her chest, eyes wide, hair flying in the wind. She stumbled forward when Link swung his legs over the ledge. His own heart skipped a few beats as his feet struggled through the empty air, but his toes managed to find a secure place among the leaves and branches of the creeper, and he started lowering himself. He gripped a thick vine with one hand and motioned with the other for the girl to follow him. She shook her head, and he gestured more emphatically, bouncing on the vines to show their strength. He could almost see a fearful lump in her throat move down the smooth skin of her neck, but she gathered her courage and followed him anyway. She carefully climbed down after him, arms shaking, dress flying in the wind. He swung to the side, waiting for her to lower herself to his level. When she clambered down shoulder-to-shoulder with him, he prodded her to make sure she was all right. Her narrowed, teary eyes glanced fearfully at him, but she nodded, and descended beside him, still trembling.

Occasionally, when her foot would slip or her sweaty palms would slide off a vine, he would reach out with one hand, steadying her on the small of her back, or gripping her wrist in case the rest of her slipped off into the air. Slowly, carefully, they made their down the wall of vines, and eventually Link’s feet touched stone. He helped the girl down beside him, both of them still shaking with effort and fear. Link looked back up, at the expanse of vines that shuddered above him, and marveled at how far they had come.

They found themselves on a ledge much like the previous one, but a short distance away, the stone flared out, mercifully wide—it almost looked like a platform. Link squinted, realizing that what he saw ahead of him was a battlement, and an opportunity for escape. He knew it would be dangerous to reenter the castle, but the alternative, jumping to the ground from this height, was out of the question. So he prodded the girl along the thin ledge, heart pounding furiously, eyes watering against the wind. They crawled along for what seemed like an eternity, until finally, finally the girl’s boots hit the solid stone of the battlement. She jumped off the parapet, landing on the safe, wide passage along the wall, and he nearly collapsed with relief when he tumbled to a halt beside her.

He had no time for rest, no time for celebration. As much as he wanted to linger, catch his breath and wipe the cold sweat off his brow, he forced himself to stand, helping the girl up beside him. He looked back at the tower, at the winged, stone creatures, the expanse of vines, and the long ledge from which they had jumped, then moved his gaze along the expansive battlement. It connected the southeastern tower to the main body of the palace, curving along the moat, dotted with arrow slits. He walked to the exterior parapet and leaned out over the water. He knew it would be a risk, but jumping into the safety of the water might afford them the only chance they had for escape. He looked over at the girl and nodded, and she seemed to understand his suggestion. Her eyes went wide and she covered her mouth, but after a moment of frantic consideration, she nodded back.

Link knew they stood a better chance if they got a little closer to the water, so he ran along the battlement, checking here and there for stairs, a lower outcropping of the building, anything to make sure the fall would not end fatally. After a few minutes of running, they came across a lookout post comprised of a small tower and a platform jutting out over the black water. If they jumped off the tip, they might avoid hitting the jagged rocks on either side of the deep moat.

Link hoped the girl could swim, since he could not. Either she would have to keep him afloat or he would have to learn, fast. He gulped and gazed down over the water, biting his lip, hesitating.

The girl grabbed his arm and shook it. He glanced up at her and saw her pointing furiously behind him. He turned, and his heart sank. Across the battlement, not forty paces from where they stood, appeared a company of guards: the swordsmen they had previously outrun, six or seven archers, and the large, sliver-armored general at the forefront. The archers, swift and easy, pulled arrows from their quivers and nocked them, drawing the bowstrings back by their shadowy, narrow-slitted helmets. Link stared at the glinting tips of their arrows before raising his eyes to the general. He barely had time to make out the slow rise of his hand, the movement of his chin under his helmet, as he commanded the guards to fire.

Standing helpless on the parapets, Link uselessly raised his arms against the barrage of arrows. Time seemed to slow, and he saw each thin sliver of wood fly through the grey sky toward him. He felt the sharp wind follow the shafts, panic rising in his veins. An arrow landed at his feet, ricocheting off the stone with a puff of dust. Another flew past his ear, lost forever in the air behind him. Yet another barely missed his arm, ruffling the green cloth of his tattered shirt.

He backed up, panicking, and something thumped into his chest. His eyes widened, his breathing stopped, and his foot instinctively slid back, trying to keep his body steady. In the window of slowed time his own terror afforded him, he dared to look down at himself. A long black shaft protruded from his ripped shirt, brown fletching quivering in the wind. For a horrifying moment, he could not distinguish where he ended and the arrow began; the wooden shaft, slender and almost curved, seemed an inextricable part of him.

He lost all feeling in his chest for a moment, and raised his hand to the base of the arrow jutting from below his right collarbone. He had to feel the wood beneath his fingertips, he had to make sure the shaft was real, before the wave of pain actually arrived. His head swirled, his vision blurred, and he stumbled back, bracing himself against the agony that spread from his chest outward. He wavered, blood running down his skin, and twisted his body, looking over at the girl.

She stared at him, eyes wide, mouth agape. Her already pale face had drained of all remaining color, and he saw her reach out for him, slowly, painfully slowly, panic spreading across her features. He almost reached back, almost touched his fingers to hers, as he lost his balance. He fell too slowly, tripping backward over the parapet, hovering in midair, timeless.

The only thing in focus was her face, her beautiful, narrow face, showing such concern, such bewilderment at his injury. He marveled at it, blind to his own pain, for a long, wonderful second, shafts of arrows flying between them, until one of the thin black bolts disappeared into the soft white skin of her neck.

She blinked, a sphere of blood emerging at the corner of her open mouth, dainty as a raindrop. She raised her hands to her neck, grasping at the arrow, but before she could wrap her fingers around the dark wood, blood began to pour from her wound, running down her front, staining the lace of her dress. Her eyes, wide with panic, darted to his and fell after him, over the parapet, dress flapping in the wind.

She left a vertical trail of blood in her wake as she soared over the water, neck limp, legs splayed.  The droplets gathered like constellations as she fell, spurting from her wound, floating, or so it seemed, motionless in the air. Her eyes glazed, her hands limply thrown above her, she twisted downward alongside him. He tried to grab her, to touch her bloodied fingertips with his own, but he couldn’t reach. They each tumbled toward the moat, hopelessly alone, bleeding into the uncaring air.

Then, after an eon of falling, of twisting and panicking and wishing fervently to survive, Link hit the black water.


Falling

Chapter Text

*

“It is habit among the poorer townsfolk of the Capital to scavenge the palace’s outer grounds in the vain hope that something of value will appear. They can often be found sitting at the edge of the moat, looking for treasures that may bob to the surface. But the palace logistics are anything but wasteful—no food is spared, no materials squandered; the palace’s ministers are masters of funds. What items may happen to appear at the surface of the moat are undoubtedly scraps—mere trash. Still, that does not deter the people. The more frugal of them operate under the old adage of one man’s trash being another’s treasure, and with the correct attitude and a modicum of creativity, I suppose it is true.”

Samuel Red, Common Life under Dragmire Rule

*

 

When Impa helped Palo pull the bodies of the boy and girl from the moat, hidden under the arc of the sturdy drawbridge, she couldn’t hide her abject shame. It was if her own life had left her as permanently as it had the young corpses floating in the water. She struggled to breathe, but not with the effort of hauling the dead weight onto the black rocks.

“You did all you could,” Palo said morosely, dragging the pale, limp body of the teenaged girl from the cold water and laying her on her side. Her eyes, wide and lifeless, stared meaninglessly into the darkness until Palo closed them, brushing his fingers down the wan, cold skin of her eyelids. Impa couldn’t stand to look into the girl’s face, couldn’t stomach the arrow that still protruded from her neck, washed clean of blood. She focused on retrieving the boy, equally limp, pierced below the collarbone with a similar arrow.

“Palo.” She forced herself to speak, voice cracking with regret. “See if she’s out there, over the moat.”

The man narrowed his eyes at her, and she could just make out the flattened outlines of the two dark red tattoos over his eyelids. “What would be the point, Impa? She’s of no use to us dead.”

“Just do it,” she insisted. She tugged the boy’s body out of the water and he collapsed inertly onto the stones.

Palo sighed and closed his eyes, revealing the full width of the lenses of truth that colored the skin on his lids. His mouth contorted; he pressed his lips together, as he always did when searching for a recent death. He remained stoic and vigilant for a few minutes, red tattoos scanning the water just as real eyes would. When he opened them again, it was with a defeated frown. “She’s not here.”

Impa sighed, lifting the boy from the rocks and examining him. “Palo… this one is still alive.”

Palo frowned. “Oh, well good. We can keep him as a pet, then.” When Impa shot him a disdainful look, he saw fit to continue: “You need to learn to stop your bleeding heart. We can’t afford to have a useless tag-along. He would only be a burden.”

“I don’t think he’ll be useless.”

“What tells you that?”

“I just feel it.”

Palo shook his head, bending down to look at the pale, barely-breathing boy, arrow sticking from his chest like a triumphant flagpole. “Look, Impa. If that came from your grandmother, I’d believe it. But you aren’t her.” Palo glanced up into the shadows of the drawbridge above him. “Besides, the guards will be searching for two bodies.”

“But they don’t care about his. He’s nothing but a palace slave. Look.” Impa tugged the cloth of his soaked shirt below his left shoulder, revealing an intricate black mark. “They won’t spare more than a second to search for him. They might not even notice him gone.”

Palo shook his head. “Why are you so insistent?”

Impa stood, pulling the limp boy off the wet rocks and into her arms. He shifted slightly, a moribund shudder coursing through him. She gave Palo a determined look—one that he’d seen a hundred times before. She did not need to open her mouth before he acquiesced.

“Fine.” Palo crossed his arms and nodded to the girl. “I suppose we ought to leave her here.” He looked down at the pale, limp corpse and his face fell. “Gods forgive us.”

“It’s not the gods’ forgiveness we need,” Impa answered, “It’s the elder’s.” She drew the boy tighter to her, and felt his heat seeping into the air with each passing moment. He didn’t have much time. “I have to get him to Balras. Give us a disguise.”

Palo twisted his arm and shoulder, pulling his cloak off with one graceful motion. He threw it around Impa, and as she felt the warmth of the cloth fall around her, she also recognized the tingling, heavy feeling of deceptive magic. The cape fluttered to a still slope around her shoulders, concealing herself and the injured boy in her arms. She turned him so even the arrow that stuck from his breast lay beneath the cloak and its protective spell, and he groaned a little in pain.

“It’s a shoddy disguise, compared to what Talm could think up,” he admitted, “but it should hold until you get back to the good doctor’s. No doubt the guards’ll be here to look for her corpse shortly. I’ll distract them for a while.”

“Thank you,” Impa sighed. She looked briefly at herself in the waters of the moat and saw an old, wrinkled hunchback staring back, bent over with effort and the extra weight of her large hump. It was only halfway decent, but it would have to do. Disguising two people at once took time and energy—both luxuries that they did not have at the moment.

“Good luck,” Palo said, before giving her a traditional Sheikah salute. He smiled and leapt up the steep slope of jagged rocks, away from the water. He flung himself into full view of the palace lookouts, gleefully leading their shouts and gazes away from Impa and the dying boy. Palo swept along the crest of the rocks surrounding the moat, soaring through the air, dancing on the tips of stones. Impa resigned herself to no such freedom of movement—after all, she was an old, frail woman with a debilitating deformity. She said a quick prayer over the girl’s corpse, trying to keep her heart from shriveling up completely, and turned, ascending the rocks slowly and carefully back to the shadows of the city.

It felt like a terrible betrayal, leaving the girl there like that, cold and unmourned. Impa knew her parents were already dead, and she had no siblings, no cousins, no aunts or uncles—at least, on the correct side of the family. No, she had been the last of her kind, their last hope. And now Impa had to resign herself to leaving her corpse to rot by the moat, carrying instead a living boy, no more than a slave.

Why did you have to live where she died? she said silently to the young man in her arms. It would’ve been better if you had taken the arrow for her.

Impa knew her unwelcome, bitter thoughts would not help her now. She knew she should let them go, let the frustration slide past her harmlessly, deflected by her strength. It wasn’t like her to dwell on the past, to live in regret. According to the teachings of her elders, it wasn’t like any true Sheikah. But then again, she had Hylian blood diluting that of her own people’s, and it seemed to her that her lapses in her training were the direct result of it. She was sure it was her own muddied lineage that broke the tight hold she had on her own mind and allowed her thoughts to wander; she was sure it was what kept her from inheriting her grandmother’s gift. It undermined her, distracted her, and if she could wash away all the blood inside her that was not an asset, she would waste no time drawing it and letting it flow. She would gladly destroy the parts of her that held her back—if she knew how.

But she didn’t. She was a failure in nearly every respect. She could not suppress the taint in her blood, she couldn’t gaze into the future. She had gotten distracted, she had lost track of her ward, she had let their only hope die, flying off the battlements of the king’s palace with an arrow in her throat.

Princess, oh princess, I’m so sorry, Impa said to herself, struggling up the rocks, slipping between two dilapidated buildings and leaning against the wall. That’s the worst part—you never knew. You never knew your station, your duty, you never knew your own power.

And now Impa would return to Doctor Balras with not the scion of the royal family in hand, but a  gravely wounded stableboy, unimportant, unwanted. She didn’t know why she was taking the time to save this young man, so pale, so fragile-looking with his white skin and soft features. She supposed it was because he had sought her out. They already seemed to be destined to run into one another; an inexplicable voice in her head told her she had some sort of responsibility to keep him alive.

She hugged him closer to her and leaned out from her hiding place, looking over the moat. She saw the black, thin shape of Palo, dancing past guards, arrows flying over his head. He twisted his body, evading death almost playfully. He probably knew Impa had long since left the drawbridge—it wasn’t unlike Palo to endanger himself for the sake of a little fun. She shook her head and tore herself away from the spectacle of silhouettes across the water.

She made her way slowly through the streets, with a distinct limp, weighed down by what passersby would attribute as a hideous deformity. She slipped past uninterested townsfolk, feet heavy, hunched over. She pushed onward, past the near-palace districts into the slums, thankful that the most attention anyone paid her was nothing more than a disgusted glance. She easily stumbled from shadow to shadow, occasionally glancing down at the boy in her arms. He shivered, his eyelids fluttered, but mercifully, he did not wake.

He was by no means a light burden. He was a solid lad, well-built, not too scrawny. His legs were long, his shoulders wide, and he was certainly no longer a slight child, easy to carry and conceal. If he was not officially a man yet, he was certainly close, and he weighed like it.

Still, Impa carried him, struggling along at a distressingly slow pace. She feared he would die before she arrived at Balras’ door, but she kept walking through the filthy, crumbling disasters of the poor districts, where the cobblestone made way for mud and houses for shacks. Squat, leaning brick apartments, smelling of decay and poverty, stretched along the length of the street, and it was in front of one of these buildings that she stopped. Only after checking her surroundings to make sure she was not followed, reached out a gnarled old hand and knocked.

By the time the door opened, her disguise had worn off, and she stumbled into the building, cloak flinging from her back in a brown ripple. Doctor Balras made way for her, swearing at the sight of the boy she brought with her.

“What in all the goddesses’ names have you done?” he asked. She just stumbled across the room, almost tripping over the doctor’s petulant grey cat, and threw the boy on a sullied mattress under the window. The doctor saw to all of his patients on that ratty thing—his apartment wasn’t the most desirable milieu for procedures, but he served the poorest people of the city practically for free, so he didn’t have money to spend on upmarket medical supplies.

The doctor strode up beside Impa and looked down at the young man. “I was expecting a princess, Impa. What is this you’ve given me?”

Impa couldn’t help but hang her head. “Balras, forgive me. She’s dead.”

The doctor’s eyes widened, and his mouth twitched. He stood in stunned silence for a moment before drawing his eyebrows together and sighing. “Well then,” he said. “I suppose we had better focus on treating the one who’s still alive.”

Impa had expected rage. She had expected disappointment, distress, a lengthy reprimand for her unforgivable incompetence. She had prepared herself to swallow whatever words Balras had for her, whatever shame he could cast over her with his words and glances. But he only turned to his new patient, leaning over the boy, frowning. His calm silence, his unexpected acceptance of defeat, almost shook Impa more than any rebuke could.

She just stood by as Balras prodded the boy’s wounds, lips wiggling in thought. “He’s lucky. Very lucky. But we need to hurry. I’m going to need you to hold him down while I extract the shaft.”

Impa did as the doctor instructed, leaning with all her weight onto the young man’s shoulder as the doctor gripped the arrow. With more than one tug, and more than one half-conscious cry from the boy, the shaft came free, smooth steel arrowhead still attached. “We’re fortunate this wasn’t barbed. Goddess help him if that were the case.”

With the removal of the arrow came the release of a torrent of blood. It ran down into the boy’s armpit, staining the mattress below him. The doctor instructed Impa to press gauze over the open wound as he went to his glass cupboard and pulled out vials and jars, dried leaves and crushed roots. He placed them at his table while Impa stemmed the bleeding, watching the boy’s eyes for any sign of regaining consciousness. He remained mercifully unaware as the doctor mixed his ingredients in a blue-tinted jar, waiting for it to settle.

“This is a disinfectant of your father’s invention, did you know?” he asked, looking over his shoulder at her, spectacles shining.

“Yes, I did. I can recognize the smell.”

“Ah, of course.” The doctor picked up the jar, pulled a white cloth from the cupboard, and sat down beside her. “Did he ever teach you the tricks of his trade?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” Impa answered.

“Well, why am I doing all the work, then? I should be making you do all of this!” He laughed a little nervously, motioned for her to lift the gauze, and he poured a generous portion of the medicine onto the wound. The boy hissed, twitching his arm, gritting his teeth, but he didn’t open his eyes.

The doctor garnished the wound with a sprinkling of red leaves—leaves Impa recognized as a potent anti-inflammatory—before wrapping the boy’s shoulder and arm in a long white bandage. “There. We’ve done all we can about that. Does he have any other wounds?”

“Let’s find out,” Impa said, drawing her knife and cutting open the boy’s shirt.

At the sight of his brand, the doctor clicked his tongue, shaking his head. “Is this the stableboy who’s been following you around?”

“Who told you he was following me?”

“Palo. He said you had a little Hylian admirer.”

Impa couldn’t stop the childish heat from rushing to her face. She didn’t need the doctor to know all the small, inconsequential details of her reconnaissance—it made her look nothing less than amateurish, to have a young man follow her around when she was supposed to be doing the hunting. “That’s the last time I divulge any details to Palo,” she muttered.

“Do not worry yourself, Impa. We are your allies, there is no harm in us knowing a thing or two about what you encounter during your missions.” The doctor lay his hands gently on the boy’s wounded shoulder and he twitched in his sleep, but otherwise seemed all right.

Impa looked down at his pale face, blond eyebrows drawn together in soporific pain. “I had intended to lose him and forget about him,” she admitted. “I don’t know if Palo had informed you of this… but he was the one who got the princess to emerge from her hiding place. Every day she would open her window to wave down at him. It was his coaxing that let me look at her long and hard enough to know she was the one.”

“And how did he end up here with us, and not her?”

Impa sighed. “After the palace guards came for her father, he found the carnage. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When I persuaded the soldiers to… escort me to the palace prison, they happened to throw me into a cell with him. There was something about him—something desperate. At first I thought I would just help him escape. I knew he had nothing to do with all this; he’s just a deaf stableboy.”

“Hm…” The doctor lifted the young man’s shirt, examining the scrapes and bruises along his torso. Seeing nothing serious, he replaced the cloth and focused on tugging off his soggy boots.

“He was with me when I found the princess at the castle. Shortly after that we were separated… a kitchen boy saw us, so I had to dispose of him. I told the princess to hide herself and the boy, and when I got back to where I’d left them, they had disappeared.”

The doctor grunted, looking over the stableboy’s feet. “He’s got a badly sprained ankle, but it’s nothing to worry about. Continue.”

“I thought… we were in the southeast tower, Balras. I knew that she had heard the call of her birthright. So I tried to follow them there. I looked for a way to enter the tower, to see if she had indeed reclaimed the power she should’ve rightly been born with.”

“Wouldn’t that have been spectacular?” the doctor asked, tugging at the boy’s pants and examining the purple bruises on his legs. “For you to have escaped the palace with that kind of power at your disposal?”

“It would’ve saved us a lot of time in the future,” Impa admitted, leaning to help him remove the young man’s wet breeches. She saw him shiver, and so replaced them with a blanket when the doctor confirmed he had no serious injuries below the waist. “I hoped, I really did, that she had found her way there. All I needed to do was retrieve her, then. The only way I could get up to the tower took me across the battlements, but by the time I got halfway there, they’d already…” Impa’s chest tightened, her voice raspy and strained. “The guards shot them off the battlement and they fell into the moat. So I signaled to Palo. I ran as fast as I could to the drawbridge and down to the water. Luckily no one saw me.”

“And that’s where you found him?”

“Yes.”

Balras cupped his chin thoughtfully, staring down at the twitching boy. “I still do not know why you decided to save him.”

“Neither do I.”

“Is it because… well, perhaps there is a chance he has some royal blood in him?”

Impa glanced down at the young man and bit her lip. He had the same eyes, the same pale skin, darker but still golden hair. But so did many Hylians. If somehow royal blood had made it into his veins, it was as thin as any ordinary peasant’s. “Doubtful. It’s possible, but we had already confirmed the girl and her father were the only ones in the city with the royal lineage. Unless they’re siblings, then chances are he’s just a commoner.”

“But there is a slim possibility.” 

Impa couldn’t tell if Balras’ words were full of misplaced hope or something else. “Very slim,” she answered.

The doctor wiped his hands on his trousers, sighing. “Well… I can’t say for sure, but he’ll probably be all right. The arrow was the worst of it, which is saying something. Sounds like he’s been through a lot.” Balras lay his hand on Impa’s shoulder. “And so have you. You should get some rest.”

Impa shook her head. “I’m fine, I should watch over him. At least until Palo gets back.”

“Impa, I insist you go to bed.” There was a sternness in Balras’ eyes that she couldn’t disregard. He did remind her of her father, just a bit. “I will take care of him until Palo returns.”

Impa nodded. She hadn’t realized how tired she was until now, prompted by Balras’ words. She turned to his rickety stairs and hauled herself halfway up. The wood creaked beneath her boots, and she stopped, staring down at her feet. “I’m sorry, Balras,” she said.

“Don’t torment yourself over this, Impa,” he answered. “Everything will turn out as it should.”

As it should. There was an admission of helplessness in that statement that unnerved Impa. She’d rather not leave everything to fate if she could help it.

She collapsed onto the ratty mattress in the room she shared with Palo, but she could not force herself to sleep. When she closed her eyes, she saw the girl’s corpse, forsaken on the rocks under the drawbridge. She saw her glazed eyes, more gray than blue, staring sightlessly, ringed with discolored flesh. Impa turned over, trying to banish the young princess, but she was on either side of her, staring, arrow protruding from her throat like an accusation. No matter how Impa tried, she couldn’t evade her failure, couldn’t evade the fact that it was because of her their last hope had died. There was no escaping it: the royal line had been exterminated.


 Palo Scans the Horizon

Chapter Text

*

“When I was a young girl, my mother sat me down on her knee and said, ‘Child, know this: there is nothing in this world which time and rest cannot cure.’ She later died of consumption, wheezing, in her sleep. She always was a mercurial woman.”

Errachella, Eldine Performer

*

 

“He should’ve woken up by now,” Impa muttered, staring into the stableboy’s pale, almost green face. “You said he was through the worst of it.”

Doctor Balras cupped his unshaven chin and shook his head. He looked like some sort of bird, with his bright round spectacles and hooked nose, staring down curiously at the stableboy from the safety of his tree. “Yes, he should be. But it appears he is not as well as I would’ve hoped.”

Palo sat on the splintery table (used for both examinations and meals, since the doctor could only afford one), picking his teeth with his knife, flicking the debris from its blade. “Maybe he’s just not meant to live.”

Impa whipped her head around and shot him an accusatory look. Before she could upbraid him, the doctor pushed his spectacles up his nose and cleared his throat. “My theory is that the arrowhead introduced some sort of toxin into his blood.”

“But palace guards don’t poison their arrows,” Impa said. “We’ve never seen them do it before.”

“Maybe the policy has changed.”

“Or, maybe,” Palo said, sliding off the table and crossing his arms, “he’s just not meant to live.

Impa narrowed her eyes at him, moving herself almost protectively between the boy and Palo. “Do you say that because you can sense it? Or because you’re planning to do it?”

“We don’t need a burden like him, Impa. It would be easy enough to—”

“Hold your tongues, both of you,” Balras said. “The boy is like anyone: neither meant to live nor to die. However, it is my duty to do what I can to help him.”

Impa couldn’t stop herself from thanking the man. Palo just shook his head, pulled himself back onto the table and resumed picking his teeth.

“I will take another look at him, Impa. For you.”

Balras smiled at her and she couldn’t help turning her gaze to Palo, still smirking, still slowly shaking his head as if he knew something they did not.

*

Impa stood at the foggy window, staring out into the street, through the whitish haze of drizzle. She watched for suspicious passersby, for any pair of eyes that stood out to her as malicious. But things seemed peaceful. The palace’s soldiers hadn’t followed them to this muddy, dilapidated district, and it appeared no one residing on this street harbored any intention of turning them in. They were alone, unwatched.

It did not strike Impa as unusual that the palace would not miss a servant enough to send the guards out after him. It did, however, seem odd that the guards would have no interest in tracking down the two Sheikah invaders that had raided the King’s palace and caused such an uproar. She had heard more than a few stories as she eavesdropped around town, passed from mouth to mouth, from peasants to professionals, from soldiers to seamstresses, that two spies had infiltrated the palace in an attempt to assassinate the King. Variations on this narrative were as diverse as they were ludicrous—the two intruders had both been taken out and their bodies recovered from the moat; the King himself had put them to death with his own broadsword; they had managed to kidnap a magistrate’s beautiful daughter; they were not intruders at all, but royal ghosts who had wandered north from Oldcastle, out to avenge the rulers of those crumbled ruins.

It was just as well—whatever lies people spoke among themselves only served to conceal the truth from the sniffing noses of the King and his hounds. Consensus among the people was that the intruders had been killed quickly, without mercy. No one was looking for two Sheikah and a deaf stableboy in this neighborhood.

So she decided she could afford the luxury of music. If someone heard the light, benign plucking of her harp beyond the moldy brick walls, they would think nothing of it. She needed to feel the strings under her fingers, needed to relieve that aching stress in her stomach, and let her worry dissipate into the air with the fading melodies.

She retrieved her old harp from the doctor’s closet, brushing the dust off its soundboard and twisting the pegs. She coaxed out a few songs from the old strings and let the music fill her. She felt her breath slow, and her heart beat steadily with the music.

She glanced over at the sleeping stableboy, sweating profusely, twitching in pain, and wondered if the subtle vibrations of her notes could reach him, deep in his fretful sleep. When she plucked out a final, fading arpeggio and lowered her harp, she couldn’t help wandering over to his side. She stared down into his closed eyes, tried to imagine what he saw in his sleep.

“You’re being unusually solicitous around him, Impa.” Palo’s voice destroyed her meticulously crafted post-music silence, and she turned to see him leaning against the creaking, peeling doorway. “Then again, you always did have a thing for boys who look like girls.”

Impa ignored Palo’s remark. She set the harp down and sat by the boy’s side, staring at his motionless face, looking for signs of him waking, or dying. The doctor’s house cat, a normally antisocial animal, crawled onto the foot of his mattress, purring, patchy gray tail flicking contentedly. Impa could not sit too close to the little monster, and even Palo, who feared nothing, kept his distance.

She sighed. “I don’t understand. Balras says his wounds are clean, but he’s not getting any better.”

“Maybe he hit his head on the way down into the moat,” Palo suggested. At Impa’s incredulous look, he shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “Look. I understand you regret the failure of this mission. I’m at fault, too. But we cannot save everyone we see crushed under the heel of this regime.” He stepped forward, laying a hand on Impa’s shoulder. It was strangely warm. “Leave him, Impa. Let him die. We must get back to Kakariko. We have to let the elder know.”

She bit her lip, letting her heavy eyelids flutter closed for a moment. She imagined looking through her lids, like her partner did, into the spaces between the shadows, where no other could see. She thought for a moment, carefully. “Palo, tell me if death is around him.”

He was silent for a moment. “Sorry, Impa, I can only recognize it after the fact. If I could see death before it descended, everyone I love would be alive today.”

Impa sighed. She lay her hand on the boy’s forehead, his skin cold and clammy beneath hers. “Balras insists it’s poison.”

“Then it probably is.”

“What would make the palace guards tip their arrows all of a sudden, though?” Impa said. “And if it is poison, it’s slow—incredibly so. Too slow to be useful on a battlefield.”

Palo narrowed his eyes. “Does it matter? All we know is that he’s been getting worse. It’s been this way for days. He’s not—” The look Impa gave him forced his mouth shut, and he sat down beside her, well away from the belligerent house cat. “You’re really that invested in him? Are you sure it’s not just because you feel responsible for him?”

“I’m not sure of anything,” she answered. “But I have a feeling. It’s merely a slight echo of my grandmother’s certainty, I admit. But it’s there.”

Impa and Palo turned when the doctor rattled at the front door. Palo pulled himself off the mattress and glanced back at her. “If you’re mistaken, about any of this, there will be consequences. If he’s more than a mere stableboy, if he’s important to the King, when they find him here they’re going to kill all of us. Just a warning.” With that he waltzed to the front door and opened it for the doctor, wearing a wide, welcoming grin.

*

Darkness fell again, heavily, with the rain. Impa listened to the pattering of drops on the doctor’s tin roof, and stared at the flecks of light reflected in the broken windows. Balras and Palo stood over the sleeping stableboy, studying him.

“I’ve little doubt of it,” Balras said. “It’s it must be derived from some sort of nightshade.”

The boy had only gotten worse the past few days. The doctor’s gray cat, usually such a terror, had settled into the crook of his neck and clawed at anyone who dared touch the boy’s green, clammy skin.

“So what are you going to do about it?” Impa asked.

“I have a friend who specializes in venoms of plant and animal. He might be able to share with me some herbs that may help.” The doctor shook his head, took one long look at the sleeping boy, and walked to the door. He grabbed his ratty coat from a rusted hook on the wall and donned it. “I can’t believe I’m going to have to go beg my competitors for their assistance.” He laughed, heartily, until the chuckles turned into coughs and he hunched over his hands, hacking. He flung the door open, still coughing, and disappeared into the rainy night.

“Something’s wrong,” Impa said, staring at the front door, still shuddering with the impact of the doctor’s spirited slam.

“Of course there is,” Palo replied. “We have a dying peasant on our hands and we don’t even know why.”

Impa shook her head. “It’s not that. It’s just…” She moved to the young man’s side, standing in the flickering shadows of raindrops from the high window, and stared down at him. “It’s not poison.”

She could sense Palo stiffen behind her, she could almost feel the anxiety in the way he shifted his position. “You said that before.”

Impa glanced at him over her shoulder. She knew he could see the accusation in her eyes, but she said nothing. She merely knelt beside the sleeping boy and pulled the covers down below his chest. His skin was clean, if not too wan, and there was no sign of a creeping infection. So she pinched the edge of his bandage in her fingers and pulled, slowly lifting his shoulder to unwrap it.

“Impa, how are you so sure it’s not poison?”

She shook her head and continued undressing the wound, pulling loose the length of clean cloth. She made sure to look in the nooks of the boy’s flesh as she went—examining the soft space around his ribs, the small tuft of hair under his armpit, the shadow of his collarbone. She lifted the gauze away, peeling back the bloodied strip of material, to reveal a clean, uninfected wound. The skin was a bit swollen, the puncture caked in dried blood, but there was no sign of poison, no sign of any obstacle to proper healing.

Impa knew then the boy’s ailment was not medical in origin. Someone, at some time, had sabotaged his recovery. With a pang of despair, she realized Palo had plenty of opportunity to infect the boy with some curse or another. His comments replayed in her head, quickly, viciously, and she held her breath. It would’ve been easier, better even, if the young man had died and saved them the trouble of caring for him, but she did not know if Palo had the resolve to stoop to such means. Then again, he always had a nonchalance regarding the topic of death…

She glanced back at him, and he just swung his legs, sitting on the table. He raised his eyebrows at her. “So?” he asked.

A shiver ran through Impa, and she bent back down to the boy, throwing the bandage aside and lifting his arm. She muttered a truth-seeing enchantment—one of the earliest any Sheikah learns—and leaned in. On the inside of his bicep, on a white, soft strip of flesh covered normally by the bandage, she could make out a mark, oblong but symmetrical, burnt into his skin. It was black, intricate, and, Impa realized with an unsurpassed rush of relief, not Sheikah in origin. She put the boy’s arm down and looked back at Palo.

“This isn’t yours?” she asked quietly.

“What? Of course not, Impa.” Palo held his hand to his chest, mocking offense. “You said you believed he should live, so I’m not gonna kill him.”

Impa pressed her fingers to the mark, and it hissed against her skin, hot and malicious. “Then it was Balras.”

Palo sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

“Can you remove it?” Impa turned the boy’s arm so the mark faced upward, and Palo leaned over it, squinting. “If we work together we can take it off him.”

“It is pretty intricate,” he admitted. “But we can do it. Considering the strength of that curse, it seems the kid’s doing remarkably well. It’s Balras I’m more worried about.” He scratched the back of his head. “Now, why would he want to kill our useless little stableboy?”

Impa looked down at the tiny mark and its evil aura. “Perhaps it’s because the good doctor knows more than we do about him. Or… well, he was quite adamant that there was a distinct possibility this boy has some royal blood in him. Personally, I don’t see it. But if Balras has fallen in with the King or his ilk, he’d want to sever the family lines. All of them.”

Palo leaned against the wall, cupping his chin. He closed his eyes, his tattoos dull and inactive. “Either way, we’re due for a little talk.”

Impa lay her finger again over the stableboy’s mark, depressing his sweaty skin. Palo moved beside her, placing his hand on top of hers. Her fingers twitched a little, a sharp energy moving through their flesh. Impa nodded to him, and they both drew long, deliberate breaths, narrowing their concentration to the mark.

When Impa was teaching her younger sister to remove curses, she described it as both a complicated and simple matter. It could be quick, if you were lucky, or arduous if you were not. The best analogy she could concoct at the time was that of untying a bundle of strings, sorting through knot after knot, grabbing one end of the line and following it through all the twists and turns and obstacles to its hidden end. There were as many ways to remove a curse as there were to unbundle a knot of string—the more wasteful, hasty and dangerous way would be to cut the curse right off, as one might cut the string into shorter bits to ease its disentanglement. Some magicians could navigate through the entire spell, move it slightly, and unravel it in one fell swoop, if they were skilled. But the most reliable way was to find a familiar rune, to start with the end of the string, and retrace it back through its knots and tangles.

If Palo hadn’t been there to help her, she could’ve stayed at it for hours, trying to wrestle the boy from the snarl of the curse. As they usually did, Palo and Impa came to a tacit agreement, working together seamlessly without a word. Palo started at one end of the curse, Impa at the other, and they worked their way into the middle, unraveling it as they went. The boy twitched as they prodded him, drawing magic from his arm. His head rocked back and forth, a bead of sweat dripping down his white skin, and he twisted his body weakly, as if trying to escape from under their hands. But he didn’t have the strength to give them any trouble, so within a few minutes they pulled the curse from his skin.

The tiny insignia hovered over Impa’s hand, pulsating purple before disassociating into the air in a puff of dark smoke. Impa closed her fist over the empty air with a sigh of relief. She looked up at Palo, and he gave a slow nod of approval. The stableboy settled down with a sigh, some color returning to his pale skin.

The tiny, dingy apartment fell into an energetic silence. The young man was no longer groaning in his sleep, and the cat had crawled away into the shadows, where it waited in silence for the return of its owner. The two Sheikah stood by their patient, watching the door for the first sign of Balras’ entrance. Without an unnecessary word, they agreed that it was best to surprise the doctor after he had already returned inside, so they would not cause a ruckus in the street.

They rewrapped the boy and positioned him as inconspicuously as they could. Impa pulled the bandage tight across his wound, trying to replicate the doctor’s skilled binding, while Palo bent down and tugged the blanket back up over his shoulders. After all was arranged to look as if nothing suspicious had taken place, they lounged in the shadows, waiting.

When the doctor did finally arrive, herbs in hand, he stopped in the doorway. “I’m sorry about the long wait,” he said, clutching the herbs in one hand and shaking off his rain-drenched coat. “It was quite a walk…”

When the doctor turned, and saw the looks on his Sheikah companions’ faces, noticed their eager stances, his eyes widened. They flitted from Palo, one hand reaching for his knife, to the stableboy, now healthier than ever, sleeping soundly on the ratty mattress, and finally settled on Impa.

Before Palo could draw his blade and pounce on Balras, the doctor threw the herbs in a puff of green and sprinted back through the door into the street. The door hung open behind him, squeaking on its hinges. Palo made a move to chase Balras, but Impa grabbed his arm before he could make it out into the street.

“Remember, no commotions.”

“Then what do we do?” he asked, mouth contorted with frustration.

“We already had plans to sneak a girl out of the city, why not a boy instead?” She dropped Palo’s arm and walked over to the sleeping stableboy, ignoring the rain that blew across the room through the open door. “Let Balras run. He’ll inform his masters of our whereabouts and situation. Let him. We’ll be gone before they arrive.”

Palo shook his head. “We’re cutting it close, Impa.”

“Don’t we always?” She dared to smile at him, and with saw with a wave of comfort that he grinned back.

“I’ll get the cart ready. Same plan as before, just with a peasant rather than a princess.”

Impa nodded. As Palo slipped out the door to go secure their means of smuggling the boy out of the city, she sighed and returned to the mattress. She leaned over the stableboy, eyeing him for any sign of waking. His body must’ve been exhausted, fighting off such a potent curse for so long. It was probably better that he be unconscious when they trotted through the city gates—at least then he wouldn’t be able to accidentally expose them.

She supposed the young man wasn’t too verbose to begin with. The only word she had heard from him was a stilted mispronunciation of her own name, and even then, he’d only said it out of necessity. No, the boy was not a talker.

She reached down and gathered him in her arms, grunting at his weight. She pulled him close against her, and his eyelids twitched with troubled dreams. She carried him to the door, glancing out into the heavy, dark rain of the moonless night before stepping out into the street.


The Curse

Chapter Text

*

“What shall I say of the vast fields of Lanayru? The rolling hills and flower-dotted glens know no ravage of time. Even in the worst of upheavals, the fields remain calm, bloodless. Apart from the remains of Oldcastle, there is no indication that violence had ever transpired here. Many immigrants settled down in these fields after the Conquest War, spurred by the promise of a peaceful life. Farmsteads on this land yield healthy and generous crops. Horses and cows meander over the fields, driven by cattlemen and their children. There is a tranquility in the green hills that no city-dweller may know, but must only admire from afar.”

Samuel Red, Common Life under Dragmire Rule

*

 

Link awoke with a familiar smell in his nostrils. He turned on his side, aching, cold, and wondered where the usual warmth of the stable had gone—his itchy blanket, the soft breath of the horses,  the rising and falling of black hounds’ flanks. The scent of hay was comforting enough, but there was a smell beyond it, a bright, wide aroma that both exhilarated and frightened him. There was too much of a breeze between the thin shafts of the hay around him, and the light that pierced his eyelids was too bright. The floor beneath him seemed to rock, to move with the steady motion of a walking animal. Suddenly, he realized he had no idea where he was. He bolted upright, opening his eyes, struggling to his knees in the shuddering hay. He saw the curve of a tarp above him, worn and stained, and beyond that…

Blue sky. Wide, green fields, swaying like a living creature in the wind. He tumbled to the edge of the wagon bed and leaned out the back, watching the grass dance, smelling the exotic breeze, filled with pollen and life. At the far end of the rocky brown road which wound past hills and through valleys, he spied the distant, black tips of the royal palace, standing tall against the clear sky. The city, its smells, his animals, his friends—had all shrunk to microscopic proportions at the end of his vision.

He stumbled forward, out of the cart, and landed on his side on the hard road. Pain swept through him, but he struggled to his feet and started back along the road. His life lay at the end of this worn thoroughfare, with all its stink and pressure and confusion. He needed to get back—Talon would no doubt wonder where he was, why he did not come when the smell of gristle-fried onions permeated the stable.

And the horse—that magnificent warhorse, he was lost without her. She was no doubt making her way around the corral, white tail flicking eagerly, looking for him. The hounds would be barking, hungry, wagging their tails for his return. No, he had to get back, he had to—

Suddenly two people stood between him and his route home. They were tall, dark-skinned and strange—the woman, he thought he recognized. The other, with his narrowed eyes and pursed lips, was not familiar to him. He tried to push past them to get back to the city, but the woman reached out and grabbed him. She pushed him back against the cart and gripped his arms, forcing him to stare into her uncanny red eyes. She held him still, and his panic subsided; he felt himself relax in her firm grip, and his mind slowed its alarmed frenzy. He took a deep, almost painful breath, and she moved her hand up from his elbow to the tender spot below his collarbone.

He remembered. He remembered the arrow burying itself in his shoulder, the pain and momentum that pushed him off the battlements and into the moat. He remembered following this dark-skinned woman through the halls of the palace, he remembered a powerful, golden light. But he could not recall why he was in the palace in the first place. He did not belong there—he belonged in the stables, with the other animals.

The image of a yellow-haired young woman, dressed in lace and a lovely gown, passed through his mind. He held onto that image, desperately, until it faded into a more terrifying picture. He could not suppress the image of the girl, falling above him, eyes wide with fear. He remembered the shaft of black arrow protruding from her neck, the flow of blood as it dotted the air behind her like so many dark stars, and he remembered the guilt coursing through him when he saw her eyes dim and her body go limp. He did not remember what happened after they hit the water—his mind had been swallowed in darkness until he woke up in the back of this cart, covered in hay, far from the city.

It felt like something dropped through him, forcing his stomach downward. Nausea bubbled up from his insides, and he gulped. He looked back over the wide road, over the shoulder of the woman holding him, and saw the towers gleaming in the sky.

He realized he couldn’t go home. He could never walk across that corral again, never lay down to sleep under the picture of the redheaded girl and Talon’s sweet-smelling candle. He would not see the barkeep’s wife nor taste the hot mulled wine she made. He would never ride the red warhorse again, never feel her mane in his fingers, never smell her breath. He knew the guards would kill him on the spot if they saw him again—and it was no less than he deserved for his trespasses. He sank to his knees, staring past the woman’s waist to the palace beyond, almost lifting his hand to reach for it.

Instead, he brought his hands to his eyes. He felt the tears drip down the insides of his palms, lingering in the crests of his skin before falling past his wrists into the dirt. He shook his head, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes, trying to rub out the image of the yellow-haired girl, falling, blue eyes staring at him…

The woman—Impa, he remembered—lifted him from the ground with a stern but kind hand. He hung his head as she gripped him and guided him back up to the hay of the wagon bed, where he sat limply, staring out the back. She and her companion disappeared, and Link felt the wagon sway a little when they climbed up front.

He folded his arms across the back of the vehicle and stared across the fields, eyes settling on the unreachable palace. He sighed, lifting his gaze to the gray clouds that gathered above them, and crawled back under the hay, where he could keep warm.

*

“You think we should stop at Oldcastle?” Palo asked. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and lightly flicked the reins in his hands, urging the mule forward.

“It’s always a good idea to skip Oldcastle,” Impa replied. The sun set almost warily behind them, as if watching their trail, keeping track. She did not appreciate the sinister way it looked this evening, so she insisted they continue past the cluster of towns south of the Capital to a safer, less populated place.

“Never liked the town anyway,” Palo muttered. “Too noisy for me.”

Impa too disliked the town. Every time she passed the ruined towers and crumbled battlements of the old royal family’s abode, an inexplicable sadness filled her. She attributed it to the guilt of her tribe’s failure to protect the crown during the Conquest War, but she knew better than to take responsibility for the mistakes of her ancestors. She was no fan of the seedy markets that popped up in the ruined castle’s shadows, the shanties and gambling rings and dilapidated inns. It was a city of vagrants and leftovers, of ruin and shame. She did not want to stop there—nobody did, unless they had shady business to conduct away from the prying eyes of Capital guards.

Her father once told her Oldcastle was where the King bought his slaves. Of course, he would never condescend to make the trip himself, but every once in a while a caravan of guards and servants would march down the main thoroughfare toward the decaying town, and return with a few new members among their ranks. Impa did not know from where these unlucky vassals arrived, but her guess would be the poorer regions of the southern provinces, or perhaps a few desperate settlements on the border to the desert, near Silk.

Impa turned her head, gazing behind her into the wagon, to the sleeping stableboy. She wondered if he had been discovered at Oldcastle, branded and brought to the King’s palace, and at what age, in what state. A wave of pity swept through her, and her heart twisted a little in her chest. What a sorry lot to be dealt, especially for a man so young.

Their little cart, unhindered and unfollowed—as far as she or Palo could see, and they could see far—rattled past the ruins of Oldcastle. A few loud, hungry children followed them, emerging from the large cracks in the crumbling city wall, stumbling from their lean-tos and shacks, pale hands outstretched, voices rising over the squeak of the wheels to ask for food or money. Palo urged their tired old mule into a trot, rumbling down the road, away from the children, but Impa couldn’t help but look behind her at their ghoulish faces. She shivered, and instinctively drew her cloak tighter around her, wishing that she could crawl into the wagon bed with the stableboy and use him for warmth. But she kept her eyes on the road as the wagon rattled south, past Oldcastle and into the warmer, brighter fields of Lanayru province.

When they stopped for the night, they pulled the cart off the road, between the crest of two round hills. The stableboy, evidently awoken by the sudden roughness of off-road travel, poked his head out the back of the wagon and, seeing it was safe, stepped out. He stretched, grabbing his filthy, worn boots by the toes before bending back, reaching his hands toward the sky.

When Impa built a small fire, he dared to sit next to it, extending his white hands for warmth. He wore no expression on his face, but his eyes were red and wet. Somehow, they seemed bluer, bigger, for having shed so many tears. She wondered if he had cried in his sleep or if he was awake the whole time, weeping silently in the back of their wagon.

He said nothing, of course. He barely lifted his eyes from the fire, and when Impa handed a plate of boiled rice over to him, he shook his head and merely lay down, curling himself tight, like a cold dog. He wrapped his hands around his knees and closed his eyes, sighing. It was a chilly night, and Impa did not know why he would rather sleep out here under the elements than in the safety of the wagon bed.

The mule, tied to the wagon, lounged at the end of its rope, leaning almost subconsciously toward the boy. She watched the way its ears pricked forward whenever he made a sound, whenever he shifted slightly to get more comfortable. Curious, Impa stood up and untied the animal.

“What the hell are you doing?” Palo asked, not without a hint of amusement.

Impa said nothing, but watched the mule walk slowly to the slumbering boy, craning its neck to snort at his golden hair. After a few whiffs, it sauntered beside him and lay down on the soft grass. Without waking, the boy turned over, reaching toward it, leaning on its soft, warm belly. Impa could see him relax, see his breathing slow, as he fell into deeper sleep.

“Well I’ll be damned,” Palo said. “I was wondering why Balras’ monster cat liked him so much.”

“There’s something remarkable about him,” Impa admitted. “But I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

“He does have an affinity for beasts, that’s for sure.” Palo paused, smiling. “But that might only be because they’re on equal footing when it comes to holding conversation.”

Impa smacked his arm, but couldn’t stop herself from grinning a little. She raised a handful of rice to her lips and chewed thoughtfully. “He is an interesting boy.”

“He certainly cries a lot.”

“He’s scared, Palo. He’s just been forced out of his life. He’s leaving behind everything he’s ever known.”

“How do you know it’s all he’s ever known?”

“I’ve watched him for a while. I was curious about him, so I followed him for a few days. I stood by while he lived his life, did his work, visited our princess.” Palo raised his eyebrows suspiciously. “He  found her while looking for me. You know he went to her window every day before her family was killed. He brought her a puppy, once.”

“Pretty devoted, for a kid that just met her.”

“People in the Capital can be… harsh. They treated him like livestock most of the time—it shouldn’t be surprising he’d value an act of kindness or two from a pretty girl.”

Palo smiled. “Impa the people-reader. Never thought you had it in you.”

“He’s clever, I think. He’s clever and resourceful, but he was certainly dealt a raw deal. Forced to work from dawn til dusk in the King’s stables, stuck in that cruel city, living without one of his senses… nobody even taught him how to speak with his hands.”

“Because those hands were better put to work, of course.” Palo leaned back, folding his own hands behind his head and staring into the sky. “I guess we’ll be wanted now, for stealing a piece of the King’s property.”

“It’s the least we’ve done,” Impa answered. She finished her rice and wiped her palms on her pants, sighing. “Palo, what are we going to do with him?”

He took out his knife, the blade glinting in the firelight, and started to pick at bits and pieces of dinner in his teeth. “We could drop him off in Lonlon. He’d no doubt be at home there, with his fellow horse-people.”

Impa imagined abandoning him in the small town, in front of a saloon, with nothing but his wits and horsemanship to get by. She knew it was probably his best shot at happiness, but some unnamed objection, some undeniable thought at the back of her head told her that to leave him would be nothing short of betrayal. “No… Lonlon is too close to the Capital. How many deaf, branded horsemen are out there, Palo? They’ll track him down within the week. And even if they don’t, if anyone gets a glimpse of his brand, they’ll sell him back to the crown, and he’ll be executed.”

“Hm. I see your point.” Palo cleaned his knife against his tabard and slipped it back into its sheath. “But what are we gonna do, take him to Kakariko?”

Impa gulped. “I suppose so.”

Palo turned and looked at her, eyes glinting, almost amused. “And present him to the elder?”

Impa lay down beside Palo, putting her hands over her face and sighing loudly. It was all she could do not to scream. “What will she say when we bring her a deaf stableboy instead of a princess?” she groaned. “Not to mention the news of Balras’ betrayal… and imminent war, and the extermination of the royal family line…”

As she trailed off, Palo picked up the train of conversation. “She’ll no doubt cast you out of the tribe, erase you from our history and forbid your name to be spoken on our land ever again.”

Impa shot him an odious glare.

“Impa, she’s a wise woman. Why do you think she’s survived long enough to become our elder? She won’t blame you, because you’re not at fault. She will take the information as she usually does, with that wrinkled old half-smirk, and she’ll miraculously know what to do.”

Impa was not sure how she felt about Palo’s playful disparaging of their esteemed chieftain, but she had to admit he had a point. The elder of Kakariko was knowledgable and kind—not to mention a close friend of Impa’s late grandmother—she would not cast Impa to the wolves. She might, however, out of necessity, do the same to the stableboy.

Impa turned to her side, facing away from Palo. She could feel his warmth, and comforted herself with it. “Are you going to keep watch?”

“I might as well. You know me. I like to stay up reveling all night.”

“Goodnight, Palo,” she sighed, folding her hands under her head. “And… I’m sorry. I truly am.”

“No use complaining about it now,” he replied. But she could sense the disappointment, the hopelessness in his words. Even though Palo looked forward, not back—so forward, in fact, he could see straight into inevitable death itself—even he could not escape the regret of their failed mission. It seemed the egregious mistakes of their recent past could upset even him.


The City in the Distance

Chapter Text

*

“If one does not understand the music of birds, then one understands nothing at all.”

Unknown, attributed to Sage Sahasrahla

*

 

When the morning came, Impa took a few minutes to dig her old harp out of the back of the wagon. She put the strap over her shoulder and hung it between her knees, twisting her tuning peg and plucking a few notes. Palo turned over in his fitful sleep, and the stableboy, of course, did not move an inch. He stayed immersed in peaceful slumber, curled next to the mule, who watched Impa curiously, ears twitching. She strummed a chord, letting the motion of the notes flow through her fingers and up her arm. She breathed with the music, plucking whichever string tickled her fancy, following the whims and instincts of her muscles alone.

It was a meditation practice that she often needed—when the road ahead of her was foggy with unrest and indecision, when her regrets caught up to her, when she felt alone, disconnected, she could always find comfort in her harp. It was a small instrument, worn from years of use—her father had given it to her when it turned out he hadn’t the knack for music. Apparently it had been gifted to him by his own father, but he saw it was better used in the hands of Impa than his own. She had been about six when he gave her the instrument, and she played it as often as possible, letting her mind wander, empty, over the strings, coaxing music out of it as quickly as it came to her.

“Honestly Impa,” Palo groaned, sitting up. His hair, caked in dirt, stuck up like so many yellowish flames from his dark forehead. “Do you have to carry that thing around with you everywhere you go?” He stretched and yawned, pulling himself up from the rocky ground.

“It’s as essential to me as any weapon,” she told him, probably for the thousandth time. It seemed no matter how often she reiterated that sentiment, Palo would always smirk at her for choosing to waste space carrying an instrument rather than something more useful.

Palo wandered over to the cart, and Impa focused her attention on the sleeping stableboy, turning over the possibility that if he could not hear her music, he might be able to feel it in the air, through the ground. His ears twitched slightly, as if they knew they should be listening, but didn’t quite know how. As she strummed her chords, a songbird alighted on the boy’s shoulder, twittering loudly. It hopped from his arm to his half-curled fingers, head quivering, eyes bright and black. It ruffled its red plumage, reaching back and plucking a stray feather from its blood-colored wing, little black feet clutching the stableboy’s fingers tightly. He turned over in his sleep, and the bird took flight, fluttering into the sky, lost beyond the hills.

The boy yawned, leaning against the mule as he pulled himself into a sitting position. He rubbed his eyes and looked up at Impa, sitting with her harp on the other side of their small encampment, plucking away. Impa smiled at him, beckoning him with her eye, and he seated himself beside her, reaching out for the instrument.

She gave it to him. He pulled it into his lap, as he had seen her do, and pulled on a string. He let it go, sharp and simple, and watched its vibration closely. He lay his hand on the small soundboard and closed his eyes, frowning. He plucked another string, and another, one hand on the wood of the instrument, the other dancing along the strings aimlessly, meaninglessly. Impa was not sure if he was sensitive enough to recognize the subtleties in vibration in the harp’s body, but he kept feeling the notes, feeling the wood with unmatched concentration. The delicacy of his touch surprised her—the notes, of course, made no sense, but they were rich with feeling.

The way he cradled the harp and drew his hand across it filled her with an acute sorrow. She sighed as the grief flew from his nonsensical notes into her keenly listening ears. She could relate to his somewhat avant-garde playing. He had lost everything he knew, and Impa had lost everything she had hoped for. She had failed herself, failed her family, her village, Palo, the kingdom—somehow, she’d failed even this peculiar stableboy, the only person she had managed to save.

And now she would have to report back home with that failure. She would have to face the stern but kind reception of the village elder, she would have to endure her father’s disappointed frown, her mother’s earnest but unwanted encouragement, her sister’s smug assurance that she could’ve done a much better job. She thought about their faces, subtext of their greetings, and shook her head.

Lost in thought, she barely noticed when the stableboy handed back her harp. It seemed he had lost interest in a device that produced sounds he couldn’t hear, and she took the instrument from him, resuming her aimless strumming. She found herself pulling at the notes more fiercely, fingers almost burning with the effort. She stopped abruptly and turned to the curious stableboy.

“You know,” she started, knowing full well he could not hear her, “I never even caught your name.”

He tilted his head, narrowing one eye, as if that could help him make out her words. She just put the harp aside and leaned forward, mouthing her own name slowly while pointing to her own chest. She moved her finger to his and nudged his sternum, and he nodded with understanding.

Then he mouthed his own strange name, letting loose what barely counted as a breath. She strained to hear him, and he repeated himself. “If that’s what you think passes for speaking, you have a lot to learn about conversation,” she muttered.

The boy merely repeated himself again. “Link.”

Link. She did not bother to speak the word aloud, but formed the shape with her mouth. The boy nodded at her silent pronunciation. Impa pointed to Palo, still fiddling with the wagon, getting it ready to travel. “Palo,” she said.

“Mall,” the boy repeated.

She took his wrist and held it up to her mouth, puffing air against the sensitive hairs on the back of his hand. “Palo.”

He repeated the name, slowly, and Impa nodded. The boy stood and dusted himself off, smiling a little, before wandering back to the mule. Palo emerged from behind the cart and stood by Impa, watching the boy. “Well, now that we’re all introduced, we might as well hit the road,” he said.

Link reached out a hand to the mule, and it stood eagerly. Without touching the animal, he led it to the yoke and got it to stand patiently, waiting.

Palo glanced at Impa, eyes wide, before stepping up to the mule and attaching it to the wagon. The beast, usually a stubborn nuisance, endured the handling, occasionally twisting its head back to look at the stableboy.

When the speechless Palo managed to yoke the animal to the cart, Link tugged at his sleeve and gestured toward the wagon. Palo looked back at Impa, face contorted in confusion. “What’s he trying to say?” he asked.

“I think he wants to ride in the front.”

“He’s not riding in the front. There’s no room.”

“Then you can sit in the wagon bed.”

Palo crossed his arms, frowning, took one look at the eager boy, eyes now dry, head lifted, and sighed.

*

The rolling fields that spread from the town of Old Riko were yellow with autumn. Here and there a few shady groves of deciduous trees shuddered in the wind, shedding brown and red leaves of every shape.

Impa steered the wagon into the shade of a cluster of trees to rest the old mule. The wind was chill but refreshing, and it still surprised her that all the leaves of Eldin had turned while she had been away. They quivered and fell from their branches like delicate paper, twisting in the wind, reminding her of how long she’d been gone.

Impa took a deep breath of the familiar air and smiled. She jumped from the cart, helping the stableboy down beside her, as Palo poked his head out of the bed. “We there yet?” he yawned.

Impa didn’t answer. She pulled their sack of provisions from the wagon and prepared their midday meal of salted meat and hard bread. Link found a tree and relieved himself behind it before wandering a little east of the grove. He stared up at the mountains, rising like sudden, jagged knives over the gentle foothills. They shone bright and red in the high sunlight, dotted with trees, whitened at the tips with early snowfall. He stared at them so long and so intently, Palo had to grab his arm to bring to attention the fact that lunch was ready and waiting.

He ate quickly, eyes wandering again to the east, finding their way up toward the mountains, and the distant, tall windmill of Old Riko. Its long brown arms circled in the breeze, creaking with age and rust. Impa could almost hear the old gears turning from here.

But it seemed the windmill itself did not hold too much interest for the boy. He finished his lunch, stuffing his mouth with cheese as if in some sort of hurry, and stood up. Palo, announcing he had to take a piss, wandered into the trees, and Link trotted back to the wagon. Impa followed him, curious, and he reached down into the bed of hay where Palo had been sleeping. He pulled out a long, thin blade, still safe in its scabbard, and showed it to Impa.

“That belongs to Palo,” she said, most likely unhelpfully.

The young man squinted at her and then shook his head. He pointed to her blade sitting at her hip and drew Palo’s sword out of its sheath, metal glinting. He held it up with both hands, the blade wavering clumsily.

Impa lay a hand on the hilt at her side. “You want me to teach you?”

He just stared at her, and she could not decipher his look. It seemed to be of some sort of rudimentary understanding. Impa widened her stance and drew her blade, and the smile that flashed across Link’s face told her she’d done what he wanted.

“This will be an interesting session,” Impa muttered to herself. She had never had a student like this before, an untrained Hylian peasant, deaf to boot. She circled the boy, raising her blade, and he matched her movements. She saw his eyes dart from her sword to her feet, to her elbows, her face, back to her sword.

Impa wondered why Link would harbor the desire to learn swordsmanship. Perhaps he guessed that if he was to be exiled form his home, condemned to wander the wilderness of Hyrule as a wanted criminal, he might as well learn to protect himself. Maybe he regretted his inability to protect the princess, like Impa. Maybe he simply admired their weapons and desired to use one himself. Impa could understand any of these reasons—one of her first memories was looking at the weapon at her father’s side, with an intense desire to wield one of her own like he did, with grace and dignity. It had been pure admiration that stirred in her the beginnings of the little warrior inside her; perhaps the stableboy had the same spirit, the same courage, but never had the opportunity to nourish it.

Impa struck down at Link, gently but quickly. He saw the slight bend of the blade against the light and raised his own. With a satisfying clang, he parried her swing, and she backed up, smiling. He glanced over the sword, as if to make sure it hadn’t broken in his hands, wide-eyed and confounded at his own strength. Impa did not give him time to revel in his success; she stepped in and threw a wide swing. He barely had time to jump out of the way, but still, he evaded her strike. His form was terrible, his grip shaky, but he had an uncanny instinct that impressed her.

She could not say for sure if this boy had ever wielded a sword in his life, but the weapon fell naturally into his hands, becoming a part of his movement. She figured he could take cues from her stance others with all their senses could not—with his keen eyesight, he might be able to detect a movement of her knee, a twist of her elbow, that told him where she would strike next.

She decided to test this theory. She let her body slacken, momentarily overriding her muscle memory. She chose the unpredictable over the efficient—stepped left and swung right, lowered her body but raised her sword. The boy, watching her movements closely, fell for her scheme—he parried a strike that never came, and she landed a hard blow to his side with the flat of her sword. The boy bent over, dropping Palo’s weapon, and hugged his ribs, coughing.

Impa sheathed her own weapon, worried for a moment she had been too rough. She bent down beside the boy, and he pulled himself to his feet, waving her away. She took a good look at his face and saw a slight smile through his pained grimace. He must’ve known, even without experience or hearing, what he was getting himself into. Perhaps he’d seen the palace guards spar with one another, or had watched one of the many tournaments the King sponsored but never condescended to attend. Either way, he wore his slight injuries like a mark of pride, of improvement.

Impa’s father had always insisted if you didn’t bruise a sparring partner, you were insulting his skill.

“What the hell are you two doing?” Palo asked, emerging from the brush and adjusting his belt. He looked them over, at the boy bent over the dirt, holding his stomach, blade at his feet. “You’re dulling my sword,” he said, frowning. He sauntered over to Link and retrieved the weapon, taking a moment to examine its edge. He frowned, turning it over in his hands, thinking, before handing it back to  Link. The stableboy grasped it in his eager hand, getting the feel of the grip again.

Impa took a long look at his stance and sighed. “No,” she started, walking toward him. “Traditional Sheikah form dictates you hold it in your dominant hand—“

She tried to show him the proper way, switching her blade from left to right. She, of course, could fight with either, but training began with the right, and moved to the left only after years of intense practice.

The boy clutched the sword with his front hand, staring at her meaningless gestures. Palo leaned up against the wagon and laughed. “Let him fight the way he wants, Impa. He’s already well behind the curve—he needs all the advantages he can get.”

“Proper form is an advantage,” Impa said, but gave in. She had been pleasantly surprised at the boy’s proclivity—she did not want to stifle his instinct for it. If he fought best improperly, she might as well let him. He might not need his swordsmanship for long anyway, if the elder decided he was too much of a liability to keep alive.

She sparred with Link for a few more minutes, until he dropped Palo’s sword in favor of rubbing the bruises she had inflicted on his sides and legs. He bent over, panting, and shook sweat from his blond hair. Palo, more interested in getting back on the road than watching Impa give a rudimentary lesson in swordsmanship to a strange boy, took the opportunity to snatch his sword back and stuff it in the bed of the wagon with their other supplies.

When they loaded up, Link in front, as he insisted, Impa driving, and Palo reclining in the back, they rattled their way down the road, toward the tall windmill of Old Riko.

Instead of keeping her eyes entirely on the road, Impa preferred to watch Link beside her, eagerly drinking in the sights and smells of the outside world. If he had been born a servant, or had been bought young, he might not even remember what the real Hyrule, the vast, old lands, were really like. Any palace servant had to obtain express permission to leave the city, and Impa was certain this boy had no business out in the countryside.

The way he looked at everything, staring at the treetops, the leaves, the old houses leaning precariously against the cliffs on the side of the road, made Impa think that this was indeed the first time he’d been outside. Every once in a while, he closed his eyes and leaned back, breathing in the scents around him, enjoying the fresh wind on his face.

He had lived in the acrid smoke and smog of the city for so long, it must be like waking up for the first time. Perhaps he was now learning what it was like to breathe real, fresh air, to see growing things and expansive wilderness. Perhaps this was the first time he found himself on the outside of a wall, like an animal freed from a cage.

His face had a joyful, yet resigned, look to it. He may have been thankful to have escaped the city, now that he knew what the outside was like, but she could also tell that he would not forget the sacrifice it took to get him out here. He had clung to the princess, following her to freedom, and even if she did not make the journey, he had burst from his captivity regardless. He would not soon forget what it had cost to obtain freedom—and neither would Impa.

The rickety houses of Old Riko rose before them, boasting brightly shingled roofs, ornate porches and plentiful gardens. The old dirt road made way for solid red brick, and windy smells of the pastures disappeared into the billowing scents of bakeries, of blacksmiths and pubs. To the north, the silhouette of Mount Eldin cast its protective shadow over the town.

Link’s eyes rushed from sight to sight as he desperately drank it all in. Men and women went about their business, dressed in the burlap pantaloons of miners, the aprons of bakers and butchers, in the wide hats of shepherds and field workers. A group of young ladies, dressed in the latest fashions from the Capital, giggled around a table at a café, adjusting the feathers in their hats when the wind displaced them. A well-fed orange cat jumped from a windowsill and crossed the road in front of their mule, forcing him to hesitate before snorting and stamping along the brick thoroughfare.

The windmill creaked high in the sky, and the town’s ornate playhouse rose before them, flanked by clipped shrubberies and unlit street lamps. Impa steered the cart away from the building, out of the crowds and into the side streets, where smoke and animal smells permeated the air. They passed smithies and stables, a few run-down houses and pubs, until they came to a smoke-streaked barn. A small shop leaned against it, almost drunkenly, and a thin man emerged from the shadows when Impa pulled up. She slid off the side of the wagon, Link following suit, and gave him a short Sheikah salute.

The shopkeeper did not smile at their appearance, but seemed relieved that his mule came back alive.

“Did my wagon serve you well?” he asked.

“Well enough,” Impa replied. She tapped on the bed until Palo awoke and stumbled out, a puff of dust and hay falling behind him. He reached back and pulled their supplies out after him, tightening the drawstrings on their bags, making sure the case over Impa’s small harp was shut tightly. He readied their luggage for their trip up the mountain while Impa extended her hand to the shopkeeper. He slipped as much money as he had promised in the event they should return with everything intact, and led his mule, still yoked to the wagon, to the fences behind the barn.

Whenever Impa or any member of her tribe had use of a mount, they had procure it somehow from Old Riko, since no horse or mule, much less with a wagon, could make the trip up the steep slopes of Eldin. This particular shopkeeper had been providing them with necessary beasts and vehicles since Impa was a small child, and she knew his animals were healthy, his wagons tough and well kept. She did not know how he got into business with the Sheikah, but he would assist them happily—for a price, of course. He may have been part Sheikah himself—he shared the same dark skin as her tribe, and even a traditional name, Temon, but he did not sport the iconic tattoos. Impa had never mustered the courage to ask, and had long since stopped wondering about the subject. She had plenty of other things to wonder about now.

The three of them, freed from the burden of their wagon but now weighed by their packs, started down the street. Impa led Link by the hand, toward the shadows of the mountains. He did not stop twisting his head to catch every sight he could of the old town, even if the district they now traversed held little more than creaking old houses and rundown shops.

When they reached the edge of the town, where the houses and pastures ended and the forest began, Impa looked over to Palo. He nodded, and she grasped the stableboy’s arm. He looked almost natural in the shadows of the trees, calmed, as if he belonged here in the wild reaches of Eldin. She looked him in the eyes, making sure she had his attention, then unwound the sash at her waist.

He tried to back off when she raised it to his eyes. He pushed away the cloth and shook his head, gesturing to all the new things around him.

“I know you want to see everything,” Impa said uselessly, “but if you do, we’ll have to pluck out your eyes entirely.”

He backed away when she tried to blindfold him again, almost turning tail and running back to the safety of Old Riko. Impa grunted impatiently and grasped his wrist before he could escape. He wiggled in her grip, shaking his head furiously, avoiding the sash when she tried to wrap it around him.

The boy finally went still and complied, but only after Palo stepped up behind him and knocked him out cold with the pommel of his sword. Link fell limp into Impa’s outstretched arms, and she looked up at Palo, who gave her his best shrug.

She found herself laughing a little as she wrapped the sash around Link’s head, avoiding the egg-like bump where Palo had struck him. She tightened the cloth and threw his arms over her shoulders, letting her pack slide to the ground. She gripped his wrists, put a hand under each of his legs and pulled him onto her back. She struggled to get him balanced, but when she had him secure, she stepped toward Palo.

“Can you tie his hands together? He’ll slip off.”

Palo pulled a cord from his waist and wound it tightly around the boy’s wrists before wrapping it around her ribs. “You know, this would be easier to hold here if you had any breasts.”

“Perhaps I should grow them,” Impa replied, smirking. She took a deep breath and readjusted the boy on her back. “This is going to be a long hike,” she muttered.

Palo merely grabbed both of their packs and started through the woods, taking a path impossible to find if one did not already know the way. Impa followed him through the thick forest red with autumn, sweating with the effort. She slipped through the shadows, silently, as she carried Link’s weight up the mountain.


Training with Impa

Chapter Text

*

“Why did I become a traveling bard in the first place? Why did I throw away my life to wander alone, hungry and sleepless, among fields and towns hostile and strange to me? Why, to escape my family, of course!”

T. L. Malona: Life and Travels of a Wayward Bard

*

 

The lateness of the year cloaked Kakariko, draping it in reds and yellows and dark greens. Trees leaned over the squat abodes, shading the paths, patches of reddening ferns, stone fences and tiny, numerous shrines to spirits so old even the elder could not remember their names. The forest surrounding the village had been purposefully thickened, through decades of meticulous sylviculture, to hide it from any wandering woodsmen or prying eyes. Sometimes even Impa had a difficult time believing she could find her way home—but she knew better than to distrust her own instincts. She did not need instruction, repetition, or a map; she had been born here, raised here, and could smell the place from leagues away. There was a saying among her tribe that she had never seen proven false: all Sheikah, no matter how far, can always find their way home.

When Impa and Palo hauled themselves up the last steep slope and into the village’s wooded plateau, the sun had already retreated behind the foothills to the west. She stopped to catch her breath, taking in the sight of her village fading in the oncoming darkness. It felt almost dreamlike, to see the result of the passing months of her absence. She had left the village in the high summer, when the early vegetables had been harvested and the mountain peaks were bare and gray, when the wind was warmest, the river was deepest and the forest’s cubs and fawns were coming into their own. Her sister had been looking forward to the upcoming operas at the Old Riko Playhouse, and her mother had been thinking of nothing but the garden. Not much would’ve changed with those two—only the playbills and the contents of the garden.

Impa adjusted Link on her back, still tied and blindfolded, but wide awake. He had perked up about halfway up the mountain, and had struggled to escape from her back, but Palo had unsheathed his sword and gently prodded his ribs until he calmed down. Devoid of sight, sound, and the feel of the ground beneath his feet, Link had little else to do but sit limply on Impa’s tired back, likely kept company only by his guesses as to what they were going to do with him.

“Are you going to take him to your mother’s house?” Palo asked her.

She sighed. “I suppose I can’t take him anywhere else, at the moment.”

Palo laughed. “Your mother will be so pleased to see you’ve finally brought a man home. And a Hylian, no less. Who would’ve thought you had it in you?”

“I have no doubt my sister will be the first jump on him for that purpose,” Impa admitted, almost gloomily. She stepped down the road, toward the calm yellow glow of the a familiar window at the end of the plateau. “I will meet you at the elder’s in a few minutes,” she said.

“Love of the spirits, Impa, give me some time to wash myself,” he answered, sauntering in the direction of his own abode. “I smell like a dodongo’s asshole.”

“That is true.” Impa looked over her shoulder at him as he crept off to the other edge of the village, where the trees shuddered thickest, casting long shadows over the burial grounds. Impa sighed, readjusting the stableboy on her back, and stepped toward her own home.

She had to admit she was eager to get Link’s weight off her. He was lean, perhaps a little underfed, but he was no child. He was as heavy as he had been when she carried him from the moat to the doctor’s house, and even then she hadn’t carried him up the slopes of a grand mountain  (she only hoped finding herself this young man’s mule wouldn’t become a habit).

She almost guiltily slinked up to her family’s home and hesitated before the thick oak door. The scent of some sort of boiling tuber set her stomach rumbling, and the light that glowed in the window was stained with color and warmth.

Impa sighed, took a deep inhale and reached out to knock. Before her fingers could touch the dark wood, the door swung open, and her sister, bright-eyed and eager, cast her tall shadow against the doorway. “It’s about time,” she said, beckoning Impa inside.

“Evening, Talm,” she answered, stepping across the threshold into the warmth of her mother’s house.

Impa’s mother rushed furiously from the kitchen, yellow dress brushing against the dark wood floor. She trotted past the low table and threw her arms around her daughter with a cry. She seemed unconcerned with the presence of another person on her daughter’s back, and Impa imagined she might as well be embracing him, too. When her mother let go, she rested a hand on Impa’s cheek, over her red mark, where she always did. “I’m so glad you’re safe.”

Talm laughed, catching a glimpse of the boy on her back. “That’s a funny-looking princess you’ve brought back to us.”

Impa sighed, letting go of his legs. She had to bend with him as he stood shakily, and untied his wrists. He stood still, perhaps comforted by the warmth and smells, as she unwound his bonds and pulled the strip of silk from his face.

He took a stunned moment to drink in the image of her family. His eyes settled on Impa’s mother, and a look of comfort crossed his face when he recognized another Hylian, brown hair drawn back in the southern style, frown tempered by the kindness in her dark blue eyes. Talm was most likely a strange sight to him too—a true half-breed if Impa ever saw one—dressed in traditional clothes, face adorned in thick tattoos, but with her hair combed back like her mother’s, into a dainty bun. When he had his curious fill of Talm and her mother, he looked to the house behind them, made of thick gray stone and dark wood, draped in tapestries of tribal symbols, ropes of silk, weaponry and tools. He backed up to the wall, mouth agape, blue eyes shining.

“He’s not bad-looking for a boy princess,” Talm admitted. “Certainly has that fragile, regal mien about him.”

“He’s not the princess,” Impa said.

“What’s your name?” Talm asked him. He just stared at her, so she repeated herself, louder and more forcefully.

“No use shouting at him,” Impa told her. “He’s deaf.”

“Oh, thank the spirits, I thought he was just rude.” Talm edged closer to the stableboy, speaking slowly, emphasizing the movements of her lips, asking him his name, where he was from, how he ended up in Kakariko.

“Let him be, Talm. He’s had a long journey.”

“And so have you,” Impa’s mother put in, grabbing her hand and leading her to the low table. “Sit, I’ll feed you both.”

“I really need to get to the elder and explain this,” Impa said, but her mother would have none of it. When it came to hospitality, Irma was a hurricane; there was no bargaining with her, no point in declining her gifts and gestures. She almost shoved Impa down in front of the table, leaving Talm to lead Link over and seat him beside her.

“I see your taste in men has improved,” her sister said, eyeing the stableboy. Impa shook her head and accepted the steaming bowl her mother miraculously produced. She raised to her lips, reveling in the savory scent of it, letting the steam warm her face. Irma rushed back into the small kitchen, returning with another bowl, and pushed it over to Link. He stared at it for a few seconds, then looked over at Impa (for instructions, permission, or what else—she didn’t know), and finally raised it to his own lips. Neither of them had eaten since that morning, so they had little room for words between the gulps of soup.

It wasn’t new in the household for Talm to dominate the conversation. She leaned over the table, folding her arms almost deviously, and smiled. “You’ve got some explaining to do,” she said. “Why you brought us some weird guy instead of the heir to the throne.”

Impa set her bowl on the table, emptied. “I will speak with Elder Merel this evening. It is up to her to decide what we do with him.”

The boy in question lowered his bowl and stared across the table at the far wall, eyes dimming. The paleness of shock lightened his face, as if he had just now come to realize exactly how far he’d wandered from his stable. He lowered his gaze to his empty bowl, and a pained look crossed his soft features. Impa couldn’t stop herself from reaching out and touching his arm gently. He looked up at her, and she saw myriad expressions pass through his eyes, eclipsed by what Impa knew to be abject confusion.

He did not know why this was happening to him—why strangers had felt the need to invade his life and steal him away, why he had to suffer imprisonment and grave injury when he had done nothing wrong. He had done nothing to deserve any of this—at least that she knew of.

“Well, for his sake I hope Merel decides he’s no threat,” Talm said, leaning forward on her elbows. She folded her delicate fingers and rested her chin on them, big red eyes shining. “Shame to waste such a pretty face.”

“Talm, don’t be like that,” Impa’s mother said, sitting down opposite them.

“It’s not like he can hear me.”

Impa sighed, lowering her head for a moment. Palo should be on his way to the elder’s abode about now, cleaned up and ready to announce their spectacular failure. She reached over to the stableboy’s elbow and tapped him before motioning for him to stand. He obeyed, still giving her all those impenetrably complex looks as he followed her away from the table.

“Are you not going to rest longer?” her mother called, with the familiar half-hurt frown she wore whenever anyone threatened to leave her house.

“I have to make a report,” she said, leading Link to the door. “I’ll be back in a little while.” She shoved him into the cold night air and led him down the dirt path toward the north side of town, where the steepest slopes of Mount Eldin jutted from the village’s plateau. Carved into the cliffs that stood jagged and brown on the mountainside lay the elder’s home—a cave partitioned into ornate rooms, adorned with pillars, fireplaces and shrines, decorated with tapestries and furnished with all the amenities a Sheikah elder would need. It had divining runes, ritual staves and blessed weaponry lining the smoothly carved walls, a large fire pit near the entrance where village meetings could be conducted in peace and with plenty of light. Deeper into the mountain lay the elder’s private quarters, where she slept and bathed, relying on the steam and water pumped up from the hot spring under the mountain for her heat.

Impa’s father once told her that the elder lived in the side of Mount Eldin because that was as close as one could get to the spiritual center of the clan, where her powers were strongest, and where her authority was most apparent. He had sat her on his shoulders and told her if she was lucky to live long enough, she might become elder someday, and then she’d get to wander the halls of that sacred residence, leading the village both politically and spiritually.

Impa was sure she still had a few decades to meander through—not to mention more than a few pearls of wisdom to gain—before she could move into Merel’s spacious cave. It seemed a little too big and lonely for one person, but a long time ago, far before the Eldin War, when the Sheikah spoke the old language and the spirits still lived among them, the elder’s abode needed all that space. Back when Kakariko wasn’t the only village left, when each faction of their tribe had their own towns and settlements all over Eldin, the gatherings at Kakariko could boast hundreds of attendees, one representative of each Sheikah family. Now, with barely a few hundred members at all, much less a few hundred families, the tribe was an echo of what it had once been, and Kakariko merely the shell of its former self. Long ago, the empty, crumbling houses had been disassembled for their materials, but if one looked closely at the edges of the village, one could make out the dark impressions of where houses used to stand, or see the hardy sprouting of vegetables that had been planted generations ago in a domestic garden.

A few of these abandoned plots of land lined the path to the elder’s cave, catching the sharp eye of the stableboy, lit only by the moon and the dancing of late season fireflies. Link slowed to stare at the plots—Impa had always considered them houses’ graves—before following her up the shallow slope.

Palo met them at the last bend before the elder’s cave, wearing a serious frown. He fell into step beside Impa wordlessly, and they walked up the narrow path, toward the flickering glow of light on the side of the hill. It looked like Merel had started a fire—it wouldn’t surprise Impa to learn she had predicted their arrival and prepared ahead of time. Then again, one of the villagers could’ve spied them make their way into the town and sent word up. Impa usually found herself struggling to decide whether the elder could perform miracles of prognostication, or if she was just miraculously well-informed. Either trait was admirable enough.

When they arrived at the mouth of the cave, the elder stood to greet them, spreading her arms in a spiritual salute. She smiled on the other side of the roaring, almost boisterous fire, red eyes twinkling.

Palo and Impa bent at the waist, showing their proper respect. When Link caught sight of them bowing, he threw himself to the ground, presumably to follow suit. He knelt and pressed his forehead into the stony cave floor, placing his hands above his head as if asking for them to be stepped on. It was a gesture of such shameless servility that Impa reddened with embarrassment. She almost wanted to step on his hands, to grind her heel into his palms, for thinking the elder so low as to appreciate such obsequiousness. But she merely reached down and grabbed his collar, tugging him back to his feet.

“Forgive him, Elder,” she said. “He doesn’t know better.”

“It is fine, children,” Merel replied. “It is how he’s been taught. He is from the Capital, yes?”

“Yes, Elder.”

The elder reseated herself, pulling out her long robe from under her and reclining on a pillow by the fire. She crossed her legs and closed her eyes, smiling. “Nobody escapes that place without suffering the untruths of hierarchy. In time, he will unlearn.”

It was a good sign. If the elder had waved her hand, given them a frown, told them to dispose of this boy who may now know too much about the Sheikah and their operations, she and Palo would have no choice but to cut him down and throw his body to the wolves of Eldin. She was not looking forward to that possibility. But now that Merel had admitted in passing the boy had at least the semblance of a future in which to discard his bad habits, it meant they weren’t going to kill him quite yet.

Palo and Impa stepped toward the fire, and the cushions that awaited them. Link, still a little red in the face from his faux pas, came with them, head lowered, staring into the fire rather than look into the kind eyes of the venerable elder. Impa wanted to smack him upside the head for it, but she knew he did not know how to look into the eyes of an equal, respected and lauded though she may be.

Merel did not seem to care about his awkward, downcast eyes, or the way he clutched his own wrist as if holding on for dear life. She just smiled, the fire casting orange shadows across her dark skin and white hair. “With each absence you two grow a little more,” the elder said. “Yet each time you return I am no less overjoyed to see you safe.” Her kind smile disappeared after a second, replaced by a stern, intelligent interest. “What news from the Capital?”

“The rumors are true,” Impa said gravely. “The King is preparing for war. We do not know with whom he plans to battle or when, but he is restless.”

“We have some idea,” the elder replied. “And we have sent your father ahead to scout. Wherever the King goes, Talporom will rise to meet him.” Impa couldn’t help but gulp as a swell of both pride and worry for her father rose in her chest. The elder did not seem to notice her strained look. She merely let her bright glance settle on Link. “Do you wish to tell me why he, and not the princess, is here with us tonight?” she asked, without malice, without judgement.

Impa lowered her eyes and grit her teeth. “Elder, we ran up against some unforeseen obstacles. Firstly…”

“Balras betrayed us,” Palo said. “He sabotaged us. This whole mess is his fault. This boy, the princess, everything.”

Impa glanced over to him. She kept her mouth taut, trying to conceal the look that crept across her face when she realized with something of a start that Palo had outright lied to the elder. The old woman just nodded, eyes glinting. Impa guessed she could discern the dishonesty in Palo’s voice, but humored him anyway.

“Balras?” she said. “He is one of Talporom’s oldest friends. What would drive him to do such a thing?”

“We don’t know, elder. We did not have time to apprehend him.”

“Very well. I shall send a man to the Capital on the morrow to investigate. For now, explain to me why you have left the princess in the Capital in favor of bringing me this young man.”

Dear gods, she’s going to make me say it. She’s going to make me recount every word. Impa gulped. “Forgive me, Elder.”

“Forgive us,” Palo interrupted, before pausing for a tense, painful moment. “The princess is dead. She fell to an arrow fired by a palace guard.”

“We have lost the last descendent of the royal bloodline,” Impa finished, desperate to clear the apparent despair from the elder’s face. “But there may yet be others. We will continue the search.”

Merel closed her eyes, breathing in the smoke from the sacred flames. Her chest rose and fell slowly, and her fingers hovered over the fire for a moment, as if trying to sculpt out the a shape or prophecy in the heat.

“We could not even give her a proper burial,” Impa told Merel, her voice straining with the effort of concealing her shame. “I apologize, elder. I have no words to express my regret that our mission to the Capital was a failure.”

The wizened matriarch did not open her eyes or her mouth. The fire seemed to light up her skin and the red tattoos that decorated it. She wore the all-seeing eye on her forehead, a sign of her honored status as elder of the tribe, but she still sported the marks of her  youth—the triangular tattoo between her brows, the thick triangle of red on her chin that designated her as a healer. Impa’s father shared those tattoos—he had been her protégé for many years before Impa was born, and had fought beside her during Mandrag Elgra’s march on Death Mountain. The elder had been a good friend of Impa’s grandmother’s, and as long as she could remember, Merel had been like a grandmother herself.

Impa knew Merel would have no choice but to forgive her. She might punish her, she might cast shame on her simply out of necessity, but she would not dole out anything Impa did not rightly deserve for her incompetence.

But the elder did not speak for a long while—she did not issue orders or punishments, she did not even move. For every second of her oracular silence, Impa’s heart beat a little faster. She glanced over at Palo, who sat facing forward, ready for reprimand. Between them, the stableboy shuddered, looking into the fire that danced under Merel’s open palms. His eyes were wide, frightened, and at one point his hand wandered to Impa’s knee, touching it lightly. She could not blame the boy for reaching out for comfort, to make sure that he was not alone in this strange new place, in front of this thaumaturgical flame.

The elder’s eyes opened. “Neither of you had the strength nor the skill to save the scion of the royal family, and that is regrettable.” Her gaze wandered from Palo to Link to Impa, burning as hotly as the flames below them. “But your mission was not a failure. I asked you to bring me a potential vessel of great godly power. You have brought me just that.”

Both Impa and Palo whipped their heads to stare at Link. He shrank before their eyes, lowering his head, wringing his hands.

“Him?” Impa almost gasped. “Does he have the old blood?”

“No. He does not. But the fire tells things true, it tells things honest.” Merel raised her head and looked at the cowering boy. “He does not seem it. He does not seem to play that part at all. But, we as Sheikah always know seeming and being are entirely separate concepts.” She lowered her hands, and the fire died down a little. The overpowering, almost magical swell of heat dissipated and they were left sitting before a few yellow flames, licking eagerly at the air. “Impa, you will take him to the summit of Eldin. We shall see what the old god-spirits have to say about him.”

Impa gulped, resisting the urge to protest, to tell the woman that no spirits of Eldin had been seen for so long it was madness to believe they still existed at all. But what Merel decreed she was obligated to carry out. She merely lowered her head, gritting her teeth.

When the fire shrank and cooled, Merel lifted herself from the pillow at its edge and yawned. “Forgive me, children. It seems that I tire quickly in my old age.”

Palo and Impa bowed to her, keeping an eye on Link so he did the same, properly this time. The old woman bid them farewell, returning their bows before shuffling off into the darkness of her cave. The farther she stepped from the fire, the shallower the flames danced, and when she disappeared into her chambers, the light snuffed out. Impa and Palo lingered in the mouth of her cave for a while longer in stunned silence.

Impa stared at the rising stars, sighing. The chilly wind seemed to stab her to the bone, forcing shivers up her spine. She looked over at Link, hugging himself against the cold and darkness. Palo seemed not to notice the weather, but started the trot down toward the village, shaking his head.

“What a time of year to send someone up Eldin,” he said.

Impa did not answer. She would have to prepare carefully in the next few days, or else decide which friends and relatives got what clothes and weapons when she did not come back. And Link—spirits’ love, he wouldn’t survive it. Men who were so lean and timid could not climb mountains. But Impa had to admit she’d never heard an untrue word from elder Merel—she’d never heard anything other than wisdom from the old woman, despite all her inner protests and disagreements. Merel had proved Impa wrong more times than she could count.

“Palo,” Impa said, stopping for a moment when they arrived at the fork in the path that would take Palo to his house, Impa to hers. He turned, worried half-smile playing on his lips. Impa hesitated, biting her lip, and decided not to say anything at all.

“Don’t worry, Impa. You’ll be fine. If Merel says you should go, then… well, you can’t argue with the wisdom of age, can you?” He folded his hands behind his head. “You’ll come back down. But if you don’t, I get Bloodletter.”

Impa let out an anxious laugh. “Fine. But don’t misuse it.”

“Do I ever misuse anything?” he asked.

“Besides every faculty you’ve been born with, no.” She smiled weakly and left Palo at the crossroads, leading Link back down to the warmth and safety of her mother’s house.


The Family

Chapter Text

*

“Tallest among the mountains in the eastern province, Eldin dwarfs even the Gorons’ ancestral home, Death Mountain. There are many a rumor on what lies at its  peak—some say an ancient city in the sky, some say a ruined temple, some say the goddess Din herself. There is no one who knows besides the Sheikah, and even then, only a few select, elite elders. It is forbidden to speak of, even amongst the tribe itself, so what lies in wait at the mountain’s monstrous peak remains a mystery to this day.”

R. Brunt, My Explorations

*

 

It was something that only happened a few times each century. It required days of preparation, even more of recovery. No one was sure if it was a punishment or a reward, if it was a test of strength or an attempt on one’s life. But an expedition to the peak of Eldin was an event that shook the village to its very foundations with excitement.

Impa’s mother recovered all of the wolfskin coats from storage, pulled out the wool blankets, the hats, gloves, protective goggles made of glass forged in the fires of Death Mountain, she dried the late squashes she picked from her garden, salted meat, cobbled Impa’s boots and mended her worn sleeves. She entreated Palo for his old fur cloaks and breeches, a hat and scarf that Link could wear, if they proved small enough. As the woman struggled to find him boots and a jacket that fit him, he just stared ahead, letting her maneuver his arms into sleeves and pull a pair of deerskin gloves over his fingers. By the way he sat contentedly under the doting hands of Impa’s mother, she could tell he had come to accept the strange people around him and their strange habits and desires. He didn’t have much of a choice—he knew he was at their mercy.

Talm just stood in the doorway, crossing and uncrossing her arms, tilting her head at the sight of her sister and the strange Hylian boy bundling and unbundling themselves in front of the fire. “Is Merel trying to kill you both, sending you up there this time of year?” she asked. Her worry was well-hidden, but still present. She might be a master of stealth but Impa knew her too well.

“We’ll be fine,” Impa said, wrapping a few dried vegetables and shoving them into their pack. “The first snows haven’t even come yet. We’ll be up and down by this time tomorrow.”

“You’re a liar, Impa.” Talm said no more, just retreated to the shadows at the back of the house, where she let down her long hair. She turned away from the hearth, drawing an ivory comb through the wavy streaks of gold as Impa’s mother returned from the shed.

“I found your father’s old cloak,” she said. “It might fit Link.”

Link had given up resisting and sat with his back to the fire, watching Impa stuff necessities into their pack. There was a growing pile of items that her mother had brought her in the hopes it might ease the difficulty of their trip, and that both of them knew she could not afford to take: a flute, a good luck charm, Impa’s favorite foods, extra boots, a book—why her mother thought she’d have time to read on a mission like this remained a mystery to her.

Link let Irma wrap him in the old cloak, fastening the bear tooth buttons and closing the front. She stepped back, satisfied with the fit, and Link looked up at her, blue eyes wide, face halfway buried in the fur lining the cloak’s neck. Impa couldn’t help but smile at the sight of him, so pale and thin-looking in her father’s old clothes, but still strangely natural. It seemed an adventurer’s garments suited him somehow. Now, if she could discover that an adventurer’s spirit suited him as well, they might be able to ascend Eldin and come back down alive and well.

“I suppose I ought to send word to Talporom,” Impa’s mother said, smile fading.

“Don’t bother,” Impa answered, lacing a pocket of the pack closed. “He’ll only worry about me.”

“He’s your father, of course he’ll worry about you. We all will.”

Impa smiled cynically. “No matter how old I get, you never seem to stop fretting about me.”

“I’ll fret about you until I die, Impa. It’s in my nature.”

Impa glanced at the stableboy, sitting heavily cloaked in front of the fire. He had turned his head and now stared into the flames, silent as always. She wondered if he knew what was happening—he seemed remarkably untroubled by the ordeal, but perhaps it was only because he was not familiar with the  ritual.

There were plenty of stories of Sheikah who ascended the mountain with earnest intent, but found themselves struck down by the angry spirits. They told of wanderers lost in the storms of the giant mountain, frozen forever in the slope, they told of the slaughter and subsequent devouring of travelers by the dozens of wolf packs that roamed the hills. Impa knew better than to believe such stories, but they lingered in the back of her mind, casting shadows on her hope and forcing her to pack an extra knife.

She knew the likelihood of their return hinged mostly on the clemency of the weather. If the snows rolled in late, they would only have to consider the cliffs, falling rocks and wolves (a true Sheikah never worried about getting lost in the Eldin range—in fact, Impa remembered, Elder Merel had once said a true Sheikah never got lost at all). If the snows rolled in early, however… well, they would simply have to try their best to survive.

Impa wondered why they had to listen to the old gods anyway. She was half-convinced they were long gone—and so had nothing of value to say about Link. Impa knew at this point Merel wouldn’t order his execution, but there was little chance of him actually joining their clan. He could not eavesdrop if he could not hear—he couldn’t fight if he was not trained. He was nothing more than a burden on their people, but then again, technically, so was Impa’s mother.

When Talporom had brought a Hylian woman back to the village, the people of Kakariko reeled at the company. She was certainly not the first of her race to arrive in the village, she was not the first to stay, but in that state of racial and cultural unrest, it seemed nothing less than betrayal to bring her to the village. It hadn’t been two weeks since the army from Lanayru began their march on Eldin and left unprecedented carnage in their wake—the beginnings of a war that left the Deadwood river running with blood. It had been Sheikah blood, Goron blood, that stained the riverbed and irrevocably scarred Eldin province. To bring a Hylian to the village was to bring fire too near the powder keg of the tribe, but Talporom had earned such respect over the years, there was little open protest.

Talporom and Irma were married under the old gods’ watch, with blessings from the village elder, of course, and she received her spousal tattoos. She retained her southern Hylian traditions—primarily raising the children, taking charge of the domestic duties of the household—but she had not been allowed to pass on those traditions to her daughters, who were, by the tribe’s standards, still considered fully Sheikah.

And now Impa had brought her own Hylian. She had no intention of marrying him, of course, but perhaps, if Merel would allow it, Link could stay with Irma, in the company of someone of his own race and culture. Irma was kind and patient, and despite already having two grown daughters, would still have room in her heart for a son. Impa could not openly ask her mother to take care of him—that struck her as akin to showing up at the door with a new pet and begging to keep it—she would have to wait until Irma offered.

It was also possible that she would never have to worry about her mother offering, especially if they never made it back down the mountain. Impa knew it was a minor problem for a later time—the gods were extinct, they would have nothing to say about him. She would come back down with him in tow, unchanged, unhindered, and hand him off to her mother before being reassigned to another task. When she no longer had him to worry about, she could start the search for royal blood all over again—it was her duty.

She solidified her plans in her mind as Link sat by the fire, wearing her father’s old cloak. Her mother reemerged from the back room with an old knitted hat, green wool faded with age, and knelt before him. She smiled widely as she pulled the hat over his blond hair, tucking his slender ears into the fabric.

“This was the first hat I made your father,” Irma said, without taking her eyes off the boy before her. “You can tell it’s a first attempt.”

“It looks quite silly on him,” Impa admitted. The absurd shade of green and the pointed tip, the length of the hat and the way it fell over his back almost made her laugh. She tried to imagine what her mother was thinking—or intending—when she knotted the first stitches of that hideous thing. She tried to imagine her father’s reaction to it, the kind yet incredulous smile, the sincere but still pained words of gratitude. She wondered if Talporom ever wore it or if it had gone straight from Irma’s hands to the storage shed.

Poor hat. It had not aged well—the creases and holes made it look almost as scraggly and unloved as the boy who wore it, but they suited one another, in a strange and pitiable way. He wore the hat like he wore all the other articles Irma had wrapped around him without his explicit consent: with a dignified resignation.

If only Impa could be so calm. She had tried for the past few days of preparation to keep her hands from shaking, to keep her face from contorting into a scowl, but she could not banish the worry from her soul. It constricted her throat, it made her breaths shallow and unsatisfying—even Link noticed her tenseness, and occasionally reached over and gripped her wrist, in order to (she guessed) comfort her.

It was a dangerous trip, especially at this time of year, but Merel had taken time to emerge from her cave and hobble her way down to Kakariko proper to give her some sage advice. Irma had answered the door for the elder and immediately placed tea in front of her.

“Your grandmother made the trip up to the mountain once,” she said to Impa. “She did fine, and so will you. That said, I was her companion for that particular trip.” She took a moment to grin and sip her tea. “Goddesses, did we learn about one another up there. It’s astounding how much you reveal when you think you’re about to die. It really does miracles for the bond of friendship.”

Somehow that failed to comfort Impa. When Merel continued, it was in a more constructive vein. “You will no doubt meet any number of adversaries up there, animals, the elements, hunger, cold, yourselves even… but you must be careful which ones you trust and which you don’t. It could mean the end of your life.”

Impa did not know what Merel meant, but she nodded her head, blinking slowly, trying to dismantle and piece together the mysterious words of the wizened elder. Merel offered no explanation after that; she just sipped her tea and complemented Irma on her brewing. “You make it just like a proper Sheikah,” she said, and Irma blushed slightly.

“You’d think after all these years I should be able to.”

“And you’d be surprised at how many of us who were born here still can’t.”

While the two waxed poetic about the form and fullness of each tea leaf, each possible mode of steeping, Impa finished packing. She pulled the strings on the large bag, laced the leather closed, and hauled it onto her shoulder. She slumped under the weight, but it was nothing that she couldn’t carry—or, at least, make Link carry while she navigated their way up the slopes and fought off any threats. Link still sat by the fire, eyes closed, wrapped in Talporom’s old clothes. Impa set the pack down on the floor and knelt in front of him, touching him lightly on the knee. His eyes opened calmly and he watched her lips as she moved them, slowly.

We leave tomorrow. In the morning.

She wasn’t sure if he understood. His eyes were soft and hazy, as if looking at something far beyond Impa, but he nodded his head anyway. She squeezed his shoulder and left him by the fire, staring into whatever it was that he saw deep in the flames.

*

For the first time in his life, Link held a conversation. Granted, it wasn’t the sort of conversation that hovered in the air between two people, spurred by sound and gestures. But it was the first time an entity had told him something, and he’d had the power to answer back in his own words. They were formless words, abstract details of thought, but the fire had understood. There had been an exchange of ideas. And it baffled him.

When he sat between Impa and Palo in the old woman’s cave, engulfed in the orange light of her sacred fire, he’d felt something itch in the back of his head. It scratched against his skull like the soft brush of a horse’s tail, but it still made him twitch, made his heart flutter in surprise. When he drew his eyes away from the floor and back to the old woman sitting on the other side of the fire, he saw that she’d closed her eyes, instead preferring to let her fingers see what went on in the heat of the flames.

So he followed her touch. What little skin was close enough to the fire could feel the columns of heat and cool, dancing, forming images on his hands, on his face, in his mind.

He saw Talon, his worried face, his wringing, hairy hands as he looked fervently for his stableboy; he saw the fire-red mare, snorting and fidgeting in her stall, eager for his return; he saw the hounds and their untimely litters, curled in a warm pile of black fur and pink tongues, waiting for him. His heart sank, and his lungs seemed to shrink in his chest. A pang of longing made its way up from his belly to his constricted throat.

Do you want to go home? the fire asked.

Yes, he’d answered, in his mind. He hadn’t taken the time to wonder why the images were speaking to him—all he cared about was getting the pain in his chest to leave him.

Then you must entreat the spirits to give it to you. But you must remember, it might not be what you expect. Home is not where you are from. It is merely where you belong.

I belong there, he answered, thinking of Talon’s greasy cooking, the smell of the animals, the picture of the redheaded girl on the stable wall and the flickering of the mourning candle, filling the stalls with a warm glow all through the night.

We shall see. The fire stilled, for a moment. The old gods will decide.

Link had never met a god, but if they were anything like kings, he knew he had an obligation to heed them.

You will ascend Mount Eldin and present yourself to the ancient spirits. You will put yourself at their mercy and judgment. Then you will get to go home. Better yet, you will know where home is.

Link was fairly sure he knew, but he also knew better than to argue.

The old gods may not answer your entreaty, or they may answer with wrath and damnation. That is the risk you take.

Link gulped.

But you will not be alone. You may choose a guide, one of Sheikah blood, to lead you up the mountain.

Link had never heard of Sheikah blood, but he hoped Impa had at least a few drops flowing around in her veins. He silently reached over and touched her knee, hoping that he had chosen correctly.

Very well, the fire answered. It almost seemed amused. Link had a feeling that it wasn’t really the fire that spoke to him, but the old woman who hovered over it, smiling slightly, eyes lazily shut as if in deep sleep. You have chosen a wise, strong companion, child. I’ve no doubt she will guide you to the peak. Whether or not you survive the trials at the summit is an entirely different question.

The fire dimmed, casting a bluish, dying light over the room, and the old woman lowered her gnarled brown hands. The flames danced lazily, low and cool, as the woman stood, wrinkled smile spreading across her face.

When Link closed his eyes, wether it was in the darkness of the night outside, or here in front of the hearth in what he assumed to be Impa’s home, he saw images, saw flames. He saw paintings and sculptures of things of his past—Talon, a dog whelping, the barkeep’s wife and her kind smile, the shining hooves of the warhorse, almost silver in cloudy light. He wanted to keep those images with him, but each time he glanced back at the fire, seeking the comfort of the familiar, the tableaux faded a little more, flickering back into grey ashes. He watched helplessly as scenes of his home vanished, swallowed in the flames. He knew in his heart the only way to bring them back was to let Impa lead him to the top of the gargantuan mountain whose shadow loomed over the village.

He took a moment to marvel at how in the course of a few weeks he had gone from shoveling manure in the King’s stables to ascending a foreign peak with a tattooed stranger. He had always had a feeling that while he was isolated in his silent world, concerned only with the care of animals, there was a bigger realm outside the corral gates, outside the city, that he would never get to explore. He’d never particularly wanted to—he had all he needed right where he had been: safety, animal companionship, food, warmth, work. He harbored no concern for the that world, full of its clashes and dangers and confusions, saturated with the vibrations of conversations he’d never hear, full of deceit and nonsense. He knew Talon was the only human company he’d ever need, the only link to the world full of those who did not have the time nor inclination to attempt to speak with him. Apart from the barkeep’s wife, and of course, the yellow-haired girl, he’d had no other human friends.

But then there was Impa. There was something about her that forced him to reach over for her when the fire told him to choose a companion. There was a powerful, stern kindness in her eyes, a willingness to try to understand him when she could, a willingness to introduce him to that large world Talon had only sheltered him from. She had shown him the countryside, pointing to this and that and mouthing the words for them slowly, so he could get a grasp of what shape they were in his head. She had fed him strange foods, showed him the set of strings that quivered so delightfully in the light—she had even shown him a few moves with weaponry that only guards and noblemen in the city had been even allowed to touch.

He had a feeling that he had, in the presence of Impa and her strange, cold-eyed companion, acquired the beginnings of a taste for freedom. The part of him that desperately desired to make his way back into the King’s stables was strong, and it ached in him like a burning pain, but what he really feared was not being barred from the King’s palace because of his transgressions, not being captured and punished by the guards—what he truly feared was that he would not be able to force himself to go back at all. He had dipped one toe into the raging, dangerous waters of the world, and sooner or later he would have to jump in.


Irma Fits a Jacket for Link

Chapter Text

*

“Said the wolf to the fawn, ‘Have you ever seen teeth this sharp, or fur as silvery as mine?’ ‘No,’ the fawn answered, and stepped closer, for indeed he had never seen such a shiny, beautiful coat, nor such a set of wonderful white teeth. ‘Have you ever seen eyes this red, this lively?’ the wolf asked. ‘No,’ again said the fawn, and took yet another step closer, for indeed he had never seen such eyes, so bright and wide. ‘Have you ever seen claws as lovely black as mine?’ ‘No.’ The fawn took another stride, and peered down at the claws, which were indeed black as night and shining like stars. By this time the fawn was well within snapping distance of the wolf’s slavering, strong jaws, but he did not close them around the creature’s throat. Instead, he issued a warning: ‘How easily you are enticed! Had I been a something as lowly or tricky as a fox, you would be dead now, foolish child.’ The wolf licked his chops, digging his claws into the soft dirt. ‘But I am a wolf, a creature of honor, and therefore I shall have mercy on you. I will give you a running start.’”

Etran Olrani, “Tales from the Eldine Forests” from Ordish Children’s Stories

*

 

The first night was clear and dry. There were no packs of roaming carnivores to be seen, no rumblings of the earth that would send pillars of rock crumbling down on them. Impa could not help but sigh in relief when they found a small outcropping of rock under which to make camp. She rolled out their small mats, sat herself down and pulled their dried dinner from the pack. She split the salted meat and hard bread and handed some over to Link, who ate it eagerly.

He had followed her closely all the way up the slope, almost like a loyal dog, without complaint. She quite liked the silence he brought with him—she had grown so used to Palo and his word games, his jokes, his idle conversation on the road, the stableboy’s quietness struck her as refreshing. He proved himself tough as well, following her closely without stopping to rest. She had even burdened him with the pack, and he kept up, lost in his own thoughts and ignorant of his own exhaustion. He was wide-eyed, fascinated with the scenery around him, and even now, when it was too dark to see, he stared up at the stars, light unimpeded by the new moon, gathering them into himself and storing the image away. It was likely he did not see the stars too often in the city—the smoke and lights of the town no doubt blotted them out.

Impa smiled as she chewed her dried meat. He would sleep well tonight, she could tell. She would have to keep herself up to watch over them both as the deeper darkness fell, or ready a guardian spell. She finished her measly dinner and pulled the wolfskins from the pack. She lay them across the mats, ushering Link inside his and wrapping him tight. He settled into the soft bed like a swaddled child, and drifted off before she had even finished closing the skins.

She sat back against the rocks, staring down at his sleeping face, lit almost blue by the expansive starlight. She sighed, scanning their surroundings for any sign of movement, of danger, but saw none. She lifted her nose to the air to see if she could sense any peril approaching from the far reaches of the woods, but all seemed quiet, save for the activity of a lone owl, prowling the woods for food. Impa stood up, tracing her way around their little camp, hand outstretched.

She erected a small barrier around them, woven of shadow and air, sealed with a rune and a quick incantation. It wasn’t impenetrable, but it would at least warn her if something stepped over its bounds.  Satisfied with her work, she tiptoed back to where Link snored slightly. She lay herself in her own skins, pulling the soft material tighter to her. She crossed her arms and closed her eyes, letting the last images she had of the village play through her head.

She saw her mother, hands clasped worriedly over her breast, as Impa and Link started up the side of the mountain—a route so untraveled there were no paths, no markers, to show the way. Palo had stood beside Talm, letting her hold onto his arm and squeeze it as she watched her sister walk away. The elder had waved, oracular smile on her face, and Irma couldn’t help but rush after them to see them off for what Impa was fairly sure was the fifth or sixth time. She hugged her daughter tightly, spouting all the usual motherly nonsense about staying safe, then grasped Link on either side of the face and kissed his forehead. The look that crossed his face—the sheer bewilderment—still made Impa smile, wrapped up in her skins in the dark. Evidently nobody had kissed him before—and it was that image of Link, red-faced, eyes wide, green cap sitting askew on his messy hair, that lulled her to sleep.

*

Impa could only guess how sore Link was. He followed behind her, letting out little groans with each step, panting with the effort. Evidently the carelessness of yesterday’s hurried pace had caught up to him, and he no longer had the luxury of being distracted by every sight and smell of the deep forest. But Impa did not let him slow, she didn’t let him stop. She could feel the peak above them, perhaps a little more than a day’s walk away—they might’ve been able to get there before nightfall if the days were not so short this late in the year.

The clouds gathered above, and Impa knew they had to hurry. She practically dragged Link up the slopes, barely slowing when the rocky scree turned into cliffs, and they had to clutch the mountain with numb hands, toes curled desperately in their boots. A distant howling spurred Impa on, and she climbed until neither of them could climb further. As the first flakes of snow fell across the mountain, gray and damp in the quickly fading light, Impa spied a small cave in which to rest. She stumbled up the precarious incline, rocks slipping out from beneath her feet, and slowed when the slope lessened, easing into a short, flat area surrounded by small caverns and boulders. She dragged Link to the nearest one and he collapsed in a panting heap of fur and splayed limbs.

Impa poked her head out of the cave just as the wind picked up, throwing sharp snowflakes like pinpricks into her face. They had long since passed Eldin’s timberline, and the only life to be seen were a few scraggly lichens and, in the distance, a small herd of brave mountain goats descending the cliffs opposite them. She had no time to wonder why they had wandered so high up, nor offer them thoughts of hope as they fled the coming storm.

She crawled back into the cave, turning Link over and helping him remove the pack from his back. He tried to sit up, pushing himself desperately against the sloped wall of the small grotto, but he only slid back onto the rocky floor, red-faced with effort. Impa pulled their mats from the pack and unrolled them, helping him onto his before sitting on her own. She looked down at him, shivering, sore, curled up, and her heart sank. She wondered what the extent of his physical tasks were back at the palace stables, and if the arduous hike had broken past his limits. He seemed so pale, so desperately tired, she wondered if he would be able to get up in the morning.

She pulled out some food for them both, and when darkness had fallen completely, and the wind outside had picked up to a harrowing scream, puffs of snow flying into their little cave, she lay down and closed her eyes. The cold seemed to seep into her very core, and she pulled the skins tighter around her, wiggling her feet, hoping some feeling might return to them before she drifted off. She heard the unmistakable chattering of teeth beside her, and reached over to Link.

In the oppressive dark, she could not see him, but she could feel him trembling. Impa knew there was no chance of starting a fire on a night this cold and so far from the nearest tree, so she lay a hand on his shoulder. He stopped shaking for a moment, and Impa fumbled with his skins in the dark, pulling open his fur padding and adding her own to it. She lashed the furs together, as her father had taught to do on nights where the cold may sneak in and steal one’s life while one slept. She pulled the skins tight around them both and pressed up next to him, turning over so her back lay against his. He seemed stunned at the contact, holding still and tense, but at least he wasn’t shivering so hard anymore.

She lay next to him, feeling his breath relax, sensing him drift off to sleep. She felt her own heart quicken for a moment, halfway convinced that he could feel the fluttering vibrations of all her organs through the layers of their clothes. A tiny part of her feared he could tell what went on inside her—where her veins pumped and how fast, where her wayward mind was wandering. She told herself to calm down; where she could not convince herself to disbelieve Link had that kind of uncanny perception, she at least convinced herself he was asleep, and therefore not concerned with the status of her heartbeats.

She took a deep breath, letting their combined warmth relax her. She let it usher her from her waking body, let herself go limp, let her eyes close and her mind drift off into dreams.

She was so tired she didn’t realized she’d forgotten to set up a barrier.

*

When Impa awoke, Link was missing. A shiver ran through her as she turned, instinctively expecting the warmth of another body, but her arm passed through air, landing on the rapidly cooling furs that lay empty beside her. She bolted upright, eyes scanning the cave. He hadn’t gone farther in—the throat of the cave closed only a few feet from where she lay, so he must have wandered out into the white, snowy day.

She had little time to thank the spirits that she had survived until the morning. She had little time to curse herself for allowing him to get up and wander off without her noticing. Surely when he crossed her barrier he would’ve—then she remembered she hadn’t erected a barrier. She mentally punished herself as she jumped out of the wolfskin blankets, crawling her way to the mouth of the cave and peering out into the featureless expanse of bright white beyond.

She called out into the morning, voice muffled in the rapidly falling snow. She knew it would do no good, so she gathered her cloak tighter around her and set off after him.

She imagined what the elder would say when she returned to Kakariko without him, when she came back empty-handed twice in a row. Impa knew the elder would cast her out, and rightfully so. She would have her tattoos cut right off her face, she would have the location of Kakariko wiped from her memory by force, she would never see her mother or father again, nor Talm, nor Palo…

She stumbled upon Link’s tracks, fresh in the falling snow. She bent and followed the footprints, hurriedly, rushing along before the snow could bury them. She stumbled forward, shivering, teeth chattering without mercy, and swept across the snow, fresh and powdery and unconscionably cold. She composed all sorts of chastisements in her head, chastisements he would never hear. Then she decided the most communicative thing she could do was slap him across the back of the head. So she readied her hand, anger burning, when she made out the speck of his form through the whirling snow.

She slowed, only slightly, when the smudge of Link’s form split into two black shadows, clear against the stark, infinite white snow. Something stood before Link, short and hunched, like an animal. Impa thought, for one insane moment, he might’ve come across a straggler of the Goron clan, but that hope died in her when she saw the thin bristles of fur on its back, the long snout, the triangular ears. The wolf sat calmly in the snow, unmoving before Link, dark as coal against the blizzard.

Impa drew her knives, throwing herself between Link and the wild animal. She looked into its red eyes, bright against the snow, and raised her blade. She had never fought a beast of this regal nature before, but with a tinge of regret she realized she might have to kill it to save what she had, in the past few days, come to think of as some kind of ward.

But Link reached out and gripped her elbow, pulling her back with surprising strength. She stepped sideways, regaining her balance, and glanced to him. He shook his head, still buried between a massive fur coat and an equally ill-fitting green hat. His blue eyes bored into her, almost demandingly. She turned back to the wolf and acquiesced, sheathing her knives and taking a deep breath.

Link approached the animal like he would a common hound. He held out his hand, not timidly, but not aggressively, and the wolf regarded it, prodding it with its nose and snorting slightly. White snow dotted its nostrils, its long eyebrows, giving it a dappled, almost domestic look. When the animal turned and trotted across the snow, Link followed, motioning for Impa to come along.

She hesitated for a moment, reasoning with herself. Their bag was back in the cave. They were ill-equipped for the journey ahead, and Link was gallivanting off on the heels of a wolf. She shook her head, telling herself it was his uncanny knack for animals that drew her to him in the first place, and cautiously followed behind.

The wolf did not lead them, as Impa suspected, to an ambush. She was not aware of any pack that had developed such methods of hunting, especially for use on mountaineers, but she couldn’t quite shake the nagging suspicion that this wolf led them into something like a trap. She could not account for the sort of hyper-intelligence she attributed to this animal, except for that it somehow seemed to know where it was going. It trotted along purposefully, undeterred by the blizzard, occasionally glancing back over its bristling shoulder to make sure the two of them still followed.

This wolf was no ordinary wolf, and Link was no ordinary prey, following in the footsteps of a mere trickster. This was something else, something Impa could not quite explain. Still, she held onto the hilts of her knives, staying close to Link, until the wolf disappeared into the white haze. Impa’s heart raced, pounding against her chest, as she grew sure of the animal’s trickery. But the wolf’s head reappeared in the snow, red eyes shining like two beacons. As they drew closer, Impa realized the wolf had crawled into the safe passage between two rocky outcroppings, bleached white and hidden in the screaming snow. Link followed suit, reaching back to grasp Impa’s wrist and pull her after him.

His determination and forcefulness surprised her. She stumbled into the safety of the rocks, shaking out her hood, and surveyed their surroundings. The rocks were sharp and cold, forming the tall walls of a narrow passage. Above them glowed a blue-white sheet of ice, remnants of a glacier or other such formation, now hollow. It arced over them like the glass roof of a hallway, shielding them from the wind and snow.

The wolf sauntered onward, jumping and scrambling up the small shelves of rock that acted as stairs in this peculiar corridor—Impa was reminded of a temple dedicated to Nayru she’d once visited in Riverton. The nave of the church had been carved from white stone, the ceiling lined with windows tinted blue and glowing with holy light. It had been a beautiful sight, of course, but it had not instilled the same spiritual fervency in her that this simple corridor of ice and stone did. She did not believe in the daughters of Hylia, she didn’t believe in many of the ancient gods her own people worshipped (though you’d be hard-pressed to get her to admit it to her fellow tribespeople), but she could believe in this, whatever it was. She could believe in this natural messenger, four-legged and jagged-toothed, leading them along the holy corridor, she could believe in the strange deaf boy in front of her, hands outstretched, climbing over the black rocks. She could believe in the voice of the blizzard above her, tearing across the ice, and she could believe the sharp stone beneath her fingers, supporting her as she ascended to the peak of Eldin.

Palo would laugh at her if he saw her now, blindly following a strange boy, who in turn blindly followed a wild animal. He would laugh if she told him about the overpowering sense of transcendence that came over her at that moment. He would laugh at her if she told him how desperately she wanted to ask Link how he did it, how he listened to the wolf and knew to follow. But Impa knew she would not tell Palo of any of this. She would not even tell Merel—as the peak of Eldin neared, and with it the proximity to the inexplicable, the supernatural, she felt something wrap around her heart and throat. The mountain would not let her speak of this—and she had no desire to. She looked at Link up ahead, still fervently following the black wolf, and wondered if he experienced the same sort of strange, metaphysical pressure; she had to guess he did, since if he could hear the silent voices of wolves, he would most definitely sense the silent voice of Eldin.

The passage steepened, narrowed, and she and Link had to turn sideways to squeeze through the cracks in the mountainside. For a second Impa found herself thankful she had abandoned their supplies in the cave, since they wouldn’t have been able to fit in these narrow rocky passages anyway. At least she might be able to find the cave again. She was certain, for a reason she could not explain, that she would never discover this particular corridor again, especially without animal guidance.

The wolf waited for them at the top of a particularly steep escarpment, black shape blocking the sharp blue light that pierced the ice ceiling above them. It sat and flicked its tail, bright red eyes watching them struggle up the vertical shaft, almost amused. Link pulled himself up the ledge and reached down to help Impa up after him, and when she glanced up into his face, he saw a slight smile cross his pale features.

What a strange creature, Impa thought as she hauled herself up next to him. She struggled to her feet, and the wolf, so near it left a trail of earthy mustiness in its wake, sauntered onward, toward a shadowy archway of rock. The structure reminded Impa of an open mouth, and it was with a good helping of caution that she stepped toward it, one hand on her knife. Link disappeared into the rocky maw first, seemingly untroubled, and Impa followed him, closing her eyes as she ducked through.

When she opened them again, she found herself in the thick of the blizzard. Snow stung her face, blurred her vision, but she walked onward, reaching out for the grey silhouette of Link in front of her. She stumbled through the snow, pulling her cloak tightly to herself and narrowing her eyes against the wind. The grey image of Link’s outline became clearer in the storm, and she walked to his side, stopping to stare when a brief lull in the raging wind cleared her sightline for a moment.

The wolf was gone. She and Link stood alone at the mountain’s summit, engulfed in a white cloud too high to be natural. Before them stood a crumbling stone temple, carved with intricate designs, dotted with statues, tall black pillars rising to the white sky. It looked like nothing more than a tempting shadow, but when Impa approached, slack-jawed and unaware of the snow filling her open mouth, she realized it was solid as anything.

She lay a hand on a pillar at the entrance to the temple. The black stone was warm, unbelievably reflective and composed of rare material not found on the mountain itself. She looked over at Link, who had taken off his gloves and was now touching the ornate carvings on the walls. She reached over to him and tapped him, motioning to the entrance—a tall, curved doorway fit with two massive slabs of oak, untouched by the inclement weather and the flow of time. Impa approached the gargantuan doors, Link trotting up beside her, and took a deep breath. She lay her hands on the wood and pressed forward with all her strength.

She did not expect the door to open so easily. But when they creaked open, hinges screaming louder than even the wind, white-blue light poured from the doorway and nearly blinded her. She looked over at Link, making sure he followed, and stepped inside. 


Climbing Eldin

Chapter Text

*

“I have seen my sisters born again in blood and fire, screaming like the desert wind itself, cursed and blessed by the old goddesses of the Gerudo. I have seen strangers reborn in silence, sculpted from ice and rock by the spirits of the stoic mountains. I have seen the dead rise and the lame walk. I have seen what the ancient deities can give—and I have seen what they can take away.”

Obaru of the Haunted Waste

*

 

The air in the temple fell over them like a cool gust of breath. It felt alive, watchful, but not quite sinister. Impa drew her knives anyway, scanning the temple for any sign of danger.

The building’s entrance hall glinted like ice in the blue light, black pillars rising to the sloped roof. Lining the walls stood windows, long since devoid of any glass, but they still filtered the light in a multitude of bright colors. The snow drifted in from their long arches in streaks of blue, purple, grey, reflecting the uncanny light of the temple itself. Impa crept down the grand hall, Link beside her, and approached the altar at the chancel of the temple, under the curving murals of sky and storm. Depictions of deities of light and shadow stood embossed, immortal, in the walls. They were strange to her; they were not the gods of her tribe, nor were they the deities of their old neighbors, the Gorons—or at least not any she’d read about.

Impa was loath to approach the altar carelessly, especially when she recalled the stories other tribespeople had told her about the wrath of the gods of the mountain. She shuffled toward it, barely moving, waiting for the inevitable crack of a stone-built trap, the whistle of arrows flying at her from crevices in the black walls. But there were no traps sprung, no rush of falling stone as the building collapsed on her. The only thing she heard was Link’s sudden exhale, the click of his boots on the floor as he stepped back. Impa turned toward the narthex of the ancient temple, following his blue gaze, and her eyes settled on their lupine guide, reclining on its haunches between them and the exit.

The wolf stared at them for a moment before padding toward them on large, silent black feet. It lowered its head, hackles rising, eyes shining. Before Impa could throw herself between Link and the wolf, it sprang forward, claws outstretched, jaws open. She raised her knives and flung her arms toward the animal, but not before its front paws caught Link on the chest and he fell to the ground, struggling under the teeth that closed around his skin.

Impa sprang to his rescue, the tip of her blade sweeping through the air, but when it reached the wolf’s bristly back, it bounced off harmlessly, ringing with the clang metal on ice. Impa reeled, arm trembling at the unexpected impact, and regained her balance. The wolf did not seem to notice her strike—it latched onto Link’s throat, growling, tail wagging eagerly.

Impa raised her knife for another blow, but before she could thrust the blade into the icy flank of the animal, she felt a painful pressure on her back. She tightened her muscles, squeezed the air out of her lungs, and ignored it, focusing instead on wrestling the wolf off her companion. But she couldn’t even lower herself to pry him from the animal’s jaws—the pressure on her back exploded in a burst of pain, and she cried out, dropping her knives.

She raised her hands to her chest, glancing down at herself. A thin blade of ice rose from her chest, sharp and clear. Blood ran along it, dripping from her wound, staining the otherwise pristine ice a morbid red.

It always surprised her exactly how bright fresh blood was. It was garish, unseemly, against a backdrop of such calmness, such cool light. She watched it run along the length of the ice protruding from her chest, and her eyes dimmed. A drop of it gathered at the tip of the icicle, and in the fraction of a second it took for the tiny sphere to form and drop from the edge, a gust of wind nearly threw her off her feet. The white gale blinded her, carried her away from her pained consciousness and into a darker place. She never saw the drop of blood hit the floor.

*

When the wolf closed its jaws over Link’s throat, he felt no fear. That’s not to say he didn’t feel pain—of course, an animal’s bite draws agony like any other injury, but he had accepted the inevitability of this result since he took his first steps after the wolf in the freezing blizzard.

He knew it would come to this. He knew he would have to pay a high price to go home, to go back to the stable and the warm protection of Talon and the horses. The wolf’s gaze said as much. It was not the kind, reasonable blinking of a hound, nor was it the hungry stare of a wild beast. The wolf looked at him with eyes much more than animal. The fire’s words returned to him in that moment, the talk about gods and spirits, and he wondered if he had finally come across one.

He entreated the wolf as it sprang on him, claws digging into his chest, mouth closing around him. He asked it desperately to show him the way home.

The only way home is in death, it had answered.

Very well.

He wondered if his reluctant acceptance of the wolf’s violence had surprised it. Irrespective, he suddenly found himself standing, picked up by a whirling gale so thick it almost felt solid. It was a chilling yet soothing wind, ruffling the fur on his coat and threatening to tear the hat off his head. The icy gusts blew away the pain in his throat, his chest, and when he reached up to touch his own skin, he found it solid, unhurt.

Two bright eyes appeared before him, lined with silvery fur. They hovered over him, each bigger than his own head, staring through the gale at him. They seemed to dig through him, turning him around and examining him, stripping him down and pulling him apart without moving. Behind the eyes, Link could make out the shape of a silver animal, its white claws curled under it. A long snout, tipped with a black nose, emerged from the gale and touched his chest. The gargantuan wolf sniffed him once, twice, and pricked its ears forward.

Are you willing to make the sacrifices necessary?

He wasn’t sure. Yes, he answered.

You will bleed for this land, boy. You will suffer for it. But you will also be better for it.

Something soothing, some strange magic, entered his skin, chilling him to the bone. The wind died down a little, but something colder and more invasive replaced it, threatening to freeze his fingers and ears right off. There was a probing curiosity in that wind, and as it touched his skin, he could feel its doubts, its questions.

You are broken, said the wind in the wolf’s eyes. But a broken blade may yet draw blood.

Yes, I am broken, Link admitted. I am missing one of my senses.

That is not what I speak of. Your ears do not function, but that does not mean you’re broken. It’s your heart, child. A moment of silence followed. We spirits are fair, and we are also compassionate. We will take much from both of you, but we will bestow as much.

Link did not have the strength to ask the wolf what it meant.

Heed my words, child. For a time, we will allow you to borrow something of ours. Something you will find useful. But we can do nothing about your heart. That is a challenge for you and you alone.

The wind picked up, pricking his skin with horrific precision, piercing his head, his eyes, soaring down his throat. He let loose a terrible, panful breath, gripping the edges of his coat as if to keep from flying away. Something vibrated through him, shaking his bones; he imagined himself crumbling apart, bone by bone, stripped of sinew and dismantled like a useless machine. He could not draw breath, he could not see, he couldn’t even feel the wind on his skin anymore, couldn’t smell the air around him.

Then everything stilled. His vision remained black, his senses empty, but a curious, periodic sensation crept through him. There was a compression of some sort, pounding through his head, similar to the tremblings he could feel through the floors and walls of a house, sometimes through the dirt or rock itself. But he did not touch anything—his skin was senseless and still. Yet the pounding continued, throbbing in his brain, and his ears twitched slightly.

He gripped at his chest, the pressure running through him in painful intervals. He begged for it to stop, to let him return to the stillness, but when he lay his hand across his breast, fingers pulsating in time with the throbbing, he realized, for the first time in his life, that he could hear the beat of his own heart.

*

Impa groaned, pulling herself to her knees, holding her pounding head. Her chest ached, her fingers were numb with cold, and it took all her strength to open her eyes. Blurry, blue light flooded her vision, and she slowly felt life return to her.

She struggled to her feet, suddenly remembering her injury, her pain, and the strange conversation about broken blades she swore she overheard taking place somewhere inside her own head. She gripped her forehead and looked down at her chest to see not a gaping hole, as she expected, but healthy skin under slightly ripped, bloodstained clothing. She sighed, lowering her hand from her aching forehead, and looked around.

She saw no wolves. She saw no white, snow-laden wind, sharp and forceful. The two gargantuan eyes of the giant wolf had disappeared into the darkening air. There was only Link, kneeling in front of the altar, clutching his ears.

She trotted up to him, limping slightly from sheer exhaustion, and lay a hand on his shoulder. He jerked his head up, blue eyes boring into her. She almost stepped back in surprise at the intensity of his gaze. A few drops of blood still dotted his throat, running down the front of his coat, but his skin remained unbroken, his life firmly inside his own body.

“Impa,” he said, and his eyes widened. He repeated her name, once, twice, slowly, faster again, until all the syllables merged into one incomprehensible slur of ImpaImpaimpaimpa.

“Link,” she answered, a little frightened at this sudden turn of his speech. When the name struck him he lit up, smiling. Impa narrowed her eyes and knelt beside him, examining him for any injuries. He looked fine, just a little overexcited.

Evidently the spirits of the mountain had found them worthy to live. They had a strange way of showing their approval, but she doubted they would kill them now, after they had survived their hallucinatory trial.

“Impa,” he said again, smiling. He seemed eager, but unable, to move on from that word. He stood, making his way over to the black dais and the shining altar that stood on it. Impa followed him, both intrigued and bewildered by his wide smile. As he bent over the altar and reached out for the shining scrap of metal that lay there, Impa had to stop herself from slapping his hand away. He lifted it, looking over its shining length, eyes wide. To Impa, it looked like a fragment of steel, perhaps a little bluer than most metals, but still a useless scrap.

Link stared into the metal, looking at his reflection. He stood deathly still for a second, gazing at nothing, before slamming the steel into the corner of the altar. Impa jumped, raising her hands instinctively at the harsh sound of metal clanging against stone. She eyed Link suspiciously, trying to pick out a cause of his sudden, odd behavior.

But he just stared at the vibrating metal in his hand before closing his eyes and lifting his head, smiling at… something.

It took Impa a second to figure it out. “You can hear,” she said, quietly. Link’s eyes darted to her, and he smiled widely. “You…” She laughed, smoothing back her hair from her eyes. “I can’t believe it.”

She clapped her hands, and he blinked, twitching his head instinctively away from the sound. She smiled, grabbed him by the collar, and examined his healthy grin, his content but confused stare. She shook her head and released him, taking a step back.

“Follow me,” she told him. He obeyed, but whether it was through true understanding or simply recognition of intent, she didn’t know. She led him out of the temple, back into the snowstorm, still turbulent but somewhat toned down in the past few hours (or days; to Impa, her trial had been eternal and instant, as if time itself compressed at the peak of this inscrutable, godlike mountain). The oak door opened easily for them—Link jumped at the loud creak, then smiled, eyeing the door’s black hinges as he walked past. He pulled his bloodstained cloak tighter around him as they entered the quieted drift of snowfall.

It was slow going. Link stopped to listen every once in a while, pricking his ears up at the slightest sound of a flake alighting on the bed of white. He would bend to the ground, listening to the crunch of his own boots in the snow, or raise his head to the sky when the cry of a wolf or fox pierced the air. Impa could only grip his wrist and lead him onward, down the mountain.

It took her a little while to find their supplies again, but by that time the snow had relented. The entire mountain range lay covered in a puffy blanket of pure white, calm and silent. When she recovered their bags, the sun was falling fast in the west. She glanced down to the tree line, and up to the glowing gold sky, thick with clouds, and decided they probably had enough time to make it to the caves below and build a fire. Impa knew they would risk getting caught in the dark, but the anticipation of warm flames pushed her on. Link followed her, slipping down the incline, laughing, and then laughing at the sound of his own laugh. He chuckled until Impa skidded to a halt under the drooping branches of a massive cedar, and followed her into safety, smile glowing.

She broke off a few of the drier, lower branches, piling them into a hole she quickly dug, trying to beat the rapidly setting sun. She managed to start a small fire well after it had crawled behind the distant hills and darkness swept over the mountains, but she took comfort in the fact she’d managed to light one at all. The smoke climbed through the branches and into the dark air, and Link leaned closer to the flames, listening to the crackling wood.

She held her hands out, warming them, before retrieving their dried meal from the pack and splitting it up.

“Thank you,” Link mouthed, without sound. Impa wondered if he was trying the words on for size before committing to them.

“You’re welcome,” she answered.

He smiled and nodded before downing his bread and dried meat. He sat against the tree’s great trunk, pressing his ear up against the bark. He closed his eyes, as if trying to listen to what went on inside, smiling every once in a while. Impa wondered if he could hear the woodpeckers sleeping inside, or the insects crawling along the veins of the organism. Maybe he heard the sap flow through the trunk. She had no idea.

“You can hear,” she told him, barely drawing a sideways glance from him. He seemed much more interested in the tree. “You can hear, but can you understand?”

He looked at her, lifting his head away from the bark, and squinted.

She smiled a little, rubbing her hands together for warmth. “Say something,” she said.

“Impa,” he answered.

“Something else.” She motioned with her hands with as much detail as she could, hoping to get her point across. “Say something you’ve seen on others’ lips. Just push air through while you mouth it. Hm… say something you see the other stablehands say a lot. Something common.”

He closed his eyes for a moment, as if searching through his repertoire of possible words, thousands of lips and tongues moving in his head, before settling on one, one he’d seen pass across the mouths of the stablehands around him every day. “Shit,” he said.

*

Impa did not know why the spirits felt the need to give Link his senses again. He was capable of learning, she would give him that, but he was at such a disadvantage regardless of his recent recovery of his hearing, she doubted he would be able to repay the spirits in any sort of meaningful way. If there was one thing Impa knew about spirits—and if not only from hearing it countless times from her elders—is that they were fair-minded. They did not present any endowments that had not been earned, or would not be earned in the future.

It seemed the great wolf spirit had chosen only to give Link an advantage. Impa felt no different as she descended the mountain. She had no sudden strength, no inexplicable speed, no extra knowledge, no increased skill. She was as she always had been.

She supposed the spirits had found her worthy to live through her trial, but undeserving of anything more. She told herself it was childish and selfish to feel disappointment; she had witnessed a miracle and met a god. Not many other people, even of her own tribe, could boast of that (and technically, due to the inexplicable vow of silence imposed on her by the indomitable mountain, neither could she). She supposed that if she were to play a part in that miracle, that if Link should hear and speak, she might as well be the one to teach him. So every once in a while, on their way back down the mountain, she would point to something and mouth the words slowly, letting him hear the nuance in sound and tone of each word. He  already had a surprising breadth of vocabulary—he could easily tell one thing from another just by reading her lips, but he had never had the faculty to compose his own sentences, to address a person on his own terms. Impa concluded that even though he was demonstrably intelligent, he’d never had a teacher willing to put forth the effort to show him the rudimentary foundations of common conversation. After all, at the stables, they’d only needed him to work in silence, so they had no reason to bother.

Impa taught him as they descended. She knew he preferred to hold his ear to the ground and listen to the small sifts of worms struggling through the rapidly freezing dirt, listen to the wind brush across the snowy trees, the crunch of his own boots on the ground. He was a creature comfortable without words, preferring instead to tap Impa on the shoulder and motion when he had a question, or needed something. She told him to speak up, to let her know in words what he thought, but he’d often shake his head, blushing slightly, as if embarrassed by the prospect of hearing of his own voice.

The whole trip down the mountain, a mercifully uneventful hike, Link kept reaching back and pulling the thin slab of metal from his pack, looking it over before striking it against his thigh and holding it up to his ear. The note it rang out was so deep Impa could not recognize it, although she could understand his pleasure at the pure sound. Her father had once gifted her a tuning fork for her harp, crafted in the Royal Conservatory of Music in the Capital, which she often would let ring next to her ear, even after her strings were pulled tight. It still sat in her mother’s house, next to her fire, waiting to be used. She decided it would be the first thing she showed Link when she got home.

Goddesses above, it would be good to play some music again. Usually, when she returned alive from a mission, she would immediately sit herself behind her harp strings and pluck loudly, proclaiming to both herself and the village that she had survived another adversary, solved another problem, completed another task. Regardless of the outcome of the mission—success, failure, or somewhere in between, she always comforted herself with the strums of the pure strings.

Link would be delighted, she was sure. She smiled to herself as the steep slope abated, and the plateau of Kakariko spread before her. She spied the chimneys spouting grey smoke in the afternoon light, the yellow trees shudder in the winter wind. A few flakes of snow followed them down the hill, toward the village.

Impa could almost smell her mother’s cooking.


The Giant Wolf

Chapter Text

*

“One of the most important words in the old Sheikah language, one that has survived to this day, is temokai, which has several dozen meanings, if one wishes to get technical about it. It is the root basis for many Sheikah names, a few turns of phrase (we shall discuss those in a later section), and plenty of dynamic descriptors. In its barest form, it means ‘celebration’ (see Appendix C for proper conjugation of the verb form), which usually confounds the introductory student. ‘Why,’ one asks, ‘would a people known for its seriousness and secretiveness, have such heavy weight put on a word like that?’ And I answer, eager learners, despite outward appearances, when the Sheikah are among themselves, undisturbed by the prying eyes of the world, they love a good party.”

Ernst Shad, The Student’s Companion to Lost Languages

*

 

Impa stopped by the elder’s cave first, before the commotion at her return got out of hand. She stepped into the shadowy abode, the old woman’s perpetual fire burning warmly, and announced her presence. When the woman emerged from her chambers, long dress dragging against the stone floor, Impa bowed, Link following suit (properly this time).

Merel broke into a smile when she saw them arrive. She stepped up to them, not minding that they remained dirt-smeared, stinky and shivering from the trip, and bid them sit by the fire. Eagerly they took their places next to the flames, and the elder knelt across from them, folding her hands politely across her lap.

“I see you have returned,” she said.

“We have,” Impa answered. “And we have brought something with us.” She motioned for Link to remove the scrap of metal from the pack, and he did, staring at it for a moment before handing it over. The elder examined it, tilting it against the fire’s orange light, sagacious smile widening.

“This is an interesting specimen,” she said. “If the boy does not mind, I will keep it in my chambers, to look at it further.”

Impa turned to Link, and his eyes widened nervously. “Can she keep it?” she asked, slowly. She knew better than to ask loudly at this point.

Link nodded.

“I see he has gained something as well,” the oracle said. “Well done.” She shifted her weight, laying the silver steel beside her. “And you, Impa? Did you learn anything on the top of that mountain?”

“I… no,” she admitted. “All I got from this adventure was that scrap of metal.”

Merel shook her head. “The gods are mysterious, are they not?”

Impa glanced over at Link. “Yes. They are indeed.”

*

Irma flung her arms around both of them when they arrived at her door, crying out nonsense about blizzards and early snows and wolves and bears. Her voice, muffled in Impa’s shoulder as she tugged them both close to her, cracked and wavered with emotion. Link seemed taken aback by the woman’s display of worry, but Impa had seen it many times before. Every time she returned alive from a mission or task, her mother was there, crying on her shoulder. Impa never failed to find it touching, but embarrassingly un-Sheikah.

Talm insisted they throw them a return party. She dashed through the village, announcing the arrival of her sister from the heights of sacred Eldin, nearly screaming for a potluck, assigning roles and designating the locations of the fire pit and dancing circle before anyone could protest.

Irma, swept up in the hurricane of her daughter’s excitement, started to cook a stew of ludicrous proportions. It might’ve fed the whole village at one point—if the village had been at its fullest. Now it would feed the town twice over with a heaping portion left. Impa herself was never terribly keen on wild fêtes, but Talm insisted there would be drinking, song, and plenty of dancing.

Impa did not have much time to practice her harp—in fact, it lay untouched in the corner as she busied herself with unpacking. Talm had been quick—her mother already had the pots on the fire outside, kitchen utensils clanging like weapons in a battle. Link was not quite sure what was going on, but he enjoyed the smiles on Talm and Irma’s faces, eyes brightening at the sounds of their voices.

“So, what was it like up there, at the spiritual peak of the world?” Talm asked, leaning over Impa as she unpacked.

“Well…” Impa’s mouth closed of its own accord, and the strange silence of Eldin’s summit fell over her. She thought of the pain of her trial, the piercing eyes of the wolf spirit, and she found herself physically incapable of saying anything about it. “It’s… it’s hard to breathe up there.”

“Is that all? What else? What about the gods?”

“It’s…” Again, her throat constricted, only allowing out the most banal of descriptions. “It’s cold. It’s cold and snowy.”

“Goddesses above, you’re boring,” Talm said. She turned on Link, as if she could get any information from him. “How about you? You can hear me now, right? What was up there?”

Link only shook his head vigorously. He glanced over at Impa, a slight smile on his face, as if amused that even with his newfound powers of conversation, he could not speak of the temple on Eldin. Talm gave up prying any information from them, and instead turned to help her mother with the stew.

Night fell mercilessly fast. Impa did not have time to lie down, to rest, to practice her harp before the celebration. She barely could wash herself and change before Talm came rampaging through the house, demanding their presence at the village temokai.

“We have to get the fire up and burning,” she said. “We have to help our mother carry the stew out to the village center. We have to set up the instruments.”

It was with a heavy sigh that Impa assisted her sister. She hauled the ridiculously large pot of stew, brought out the drums from the back, and piled logs onto the fire pit as her sister set up her harp.

“It’s remarkable how out of tune this little thing can get,” Talm said, twisting the tuning peg and strumming. She had a musical ear and could pluck out a few tunes on the harp, but she much preferred her flute, leaving the accompaniment to her big sister. It came to no one’s surprise that Talm would choose a solo instrument.

Palo met them at the fire pit, arms crossed, watching Impa stoke the rising flames. “You’re back,” he said. Impa nearly jumped with the realization that she had not seen the man for days. Palo had such a ubiquitous presence, unassuming and almost arcane, it was difficult to notice if he was physically, mentally, or otherwise absent. Whenever she saw him, returning from an assignment, emerging from his tiny house by the graveyard, meeting him in a city halfway across the country for the first time in months, it was always as if he’d never left.

“Nice to see you survived without me,” Impa told him, watching the flames lick at the darkening sky.

“It was difficult, I’ll admit.” He paused, looking over to Link, who was sitting at Impa’s harp, Talm beside him, plucking mindlessly and with unabashed joy. Palo’s eyes widened, and a rare, genuine smile passed over his face. “Well, I’ll be damned. Look who can hear.”

Link looked up at him, grinning. “Hello, Palo,” he said.

Palo stepped back as if struck. “Er. Hi.”

Link went back to strumming the harp nonsensically, under Talm’s watchful eye (“Good, very good, Link—you’re a musical genius!”), as the rest of the village emerged from their homes and gathered around the firelight, talking and toting their own contributions to the feast.

Many of them knew better than to ask Impa about her ascent, unlike Talm. As far as Impa was aware, none of them had made the trip themselves. The only other person Impa knew who had made the trip was the elder, who, seeing the fire dancing in the middle of the village, descended from her cave to join them. She sat at the fire’s edge, in her element, wrinkled hands clasped together, and smiled as Irma dished out soup and bread.

It was a decidedly untraditional meal for a normally traditional feast. Usually, or at least was the case before Irma and her daughter commandeered the village’s celebrations, each member of the village would sit cross-legged before the flames and pass around fresh bits of meat—trout caught from the river, raw venison shot that very day, legs of rabbit, wing of pheasant. No spice was allowed on the raw flesh during consumption, and everyone was to bow and thank the animals before consuming the meat. Only after they had tasted the raw and bleeding strips of flesh, as a reminder that their food did not come without the price of death, were they allowed to move onto seasoned dishes, stewed or steamed or fried above the fire. Piles of yams and wild berries, dried fruits and maize were par for the course, until Faronian cuisine had invaded the towns.

Irma had changed the course of the village’s diet somewhat when she brought some livestock up from Old Riko. Once dismissed as one of her many quirks, Irma’s chickens and single, lonely goat  provided her with enough tastes of her home to satisfy her. And although Kakariko shunned the idea of domestication, Irma would find Sheikah children eager to pet her animals, curious to try their eggs and milk. And eventually, their parents and grandparents acclimatized to Irma’s strange cooking, and even came to look forward to village celebrations, when she would no doubt dish up something exotic. She did not fail to deliver to the denizens of Kakariko: chicken stew seasoned with southern Hylian flair. Nobody thought to thank the chickens for their sacrifice, nor assumed their thanks was accepted, for even among barnyard fowl, Irma’s chickens were surprisingly, even bewilderingly stupid—it was hard to tell if they knew whether or not they were still alive or already halfway into the soup.

The elder ate first. It was a tradition that even Irma could not override. Each villager was served according to his or her age, starting with the wizened oracle and ending with the newest addition to the tribe, a young girl sitting silently in the arms of her grandparents. Her mother and father were apparently away on one of many assignments, but would return shortly, if the spirits willed it.

Link seemed overwhelmed by the light and activity, and especially the attention. Plenty of villagers decided it would be in everyone’s best interest if they looked him over, asked him questions. He just shook his head, smiling slightly, and chose to focus on his soup. Talm hovered over him like a protective mother hen, answering in his place.

“Yes, he climbed the mountain with my sister.”

“I don’t know how old he is.”

“I think he’s from the Capital. Impa, was he born in the Capital? How old is he, by the way? Who are his parents?”

Link wore the sisters like a shield against the queries, instinctively scooting closer to Impa as the questions intensified. Impa just shrugged at each interrogation, answering simply with “I don’t know” and “I don’t see how that’s pertinent.” She could almost see Link relax as the topic of conversation moved from him to the forthcoming winter, the imminent migrations of plenty of different species, the latest they could harvest their potatoes, when Irma should bring her remaining chickens into the shed before the snowfall became too heavy.

It was idle, joyful conversation, and it seemed to tire Talm out. She sprang up after a short while, grabbing Link’s wrists and dragging him up after her. She nodded toward the drums, and the more rhythmically inclined villagers struck up a beat. Link looked desperately over at Impa, eyes wide with fear, as Talm started to gyrate and stomp beside him.

“Dance, you idiot,” she laughed, gripping his arms and pulling him after her, motioning to his feet. He took a moment to listen to the banging drums, to get the hang of the repetition. He tentatively moved his feet as the village watched, eager to see how a deaf man might learn to dance.

It did not surprise Impa to find out the beat came naturally to him. Once, when she was a young girl and Talm still an infant, her mother had brought her to see a famous dancer in Old Riko. Errachella was known throughout Hyrule as the land’s greatest performer, a devotee of complex rhythm and nearly impossible choreography. She was an eloquent speaker, humorous and honest in her memoirs, but had only discovered music after she had been deafened by a childhood accident. She said she could feel the rhythm of the orchestra through the floor, and could follow the beats and vibrations of the low strings almost through her skin. She was one of Hyrule’s most talented—well on her way to status as prima ballerina in the famous Royal Opera in the Capital, until a jealous lover cut her career short with a butcher knife. Her grave still stood by the windmill, never devoid of roses.

Impa wondered if Link was indeed using his ears as they were intended, or had taken a page out of Errachella’s book by instinct, instead preferring to use his soles to sense the rhythm of the songs. He seemed to understand he had to land on the balls of his feet as the deepest drum sounded, and Talm guided him through the steps of the dance, taking his hands and swinging him around.

Impa was not sure why her sister felt the need to celebrate so heartily, when it was her success that warranted the feast in the first place. Had Impa not been the one who brought him to the peak of the mountain? Had she not been the one to rescue him from servitude, to suffer the spirits’ judgment on his behalf? Was she not the one best suited to guide him through the steps of a Sheikah war dance?

She told herself that bitterness and resentment were traits of a petulant child, and forced herself to smile at the two of them. Talm swayed wildly, swinging her arms and laughing, and Link, though more reserved in his movements, seemed like he couldn’t help the grin that spread from his mouth all the way through his body.

“Impa! Play us something on your harp!”

The words hit her like an alarm. She looked at her sister, smiling widely, and the expectant faces of the villagers around her. She did not know why her heart shrank at the prospect of playing, but she shrugged it off as a rare emergence of performance anxiety and pulled her harp between her knees.

The drums continued, spelling out an invitation for her to jump in and strum a melody. She took a deep breath, laying her hands on the strings, running the tips of her fingers down their taut lengths, waiting for the music to come. But instead of the usual tune, the quick chord, the familiar scale, a feeling rose from her stomach that set her hands shaking.

She realized, with a jolt of torturous embarrassment, she could not pluck a string. She sat dumbfounded at her own ineptitude, her hands’ refusal to do what they had done thousands of times before. Impa could play harp in her sleep—she could coax a melody out of anything, she could follow a beat easy as walking.

The drums continued pounding, the faces of her family and neighbors turned eagerly toward her, and she couldn’t play.

She tried to sort through the possible explanations for her body’s sudden refusal to do what it was told, what it was used to doing. She knew she had not forgotten—even if the muscles in her fingers had lost their memory, she hadn’t. She still knew which string was which and how they would sound in sequence, but thinking of bringing to life the melodies in her head made her stomach turn. Then it came to her in a wave of shame: she was afraid of her own music. Whatever had happened to her at the peak of the mountain had stilled her hands, barred her from plucking her own instrument. She could not surmount the wall of dread that rose before her with each second she kept her hands on the strings.

She looked around, at the slightly confused faces of the villagers, at her sister, at Link, eagerly anticipating her melody. She gulped. “You know,” she started with an opaque smile, “I think I’d rather dance.”

Talm’s eyes widened, then she laughed. “That’s the spirit!” She gripped Link’s arm tightly, pulling him toward her. “But you can’t have him, he’s my partner.”

Impa nodded, pushing her harp aside and standing. The farther her hands wandered from the strings, the more relieved she felt. The ineffable dread in her died down, and she let the beat of the drums carry her feet into rhythmic steps, let her arms sway, her breath become the smoky lick of the dancing flames. Somewhere around her, now on one side of her, now on the other, Talm and Link twisted and stomped. She let herself forget about her fear, forget about her harp, forget about the spirit at the peak of Eldin.

She must’ve lost herself for a while, wrapped in the movements of fire and music. By the time she stopped swaying, breathless but strangely refreshed, the flames had died down, the drummers were leaving the fireside one by one to return home or sit under the oak tree and smoke firegrass. Irma had retreated back to her domain, and someone was passing around a large jug of Old Riko whiskey.

Impa seated herself by her sister and Link, red-faced with either fatigue, firegrass or drunkenness. When she sat beside him, he leaned against her shoulder and yawned.

“The poor kid can’t hold his liquor,” Palo laughed, passing around a large pipe carved of bone and petrified wood. Impa took a puff, letting the smoke fill her, relax her muscles, and send a pleasant, tingling sensation through her veins. Her sister took the pipe from her and exchanged it for the bottle of whiskey. Impa sipped generously and cringed, glancing over at Link on her shoulder, silent as usual.

Impa called it a night when Link slumped forward, eyes closed, and passed out on her lap. She and Talm dragged him from the cold dirt and toward their house, bidding farewell to the friends that still sat around the fire, smoking and laughing.

Impa, much to the protests of Talm, lay him in her own bed. He groaned, smiling, cheeks flushed as she pulled the wolfskins over him.

“Why does he have to sleep here?” Talm asked, eyes red and drooping from what Impa imagined was far too much firegrass. The little nuisance would pass out as soon as she hit the furs, she was sure.

“Because if he’s here you’re unlikely to take advantage of him,” she answered, half in jest.

“I would never—“

Impa pushed her sister toward her own room, and reluctantly, tiredly, she complied. She stumbled against the stone wall, groping blindly, until she collapsed into the piles of skins and wool blankets comprising what passed for a bed (Irma had once tried to get Talporom to give his daughters down mattresses, but that was where he had drawn the line—not for any cultural reasons, but because hauling them up the mountainside would’ve proven a monumentally annoying task).

When Talm was safely snoring facedown in her blankets, Impa checked on Link once more before creeping across the house, careful not to wake her light-sleeping mother, and slipping out the front door.

The center of the village was engulfed in a satisfied silence—the townsfolk had all gone home or found somewhere else to sleep, and the roaring fire had collapsed into smoldering ashes. The sweet smell of firegrass still permeated the air, mixed with the remaining fumes of the feast. Impa breathed deeply, letting her unsettling disquiet wash over her once again. She walked past the fire, into the shadows of the whispering trees dropping yellowed leaves across her path and in her wake. She crunched the dry remains of autumn under her feet, her breath dissipating white in the chilly air.

When she got to the graveyard, she found Palo where she expected. He sat atop his parents’ grave, smoking a generous bowl of firegrass from his large white pipe. His eyes were closed, tattoos shining in the night, his mouth slightly open, forming the slightest semblances of words. He brought the pipe to his lips and inhaled, lowered it, and brought it up again with the unconscious ease of blinking.

“How’s the crowd tonight?” Impa asked.

“It’s quiet around here,” he answered, eyelids twitching slightly, tattoos scanning the night. “I might actually be able to get a decent sleep.”

“That’s good news.”

Palo opened his eyes, passing her the pipe. She took it from him and breathed its flames deeply. “What about you?” he asked. “You want to tell me what’s wrong?”

Impa remained silent, unsure of how to start.

“You danced tonight. You never dance. And you always come visit me when something’s amiss.”

She sighed. “The elder always said that gods and spirits are fickle, and they give and take as they please. I didn’t think they would be so… direct.” Palo sat silently, waiting for her to finish. “And now I…” She bit her lip, lost in her own sentences, her own thoughts. She could barely get the worlds out. “Palo, the spirits took it.”

“Took what?”

“They took away my music.”


Link and Talm Dance

Chapter Text

*

“The tradition of music and arts in this country is old, diverse and incredibly rich. I can think of no Hyrulean culture that has not developed its own modes, its own scales, styles, and instruments: the guitars and heavy rhythms of the Gerudo; the deep, resonant drums of the Gorons, the strange vibrations of Zora lutes (which can only be heard properly if the listener is fully submerged in freshwater); the flutes of Faron; the majestic orchestras of Ordona and the folk dances of Old Riko; and the Sheikah… well, only the goddesses know what the Sheikah play.”

Leah Noma, conductor of Castletown Royal Choir

*

 

When Link sat up in the pile of skins, the haze of sleep fading behind him, he heard the floor creak under his weight, the wind scratch branches against the window, the quickness of his own breathing, and had to reassure himself that he was not still asleep. He was not sure if he would ever get used to the strange sensation of sounds flooding his ears. Each time, upon waking, it seemed a cacophony of meaninglessness, but after a few seconds of sitting still, ears twitching, he could separate the distant sway of trees, the creak of the house around him, the crackle of a fire on the other side of the building. He closed his eyes and tried to smell its distant warmth, the familiar carbonic scent of burning wood, smiling at the intermingled hints of grain and dried fruits—whatever Irma cooked above that fire would smell delightful in mere minutes.

Link sat up and pulled the skins off himself, stretching, yawning, then chuckling at his own strange noises. He glanced to his side and saw Impa, curled on the floor, wrapped in a single blanket. He pulled himself to his feet and lay his still-warm skins over her before making his way out of the small room into the main body of the house.

Irma stood over the fire, stirring spices into a grainy mixture, while Talm sat against the wall, arm laid across her forehead.

“Goddesses’ love,” she groaned. “Who let me drink that much last night?”

“You’re a grown woman, Talm,” her mother said, smiling slightly. “You can make your own choices.”

“Next time, bring me home with you when you leave.”

Irma laughed, then turned and spied Link emerging from behind the tapestry that concealed the hallway to the bedrooms. She waved him over to the pot and motioned for him to look inside, and he breathed in the lovely scent of grains and raisins, of cinnamon and chopped apples.

“It’s porridge,” Irma told him, and he nodded. “Did you eat this a lot when you lived in the Capital? Surely you ate much finer foods—the Capital is known for its delicacies.”

Link only absorbed about half of what she’d said, mostly by watching her lips closely and matching the sounds to words he knew. He shook his head, unsure of how to tell her that for breakfast he mostly ate leftovers from the palace’s feasts, and depending on the day, they could be anywhere from a few days to a week old. Squash, soft with rot, onions that had long since disintegrated into a soupy mixture, rock-hard bread—Link always avoided the meat if it had a strange smell to it. Sometimes Talon would spare him by feeding the slop to the pigs and making them both real breakfast—eggs pilfered from the palace henhouse, chopped spinach, and if Link was lucky, a mushroom or two.

Irma stared at him expectantly, and he swallowed. He sorted through the sounds he knew matched the words and sentiment in his head, and struggled to push them out. “I had onions,” he answered. He took a second to think of what he’d say next, but Irma beat him to it.

“You poor thing! Onions, he says. You’ve never had a good porridge before?”

Link shook his head.

“Well you can have as many helpings as you like, dear, just seat yourself and wait awhile while I finish this.”

As Link sat across from Talm, who did not seem to notice him, he crossed his legs and let the smell of breakfast fill him. He reminded himself more than once that this wasn’t a dream, that he was surrounded by kind people who understood him (the thought nearly winded him every time), he was in a warm place where no one expected him to genuflect to passersby, where they would serve him porridge, whatever that was.

A stirring behind him drew his gaze toward the bedrooms, and Impa emerged. As she ran her fingers through her short hair, stretching, thin and tall as a willow branch and equally as wondrous, Link thought perhaps, just perhaps, his home with its animals and smells and rules could wait just a few more days.

*

“What brings you to me at this late hour, child?”

The elder’s fire glowed deeply, casting her wrinkles like wide black stripes against her skin. On her wizened forehead, the tattoo of the great eye of truth glowed uncannily in the light, casting its gaze down on Impa. She found it both intimidating and oddly comforting whenever she saw it—she knew perhaps one day, if she managed to reach old age, she might have it herself, superimposed on her already colored skin, the same way the elder’s shone darkly atop her marks that distinguished her as a learned healer.

Impa wondered if she could heal her. She doubted it—the will of even the wisest elder bowed to the commands of the ancient god-spirits of the mountain.

She took a minute to think of what she could say to Merel. She crossed her legs and stared into the fire a moment before answering. “Elder Merel, I am sick.”

“You certainly have seemed a bit out of sorts these past few days.”

Impa lowered her eyes. “I don’t know if it’s merely because my mistakes at the Capital have caught up with me…” She thought of the young princess, her wan, dead face, and her heart sank. She hadn’t had much time to think about the girl recently, with her trip back home, her ascent up Eldin, the  temokai. Her harp remained unplayed in the corner of her house, but she had plenty of excuses for that: she was busy teaching Link how to speak properly, showing him how to use a sword, how to hold a bow—it was like being in the presence of a precocious child, eager and brilliant but remarkably unlearned.

The elder leaned forward, shadows of the fire dancing on her face. Her mere gaze ripped Impa away from her distracted thoughts, and she again focused on how she could tell the elder what she experienced in the recesses of her musical being.

“I’m not even sure if it is possible to tell you what is happening, given—“

“I have been to Eldin’s peak as well, child. I know what lives up there. You can speak to me about it.”

“I think… I think the spirits took something of mine when they gave Link his hearing.” The elder listened without expression. “I think they took my music.” Merel stayed silent, frowning. “My guess is that they had to use something as a base on which to build his hearing, so they took a portion of mine.”

“Can you still hear normally?”

“Yes. I can even hear music, I can hear beats and melodies, I just can’t… respond.”

“How so?”

“Whenever I put my hands on the harp strings, they start shaking. I go cold. I wait for a song that I know can come—I can hear it in my head, I know what to do, but I can’t make myself play. I’m scared to play. It feels wrong.”

The elder thought quietly for a moment. “Have you tried to play any other instruments?”

“Just Talm’s flute, when she’s not looking. And I have the same problem.”

“Wait here, Impa.” The elder struggled to her feet, shuffling away from the fire, toward the back of her cave. She disappeared into the darkness without a word, and Impa strained to hear the sound of Merel rummaging in the mysterious treasures piled up in the nooks and crannies of the place. Impa heard the creak of a chest opening and closing, she heard the old woman’s feet against the uneven floor, and the small “aha” of having found what she sought. Merel returned to the fire, holding something smelling of wood and age.

When the elder raised it up to the light of the flames, Impa could see an arch of bluish wood, a set of dull, straight strings suspended from a bar of rusty metal. Merel handed the small lyre over to Impa, and it fell heavy in her hands. She held it against her shoulder, but she couldn’t bring her hand up to touch the strings.

“Play it,” said Merel.

“I can’t.”

“Just try.”

Impa struggled to lay her fingers on the old strings, brown with age and disuse, and the familiar dread overtook her. She gulped, forcing her skin to touch the length of gut, and something of a burning sensation coursed through her hands up to her elbows. Every joint of her twitching fingers ached, and she could not force herself to pluck the strings.

“Play.”

“Elder, I cannot.”

“What are you afraid of?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what do you feel?”

“I feel… faint of heart—“

How do you feel that way?”

Impa reeled at the harsh tone of her interrogation. “I don’t know! I feel like there’s something waiting in the notes, some sort of fire, something destructive, and if I pull a string it’ll come out. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s dangerous.”

“You won’t find out unless you play, Impa.”

“I can’t—“

“Pull your hand back, girl!”

“I—“

“Play!”

Overwhelmed by the elder’s forceful command, Impa almost instinctively drew her hand back, fingers catching the strings of the small lyre. Her heart stopped for a moment when she saw what she’d done—when she saw the blur of vibrating strings, colored red with firelight.

For what seemed like whole seconds, Impa did not hear a sound. Then something bright, something more than a noise, something wholly unnatural, hit her in the gut like a hammer. Light poured from the strings, a blinding bluish-silver wave, and a harsh, alien sound with it. The noise was certainly not music—Impa was not wholly convinced it had come from any strings at all. With the sound came the rush of air, knocking the breath out of her as it nearly blew out the fire. Impa could hear the crumbling of stone as cracks crawled from the origin of the strange chord, up the walls of the cave, dust puffing from the crevices like spores. Impa swore she could feel her bones cracking and bending, her muscles tearing with light and sound, but she could not put the harp down, she could not even move.

In the flicker of the fire, and the dimming glow of the harp as the strings lost their color, settling back into a dull, rusty brown, Impa could make out the face of the elder, smiling almost mischievously. When her lungs unfroze, when the surprise and pain in her chest disintegrated and she could breathe again, she found herself almost yelling at her esteemed elder.

“What was that?” she asked, panting. She looked at the cracks in the walls and the dust gathering in piles at their bases. “Your walls, elder Merel.”

“Don’t worry about that, child,” she replied, smiling her usual, oracular smile. “Far worse has been done to this abode.”

Impa set the lyre down next to her, leaning forward, brow furrowing. “What happened? Whose instrument is this?”

“It’s yours now, I suppose, since there is no one else who can play it.”

“What is it…” she looked down at the instrument, “what is it made of?”

“It’s carved of sacred wood from the forests beyond Death Mountain. The strings are more of a mystery—legend says they’re made of a goddess’ hair, though whose hair depends on which oracle you ask.”

“But how did you get it?”

“It’s been in our tribe for a few generations before mine, at least. For the longest time it sat under the elders’ care, wasting away in the shadows. Your grandfather tried his hand at it a few times. He was the best harpist I’d ever known, and he couldn’t get it to make a sound. This—this,” the elder waved her hand, encompassing Impa, the harp, the cracks on the walls and the dying fire, “is a rare skill. I have never known anyone with it. It is only mentioned briefly in the ancient texts. And there is no teacher for you, I’m afraid.”

Impa lowered her eyes, heart twisting. “I see.”

“If accounts of my predecessors are correct, it is a powerful, beautiful form of magic. But I have no doubt you will be able to learn it. You always were a brilliant musician.” The elder frowned slightly. “I believe the spirits gave you this skill when you ascended Eldin.”

“I thought the old gods did not give gifts.”

“They do not, Impa. Be warned, this is not a gift. The spirits will expect to be repaid for this loan of power.”

Discomfort pinched Impa’s stomach. “And how will I repay them?”

“However they see fit. Use that power to the best of your ability. Sometimes, that is enough. Sometimes that is all they ask for. But sometimes they take more. They measure debts on a scale we can neither see nor understand, child.”

Impa took a moment to calm herself. “Why, elder? Why would the gods give me something like this? Why would they give Link his hearing back, and give us that scrap of metal?” She held her head. “I know they have a reputation for being capricious, but this seems… disproportionate.”

“They never lend strength where they see unworthiness. Impa, you always insist you are not good enough—that you are too weak, too slow, too Hylian—and no matter what we tell you, you doubt us. We have gotten used to that.” Impa hung her head, gritting her teeth. “But to say that this power is misplaced is to distrust, and disrespect, the old gods themselves. They bequeathed this to you because they thought you could use it.” The old woman reached over, pulling a sleeve out of the flames’ way, and rested it on her shoulder. “Do you wish to prove them wrong?”

“No,” Impa admitted.

“Good. Now, take the lyre. Go practice your music.”


Impa Receives a Harp

Chapter Text

*

“Some say the Sheikah get their brown skin from the soil of Mount Eldin, and their red eyes from the wolves that wander its slopes. Some say the fire that sleeps inside the volcanoes has given them such eyes, and yet others say it is the blood spilled in their past, their legacy of war and slaughter, that manifests in their gazes. I had wondered about this question as a boy, and a bold, courageous boy I was, so I once asked a passing Sheikah warrior where he got his eyes. He answered simply, ‘From my mother.’”

Sir Yaerin of House Elanor, Royal Chevalier

*

 

Link didn’t think of home, or the yellow-haired girl, for merciful weeks. The snow fell in earnest, blanketing Kakariko in thick white mounds. He loved the way everything sounded in the snowy banks, under the thickened skies: the clang of weaponry as he and Impa practiced swordplay, Talm’s never-ending cascade of words and meanings, the crunch of boots in snow, Palo’s sharp, deep voice absorbed by the wide flakes. It was so different than the snow of the wet city, where the traffic trampled the pristine white sheets into mud. Everything had a soft feel to it, dampening the stabbing cold that swept through the village with the snows.

He spent the majority of the winter inside, under Talm and Impa’s watchful eyes, turning pages in Hylian texts, writing in shaky letters his own name again and again, mouthing proper words for concepts and objects with which he was familiar, guessing with ones he was not. He exchanged dull-bladed sword swipes with the sisters, let Palo slap his elbow into the proper place when he drew a bow, he let Irma show him how to make sure an egg came off the pan with just enough liquid yolk (she was especially delighted when he brought the chickens inside just in time for the first snow—and then seemingly simply by living in proximity to them, made them lay twice a day). He worked miracles with Irma’s misanthropic goat, even pacified an angry, lone wolverine that had wandered into their village simply by throwing it a pinecone. He was an entertaining, welcome anomaly in the village, from his easy smile, his unusual concision, his sinistral tendencies and utter naïveté. The townsfolk would sometimes gather to see Impa, Talm, or Palo beat him into the ground, shaking their heads in silent wonderment at the grown man who had never learned to hold his own in a fight. For the first while, even the children could best him.

But he improved. Slowly, surely, he started to land more hits, execute parries with success; he learned to take hits, to give them out, before he learned to sidestep a swipe altogether. He learned to throw a knife (badly), he learned to sneak through the shadows (mediocrely), he learned to kick a man off his feet (better), he learned to shoot a bow (surprisingly well).

Impa learned with him. She spent her time, when not showing him words or the flash of her practice blade, plucking at the lyre she’d received from the elder. The noises that emanated from the dark strings were sometimes harsh, sometimes enticing, but always strange. The first time Impa had strummed the instrument in the house, one rogue overtone rang so loud it knocked her mother’s favorite chair straight into the wall, snapping it in half. She practiced outside after that, or in the safety of the small animal shed, where the worst she did was puff hay out of the hens’ beds and send them scattering, panicked, into the chilly yard.

When Impa played, bare-handed in the winter cold, it was usually safe to stand a fair distance away and watch. Sometimes when she ran her fingers across the dull strings, the instrument would light up, sending waves of power, forceful as a gale, from the glowing notes. Sometimes the harp produced lethargic, almost piteous tunes that left anyone who heard it on edge. Sometimes it would make no noise at all.

That lyre once managed to put the entire village to sleep. Impa sat under the needles of evergreens, shielded from the snow, and strummed, vibrations of the languid song forcing the branches to shudder off piles of white. Link had barely noticed her music wafting in harmlessly from the direction of the graveyard, and then he woke up, facedown in the snow, in the dark. He stumbled back into Irma’s house to find her and her younger daughter asleep at the table, snoring slightly. He walked back out into the night, awoke Palo, whom he found sitting passed out by his front door, and together they hauled Impa, limp and snoring under the fir tree, back into her home. They rescued her harp before the cold warped it permanently, and no one who fainted outdoors caught frostbite, so the situation had not ended in total disaster. Still, Impa carefully modified that particular tune, changing a note here and there, so it would affect only animals. It also worked quite well on restless children, which, to some members of the village, was something of a godsend. When little ones cried or misbehaved, Impa was summoned, and happy for the extra practice, she would send the children off into sleep within the first musical phrase.

Link would’ve liked to learn the harp, have Impa play him a few ditties, but when he tried to pluck its strings, no sound emerged. She couldn’t even show him songs on her old harp, since she found herself physically incapable of playing it. When he asked her why, she only said it was the price she paid for having the power to coax sounds from her new lyre, and what came from those strings was hardly recognizable as music.

Still, he enjoyed listening to her, nonsensical as the sounds were. That was when he was not busy learning other things. The way he ate knowledge like a starving man astounded even him, for he had always considered himself at least ignorant, if not completely unintelligent. But he seemed to be catching on to what the others taught him, sometimes slowly, sometimes remarkably fast.

Talm tried to teach him to disguise himself as she did, showing him her extensive cosmetics. She applied them so deftly and quickly it seemed as if Link watched the woman remove her own face and apply a second, equally convincing one in its place. Disguise was a lauded skill in the Sheikah community—but Talm most often used it to make her eyes look bigger, her lashes longer, and her lips fuller. Link did not know whom she was trying to impress with her beauty, but he figured whoever the man was, he must be shallow and callous as to not notice Talm without her augmenting her natural appeal. When he told her his thoughts, she laughed, heartily.

Link loved it when others laughed. He loved it when they spoke eagerly amongst themselves, taking no notice of him standing by, absorbing every word. He listened to everything, intently, absorbing every phrase he understood and memorizing those he didn’t. He repeated the story of each day’s events to himself at night, trying to drown out the sounds of the wind through branches, of owls and wolves, foxes and deer, hooting, howling, screeching, scrambling through the darkness.

He learned to endure the subtleties of Impa and Talm’s sisterhood—he could only interpret their interactions when he realized they behaved toward one another much like sibling pups in the stable. The only difference was that they preferred to nip at one another with words and gestures rather than teeth and muzzles. They never brought him into it, preferring instead to sharpen their teeth on one another’s replies.

He thought about his home less and less as the weeks wore on. He had little room in his head for memories and regret, since he filled it to the brim with information about his new surroundings. How to hold a bow, how to fight, which snow-covered evergreen was which. He became a master in the art of writing and rewriting his own name, sidestepping a swipe, and, hardest of all, reading the subtleties of Palo’s expressions to tell when he was joking and when he was serious.

Despite his cryptic mien, and his odd, subtle intonations that sometimes left Link confused to his meaning, Palo occasionally stepped in for Impa as his guide to this strange new world. When Impa was lost in her otherworldly lyre, when Talm’s frantic eagerness became too much for him, he would fall into Palo’s shadow. The older man didn’t seem to mind—he spent a good amount of his day talking to himself anyway, when Link hovered around him, not much changed. He murmured as he whittled his arrows, sharpened his sword, picked his teeth—always talking softly, as if he could convince himself he was never alone by maintaining constant sound. Link did not mind; his new ears were sharp, and he could make out some wisdom in Palo’s incoherent mutterings. Palo spoke enough for the both of them, so he felt no pressure to pipe up when the man was close.

Link noticed he’d even begun to smell like him—given that most of his clothes were Palo’s teenaged garments, worn with use, it didn’t surprise him. It seemed his collection of vestments consisted of either Palo’s old clothes, or Talporom’s. Link didn’t mind; he was only delighted to finally claim ownership of clothes at all.

He folded these clothes neatly, lovingly, every time he went to bed, or every time he made his way up the hillside to the communal bathing springs. The steep path up to the water wound its way opposite the elder’s abode, gnarled tree roots and jagged rocks supplying the steps in those precarious stairs. The first time Palo had led him up the slope, Link had caught his foot in the crevices of the path so many times Palo decided he was better off carried. So they arrived at the hot springs with Link atop Palo’s back, red-faced and mortified, toes aching with so many stubs.

Fortunately, the steaming spring was empty when Palo finally dropped him on its rocky banks. Link set his clothes to the side and took off his boots, sticking his feet in the warm water.

“Well, aren’t you going to come inside?” Palo asked, removing nearly all of his clothes in what looked like one fluid motion.

Link pursed his lips in indecision. Back at the stables, the best wash he could ask for was to spray himself down with the same tepid water used to clean the animals and their stalls. He’d never had anything resembling an actual bath before, much less one with a bathing partner.

The Sheikah slid into the spring with a sigh. He sank up to his dark, scarred shoulders, steam coursing through his shock of bright hair. He turned in the water, glancing back up at Link with a credulous half-smile.

“You’re going to get cold just sitting there,” he said. He lifted his finger to the sky. “It’s about to snow.”

Link knew that. He could sense the gathering winds, the clouds billowing above him. He could smell a cold scent that was not quite rain creeping across the mountainside. Still, he just dangled his feet in the water, shaking his head.

Palo broke into a grin. “If you like, I can turn around until you’re all the way in.” Palo shifted to face the jagged cliff that overhung the spring, lowering himself down to his neck. “There, now you can be naked all you want.”

Link looked behind him, making sure no one was wandering up the slope that might catch a glimpse of him undressing. He nearly ripped off his clothes in a hurry to get to the safety of the dark water, and had barely struggled out of his shirt before he was already in, sinking into the steam.

His toes touched the rocky bottom, and the hot water seemed to seep through his skin and enter his veins, warming him to the core. He could almost feel the water draw the stress from his muscles as he sank deeper into the heat. He closed his eyes and sighed heavily.

He almost forgot he wasn’t alone. When Palo turned around, splashing lightly, he snapped his eyes open and immediately turned red, lowering his gaze. It seemed strange to him to be in such close company with another person, especially in his condition. He slipped into the corner of the pool, safely wedged between two large rocks, and sat in silence.

“You’re a shy one, aren’t you?” Palo asked, splashing a stream of hot water across his dark face, rubbing it into his tattooed skin. “But it’s how we do things around here, so if you’re going to stay, you might as well get used to it.” When Link didn’t emerge from his hiding place, Palo shook his head. “Gods, kid, I’m not going to violate you. That’s not my style.”

With Palo’s deep, honest laugh, Link found the courage to slip from behind his rocks and sit in the water freely. He sank until the water touched his chin, his white skin glowing underneath like a beacon.

He was suddenly very aware of the mark on his shoulder. In the city, he’d worn that mark with pride, as a pass into the palace grounds, or as security to travel from one end of the city to the other, for anyone marked as property of the King was of at least some inherent monetary worth. If anyone gave him trouble, all he had to do was tug at his loose collar to show that there would be repercussions of damaging the King’s property.

But here, in this isolated Sheikah village, it only marked him as an outsider. He found himself raising a hand to cover it when he spied Palo’s eyes wander to his shoulder. Link prepared himself for the inevitable question.

“So, how did you come into service of the King?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember before the stables?”

“No.”

Palo turned his body in the water, breathing the steam deeply. “So you’ve known nothing else.”

“No.” Link leaned back, stretching his legs and looking at his toes poking out of the water. “T-Talon took care of me.” It was the first time he’d heard the name aloud, and the syllables echoed strangely across the rocks. Palo didn’t seem to notice his stutter. He draped his steaming arms across the edge of the spring and stared into the white clouds, twitching at a rogue snowflake alighting on the tip of his nose.

Link sat a while in silence, before daring to venture out into unsolicited conversation. “P… Palo,” he nearly whispered, and the man turned his red gaze from the clouds, boring instead into Link’s rapidly blushing face. “I was wondering… if I can go back.” He did not mention that the fire in the elder’s home had been the one to tell him he had some chance of going home.

“To the King’s stables?” Palo smirked. “Why in all hell would you want to do that?”

Link shook his head, sinking deeper into the water, berating himself for asking a stupid question.

Palo just sighed. “They’ll kill you if you show your face there again.”

Link waited a while, composing his thoughts, before speaking. “King might have mercy—“

“An interesting prospect, kid. But in order to beg clemency, you’re going to have to get granted an audience with him. Do you know how hard that is?”

Link shook his head. He wasn’t even sure what Palo meant; the words he used were strange to him.

“It takes months. Then you’re going to have to plead your case. And pardon my frankness, but you’re not the most eloquent of young men. The only way to prove your innocence is to attest to our guilt. Mine and Impa’s.”

Link did not know much about guilt. But he did know that Impa had ran rampant through the King’s private grounds, she’d destroyed his property; although, he had nothing to do with that, he was just following her. “But… Impa, and the palace, and the girl…” He lost his words in his throat, and Palo picked up the broken pieces of the conversation.

“You think it was an accident, don’t you? Some sort of misunderstanding.” There was no malice in Palo’s face, only a harsh comprehension. “Well, it wasn’t.”

Link’s heart sank. He had always known there was some connection between the King and his new Sheikah companions that he’d been unable to decipher—if not only because he hadn’t had the faculty to ask them until recently. He spent a few seconds preparing his next question carefully, but when he opened his mouth, all that came out was a pathetic, “Why?”

“Why?” Palo seemed amused at the question. “Where to start? I suppose I could tell you about—” He stopped abruptly, one of his long ears twitching, and he narrowed one eye. Link turned his attention from interpreting Palo’s strange words to listening to his surroundings. He could make out the slight, expert shuffling of feet against rock, and images of soldiers flashed across his vision.

He quickly flung himself toward the edge of the spring, grasping the rocks and making to pull himself out, but Palo was there, hand on his shoulder, holding him in. “Don’t reward her for this behavior,” he said, and Link slid back into the water, confused.

Palo pulled himself out of the water up to his waist, turning his gaze to the rocks above them, half-obscured in the low snow-clouds. “You can come down, you know,” he called up the low cliffs. “This is your hot spring, too.”

A small shadow emerged from behind a rock, black against the snowy sky. Link squinted, and made out the shape of a thick bun sitting atop a long-eared head, and a pair of mischievous red eyes. Talm pulled herself into full sight, springing from the top of the rocks, soaring through the air and landing gracefully at the pool’s edge. She crossed her arms, pouting.

“Where’s the fun in that? There’s gotta be some mystery in my life, Palo. Some taboo.” Her eyes wandered to Link and he sank deeper into the water, reddening.

“Get out of here, Talm. He’s not an item for you to ogle.”

“Oh, lay off. Get a sense of humor.”

With an evil grin Palo emerged from the spring, steam rolling off his dark skin, and firmly planting both his feet wide apart on the rocks, spread his arms and flexed. “Drink your fill, Talm,” he laughed.

She groaned, averting her eyes and turning on her heels, back toward the village. “Fine, I get it,” she said. “None of you are any fun.” She disappeared back down the path, leaving Palo shivering naked in the cold snow. When he slipped back into the spring, he laughed heartily, wiping one eye.

“You can’t make compromises with that girl,” he said to Link. “Always remember that.”

With Palo’s chuckles and the periodic shaking of his head, Link knew whatever thread of conversation he had woven had been lost.

He washed himself in silence, occasionally finding himself smiling, amused at Palo’s unabashed boldness, before redressing and making his way back down to Kakariko.

*

Over the passing weeks, Link learned to push the stables, Talon, and the city, to the very back of his mind, but he could not forget the yellow-haired girl. Occasionally glimpses of her came to him, sometimes when he closed his eyes to sink into dreamless sleep, sometimes when he stared into the flames of Irma’s generous fireplace, trying to converse with it in silence, the same way he had conversed with the elder’s fire. Sometimes, always in vain, he would try to wrestle answers from the flames as to why, after all the promises, it turned out he could not go home after all. No answer came.

When the time for the winter festival rolled around, he sat himself on the roof of Irma’s house and stared to the west, wondering if the city was lit up with the lights of the celebration, if the King himself had made an appearance that year. He knew he was too far away to see the smoke of the city’s factories, to see the lights and hear the music of the parade, but he stared anyway, gazing into the bright, starry sky, under which he was sure the city was thriving and thronging without him. His heart ached to think of the festival—especially since now, for the first time in his life, he’d be able to hear its sounds, dance to the music of its parades.

He shared a pipe with Impa and Palo, staring across the mountains in the dead of night. They had wrapped themselves in layers of deerskin and wool, and watched the winter stars turn slowly above them.

“Did the elder tell you about Balras?” Impa asked Palo.

“Yes. Good riddance to him, I say.”

“Who’s Balras?” Link asked, coughing a little before handing the pipe back over to Impa.

“When you were hurt, after you fell into the moat, we took you to a doctor. We thought he would heal you, but he tried to kill you instead.”

Link’s mouth contorted in confusion. “Why?”

“He thought you had royal blood.”

“Oh.” Link knew there was a story in there he’d have to pick apart later. He had become quite adept at cataloguing subtext and backgrounds of stories and conversations, saving them in his head to think about at night, when the hoots of owls and the wind through bare trees kept him awake.

“The elder sent Sheim down to take care of him. And take care of him he did.” Palo brought the pipe to his lips and shook his head. “You ever worked with that man, Impa?”

“No, but my father has.”

“He’s the fastest assassin I’ve ever met. He can dispatch a man without anyone noticing—not even himself. Balras didn’t stand a chance.”

“Of course he didn’t. But you have to wonder which factions he’d informed about us before we silenced him.”

“I’m pretty sure Sheim is still in the city, cleaning up the doctor’s mess.”

Link listened intently, picking out meaning where he could, memorizing it where he couldn’t.

Impa hugged her knees, sighing. “I only hope that when my father gets word of this, he won’t be too upset.”

“Have you ever seen Talporom upset?”

“Of course I have. I’m his daughter—he might not look it, but I can tell when he’s unsettled.”

Palo took a puff. “Goddesses bless you, you and your mother are the only ones who can.”

Impa smiled, took the pipe from him and they settled into a silence, dragging it out for a few minutes, before the distant thoughts of the city and the winter festival forced Link to open his mouth. He did not know where he got the courage, but he decided that in this wide silence, he could ask them a sensitive question that had been itching in the back of his mind since he had left the Capital.

“What was her name?”

“Whose?” Impa asked, but the coldness in her voice told him she knew.

“The yellow-haired girl from the Capital. The one with the lacy dress.”

Palo deferred to Impa, preferring to occupy his mouth with the pipe than with answers.

“We… we were never sure,” she replied, lowering her eyes.

“You never asked her?” Link could not hide the disappointment in his voice.

“I didn’t actually meet her face-to-face until we broke her out of that room in the palace. I was a little distracted at the time.”

“The most we knew before then—“ Palo paused abruptly to exhale his lungful of smoke. “We knew her father’s name and heritage. He was originally the one we were planning to… well, kidnap, to be honest. We learned he had a daughter well after we learned about his blood. Apparently he secreted her away.”

“Why?” Link asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe he was overprotective; maybe he knew about his birthright and wanted to keep her safe. Maybe she was sickly.”

“She wasn’t sickly,” Impa said. “She had fortitude. She ran fast, and she was smart enough to obey my instructions when I gave them.”

“What happened to her father?” Link asked, almost afraid of the answer.

“The guard killed him. Sacked his house, stole his daughter.”

“But… why?” He didn’t want to learn that his snooping around their house had drawn the eye of the royal guard.

“Rumor had it that he harbored some… antiestablishment sentiments,” Palo continued, passing the pipe to Impa. “He could’ve been arrested for speaking too loudly about the wrong things. That might also explain why he would hide his daughter away—he didn’t want her mixed up in his political efforts. He didn’t want anyone knowing about her.”

“Or, worse yet, the King could’ve known the same thing we did,” Impa put in. “He could’ve known about her heritage.”

“You keep saying that. What heritage? What is heritage?”

“Oh boy,” Palo laughed. “If we start with that now, it’s gonna be a long night.” He took one last long puff from the pipe and released the smoke, white and heavy, into the winter air. “It’s quiet tonight; I’m gonna get some rest while I can. I’ll see you around.” He sauntered back toward his tiny hut, cold and dark, into the shadows of the trees that surrounded the village’s graveyard.

“Why does he say that sometimes?” Link asked. “It’s always loud.”

“For you, maybe,” Impa said. “You haven’t learned to drown out the noises of the night yet. Others can, except for Palo, usually. But they’re not the same sounds you hear.”

Link gave her an inquisitive look.

“Link, do you ever wonder why his tattoos are so strange?”

Link shook his head. “Just as strange as yours.”

“To you, perhaps. Each of us has tattoos that we earn through skills or gifts—for instance, my father and elder Merel both have the marks of healers, because that’s what they do best. Merel has an extra marking because she’s our leader, right? Our chieftain.” Link nodded comprehension. “Palo’s what we call a deadseer. He can see, hear, and sometimes talk to, the dead.”

“You mean… like a person in the ground?” Link could see his confusion almost made her smile.

“No, not their corpse. Not their physical body.” She paused for a moment. “You know how, when you climb up to the cliffs beyond the village and yell, you hear the echo of your words come back to you after a few seconds?”

“Yes,” he said, delighted at the mere thought.

“Well, death can have an echo like that, too, and Palo is the only one who can sense it. When he closes his eyes, the lenses of truth help him look into those remnants of lives. Like a spyglass.”

“What’s a spyglass?”

“Never mind. The point is, sometimes the dead are restless, sometimes they’re quiet. When they’re active, they make such a ruckus in his head he can’t sleep.”

Link thought for a moment. “Is that why he sleeps with his eyes open? So he doesn’t have to look through his tattoos?”

“That’s right.” Impa smiled, white breath condensing in the cold. “You know nothing about anything, but retain some of the strangest details.”

“When we left the city, I woke up and saw him—it was the stare of a dog before it bites.”

Impa laughed. “Except Palo barks more than he bites. You’ve nothing to fret about.”

He tried to laugh with her, but he couldn’t help but think of Palo and his strange sight, and about what he would say to the dead, if only he had the chance.


Three Friends

Chapter Text

*

“Many students insist that the great histories of the land are long, propagandistic, and unpalatably boring. These students, of course, have never read the true account of the rise of the nation of Hyrule—it is an engrossing story, to say the least, but what strikes me as odd is that these students, so fond of lustful poetry and gruesome retellings of violence, do not realize that there is no fiction nor verse more savage, scandalous, blood-soaked or beautiful than the history of our own country.”

Lady Ronia of the House of Faron, from A Treatise on Education

*

 

In Link’s mind, there existed two wholly separate Impas. They shared the same face, but Link learned to differentiate between the Impa at home, in the sight of her mother and sister, austere but kind-hearted and generous, and Impa in the element of darkness, the woman he had met in the King’s palace. She had a light in her eyes that exhilarated and frightened him, and in those moments when he spied her wearing her warrior's countenance, he could only feel relief that she meant him no harm. Even when they stood as opponents in the sparring ground, she maintained her gentle sternness that cast no fear into him—only the determination to better himself. But when assigned a task, especially one with the weight of import, Impa’s face would darken with resolve, and she would once again resemble the staunch, uncompromising warrior he had encountered in the palace, unconcerned with the obstacles that stood between her and her goal.

When Irma had asked them to secure venison for the winter festival’s feast (Link learned the Sheikah had their own, less extravagant festival to celebrate the coming of a new spring), Impa had bowed ceremoniously, much to the amusement of her mother, and adopted the determined, unstoppable look of the warrior. She had walked to the wall and removed the family’s hunting bow, but before she could sling it over her shoulder and disappear into the flurry of morning snow, Irma stepped forward.

“You should take Link with you,” she said, drawing him out of his fire-warmed torpor.

Impa looked sternly at her mother, then glanced over to him, sitting reclined in the wolfskins by the fire. He pulled himself to his feet, stretching away his lethargy. He would’ve rather slept the entire day away in dreamlessness, but when Irma even suggested he get to work, he had to acquiesce. Besides the barkeep’s wife, and her occasional acts of kindness, Irma was the closest thing to a motherly figure he’d ever had. He could not say no to her.

So he bundled up, tucking his ears into Talporom’s old green cap, and followed Impa out into the snow, sporting his own bow.

They scoured the mountainside for hours in complete silence. Impa wore her determination like a mask, and Link followed, much like he had when she first rescued him from their prison cell in the King’s palace. They marched through the snow, light on their feet like Impa taught him, slipping between trunks of massive trees, listening for any sign of animal life.

When Impa knelt in the shadow of a drooping spruce and removed an arrow from her quiver, Link knelt beside her, nocking his own. He stared into the grey shadows of the forest, squinting until he saw the slow, delicate march of a doe, brown hairs quivering in the cold, dotted with snowflakes. When Impa drew her bowstring, sounding only the slightest creak, the deer’s gaze shot toward them, black eyes wide. She stilled, leg muscles clenching, tail flicking.

Link recognized the look in the doe’s eyes, understood the fear and longing in her stance, and before he thought his actions through, lay a hand on Impa’s arm. The look she gave him could’ve torn him apart, but she lowered her arrow, redirecting her gaze to the deer, now fully aware of their presence and eager to leave it. Link shook his head at Impa, but he could not explain why he had decided to spare the doe.

As the animal sprang across the snow, twin fawns, late-born and too thin, jumped after her, still spotted with the coats of their youth. The siblings stumbled after their mother, tripping over their lanky legs and spraying snow behind them.

Impa lowered her bow and stood, watching them leave. Her gaze softened, and the dark determination in her eyes faded. When she glanced down at Link, it was not with frustration, or anger, but with an understanding resignation.That was the only time Link had been able to coax her out of her warrior’s mask in the midst of conflict. He had hoped it wouldn’t be the last.

Hours later, they brought home the carcass of an elderly boar, too slow to outrun them. Having lived to the fullest its years would permit, Link had few qualms about loosing his arrow into the old animal’s back, but when it struggled to flee, its haunches dragging through the snow and leaving a blood-smeared trail, his heart stopped for a moment in horror. The only animals he’d seen die at the stables were the chickens, and even then, he avoided watching the axe fall through their twitching necks.

Impa knelt beside the boar and ended it quickly, sliding her knife across its throat, but Link stood back, trying to hide his aversion. When she tied the boar’s legs to a long branch and asked him to help her sling it over their shoulders, he knew she could see him swallow the rocky lump in his throat. As they hoisted the animal up, a fresh gush of blood pouring from the wound as gravity gripped the creature’s swinging corpse, Impa assured him they would thank the animal later for its sacrifice.

When Irma asked them why they’d returned to the village with the wrong animal to be butchered for the festival, Impa told her, so straight-faced that even for a few seconds Link fell for the lie, that they did not come across any deer on their hunt.

“Ah, well,” Irma replied. “It seems breaking tradition is a habit of ours. Let the butchers do their work regardless. We will still have a pleasant festival.”

Impa did not mention Link’s indiscretion again. She merely retreated to the flames of her mother’s hearth, removing her gloves and warming her hands. Link sat beside her, thankful for her silence, and soon fell asleep in the skins.

*

Link learned plenty of things in the week before the festival. Talm taught him how to fell a tree, how to chop wood into sizes decent enough for the bonfire, and how to stack and carry them. He learned fo the traditions and delicacies of the Sheikah version of the festival as they walked back to the village, wood slung across his back like a pack mule.

He also learned that for the third year in a row, Impa and Talm’s father would not be coming home. The letter arrived a few days before the festival’s commencement, carried in the fist of a Sheikah messenger. It had been written in code (for reasons Link did not quite know), but after deciphering it and  spreading it out before the fireplace, Irma read them the letter.

Link had the feeling it may have been important, so he committed it to memory.

 

Dearest wife and daughters,

 

The situation in western Faron is thorny, to say the least. Consequently, I am needed here, both as a representative of the nation of Eldin and for reconnaissance. From what we've gathered, it seems the King has turned his eye back to his ancestral homeland. We expect the announcement of his march to ring from the Capital any day now. While this comes as no surprise to anyone, we still find ourselves ill-prepared for this circumstance. He will likely make his way southwest through Lanayru and arrive in Silk within the next few months. So I will be marching to the desert myself very shortly. I wish you a good winter, for I imagine I shall not see one flake of snow during mine.

And Impa: after receiving word of your ascent of Eldin, I appointed a temporary replacement for my post and packed my things, desperate to see you come home, only to have a messenger hawk drop word of your safe return into my eager hands half a day later. I hope you will forgive me for missing the ritual. I long to see you all and wish you well.

 

Talporom

 

Half of the letter’s contents escaped Link’s comprehension, but he recognized a few places: Eldin, where he resided now, and Lanayru, land of the Capital, where he came from. He did not recognize what Talporom had meant by the desert, and he did not know what business the man had with the King.

His ignorance was not lost on Impa. In the quiet days before the festival, when all was still save for the smells and sounds of preparation for the feast, Impa led him across the village to the elder’s abode, where she secured permission to enter the eastern caverns. Merel stood in the doorway and watched Impa carefully light the room’s many torches, smiling at Link’s stunned frown as inch by inch, the library lit up before him.

The wealth of the tribe’s knowledge sat stacked to the arced ceiling of that tall cave. Books, scrolls, artifacts and maps were piled high, stuffed into pine shelves and nooks and crannies of the intricately carved stone walls. Impa wasted no time pushing him into a wolfskin cushion and plunging him into stories that, according to her, were common knowledge. As the hours wore on, Impa guided him through the narratives, taking over when he failed to decipher words or meanings.

It was the first time he’d learned the nature of the old royal family. He had always viewed the King’s blood as eternal, and had never considered there had been others seated on his throne before him—some pretenders, some, apparently, granted the divine right to rule by the gods themselves. That sacred blood which flowed through the kings of old, the sole, true bearers of the crown, did not run through the King himself, according to the texts. Frankly, Link had a difficult time believing it. No one seemed more suited to the throne than that colossal man.

There were some brief mentions of goddesses and golden powers that he made Impa skip through, preferring instead to linger on portraits of the queens and princesses of the old family, each bearing different but striking likenesses to the yellow-haired girl he’d met all those months ago.

The texts insisted that this family alone could bear the burden of power. And they had, until little more than a century ago, when a guerrilla faction from the desert swept across Faron, burning all in its wake in its march toward Lanayru’s capital—then called Castletown (or Castleton, depending on the text).

Hundreds of accounts—poetry, songs, historical records, common myth—illustrated the Conqueror King’s ride through the forests and valleys of his new kingdom. All fascinated Link, and each had their unique adaptations of what was now a tale so steeped in legend there could really be no truthful account. One version insisted the Conqueror King Ganond had been a giant—a literal giant—dwarfing his company of Gerudo warriors and mercenaries, and no horse was big enough to carry him except for a steed summoned from hell itself, fire-maned and strong enough to rend the earth with a stomp of its hoof. Another account told of his unstoppable, ineffable black magic, gifted to him by the snake goddesses of the desert—some said this fiendish thaumaturgy was the only way he’d managed to depose the previous king. Yet others said the old king deferred to him peacefully and abdicated his throne to this rebel from the desert, awed by his power and stature. In any event, when Ganond finally seated himself on the throne of Hyrule, he gathered the conquered lands of Faron and Lanayru in his embrace and unified them under his own banner, blessed by Hylia herself (said the scholars).

Impa read the accounts with a degree of distain Link could not understand. He loved the glory, the excitement, of it all, he liked to imagine the King himself, astride the red warhorse Link had trained for him, charging through the distant fields of Lanayru like wildfire. Sometimes in these images, Link was beside him, standard-bearer, knight, general, finest swordsman in the land, reveling in the speed and glory of the march.

A few days after Impa had first sat him down with the stories (they returned to the library each morning, if they were not needed elsewhere), after she had reiterated seemingly dozens of different narratives depicting the Conqueror King’s first ride into Hyrule, he made the mistake of mentioning his admiration. She immediately slammed the dusty tome shut and leaned over him, red eyes shining like an angry wolf. “You think it was good, what he did? Slaughtering the royal family, placing himself on their throne?”

“I-I’m sorry,” Link stuttered. Impa did not notice he had avoided answering her question.

“Remember what his men did to your friend—remember what they did to you, Link. The Dragmire family is ruthless.”

An image of the King appeared in his mind, throwing him a gold coin, smiling at the elegance of the red warhorse. But he also remembered the royal guard, remembered the pain of the arrow as it tore through his flesh, the horror of watching his friend clutch at the shaft that pierced her throat. That had not been the King, though—it was his general who issued the order. If the King had been there, surely he would’ve spared them both.

Impa shook her head, accepting his silence as contrition, and reopened the book. The legend of Mandrag Ganond unfolded again in Link’s mind, with all of its splendor, but Impa’s disapproval discolored his imaginings somewhat. He thought of the great Conqueror King in a veil of secrecy, hiding his smile whenever he saw a depiction of his exploits: the corybantic ride through Faron, the long siege and ultimate destruction of Castletown, the triumphant northern march to the site where the new King would build his palace. The deposed king’s own ministers coronated him on the ruins of the old family’s castle, and he brought those ministers and palace guards, townspeople and workers with him when he established the nation’s new Capital. One account told of the slaves he brought with him, thousands upon thousands, all branded with a mark that no Hyrulean scholar could interpret. Consensus among linguists was that it was a lost form of Gerudo writing, a way to designate caste, but no one was quite sure.

Link's hand instinctively wandered to his own mark, sitting harmlessly beneath his leather tunic. He had always worn it with some degree of pride; not only could he pull the collar of his shirt down to get back into the palace grounds—no other peasants but the King’s own servants could do that—but it worked as a warning to others to leave him in peace. He’d once seen a group of men try to rob one of the other servants—a well-dressed, well-fed man, probably a doorkeeper—until they ripped his sleeve and spied his brand. They scattered like insects, afraid of the consequences of damaging the King’s possession. Link almost smiled at the memory.

“Are you all right?” Impa asked him, pausing after the paragraph describing the palace servants’ markings. “You look a bit pale.”

“I’m fine,” he replied.

Her eyes glanced to where his brand sat under his clothes, lingering there for a moment, before she continued.

Construction of the King’s palace began shortly after his victory, drawing architects from all over the nation, eager to build a home worthy of their new monarch (or so the texts declared; Impa told him to accept all these narratives with a healthy degree of doubt, since many of the writers were royalists, paid by the King, or simply afraid to dissent— “You saw what happens to those who dissent,” Impa reminded him, forcing him to think of the yellow-haired girl’s sacked house, her broken possessions, her dead father). The monarch’s new palace sprouted three great black towers, each built big enough to house a fraction of the royal family’s greatest treasure, a power so great to merely speak of it was a from of treason.

“What power is that?” Link asked.

“The golden power of the gods,” Impa answered. “There are three of them, three sacred parts, each a pyramid of light. The King has at least two, but probably all of them. Either way, he knows better than to bring them together at once, so each resides in a separate tower.”

“I saw one of them, I think,” Link said. “In the palace… she and I…”

Impa nodded. “I suspected as much. That power was her birthright. It belonged to her. It comes as no surprise it would draw her to it.”

Link lowered his eyes, trying to remember the overwhelming power that stole breath from his lungs. He could only recall a vague halo of golden light, and a feeling of strange inevitability, before the guard burst through the door and destroyed the moment. He motioned for Impa to continue, quelling the uncomfortable feeling in his stomach.

Despite the tone of celebration with which almost all of the texts recounted the new King’s ascension, not every province delighted in his newly claimed power. A long and harrowing schism of provinces fractured the country, fraught with skirmishes, betrayals and embargoes, after which both Ordona and Eldin managed to secure autonomy. By the time the hardship ended, Ganond’s daughter Garona, first queen of her family’s reign, had risen to handle the situation of diplomacy. She was well-known for her stern fairness, her dedication to propriety, and, according to more than one account, her resplendent beauty. She allowed Ordon and Eldin (and a smattering of lesser, weaker provinces who had joined the secession), to maintain their sovereignty, at least in name. In later decades, smaller provinces would rejoin the nation of Hyrule, seeking the crown’s protection against bands of marauders that terrorized the plains and forests of the north.

Link did not know how long had passed when Impa finished listing the inconsequential bureaucracies of the small provinces. He leaned his hand against his open palm, trying to force his eyes to remain open, but since the Conqueror King and all the excitement his story entailed had disappeared from the narrative, he could not help slipping into a state of torpor. Saturated with information, he sighed, eyelids fluttering.

Talm saved him. Impa, unconcerned with the passing hours, talked on until her sister appeared in the doorway, arm-in-arm with the esteemed elder.

“Are you trying to ruin his festival day, sister?” Talm asked, her bright voice dragging Link out of his half-sleep.

Impa’s eyes widened—there were no clocks nor windows to mark the passage of time in that cozy, rocky library, so to her it had crept by unheeded. Link, however, was not ignorant of the arduousness of those dragging hours, and nearly cried out with joy when Talm announced it was time for the village to gather under the stone arc of the elder’s hall and begin the feast.

As the four of them made their way out of the library, Link could hear a faint echo of music, distant and lively. They reached the mouth of the cave, and the song rang louder in the starry, freezing night. A procession of torches appeared, lighting up the shrunken, shadowy distance of the village and dancing up the hill, joining into a parade like streams of red water feeding into a river. The beating of drums punctuated the lively chants of the villagers as everyone marched up the slope to the elder’s house.

Each family brought their own contribution to the feast, much like they had during Talm’s temokai, giving the gifts of food to the gods and their neighbors. Thousands of smells followed the lively music—meats, spices, fragrant syrups and savory pastes.

Irma, assisted by Palo, supported one end of a massive metal dish, on which the butchered boar lay, basted in fats and spices, a ring of boiled fruits surrounding the dark meat. She marched up to the mouth of the cave, coming to a halt with the rest of the village, proudly holding up her contribution.

The elder bid the village sit around her fire, which she coaxed to massive proportions merely with a wave of her thin, frail hand. The fire rose up to the joy of the villagers, each brown face brightened with the yellow flames.

The elder stood, and though her eyes hovered level to most of the others’ shoulders, she commanded the attention of the entire village without a word. They seated themselves around her fire, laying down their offerings, and crossed their legs. Talm and Impa sat at Merel’s side, motioning for Link to do the same.

“Welcome, friends,” the elder started. Her voice, though soft, rang puzzlingly strong along the stone walls. “Yet another year has passed, and despite the efforts of the world at large, we are still here.”

Some tribesmen laughed, others cheered, yet others stared into the fire, brows furrowed.

“But now is the time we forget about worldly troubles, and concern ourselves instead with the otherworldly.” She paused, lowering her eyes to the flames, a thin smile on her lips. “Although I am saddened to say that Talporom shall not be returning to the village for this year’s festival—” (a wave of disappointment spread almost visibly through the seated denizens)— “his daughter has volunteered to be this year’s spirit vessel for us. Wish her the best.”

The old woman removed a small box from the infinite folds of her long robe and gently handed it to Talm. She took it, and with much grace and more ceremony, knelt before the fire, laying the case before her. She ran her fingers along the intricate designs inlaid in the wood for a moment before opening it up, face brightening at the contents. Link leaned over Impa’s shoulder to better see what made Talm smile, and saw a collection of powders, paints and brushes. The contents of the box resembled Talm’s own personal accumulation of cosmetics, but the colors of the creams were darker, seemingly older and thicker, although Link could not make out the exact composition of the paints.

Talm extended a long, brownish finger into a small tub of red powder, dabbing its tip before applying it conservatively to her own face. It was not a large amount—just enough to cover her own tattoos. She ran her finger in two large streaks under her eyes, tracing perfectly the outlines of her markings, tilting up her cheekbones and arriving in a point at the edges of her eyebrows. She dipped her finger into the powder once more before painting it down the thick stripe of red on her chin.

Done with that color, she took the clean finger of her opposite hand and reached into an open jar of bluish liquid, hovering her nail over the surface of the cream as if afraid to extract too much. She secured a tiny drop of the stuff on the tip of her finger and withdrew her hand with something of relief. She slowly brought her finger to her forehead and let the drop of oily blue stick to the smooth skin between her eyebrows.

A chorus of chanting rose from the Sheikah tribe, subdued but deliberate. Talm stood slowly, eyes rapidly glazing with the light of the fire, like she was looking far into the distance, unconcerned with the circle of tribesmen surrounding her. A few brown hands beat quietly on the sides of drums, fingers tapping like rain.

Link scooted closer to Impa as the chants rose louder. She turned her head slightly, and without taking her attention from the incantations that passed through her lips, gave him a reassuring look. He calmed, but couldn’t help but wonder if the distinctive rituals of the Sheikah would ever not be strange to him. He glanced to Irma—even she mouthed the ancient words, watching her daughter with pride.

Talm stretched her arms and curled them again, stepping forward and back like a reed swaying in the wind, eyes wide and dull. She stepped around the fire, sometimes crouching, sometimes leaping. Her body seemed to take on a will of its own, exercising power over itself without Talm’s knowledge or control. Link knew the movements of all his companions, he knew their body language better than their voices, and this wild, dreamlike dancer was not Talm. It had to be something else entirely, reaching down from another plane and moving her body.

The fire’s gray smoke darkened, thickening into a green haze, flames licking up blue and purple under it. The smells of ash and wood thickened, overpowering the scents of the still-warm food. Talm’s motions quickened, her muscles tensed and relaxed, sweat reflecting the dark colors of the blaze. Her limbs waved with the fire, and soon Link could not tell where the flames ended and Talm began. She seemed to have ceased to be Talm and had become the fire itself.

With Talm burning brightly, her arms and legs luminescent in the strange glowing smoke, the chanting crescendoed, fingers tapping more forcefully on the drums, the beats echoing faster and faster around the cavern. Link’s eyes watered in the smoke, and he found it left a bittersweet taste in his mouth when he breathed it in. The sounds of the chanting and drumming reverberated around the chamber so forcefully they saturated his ears, and he almost reached up to cover them when, with an unnatural suddenness, the chamber quieted.

Shapes began to emerge from the smoke. Where Talm drew her hand across the flames, the green air congealed, twisting around itself with a seemingly life-like purpose. The ash and embers solidified, darkening into shadows, then into concrete, substantial shapes, crawling from the fire. Link saw a dog-like creature, perhaps a wolf or a coyote, pad from the flames, white eyes shining wildly, before disappearing in a plume of smoke. He saw a fish, larger than a grown man, wriggle its way through the room, bringing the sharp scent of freshwater streams with it. He saw a fawn, an elk, a massive owl made of light and darkness, the bushy smoke-tails of squirrels, he saw the slink of a fox and the rampage of a bear crashing through the fire before puffing into nothingness.

Talm fashioned apparition after apparition from the green smoke, eyes closed, body not her own. Soon after the parade of animals came shapes of a more humanoid nature, some tall and lean, some squat and round, with wide eyes and rotund, rocky backs—all were composed of the same ash, all had unsettling bright eyes, shining like beacons in the darkness.

The village resumed its chanting, but in place of a fervent, rhythmic incantation, a soft, almost sad hum rose from the crowd, calm and otherworldly. Link glanced over to Impa, picking out her deep voice, watching the minuscule vibrations of her throat as she joined the chorus. She stared ahead, almost as if in a trance, a look of resigned tranquility settling across her features. Link was not sure if Impa was still inside her own body, and almost reached out to grip her shoulder when the procession stopped.

The last of the apparitions disappeared into smoke, the chanting ceased abruptly, and just as the familiar, human glint returned to Impa’s eyes, the fire’s dark glow abated, turning again to innocent, normal orange. The whole village released one collective sigh, and Talm fell forward to her knees, panting, covered in sweat. When she raised her head, Link could see she was herself again, exhausted perhaps, but smiling with triumph.

The fire returned to normal, and the strange, otherworldly smell dissipated. Link suddenly found himself ridiculously hungry.

Talm pulled herself to her feet, wiping sweat off her forehead, and with it, the tiny, oily bead of blue paint. Shaking, she walked back to her place beside the elder and nearly collapsed onto her cushion, sighing deeply. Link could still spy some green smoke evaporate from her glossy skin.

“Excellent work, especially for one so young.” The elder’s voice was like an anchor dropping, keeping all who heard it firmly in the physical world. Link released a sigh when her raspy words echoed through the chamber, telling him that whatever had transpired, it was over now. "The spirits have accepted our thanks, and have given us leave to eat. You may begin.”

Unlike the last gathering, the whole village dug in at once. Adults and children passed around plates of meat, of mushrooms and warm, dark breads, soups and preserves, and even some powdered sweet-cakes, no doubt of Irma’s design. Someone had brought a massive ceramic jar of rice wine, and poured a generous portion into the clay cup of anyone who asked. A plate of potatoes was passed around to Link’s side of the fire, and Talm, preferring to catch her breath before eating, waved it on. She just leaned back on her pillow and shook slightly.

“I’m impressed, little sister,” Impa said, leaning over to Talm. She snatched a steaming potato from the bowl and filled her own plate before passing it to Link. “You managed to summon up more than Sheim did last year.”

“Yeah,” Talm replied, still breathless. “Good thing he’s gone to the Capital. If he saw me outdo him he’d kill me in my sleep.”

“Not likely.” Impa bit into her potato and accepted a swig of rice wine from the man with the jar.

Link took a portion of everything passed his way. After so many years of rotten leftovers, after some days wondering if he’d get to eat at all, he knew he had an obligation to gorge himself as much as he could. This might be the only opportunity he’d ever have, so he fully intended to eat himself into a stupor.

Impa, amused with Link’s portions, decided to give him some advice. “If you ever find yourself too full to continue, call over Palo and he’ll give you some firegrass to restore your appetite. It’s the only way he manages to eat so much during the festival.”

Talm laughed. “And he always regrets it the next day.”

Link ate in silence for a little while. The elder went around the group, accepting offerings of food in exchange for blessings and good luck charms for use during the following year. She travelled through the village in a wide circle, gifting all sorts of trinkets to her denizens.

Link stared at the fire, at the shape of the elder making her rounds, bestowing benevolence on her subjects, laughing, talking animatedly with adults and children alike. He could not stop focusing on her shadow.

“Impa, what were those things that came from the fire?” he asked.

“Spirits,” she answered, before taking another bite.

“Those are spirits? But they’re so different than—” As usual, he found his throat constricted when he thought to speak of the wolf gods at the peak of Eldin.

Impa understood him. “There are many different spirits that live on this mountain, Link. This peak, and its sister, Death Mountain, have plenty. Or… they used to. A long time ago, there were more spirits—much more than the ones we’ve seen just now. They were far more powerful, too. They would come at the festival and stay for a while, to wander and speak with us, to share jokes and stories. They used to be strong and healthy. Now…” she paused for a moment, chewing. “The spirits are as the souls of the dead—mere echoes of what they once were.”

“Why?” Link asked.

“They have been worn down for a long time—ever since Ganond came to Hyrule. But recently… things have been worse. Ever since the Eldin War.”

Link was about to ask her to expand on that topic, when suddenly the shadow of the elder fell across him, made tall and wide by her elaborate headdress. “Impa, it is inauspicious to speak of such things as war and genocide on a spiritual occasion.”

Impa bowed her head. “Forgive me, elder Merel.” Link bowed his too, just for good measure.

“It is all well, child,” the old woman replied. She reached into her sleeve and pulled something out, gripping it in a gnarled fist. “These are for you.”

She opened her hand and inside sat two small carvings of wood, each attached to a thin leather cord. One was round, the other triangular, and each sported mysterious runes Link could not interpret.

“This one is for you,” the elder said, presenting the circular piece to Impa. “It will give you hope when hope fails you. And this,” she turned to Link, “is for you. It will supply you with courage.” Link took the small trinket from her and looked it over. Closer inspection did not clear up any confusion—it was still uninterpretable. “I have this vague feeling you might need it,” Merel said, before chuckling quietly and turning back to the warmth of the fire.

Link stared at the triangular wooden thing for a few moments before tucking it into his breast pocket and resuming his meal. In a few minutes, and after more than one cup of rice wine, he forgot all about war, all about spirits, and all about the trinket. He shortly found himself preoccupied when Talm stood up, reinvigorated by her dinner, and insisted they all start a dance.


Talm Dances

Chapter Text

*

“Why, in the worst of times, do we never fail to fall back on ritual for comfort? It is because ritual allows us to rely on the expected in a world filled with too many unpleasant surprises.”

Arigor, Priest of Hylia

*

 

The coldest and longest nights of the Eldine winter came and went, watching Link through the colored glass of Irma’s windows, or through the cracks in the walls of the elder’s library. When the darkness crept onto the village and hovered over it for more than half a day, when sword practice, hunting, and henhouse care had to be done within the short confines of sunlight, Link preoccupied himself in the nights with more scholarly pursuits. This was only partially by his own free will, since Impa often stood behind him like a watchful guard, pointing out his mistakes and guiding the narrative of the nation of Hyrule forward.

Spurred on by Link’s curiosity regarding the spiritual wane of Mount Eldin, Impa led him through the relevant scrolls and tomes. Eldin’s decline began, for the most part, with the crowning of Garona’s daughter Elgra. The stories and manuscripts depicted her as a woman with her mother’s beauty but her grandfather’s ruthlessness. Nearly half a century after Eldin and Ordona had secured their own sovereignty, she defied the ministers and lawmakers of her late mother’s reign, and rode to the east with the intention of reclaiming the land lost from Hyrule.

With the armies of both Faron and Lanayru behind her, she tore through Eldin in the manner of her grandfather, destroying its strongholds, burning its forests and pillaging its mines (Impa tried to explain to Link her economic motivations and the logistics of the excavation of coal and precious metals, but after his eyes drooped and he fell asleep on his own crossed arms, she skipped to the battles). The Queen and her army, her only son among the esteemed generals, marched along the Deadwood River, through the towns of Eldoran and Leda with uninterrupted success.

But when she arrived at the gates to the great city inside Death Mountain, she was met with unparalleled resistance. The siege that followed lasted for nearly a year, from the late springtime to midwinter, before the cold and snows finally drove Elgra back to Lanayru in defeat.

The victory for Eldin did not come without a price. Death Mountain had earned its monicker that winter; the town of Leda still crumbled in empty ruin at the base of the slopes, and the city within the mountain, once warmed by godly fire and the movements of magma, now lay cold and dark.

Link sorted through pages illustrating the city that once stood within the throat of the peak, filled with strange, rock-like creatures, black-eyed and wide-faced. Impa told him that they were called Gorons, and that none had survived the Battle of Eldin. But the fight they had put up inspired thousands of songs and tales, and at the time, proved a rallying point for the decimated armies of Eldin to regroup at Old Riko and drive out Mandrag Elgra for good.

Though the province eventually recovered, the spirits did not. The extensive tracts of land Elgra burnt regrew into young forests, but the small gods and natural entities that had once lived in abundance among them never returned. It had been a long decline for Eldin; the steady disappearance of spirits from Hyrule proper, and the shrinking native Sheikah and Goron populations were running their slow course, but the Eldin War sealed the fates of both peoples and their accompanying spirits.

In the course of less than twenty years, Sheikah ritual nearly died out with the near-extermination of its people—the old language was a privilege retained for elders and the surviving spirits, more and more members chose to assimilate themselves into the neighboring Hylian culture, towns and villages and shrines lay crumbled and abandoned. But where the Sheikah had at least an echo of their once-great culture in the form of one heartily surviving village, the Gorons had no such remnant. As far as anyone knew, there were no survivors.

“Did you ever get to meet a Goron?” Link asked Impa.

“Apparently, once, when I was a baby. That was right before the war ended. Of course, I don’t remember it.” She closed the book in front of him, lowering her eyes. “That should be enough for now. You’ve been absorbing all of this like a sponge for the past few weeks. I can’t imagine how overwhelming it must be to finally learn all this.”

Link shrugged. He had no idea about the history of his own land, his King’s family, the golden power that lay sleeping in his massive palace, the bloodline of the yellow-haired girl. It hadn’t been pertinent to him, to say the least—he needed only to know when to bring the chickens in for winter, how to groom a horse, how to train a hound; there was no room in his head for abstractions of the past.

But now, with Talon and his animals on the other side of the mountain range, halfway across the fractured country, he could learn. He tried to retain as much information about the Eldin War as possible, but what interested him most was not the dates, the names of battles, the tactics and banners used in each one, but the young prince who had marched into Eldin alongside his mother, lauded as a hero despite her defeat. In the deep snows of the late year, he had vanquished the great Durmia, patriarch of the Goron clan, in single combat. It had marked the beginning of the end for the Goron people, but the beginning of the rise of the young prince.

Poets and historians used the same words to describe him as they used for his great-grandfather, the indomitable Conqueror King—hair like fire, skin shining like green obsidian, taller and broader than any man in the land, cloaked in finery and wielding an unstoppable broadsword. Link thought of the King at the winter festival, arms spread, white smile wide, glowing with magic and resplendent in his power. A small, ignorant deaf boy had fallen in love with him then, with the very idea of him, but had never known his history, never known anything about him.

“What was the prince’s name?” Link asked.

“Elgra’s son?” Impa pulled Link from the pile of scrolls and books, brushing the dust off his shoulders and affectionately straightening his hat. “He’s no prince anymore. He was coronated during the winter festival thirteen years ago. He’s Mandrag now.”

“But what was his name?”

“Ganondorf.”

Link repeated the name for himself. It sounded mighty, of course, perhaps even brutal, but also dignified in its own way. But he could not help but think such a name suited the King; it was as wide as his shoulders, and as grand as his stature.

As Impa led him out of the room stacked high with books, he thought about the King’s generosity, his mercy. Perhaps, when they met again, Link would see his face and be sure that the cruelty that stained his family line had not stained him—or he had at least overcome it. Perhaps it was true that he fought under his mother’s command in the pitiless siege of Death Mountain, but if Link had a mother, he was sure he’d do the same for her. He imagined Irma descending the slopes of Eldin to retake her hometown, wherever that was, and knew that both her daughters—and Link himself—would be at her side.  He tried to picture the woman decked out in royal black armor, red cape flying from her back, riding a massive warhorse like the Conqueror King himself, and couldn’t help but grin.

“What are you smiling at?” Impa asked him, and he shook his head. He just latched onto her arm as she led him back out into the snowy village, the smell of her mother’s cooking permeating the chilly air.

*

As expected, and predicted in Talporom’s letter, the King marched out of the Capital shortly after the conclusion of the winter festivities. With the limitations of the old year behind him, the monarch gathered his forces and marched through the brown fields of Lanayru as soon as the snows showed signs of melting. By the time he got south to Faron and set up camp where the forests thinned into the dry grasslands of the near-desert, spring had established itself in full force.

It came rolling over the hills from the east, like a verdant, protracted sunrise, and with it came restlessness. Impa and Palo nearly begged the elder to send them away from the village on some sort of mission, perhaps to redeem themselves regarding their last failure, but she insisted that it was better to wait, that the time for action would come soon enough.

Talm took her mother down to Old Riko to attend the theater several times, returning occasionally with a few silks and hats of the latest fashion—clothes that Irma would rarely wear, for fear of damaging them in the routine of village life. Link stayed behind, tending to Irma’s notoriously slow-witted chickens and indignant goat when he was not exchanging blows with Impa or reading under her careful watch.

Talm, who had learned quite a bit as a girl from Impa, warned Link that she was an incorrigible disciplinarian, and the worst schoolmistress a boy could have (Link had to ask what a schoolmistress was, then had to spend an hour absorbing the idea of a schoolhouse—“You mean… children in Old Riko don’t work?”). Impa lived up to her reputation, smacking Link with a stick when his fighting posture slumped, boxing his ears when he fell asleep at his books, and occasionally knocking him off his chair for misspelling something during Irma’s calligraphy lessons.

With each passing week she grew more restless, and consequently less tolerant of his mistakes. Talm and Palo tried to pacify her, but sometimes when she was in an especially destructive mood, she would disappear to the edge of the village and terrible, otherworldly sounds would emanate from her harp; tree branches would fly, birds would scatter from their nests, and occasionally, night would arrive several hours early.

“She’s hibernating, and she wants to wake up,” Talm said one day, after one of these episodes. Link had no idea what she was talking about.

“Then let’s help her,” Palo had answered. Link followed them as they trotted through new, green grass to where Impa stood with her harp, frowning. A few wildflower buds sat at her feet, waiting for the bloom, moving slightly in the warm wind. When she heard the three of them behind her, creeping like mischievous children, she turned and strummed a harsh note, forcing them to cover their ears.

“Devils below, Impa,” Palo said. “You don’t have to scare us like that.”

She smiled a little, tugging the weird, old lyre closer to her shoulder. “What do you want?”

Talm grabbed Impa’s arm. “Come on, we’re going to the river. It’s time for spring to really begin.”

Link was unaware of this ritual. He’d never been to the river when it hadn’t been frozen over and covered in snow. He followed his companions for a few miles through the thawed and greening forest, to the warming banks of the bright river, greenish blue and flowing with foam.

He looked at the lazy water, then back at Talm, who was already half-naked, ripping off her cloth tunic and leather leggings. Even after all these months of living among people who bathed communally in the hot springs, he still could not help averting his eyes when Talm’s clothes fell off her. He figured he was just unused to it.

“Get undressed,” she told him. He looked around, confused, and saw both Impa and Palo stripping to their smallclothes. He stumbled forward, wrestling off his tunic, tripping over the grey, round rocks on the river’s edge. He didn’t have the heart to tell them he didn’t know how to swim.

Talm jumped in, screaming wildly, followed by her sister, who let out a yell that could petrify an army. Palo endured the plunge with his usual satisfied silence. Link kicked off his boots and stumbled into the shallow bank before crying out and scrambling away, hugging his arms and retreating to shore.

“Come on!” Talm nearly screamed at him. “It’ll wake you up.”

He just shook his head.

“It’s just glacial runoff,” Palo shivered. He smiled widely, teeth chattering. Impa burst from the absurdly blue water and waded up to him, reaching out to him. The smile on her face told him her mood had improved drastically, so he couldn’t stop himself from reaching back. She gripped his hands in her own and started to pull him, gently, toward the water. He gulped and let her lead him to the riverbank, hissing as the water licked at his ankles.

Impa fed him encouraging words as she led him up to his knees. His toes had gone numb and his hair stood on end, but he followed her.

Palo smiled, neck-deep in the blue river. “The worst part is when it hits your nuts,” he said. “Then it gets better.”

Link could not say he disbelieved Palo, but when the water sloshed over his hips and sent shivers through his every limb, he couldn’t help but swear. Everything seemed to shrink, painfully, and the unbelievable cold spread to the still-dry parts of him, forcing his hair on end.

“That’s the spirit!” Palo called, laughing.

When he was shoulder-deep in the water, current tugging at his legs and arms, he latched onto Impa, thinking that if his feet should leave the bottom, she might as well know. “I can’t swim,” he told her.

What?” Her eyes widened, and she nearly let go out of shock. His heart rushed to his throat as her grip loosened, and he gasped a little, kicking silt from the bottom of the river and falling forward. Water swallowed him, freezing pain rushing through his face, his ears, the back of his head, and for a moment he was quite sure he’d been swept away, never to reemerge from the icy water. But Impa’s arms wrapped quickly around him, and she tugged him out of the river with an glacial spray and a desperate grunt.

“Dammit, Link!” she growled, pushing him back toward the shore. He coughed up the icy water, holding his stomach as he collapsed onto the rocky bank, half laughing, half gasping. Impa stood over him, dripping wet, shaking her head. Palo pulled himself up beside her, lips blue, and smiled.

“Some guts you got,” he said. Talm followed them all out of the water to watch Link sputter on the stones. He pulled himself from the rocks, shivering, and asked them to teach him.

It was a slow, freezing process, but when he was floating by himself, water caressing his sides, he forgot about the cold for a fleeting, wonderful moment. Later, when the river proved too icy to continue the lesson, he lay on the shore, shivering between Talm and Impa, letting the sun slowly dry him.

Palo plucked a weed from the riverbank and started chewing on its end, staring up at the clouds. “Just like when we were kids, huh?” he said quietly.

“That’s the point of the spring dip,” Talm answered, yawning. “It’s the same every year.”

“We’re just lucky we always end up here together in spring,” Impa said. “Merel never seems to send us out on tasks until everything blooms.”

“Maybe she knows we all have to bathe in the river at least once before we go our separate ways for the year,” Talm suggested.

Impa sat up, reaching over for her lyre, laying it on her lap and plucking a few notes. “Look at what I’ve been working on,” she said, almost proudly. The harp glowed a dull blue, sending its tune to the water, forcing a few bubbles of foam to rise to the top. They floated along the surface for a couple seconds before popping and disappearing into the air.

“Wow,” Talm laughed derisively. “That’s some powerful magic.”

Impa narrowed her eyes and pulled her hand along the strings, a harsh, bright sound rushing through the air, nearly knocking Talm back into the brush. A burst of foamy water flew from the river, glinting in the light. It fell over all of them with a freezing splash, Talm throwing up her hands and screaming profanities, Link instinctively ducking behind Impa as the water descended.

“Great,” Talm growled, twisting her long hair in her hands and wringing it out. “Now we’re going to have to sit here while we get dry again.”

“I don’t mind,” Palo said. He had taken the watery assault silently, unmoving. He still lay on his back, soaked weed dangling from his mouth.

Link reclined between his friends and ignored the wet shivers that ran through him. He didn’t really mind, either.

*

When they got back from the river, fully dressed and warmed by the afternoon sun, an unfamiliar man strode through the village, dressed in plates of leather, black cloak dragging on the ground behind him. He slipped like a shadow under the blooming cherry trees, turning his head when they approached.

Palo called out to the man, and he dropped his hood to reveal a scarred, tired face. The red tattoos about his eyes wrinkled in worry. “Impa, Talm,” he said, unsmiling. “You might want to be there when I report to the elder.”

“What’s wrong?” Talm asked, but Impa shushed her.

“We’ll come with you,” she said. She looked over her shoulder at Link and Palo. “I’ll meet you back at my mother’s house.”

Link nodded. He did not like the worry in her eyes, the way her mouth curled down at the corners. As she and her sister followed the messenger up the slope toward the elder’s ornate cavern, he turned to Palo. The man’s eyes traced the steps of the two sisters, then he lowered his head and made his way to the smoky abode of the welcoming Irma.

She took their coats, bidding them sit by the fire, until Palo interrupted her well-intentioned pleasantries. “Irma, a report came back from the camps at Silk. Talm and Impa are with the elder. I’m sure whatever they’re hearing, you’d like to hear.”

Irma’s face paled, her smile faded. She nodded wordlessly before trotting through the front door. She didn’t bother closing it behind her before she rushed up the hill toward the elder’s cave. Palo grabbed its handle and creaked it shut before seating himself beside Link in front of the fire.

He stared into the flames, sighing slowly. Link did not ask—he merely reached out and touched Palo’s shoulder, prodding him for answers.

Palo shook his head. “Don’t ask me what’s going on. We should wait for those three to get back and tell us themselves.”

Link crossed his arms over his knees and lay his head against them. He could tell by the messenger’s posture, his fallen face, that something was amiss. Ever since Eldin had granted him his hearing, he had sacrificed some sensitivity of smell and the other senses, but it did not take much keenness to gather the man’s message contained some bad news about Talporom.

He gripped his elbows, hoping Impa’s father wasn’t dead. He hadn’t even met him yet—it would be a spectacular failure on the part of fate to kill him before they spoke to one another. After all, Link had heard so much about him—his unconventional marriage, his exploits, his skill in healing, his kindness—goddesses above, Link had worn his old hat for months. That must constitute some sort of bond, since after all, it was the first piece of clothing he’d received outside the soiled garments of a stableboy.

Link did not know how long he and Palo waited in Irma’s house, dusty light pouring in through the window. The two remained wordless, Palo closing his eyes and breathing deeply, Link fidgeting with his green hat, marveling at exactly how loud silence could be.

Then Talm burst through the door in a rush of fury.

“We have to go see for ourselves,” she said, stomping across the wooden floor.

“No, you don’t,” Irma replied, desperate, disheveled.

“Mother, we’ve been stuck in the village for months,” Impa said, gripping Irma’s shoulder tightly. “We get word of this and you expect us to linger here?”

“But Merel said—“

“Elder Merel said to do what we must. You know what that means as well as any of us.”

Palo stood, crossing his arms and clearing his throat. “Care to tell me what happened?”

Talm’s eyes flashed at him, watery, narrowed and shining. “The King’s forces raided our father’s camp.”

Link’s stomach dropped. He knew he should’ve expected an event like this to arise, especially since Talporom and his family seemed keen on the King, keen on spying on him, keen on his family history and those of his enemies. Link drew in a sharp breath, and after only a second of thought, gave up on trying to sort through his alliances to a man he’d met once, and a man he hadn’t met at all. He looked up at Palo, noting the determined frown appearing on his brown lips, and turned back to the sisters.

Talm practically ran to the far wall and started removing weaponry and coats from their stands and hangers. Impa walked close behind, calm but wearing that indefatigable face of the warrior. She pulled out the very bag they had taken to the peak of Eldin, and started to stuff in clothes, dried foods, tools. Irma watched, brow furrowed, hands wringing.

“Should I ready my things?” Palo asked, folding his hands behind his head.

Impa paused, lifting her gaze to the two of them. “If you wish.”

“I do. If Talporom’s in trouble, it would be downright evil of me to ignore it.”

“I’ll come too,” Link put in. The desperation in his own voice caught even him off guard.

“No,” Impa barked. “You stay here. You’re not fully trained—you’ll be nothing more than a liability.”

Link deflated, her words forcing the air out of him like a swift blow. He looked at Irma, whose blue eyes met his, wet and widened with disquiet. She shook her head and clutched one hand to her chest. “Yes… you stay here, Link. Keep me company while my girls are away.” She spoke hoarsely, with a faraway intonation, almost as if she were not wholly in her own body.

Link’s breath came shallow and pained as he watched the sisters pack up. Talm stuffed food, extra clothes and other necessities into the bag, while Impa lay her lyre between two strips of leather and slung it over her back. Palo had retreated into the warm afternoon air, padding softly along the dirt to his own house. Link just stood against the wall, next to Irma, at a loss, as Impa walked to a particularly large and intimidating sword against the wall. It sat in its scabbard among so many other tools like it, and Link had never quite taken the time to notice its size or elegant, slightly curved shape.

“You’re taking Bloodletter?” Irma almost whispered.

“Of course.” Impa lifted the weapon from the wall and drew it partway out of its scabbard, checking the broad blade. She sheathed it again and turned to her sister. “Are you ready, Talm?”

“As I’ll ever be.” The young woman slipped twin short swords into curved scabbards across her waist. She pulled a small strip of silk from the folds of her clothing and shook back her hair, gathering it at the top of her head and securing it tightly.

Irma stood in silence while her daughters swept on their hooded cloaks and headed for the door. Her hand reached Link’s, and she squeezed it with cold, thin fingers. He watched her eyebrows draw together and wrinkle slightly, and he gave her a reassuring squeeze back. If this was what Impa wished—if this was where he was needed, he would stay here with Irma until they returned.

The sisters opened the front door, fully armed and hasty, only to find a small, round silhouette blocking their way. The figure itself did not come up to Impa’s shoulders, but the shadow it cast was long and dark and commanding. The sisters stepped aside, halting their furious scurrying, and made way for the elder as she walked calmly into their house.

“Children,” she said. “You are in such a rush to leave, you have forgotten something.” Merel pointed a gnarled finger at Link. The sisters glanced over their shoulders at him, and he couldn’t help but shrink a little under their fierce red gazes.

“Elder Merel, he’s not co—“

“He is wasted if he is left here,” Merel said. “And if there is one principal sin in this world, it is needless waste.” Impa stepped back, grimacing, but did not argue. She turned to Link and motioned for him to get dressed. With a skip of his heart, he slipped his hand out of Irma’s. He wondered if she knew how desperately she grabbed at him after he took his fingers from hers—or if she was even aware of doing so. Her eyes stayed put on her daughters.

“Fetch your hunting bow, and that sword from the wall,” Impa told him. Link followed her pointing finger and picked out a nondescript sword, slid deep into a brown leather scabbard. It was a little heavier than the practice blades he used, but well within the limits of his strength. The pommel boasted a dull pinkish stone, and the cross-guard, while plain, curved elegantly. At its middle, the rain guard took the form of the eye of truth, wrought from blue and red metal.

He swung the weapon over his back, retrieved his crude hunting bow from the far hall, hastily threw together a pack of necessities, and pulled his own cloak around him (of course, it wasn’t his; everything he wore or used belonged either to Talporom in a far-gone age or Palo in a near-gone one).

“Are you prepared?” Impa asked him.

He nodded. He couldn’t think of anything else he needed—at least, that he’d find in Irma’s living room. When Palo’s shadow appeared in the doorway, the sisters receded into the golden light of the afternoon. Link made to follow them out, but a hand gripped his wrist and tugged him back.

Irma pulled him close to her, laying a hand on either cheek before planting a kiss on his forehead. “Pass that on to my girls,” she said quietly. “They’re always in such a hurry to leave.”

Link nodded, reddening, and dashed out the door after them.


 Irma Waits

Chapter Text

*

“A home is not where a journey begins, by any means; a home is where it ends.”

Obaru of the Haunted Waste

*

 

“This is not going to be a pleasant trip,” Impa told Link as they hurried down the mountain. He didn’t have the breath to waste on a reply. He only found himself panting and tripping, holding the straps of his small pack as if he could manage his wildly shifting balance with them. He slid down the wet gullies of mountain streams, jumped roots and gnarled stumps, barely holding himself steady as he tried to keep up with his companions.

The Sheikah did not so much run as tumble down the mountain in a controlled, directed fall. They eased over the slopes, ducking between trees and hurdling boulders like fish through water. Even Impa, with that monster of a sword slung across her back, sprinted effortlessly down the spring-wetted gullies and bloom-speckled glens. Link panted and puffed, and as the sun set and darkness overtook the mountain, the descent only became more difficult. But his companions’ pace barely slowed, and he clumsily ran after them, trying his best to remember Impa’s teachings about light-footedness, speed, and never wasting momentum. He concentrated on these lessons as he ran after his companions, burrowing so deep in his own mind he almost overtook them when they halted in a clearing.

Link skidded to a stop in the darkness, suddenly noticing the warmth and thickness of the air. It appeared they had nearly descended the mountain, and by the stars’ positions in the sky, had done so in a matter of hours. Since he had only experienced the climb up blind and deaf and half-conscious, he could not fathom if it was reasonable or not for them to have descended in that time. He just looked behind him, at the green forests, at the distant, brown and grey peaks jutting like wolf’s teeth toward the sky.

“We need horses,” Talm said as she slowed. They all caught their breath a moment (to Link’s infinite relief), before setting off again toward the town of Old Riko, at a reasonable trot rather than a sprint.

“That we do. Fast ones,” Palo replied. “But we’re as close to broke as we can get, and it’s getting late. I suspect we won’t have much luck convincing Temon to lend us a few.”

“We’ll have to try,” Impa said. “If we can’t secure them from him, we’ll go some other place.” 

Link followed in silence, too winded to even speak. He followed his companions closely, sticking to the long shadows they cast.

It was nearly midnight when they reached Old Riko. Despite the lateness of the day, tall lamps lit the red brick streets, and townsfolk went here and there in their evening wear, much like they had in the Capital. Ladies wrapped their stoles about them in the cool night, laughing with friends, heels clicking on the bricks. Link stopped to listen to their speech, to the swish of their dresses and the sound of their shoes—it was the first time he could actually hear the noises of a town. The music and laughter emanating from the street’s many pubs, the distant but gargantuan creak of the windmill, the shouts of fights and even the clang of kitchen utensils beating violently against pots and pans—Link had never heard such cacophony. The village of Kakariko seemed quiet in comparison, even with its wild animals and creaking trees making such a ruckus at night.

So preoccupied with the sounds of the town, Link almost lost his companions, and his purpose, in the din. He had to scan the street and pick out the messy, almost-white hair of Palo above the groups of laughing theatergoers, of drunk companions stumbling across the street. He gathered his wits about him and made off after them, catching up just as they arrived at the stable of the man to whom Impa had returned the little mule so many months before.

“Temon,” Impa called, and the old man crept from the shadows behind his barn, wide scowl on his face.

“What do you want?” he mumbled.

“We need your fastest horses.”

“At this hour? Girl, it’s past sundown, where do you have to go riding all of a sudden?”

“It’s Talporom. He’s in trouble; we’re being sent to aid him.”

“Talporom? All right, then. I’ll need payment up front. Gold, too. None of that old rupee garbage, as usual.”

“Well, we—“

“I didn’t know you had an aunt,” Palo said. The others turned to him wordlessly. He stood with his eyes shut, tattoos scanning the yard. Looks of relative uncertainty crossed the sisters’ faces, but they remained silent, instead preferring to let Palo sustain the conversation.

Temon crossed his arms. “I don’t.”

“Not anymore, you don’t. She’s dead. Long dead. And…” The muscles around Palo’s eyes flexed a little, warping his tattoos in such a way to make it look like they were squinting. “Quite fat, and filthy rich.”

The old man shook his head. “So what.”

“So… she’s whispering to me a thing or two about where she hid her fortune. Well… technically I suppose it is yours now.”

Temon nearly laughed. “Nice try, deadseer. Like I’m going to fall for that.”

“Your loss. I’ll just dig that treasure up myself and go buy some horses with that.” Palo feigned leaving.

“Wait.” Temon’s voice was low, resigned. The man shook his head, brow furrowed, and Link could almost see his eyes roll under his closed lids. “Hell. I owe your father a favor anyway. Take ‘em. You can pay when you get back.”

When the man had given them each a mount, saddled and ready, Palo leaned down to Temon and said, apparently in gratitude: “For your generosity: walk twelve paces north of the oak tree behind your barn. Thirty-three paces east from there, you’ll come across two tall stones. Between them is buried a title deed for your aunt’s land and twelve thousand rupees. She wants you to have them.”

As they rode away, Link looked behind him to see Temon’s face pale and his eyes widen.

*

“That was pathetic, Palo,” Impa said, when they had left Old Riko (and possibly Eldin proper—Link wasn’t sure). Sometime before dawn, they decided it might be a good time for a short rest, and dismounted, letting the horses graze on the thin grass of the new spring. “It wasn’t bad enough that your trick didn’t work, so you had to lie to the man?”

“How am I supposed to guess there’s not treasure there?” Palo said, kneeling on the small stones next to the road and digging for his flint. “Seems to me like a good enough place to bury some.”

Talm shook her head, smiling. “I wonder if Temon’ll actually look for it.”

“Doesn’t matter. At the end of this campaign I’ll get me some gold coins and bury them myself.” Palo leaned back and smiled when he had a small but healthy fire going.

“Or,” Impa said curtly, crossing her arms. “You could just pay him back when we return with my father, no trickery needed.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Palo asked.

Link sat down next to him on the gravel, crossing his legs and warming his hands by the small fire. Palo pulled some jerky from his pack and handed it over.

“You’re not as much of a burden as I would’ve thought,” he said. The small admission made Link smile. “A little slow on the run, but your horsemanship is top-notch.”

“Does that surprise you?” Impa asked, seating herself opposite them. “He was a stablehand in the royal palace. He trained the King’s own horse.” Link glanced up at her. He did not recall telling her that particular detail. She shrugged. “I watched you for a while.”

Link frowned and returned his attention to his jerky.

“So, we taking the usual route then?” Talm asked, stretching.

“The usual route?” Link inquired.

“We’re riding east until we reach Hylia’s shores, then we can go north to Riverton,” Impa answered. “From there it’s straight through the wide plains until Gerudo Valley.”  Her words passed half-understood through his mind. In the hours he spent in Kakariko’s library, she had shown him a map of the country—several, in fact—but he had not committed them closely enough to memory to know the exact locations of landmarks. He had the general grasp of the Conqueror King’s route from the desert to Castletown, but the small details of his lesser victories had slipped Link’s mind.

“We won’t have much time to waste on rest,” Impa said. “If we want to get to our father before… well, perhaps it is best to leave the possibilities unexplored.” She hung her head and pursed her lips. “I’ll keep watch while you rest, provided you let me sleep a full night when we get to Riverton. I’ll wake you all up well before midmorning.”

“Deal,” Palo said. He lay down on the stones, not bothering to unpack his bedroll, and put his hands behind his head, breathing deeply. Link pulled out his things, folded Talporom’s hat beneath his head and rested on its wooly surface. He watched the tired horses blink slowly, black eyes shining wearily in the firelight. It did relieve him to have the familiar scents of horses around him; Kakariko had no such mounts since none of them could make the climb up the hillside. It felt right, having them near again, and now he could even hear their hooves against the ground, their contented snorts, the flick of their tails as they whipped flies from their flanks.

He had barely closed his eyes when Impa shook him awake. Her hand gently grasped his shoulder and she drew him out of deep senselessness. He tried to wave her away, but she persisted, and he sat up in the morning light, barely conscious. Somehow, he managed wolf down breakfast, climb up on his horse and follow the others along the road, all in a mindless state of half-sleep.

Despite the horses’ hooves beating furious and quick on the dirt road, the scenery around them changed slowly. The sweeps of evergreen Eldine forests thinned, making way for patches of deciduous trees, buds of pink and yellow trembling at their branch ends. When the afternoon came around and warmed the roads, even those trees had diminished in number, leaving only the swaying green grass, almost fluid in the wind.

Old stone fences and creaking wooden enclosures lined the empty road, a few cows and horses grazing contentedly at the margins. They lifted their heavy heads and regarded the small, frantic parade of horses before unhurriedly lowering their mouths again to the grass around the fenceposts. A few shepherds took their eyes from their flocks to watch the group ride past, leaning on their walking sticks and shaking their heads at the feverish pace of the travelers.

It seemed the flow of time slowed in the fields of Lanayru. The farmers, field hands, their animals and crops appeared to have a perfect grasp on the absoluteness of time—they did not know haste. As Link rode past, sharing in the exhaustion that covered his horse’s flanks with sweat and slowed her gallop, he wished he could slip off her back and join the timelessness of those fields. He had not noticed this enchanting facet of his surroundings the first time he’d wandered through the province; at the time he’d been confined to the back of a wagon, concerned with only his own safety and mourning the fate of the yellow-haired girl. But now that he had a full view of the fields, and all his faculties with which to appreciate them, he wished for nothing more than to veer from the road into a patch of verdant crops and bury himself in their budding leaves.

He kept onward through the afternoon. Having skipped the midday meal, his stomach growled piteously inside him, and he reached into his breast pocket for a few crumbs or a half-smashed biscuit Irma had a habit of leaving for him when he wasn’t looking. Instead he found the small charm the elder had given him—he gripped it tightly, keeping it safe in his palm while the horse lurched and swayed. He slipped it back in his pocket, disappointed that he had not discovered something slightly more edible, but reminded himself that despite his fears, despite his desire to retreat into the tall grass of Lanayru and sleep, he had the well-wishes of the villagers he’d left behind.

It was the elder’s desire that he should aid Impa in her attempt to rescue her father. He could not disappoint her—couldn’t disappoint Talm, or Palo, or Irma, or, worst of all, Impa herself. He would ride with them, fight with them, until they had Talporom back.

But what of the King? The voice slinked out of the recesses of his mind like a guilty snake, grasping and deflating his courage. He did not know what he would do if he encountered the two at odds. Should Talporom be found under the executioner’s axe, Link would no doubt interfere, but he would rather solve this dispute between the King and the Sheikah some other way.

I can speak now. I may not be eloquent, as Palo says, but I can speak. I can stand between them and speak reason to both.

Link lowered his head against the breeze, heart filling up with this new idea. He committed to it, etching it into the back of his mind. If engendering peace between them was even remotely possible, he had an obligation to at least try.

With his newfound goal, he spurred his horse onward, ignoring the enticing stillness of the fields around him, stopping only when the grass suddenly shone on the horizon brighter than the sky.

“What is that?” Link asked, squinting against the blinding, golden grass.

“It’s Lake Hylia,” Impa answered, eyeing him over his shoulder.

He had never seen a body of water larger than the small lake cradled between the hills of Old Riko. This massive thing, lit gold with the late-setting sun, stretched farther than he could see. A few spits of land jutted from the water, forming rocky, grassy islands, and he thought he spied something of a cloud, white and triangular, sailing along the water’s surface.

“You think that’s big, you should see the ocean,” Talm said.

You’ve never seen the ocean,” Impa informed her.

“Just trying to give him some perspective.” The young woman shrugged and nudged her horse onward. Link took a few more moments to stare at the wide, sun-glinting water, its rocky shores, the flocks of white birds gliding far above its surface, before trotting after Talm.

“What’s the ocean?” he asked.

*

Riverton’s gates were tall, wide, and heavily guarded. Massive posts composed of blueish marble boasted black bars dull and soft in the evening light. The two guards who stood at its side halted them and questioned them for a little while before allowing them through. As the last grey light of evening disappeared behind them, the gates creaked shut, and the guards wished them a healthy stay, apologizing for the interrogation.

“In these trying times, it is best to keep cautious,” he said, nodding at them from beneath his blue-silver helmet. Impa thanked him, sliding off her black mare into the city proper, leading her companions down the street.

The city smelled of grass and fresh water. There was little of the overwhelming smoke-scent of Old Riko, even less of the pollution of the Capital. The air was fresh and wet, the people lively. They gathered under the intricate lamps of the main boulevards, laughing and talking. A few sat outside well-lit pubs and bakeries, sharing wine from silver goblets and snacking on intricately-arranged but bewilderingly bare plates. A pair of spotted dogs followed a woman in a black silk dress across the street, flanking her like loyal guards. Each sported a jeweled collar, outshone only by the one the woman wore high on her white throat.

Link never felt dirtier, walking with his dust-caked boots and exhausted horse through the decorated, music-lined streets of Riverton. He noticed some eyes narrowing at his presence, some townspeople scurrying out of the way of his stampede of dust and sweat and horse-scent. He suddenly found himself longing for nothing more than a good soak in the hot springs of Eldin, if only so he could avoid the condescending stares of the wealthy citizens of the city.

The long notes of some sort of instrument glided through the air, and Link turned to see a man on the street corner, dressed in a blue waistcoat and white shoes, playing an instrument he had seen many times at the pub in the Capital, but never heard.

Link halted his horse with a hand to its cheek, and stopped to listen, to watch the man draw the long bow across the strings, fingers wiggling at the end of the instrument’s black neck. Something of a high, weeping noise came from the strings, louder than Link would’ve thought possible from such a small instrument. A few passersby dropped some silver coins at the musician’s feet.

Beyond the sound of that eerie instrument, Link’s keen ears could make out the trickle of something like a river. Realizing he’d lingered too long, he trotted after the others, keeping an eye out for the source of that watery sound. When they rounded a corner into a large, blue-tiled square, he found it.

At the center of the plaza, massive and round, decked with white marble and adorned with intricate statues, a fountain spouted water into the night air. It was much larger than the fountain at the end of the boulevard in the Capital, and infinitely more ornate. Lights lit the water from below, coloring the streams a supernatural silver. Statues of fish, men and women, and what appeared to be a cross between the two adorned its middle, figures bending to pour lovely streams of water from jugs, hauling nets of stone fish from the glowing water. One marble woman stood taller than the rest, boasting large eyes and a fishlike head, letting the water fall from her outstretched hands, dripping across the long fins fanning from her delicate elbows.

Link trotted to Impa, nearly dragging his horse behind him. The townsfolk backed away from him, no doubt repulsed by the filthy state of both him and his animal, and he had no trouble falling into stride beside her. “Why are those people half fish?” he asked, nodding to the figures overlooking the clear, brightly lit water.

“That was built to commemorate an economic alliance between the people of Lanayru and the Zora. Riverton’s at the delta that feeds into Lake Hylia. It used to be that this was the stopping point for any trade up the River Hylia to the Capital; the riverboats would take all sorts of products up to the city.”

Link looked around him, at the too-human crowd, light-skinned and decidedly finless. A couple sat at the fountain’s edge, lost in a passionate kiss, and an old man, scowl on his face, watched them intently. None of them sported any signs of aquatic features. “Where are all the Zora, then?” he asked.

“Nobody knows,” Impa answered, turning away from the fountain and the main square. She led him down a small street, toward the city walls. “They left Lanayru two decades ago and haven’t been seen since.”

“Why?”

Impa lowered her voice, glancing about her. “After the extermination of the Gorons, they feared Elgra’s campaigns were… racially motivated. One day they were here, the next, gone. No one knows where they fled.”

Link glanced behind him to get another look at the fountain, but too many twists and turns of the road came between him and the main square. He sighed and lowered his head.

“But you can’t go around expressing regret about the loss,” Impa told him. “Lanayru is the King’s heartland. Here, unlike Kakariko, you have to watch what you say.” Link nodded. Everyone knew he was not a particularly avid talker—he was at little risk of landing them in trouble.

When they turned another corner and arrived at a small but well-lit inn, Talm and Palo took their horses to the dilapidated stables next to the stone building. Impa, bright-eyed beneath her black hood, led Link through the blue stained glass door into a bright, torchlit mess hall. The benches were stone, and long vines of domestic plants crawled along the shelves and ceiling. Small blue and white tiles lined the walls, forming a simple but elegant mosaic portraying a fisherman floating above a body of bright water, a few Zora swimming below him. One of them was at the surface, handing the man on the boat a fish.

The establishment was crowded and noisy, but Impa sidled up to an empty stool at the shining bar and asked for a meal and drinks. When money was exchanged and the barkeep turned to fix them whatever she had ordered, Impa leaned back in her stool.

“Here is a part of your training that you can’t properly learn in Kakariko,” she said quietly. “I think it’s about time you started practicing your eavesdropping.” She glanced at him under her hood. “Don’t grimace like that; it’s conspicuous. Just close your eyes—you can use them later, after you’ve heard what you can. Lean back and relax your arms, and imagine the words coming at you. You merely reach out and pluck one that interests you. Drinkers are talkers; this is probably the best place to practice.” With that Impa sank into a deep silence, ears twitching slightly.

Link followed her example, leaning against the bar, letting his ears pick up what they willed. He sat in silence for a while, listening to the meaningless blur of words flow over him. He furrowed his brow in frustration, trying desperately to pick out one conversation over another, but it wasn’t until he was ready to give up and just let his ears wander that he heard anything intelligible.

“…what with the King off to Gerudo territory…”

“We’ll have to lock our gates again when the hordes come from the west—“

“…and I said to him: ‘Look, you might be my husband but what I do with my friends is my own business…”

“… joining the army at that age? Surely they don’t allow it…”

The words flew at him in a rapid barrage, and he found he could not follow any one conversation for more than a few sentences before another caught his ear.

“…I wish my father could see…”

“…King’ll give those whores what for…”

“…every day…”

“You’re quite suspicious, you know that?”

These last words, absurdly loud and incredibly close, jerked Link out of his stupor of concentration. He opened his eyes to see Palo’s amused face hovering a few inches from his own. He swallowed, looking for any sign of judgment in the man’s intense red eyes. Palo shook his head and stood back, laying his hands on his hips.

“Let him alone,” Impa said, turning on her seat to reach for her drink. “He’s just practicing.”

“What makes you think he needs practice? Are we going to send him to eavesdrop on our foes? Is he our little Hylian spy now?” Link could sense a form of affection beneath Palo’s outward derision, and he reddened a little.

“Hush yourself, Palo,” Impa said. “We don’t want to be overheard ourselves. We might find ourselves delayed on our journey if we speak too carelessly.”

Talm appeared at Palo’s side. “Right. And our father does not appreciate being kept waiting.”

Impa smiled and took a sip, glancing over at Link. “Tomorrow we ride straight for the Gerudo River Valley. We won’t be stopping until we get to the bridge. So rest yourself, and prepare. You will not see a town for a few days.”

Link nodded, raising his own drink to his lips, eyebrows drawing together. It was not so much concern for himself, his own tiredness or removal from civilization, but the wellbeing of their already overdriven horses. He would owe them several good scrubbings by the time they got to the desert.


The Fountain of Riverton

Chapter Text

*

“Those men who turn their humble eyes to earth
May see the ancient tracks of Ganond King,
And his fell insurgent legions’ riders
Repair to eastern reaches of water.

He leaves in wake a trail of golden road,
By wildfire tempered, by red blood imbued
With wealth of worm-silk, and steel-carv’d jewel;
Behold his road of riches, and marvel.”

Dietrich Aren, from “The March of the Conqueror King”

*

 

The dry, red rocks of the Gerudo River Valley glowed almost like embers in the setting sun. A few desperate, weedy plants gripped the dimples in the rocks, roots clinging to the cracks running up the cliffside of the orange gully. Large grey birds nested in twisted, stunted junipers, squawking at Link as he rode past. He took off his hat and wiped some sweat from his forehead, urging his horse along the side of the canyon, trying not to look too closely at the river that twisted far below him. Impa had told him this was technically the realm of Faron, although the actual forests were far to the south—the valley between Hyrule and the Gerudo Territories was something of a masterless land, and it certainly seemed it.

To the south, Link made out a glint of light. It was squat and wide, spanning the length of the river valley, slightly sloped at the top. Impa must’ve seen him squint in the distance, since she nudged her horse alongside his and leaned over.

“That’s the Silk Bridge,” she told him. “The city of Silk itself is a few miles south of it. We could cross there, but sightseeing is not our first priority.”

“Perhaps on the way back,” Talm put in, “we can visit it. We can see the gardens that hang over the valley like a waterfall of vines. And the statues—” her eyes brightened with the distant look of recollection. “The statues are fantastic. And the whole city is just hanging over the valley like a bridge, you know; nothing but air between the streets and the Gerudo River.”

“The whole thing used to be a bridge,” Palo put in, “built by some carpenter’s guild, back in the day when Hyrule didn’t much like the Gerudo. But only a few months after Ganond came rolling over the valley with his army, the traders came. Apparently what they had stolen from Hyrule over the years, they were now ready to sell back to us.”

“It’s not like they stole their wormsilk,” Impa said. “We couldn’t get it anywhere else but from them.”

“And after the silk came,” Talm continued, “the bridge got a complete makeover. Desert marble was brought in from the Territories, they started building into the walls of the valley, started building trading posts on the bridge—then the houses came, then the artisans, then the poets and florists… Now it’s a real town. It got so crowded they had to build another bridge, just for travelers who don’t want to get stuck in the bazaars.”

“Isn’t Irma from there?” Link asked, and Talm laughed.

“Oh, no. She’s not that lucky. If she’d been born there, no doubt she wouldn’t have been so desperate to escape this province with our father. No, she’s from some backwater village outside the city. But whenever I’m back here, I try to buy a yard of something nice for her. Usually whatever silk I buy gets remade into something I can wear.”

“You should see her collection of cowls,” Palo said. “It’s horrendous.”

Impa nudged her horse into a quick trot and called back over her shoulder, “As much as I would love to berate Talm for her excess, we have little time for idle conversation.”

Palo shook his head and closed his mouth, urging his mount after Impa’s. They sped across the cliffside, taking care not to steer too close to the red precipice, winding around the straggly weeds and occasional dry tree that squatted in their way. They had ridden straight west from Riverton, through the flat fields, jumping fences when they had to pass through the territory of some rancher or another, and they hadn’t yet returned to the real road.

But as the bridge drew closer, and Link could make out the intricacies of its pink marble arches, the polished wood, the statues that stood tall at either end, he could see a wide, paved road across it, leading into the west. On the other side of the valley, it snaked between two bare red mountains, white as a pearl, and disappeared into the haze of the desert.

Link kept his eye on that road as they drew nearer to the bridge. When he and his companions cantered up to the two large marble pillars on the east side, he took a moment to distract himself with the intricately carved arch between them. Large, curving words were embossed in the stone, but he couldn’t read them. At first disappointed with his own illiteracy Impa tried so hard to correct, it took a moment for him to realize the letters were not Hylian at all. He raised his eyes from the foreign script, and settled them on the white statue that stood atop the arch.

As he rode under the arch and onto the bridge proper, dusty horse’s hooves miraculously leaving no mark on the light stone, he looked above him at what appeared to be a marble woman. She faced the west, arm outstretched in greeting, long hair pulled back into a large bun. She looked like a younger, infinitely wealthier version of Irma—her marble dress was decked in jewels and her delicate white arm, outstretched to the desert, was adorned in gold bracelets.

Link watched the statue for as long as he could. His horse seemed content on following its companions, since there was nowhere else to go but over the side of the bridge, into the white water far beneath. So he let go of the reins and turned to watch the statue shrink on the other side of the valley. Slowly, they approached the west end of the bridge, almost identical—the marble was of a different sort, a darker pink than the previous pillars, and the woman who stood proud atop the western arch was a wholly different creature than her sister across the river.

She was tall, short hair falling across her jeweled forehead, with a hooked nose and large lips. She wore no dress, but a brilliantly carved cascade of jewels and beads fell across her marble shirt, and gargantuan rings, almost as thick as fetters, adorned her biceps. Her wide breeches flared out at the bottom and ended at a pair of curl-toed boots. As Link rode under her outstretched arm, reaching east back toward Hyrule, he tried to catch more glimpses of her, but he soon passed through the arch of the bridge and officially landed in Gerudo Territory.

“Onrago is at the end of this road,” Impa said to him, when he finally tore his attention from the beautiful statues. “Our camp is far east of it—or at least the messenger said so.”

“Will there be many Sheikah there?” Link asked.

“There aren’t many Sheikah anywhere,” Palo said, unhelpfully.

Impa preferred to stay silent. She just urged her horse into a gallop. A few miles from the bridge, darkness fell, and they made camp well off the main thoroughfare. Despite the dry surroundings, the strange smells and noises of foreign animals in the darkness, Link slept through the night, and could barely rouse himself when Impa shook him awake.

They resumed their journey, galloping along the road until Impa halted them. She reigned in her horse and motioned for them to look north. Link followed her extended finger and spied a gully opening up in the mountains, dark and somewhat foreboding. Impa made a sharp turn into this small canyon, abandoning the road and galloping into the barren shadows of sharp rock. Link followed her, despite the hesitation he could feel in his horse’s gait, in the way it turned its head. He could understand why it would be reluctant to enter a dark canyon, devoid of any plant life but a few desperate weeds clinging to the rocks, but he urged it on.

The crags were so narrowly divided, apart from about an hour around noon when the sun crept directly above the canyon, the trip was shrouded in shadow, the high cliffs and higher mountains blocking the sky. They rode for so long Link was sure they were lost, and when Impa slowed her horse and dismounted, he followed suit, thinking she was going to consult her map. Instead she scanned the cliffs around her with narrowed eyes, before stepping forward, dropping her horse’s reins and hopping on top of a small boulder.

She raised her hands to her mouth and an owl’s hoot came from it. It was a short call, but it echoed across the small canyon in great leaps of sound. Impa stood still, ears pricked up, and when a similar call came back to her, she shouted to the canyon, “I am Talporom’s daughter, of the Sheikah! I have come to aid you!”

Her voice seemed absurdly loud, crossing the canyon as it did, addressing no one. But after a few seconds, Link could make out a silhouette poke from the rocks, and a deep, female voice called back. “Talporom’s daughter of the Sheikah, must you holler so? We can hear you just fine.”

Palo laughed heartily, and his voice joined the echoes. He shut himself up and looked over at a reddening Impa, who pulled herself back onto her horse just as a cloaked figure jumped from the rocks to land in front of them.

She carried a spear in her dark-skinned hand, and Link could see braids of bright red hair fall from the crest of her hood. She lifted her face and smiled, her lips colored a dark purple, and waved them forward. “I hope you’re better at fighting than you are at subtle greetings,” she said. “Because we certainly have need of aid.”

*

The black smoke of the city factories swirled and billowed above the distant palace. The winds of spring blew through the streets, bringing the chill but not the freshness of the hills from which they arrived.

Sheim tugged his cloak tighter around him, and made his way out of the brick apartment and onto the street. No eyes saw him emerge from the door and slip back into the shade of an adjacent alleyway, no ears heard the soft click of his shoes against the cobblestones. He was nothing more than a shadow passing under the eye, a distant sound, a second thought. He slipped from darkness to darkness expertly, unheeded.

He looked down at himself and noticed he had left a drop of blood on his gloves. He sighed and wiped the small droplet away.

It seems I grow clumsy in my old age, he said to himself. He leaned against a wall, gathering his wits. Shouts of the constabulary echoed down the boulevard and a few guards rushed past. Sheim slipped into the cracks in the walls, listening to the clink of armor dissipate. When it was again safe for him to emerge, he made his way down the street, head down, hands folded.

It had been a long and bloody few weeks. Although his targets had been widely dispersed and disparate in station, it did not take long for the authorities to recognize a string of assassinations when they saw one. Keeping them off his heels had been easy enough—it was tracking down all Balras’ informants and comrades that had proven difficult. Following the death of the doctor, his contacts and subordinates had scattered like roaches into the cracks and crevices of the city. Sheim supposed he should have been flattered, since their fear made plain their certainty of his success, but he lamented always being the one called in to clean up the messes of his younger and infinitely clumsier kin. His reputation as a killer preceded him, which was not so much to his advantage.

He wiped a few raindrops from his face, brushing his fingers over his thick red tattoos, and sidled into a dark alley. He descended a small set of steps into a shady, tiny courtyard, whose walls and awnings cast long shadows over the wet ground. Built into the far wall was a thick oak door, studded and reinforced, black metal bars protecting its slit of a window. Sheim slinked up to the door and knocked thrice, uttering a nonsensical phrase when the window slid open and a pair of eyes asked him for proof of his legitimacy. With the loud click of several locks, the door swung slowly inward, and Sheim stepped inside the smoky den.

Ten men and seven women lounged in the darkness. Four of them stood over a table, discussing the details of a faded map, tracing the route of the King’s march toward Gerudo territory, their whispers harsh and pointed. A man and what Shiem had gathered from many visits to this bar must be his sister got into a quiet, heated argument about economic policy. A couple of well-dressed women spoke quietly in the darkness, each holding a cigarette between gloved fingers.

Plenty of people here recognized him; he didn’t speak much with them, but he knew the owner of the establishment, and if she said he was welcome, he was welcome. They all spoke freely here, in the safe company of their comrades. The milieu did not encourage them to stay silent—the contents of the bar loosened their lips regarding more things than the military strategies of the King.

Sheim seated himself at the bar and without a word the barmaid slid him his usual libation before slipping back into the shadows as quickly as she appeared. He raised the plain rice wine to his lips and took a sip, lifting his head just slightly to hear the conversation of the two ladies behind him. After a few minutes of meaningless small-talk, heard a familiar name.

“I heard it was Balras himself who sold out dear Daph to the palace guard.”

“It’s no surprise that bastard doctor disappeared as he did, then. And his friends—you’ve no doubt heard of what’s happened to them.”

“Of course, and I’m certain it was one of us—though I can’t say who.” 

Sheim never got joy out of hearing his own exploits. He just sipped his wine and focused on the conversation.

“And Daph’s daughter, the poor thing.”

“Did they ever find her body?”

“I don’t think so—but it’s not like anyone really knew her. Daph kept her locked away for so long it was like she’d disappeared entirely.”

“And to think the royalists would know about her—and try to use her as a bargaining chip. What sort of people do they take us for, to abandon our cause for her sake?”

“I heard from my contact in the King’s guard that when they broke into Daph’s place, they were utterly surprised to find he even had a daughter. They had meant to use him as leverage, but someone got hasty during the arrest and accidentally thrust a sword through him.”

“Bless his poor soul.”

“The girl was all Haema had left to bargain with. Do you remember his letter of ultimatum? Dreadful.”

“Desperate. If it had been Daph on the chopping block, that may have been one thing. But his poor daughter? She had no idea. And, frankly speaking, little worth.”

If only they knew her worth, Sheim thought. If only they knew what the kingdom had lost the day she died. He finished his drink. Another appeared before him almost instantaneously. 

“Goddesses’ love—this is why I didn’t have children. Can’t have them caught up in all this, you know.”

“I heard he had her well before he joined our cause. That was before his wife died. He was quite lonely after that, I recall.”

“I remember those times. We were close for a few years—that’s how I knew he even had a daughter at all, but I didn’t have time for him. I had pamphlets to publish, meetings to attend.”

“I heard his last conquest was the wife of a factory overseer.”

“Really? Was she one of us?”

“Of course not. Her husband is an incorrigible royalist. The King’s most faithful citizen. But that isn’t the worst part.”

“Is it not? It’s already quite dismal.”

“The very same week old Daph died, she gave birth. She had previously been unable to with her husband.”

“Oh dear. You’re not suggesting—”

“Quite dramatic this lot is getting, isn’t it?”

“So much so I say we break off and start our own resistance.”

“I’d be glad to, my dear.”

“To us, then. To our new campaign.”

The two women laughed and clinked glasses, and Sheim drained his own. A burning feeling gathered at the pit of his stomach, wholly separate from his wine. He stepped away from the bar and made his way back to the door. He stopped at it for a moment, eyeing the man who guarded it. The large Hylian nodded in approval, arms crossed, bald head shining in the dim candlelight.

Sheim stepped outside, back into the rain, silencing his beating heart. Of course, for decades, the Sheikah had followed all of the lineages of possible successors to the old royal family, and found them all empty. Sheim himself had traced all the known lovers of the late scion of the old royal family. No children had shown up besides his first daughter, whom he had secreted away for years.

Of course word of this mysterious affair had not cropped up until now. It had not been relevant, as soon as they found out he’d had a daughter. They had to focus their energies on her. And if this other child had been born at the time of his death, of course they would have no information on that development either. Gods, if only they’d had more allies, more of their own kind, they might be able to gather this kind of ancillary information. But it seemed there were too many tasks and too few Sheikah to complete them.

Sheim tried not to let his hopes rise. He walked through the rain, slipping his hands in his pockets. He would have to compose his message with the utmost caution. He couldn’t bear to see Merel so disappointed again.

But she needed to know. Normally Sheim would not care to concern himself with the matters of reproduction, but he’d make an exception for the royal family (he’d been a sore disappointment to the efforts of the tribe to build itself back up to former numbers, preferring instead to keep the company of another man. Despite the elder’s approval of their union, the steady undertone of extinction haunted them both, until the spirits themselves gifted him with a foundling girl, white as the moon, abandoned to the elements. Even now, at thirty, his daughter Elpi complained to him of experiencing the same sort of unspoken sentiment from others in her tribe: make haste, woman, and breed).

At least someone was breeding. Someone quite important, if they were lucky. He tried to steady his heart as he made his way down a side street to a small office. The building was practically crumbling to pieces, caked in bitumen from the factory air, windows cracked and shutters broken. Yet it was the safest place he knew of when it came to passing along confidential and coded information.

When he entered the small shop, a bell rang above the door. A paranoid-looking man poked his head out from behind a curtain. When Sheim removed his hood and the man spied a familiar face beneath it, he relaxed.

Sheim shook some of the rainwater from his cloak and approached the counter. “I need parchment and ink. I’m writing a letter to Kakariko.”


The Second Woman of the Silk Bridge

Chapter Text

*

“Of all social hierarchal structures in this great land, the Gerudo matriarchy is one of the most intriguing. Unlike any other tribe in Hyrule, a Gerudo’s racial legitimacy depends on his or her gender. Women born of Gerudo mothers are always Gerudo, regardless of paternal parentage. Men born of Gerudo mothers are never such—they are only half. They are often born with lighter skin and duller hair than their female counterparts, suggesting, as my colleagues in anthropology attest, that outward indicators of Gerudo ancestry are heavily linked to sex. There is only one true Gerudo man born into the people at any time, and he is their undisputed King.”

Lady Ronia of the House of Faron, The Historical Atlas of the Peoples of Hyrule

*

 

The small camp smelled of fire and steel. Tents haphazardly dotted the lee side of a red hill, safe from prying eyes and listening ears. Red-haired women sat around small fires, sharpening and polishing the curved blades of long spears, twisting skewers of meat in the smoke. A few paused to look at Link and his companions, eyeing them for a few seconds before expressionlessly going back to their work.

A young girl relieved them of their mounts. She must’ve been no older than thirteen, but she wore the same type of armor as her elders, carried the same curved sword at her narrow hip. It looked absurdly big dangling from her belt, but she bore it with the same import as the other soldiers. As she led the horses away, Link could not help but think of the Capital, and its wealth of girls like her—girls of Gerudo ancestry, usually lighter-skinned than their desert counterparts, perhaps dressed differently, but with that same fierce look in their eyes.

Their guide led them to the largest tent, flanked by two guards decked in gold and leather armor. An incomprehensible, muffled flurry of voices came from inside, and the woman gave the two guards a frustrated look before holding back the flap for Link. He ducked under it and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark interior. He blinked a few times, and the image of a round, low table came into view. A large, well-dressed Gerudo woman sat at its head, hand on her cheek, yellow eyes lowered to what appeared to be a map, spread out and smoothed over the wood surface. She twisted a piece of thin red hair between her long fingernails, gold bracelets tinkling. She stayed silent while those around her, a half-dozen armored Gerudo and two Sheikah, talked furiously.

“Two is not enough to retrieve our soldiers,” one of the Sheikah said, a tall woman with grey streaks in her hair. Her companion, a young man, nodded in eager agreement.

“Well someone ought to do it. We’re not rats that can sneak through the shadows as you do,” a Gerudo warrior replied. “Either you go, or we raid it ourselves, head on—“

“And we all die,” another finished.

Their guide announced herself before the conversation could continue. “If two Sheikah is not enough, I have brought four more.” Link’s heart lifted a little when he heard himself counted among them. None of his companions offered to correct the guide, and she continued unimpeded. “Talporom’s daughter and her company arrived this afternoon.”

“I’d hardly call four a ‘company,’” said one of the Gerudo, but the Sheikah stood up and greeted them with what seemed like relief.

“I’m glad to see all three of you,” the older Sheikah said. Her eyes glanced briefly to Link, passed over him, then settled back on Impa.

“What news of my father?” Impa asked.

“He was captured, with a few dozen others. He’s being held at the King’s camp, or he’s…”

“Or what?” Talm spat.

The woman hesitated for a moment. “We do not know how many of them are still alive.”

Link gulped, and the woman lay a hand on Impa’s shoulder. “But I have hope for Talporom. Even  a creature as cruel as Haema might hesitate to discard a prisoner so valuable.” When Impa lowered her head, she continued, “It will have to be a flawless operation, but with five of us, we might be able to infiltrate the camp and free them.”

“I can help,” Link said, before he could stop himself. The older woman looked at him, red eyes narrowing. He bit his lip but stood firm. The small token of courage the elder had given him pressed against him in his breast pocket.

“Is this your stableboy, Impa?” the woman asked. When Impa looked up at her, wide-eyed, she smiled. “Word travels fast in Sheikah circles, you of all people should know.”

Impa swallowed. “Yes.”

“Do you trust him?”

She glanced at him, whitish eyebrows drawn together, little wrinkles of a scowl at the corners of her mouth. She looked as if she was thinking deeply. “I do.”

“Wait a minute,” Palo said. “This kid’s had a few months of training and you want to send him into the King’s camp? That’s like throwing a guppy in the shark’s mouth.”

Link did not quite understand the simile, but his heart sank a little hearing it.

“We’ll be here to protect him, Palo,” Talm said. “And six is better than five. If anything he’ll make a great distraction—” Impa gave her a look that killed her frivolous words in her throat.

“As with all things,” one of the Gerudo warriors started, “we defer to Ahnadib.”

All eyes turned to the Gerudo woman sitting at the head of the table. She crossed her plump arms and leaned back, colored lips wrinkling in thought. The jewels on her forehead clinked, bracelets clattered, her rings tapped together as she stroked her chin—her whole body seemed a rattling, thinking instrument for one long moment.

“Tomorrow at dusk, we will send the six to the King’s camp,” she said. Her voice was deep, raspy with the weight of age and command. “A company of horsewomen will await them on the northern slopes, to carry them to Onrago. In the meantime we will move out. We will avoid the road and meet you at the city. If that bastard wants to come retrieve his prisoners, he’ll come this way first. We’ll be long gone by then.”

The Gerudo warriors bowed to her and resumed their study of the map—their Sheikah companions leaning by their sides, discussing routes of retreat and hiding places, of rendezvous points inside Onrago and which units to send where. They chattered on in a mixture of languages—Link did his best to pick out the Hylian from what he assumed was Gerudo, although the warriors spoke quickly, raising their voices to drown one another out. He stored the unknown words, he listened carefully to the known, and tried his best to follow along with his new comrades.

When Impa led him out of the tent, he watched her face carefully. He hadn’t picked up all the details of the mission from the jumbled mess of pidgin languages, but he had no trouble interpreting the worry on her face. Her eyes traced the paths many armored feet had trodden through the red sand, her mouth curled into a thoughtful frown. Because he had nothing better to do, he reached out and touched her wrist.

“I’m sure he’s alive,” Link told her, forcing a smile.

But something in the back of his mind kept crawling forward, in the shape of the King. He tried to stifle the possibility that he would run into the esteemed monarch on this rescue mission—if he performed his duty, they would be in and out of the King’s camp, prisoners in tow, before anyone even noticed the intrusion. He wouldn’t run into the King—he wouldn’t let himself make as big a mistake as that (besides, Impa would be furious with him if he did). He’d just help get Talporom out of the camp and make his merry way west, to Onrago.

He had no doubt that would be exactly how it would play out. But his heart did not listen to his reasoning—it pattered on, seemingly indifferent to the powerful charm of courage that lay against it, resting in his pocket.

*

When Impa, Palo, Talm and the other two Sheikah slipped out of their tribal garb into dark suits of flexible material, Link found he had nothing to change into. The white strips of cloth around his arms and his Sheikah leggings would only reflect the bright desert moon—his scarf and worn tabard were too bright a grey to disappear into shadow. So the best he could do was remove what clothes were too bright, replacing them with any dark garments the Gerudo had to spare.

His sword and shield would be too cumbersome for a mission in which stealth was imperative. The only weapon he carried was a small knife, Gerudo in origin, given to him by one of the soldiers. The other Sheikah, of course, had their own.

He was a little embarrassed he had come so woefully underprepared for subterfuge, but after all, he had left Kakariko in quite a hurry. When he had adorned dark clothes, mostly civilian in nature, he tucked the charm the elder had given him into his waistband and followed Impa out into the night.

The older Sheikah woman instructed them closely as they snuck through the darkness. “We will send Palo to the south end of the camp to create a diversion,” she hissed, her speech unhindered by the effort of running. “Talm will scout for us while we infiltrate the north end of the camp—Impa will take care of the guards—there should be two, but I’ll handle the rest if there are any more—and we’ll be in and out of there before the King can blink.” The woman glanced behind her at the party. “Do we all know where to meet?”

They all nodded. In truth, Link wasn’t entirely sure, but if it happened to be a large company of horsewomen, he wouldn’t have a hard time sniffing out their mounts. He just steadied his breath, tried to remember his training as best he could, and slinked off after them, toward the distant lights of the King’s camp.

A deep silence fell over all six of them when they reached the tents at the perimeter. They crouched behind a particularly large boulder, and their leader sent Palo off to the south. He gave them a quick salute and ran into the darkness, silent as air.

Link felt someone squeeze his hand. He looked over at Impa, lower half of her face covered in black cloth, nodding at him. He nodded back, returning the touch, before they crept out from behind the rock, into the hazardous empty ground between their hiding place and the camp. The moon shone brightly, casting their shadows long and conspicuous across the weedy sands. Link was sure that despite their silent march, scouts would spy their forms traverse the hillside, and release a warning cry or a barrage of whistling arrows.

But all was silent. When they arrived at the north end of camp, Link could make out the orange glow of fires, the shadows of men walking, talking, cast thick and brownish against the white tents. The sound of blades against whetstones filled the air, and a sweet, mouthwatering smell wafted from the center of camp, mixing with the smoke. Link crept behind Impa, heart pounding in his throat, and slipped into the shade of a tent, leaning over to watch a few men lounge around a fire.

They sat half-armored, talking comfortably, passing a small flask between them. A fourth man, tall and lean and helmeted, tightened the straps on his armor. “Always the night watch, isn’t it?” he grumbled. Link had to strain his ears to hear the man; he moved position, and in doing so shifted some of the dry earth beneath him.

One of the men turned his head in Link’s direction, and he held his breath. He could almost feel Impa’s anger, could sense her muscles tensing in anticipation of either a short fight or a long flight.

The peal of a deep gong sounded  through the camp, and Link nearly jumped out of his skin. He drew in a sharp breath, but the commotion around him masked his noise. The three men by the fire stood up, reaching for their weapons, but it was toward the south they looked. The fourth man concerned himself only with strapping on his gauntlets.

A cry came out from a few yards away, and a disheveled archer skipped up to the men and saluted. “Something big is crawling around the south of camp,” she said. “Some sort of animal.”

“What?”

“It’s not a…” muttered one of the men. “It’s not a sandworm, is it?”

The remaining four looked at him a moment before they burst out laughing. The man flushed before he put on his helmet and followed the archer and the other soldiers to the south of camp, where no doubt Palo was making some ridiculous show of himself. The fourth man stood guard at the far tent, sighing. He straightened his back and held his spear at his side, keeping watch over the small, abandoned fire.

The Sheikah woman gave Impa a nod, and she turned around, grabbing Link’s wrist and creeping off into the shadows, beyond the sightline of the guard. As Link followed her, a purposeful sense of belonging washed over him. Communicating only with gestures, with looks and subtle body language was almost more comfortable to him than words—in the deep silence of his mission, it was almost like being deaf again. He could nearly feel his other senses heighten at the mere thought—he swore he could smell the sweat of the guard, could smell the fear and desperation of the prisoners in the tent behind him.

And he could smell the man that crept up on them now, without Impa’s knowledge. As she stepped beside the tent, extending herself to her full height and plunging her knife into the soft spot under the grumbling night guard’s helmet, Link turned around completely. His eyes left the glint of Impa’s knife, the twitch of the startled guard, and landed on a swish of nothing more than darkness against darkness. He saw the flash of a javelin before he saw the soldier that stalked them, and before their pursuer could make a noise to call his fellows, before he could raise the weapon and thrust it toward them, Link raised his small knife and hurled it clumsily toward their attacker.

Somehow, miraculously, it planted itself in the man’s throat. As he fell to the ground, Link felt his own breath leave him, and an undecipherable mixture of emotions gripped him—horror, triumph, relief, surprise. He froze for a moment, watching as the man bled out quickly, silently on the ground, and his stomach turned.

He did not have time to truly comprehend what he had done. Impa, after lowering her kill to the ground, turned to look at him and his dead enemy. Her eyes widened—perhaps she was as surprised as he was at his successful throw—but she quickly turned again to signal to Talm, hidden in the shadows opposite her. When she received the go-ahead from her lookout, Impa drew back the flap of the prisoner’s tent and stepped inside.

A group of people sat on the floor of the large tent, wrists bound to one another’s and lashed to the poles that supported the small structure. Most of them looked Gerudo—women and some men with dark skin and red hair, but a few were distinctly Sheikah. They all lifted their eyes as Impa walked in, the nearest one hissing in earnest: “Two in here.”

Impa and Link turned to their immediate right, to the corner nearest the entrance, and saw two guards. Dice and a few gold pieces sat on the table between them—it looked like they had abandoned their gambling at the appearance of an unwelcome guest, preferring instead to draw their swords.

A small space is detrimental for a longsword’s wide, slow swings; Link could remember Impa teaching him as much, and there was no better demonstration than the one she gave him at that moment. Before blades even left scabbards, Impa cut the two of them down in what seemed to be one smooth, elegant motion. Her eyes flashed with that strange power he had seen in the King’s palace, as if she had put aside all empathy to successfully cut down those in her way.

With the guards dead, and Talm at the entrance, they turned their attention to the prisoners. Impa stepped toward the group, wiping her bloodied knife on her pant leg before kneeling and cutting through the ropes that held them together.

One of the Gerudo warriors opened her mouth, smiling, and by the look in her eyes, Link knew she was ready to sing Impa praises. Fortunately, one of her compatriots clapped his hand over her mouth, keeping her joyful noise trapped inside. She quieted down as Talm knelt next to her, cutting through her bonds.

Link, without a knife, just watched as the ropes fell away, and each prisoner stood, the healthy helping the injured to their feet in silence. A Sheikah man stepped forward, away from the group, ankles unfettered from his fellows, but hands still tied in front of him. He was tall, with a somber face, an aquiline nose and tattoos matching some of elder Merel’s: a small geometric mark between his eyebrows, and a thick, inverted triangle under his chin. He offered his arms out to Impa, and she slid the knife between his wrists, cutting away the rope in one quick motion.

Arms free, he scooped both her and her sister up in one grand motion, pulling them to his broad chest and holding them close. They returned the gesture, taking care to keep their knives out of the way of his powerful embrace. Link looked at the man’s face as he buried it between the sisters’ heads—his furrowed brow wrinkling his red tattoo, his wide, frowning mouth, the way he nuzzled the girls’ shoulders—and he knew this was Talporom.

Link had to admit he’d imagined the man a little differently, but after he stared at Talporom for a few fractions of a second (for that’s all the time the man gave him before he broke off from his daughters and motioned for the other prisoners to follow him), the old image he had disappeared, replaced by this tall, dark-skinned warrior.

Their eyes met for a moment. Talporom’s intense gaze locked onto Link’s, and he picked him apart, painfully quickly. Link felt utterly vulnerable for a hideously long second, before the man released him from his stare and turned his attention back to the escape. Link swallowed, perhaps a little too loudly, before following the last prisoner out of the tent and into the weak light of the fire.

They turned to the left and silently (except for the occasional clumsy shuffle of a Gerudo or two) made their way between a row of tents, toward the northwest end of the camp, toward freedom. Impa left Talm to lead the prisoners and fell back to Link, reaching out and tapping his elbow.

He looked into her concerned eyes, and nodded. Everything is fine. Link couldn’t help but believe himself. They had released around two dozen prisoners, raised no alarm, and he hadn’t caught one glimpse of the King. Impa smiled, the warrior’s look in her eyes leaving for a moment, and he felt the  hideous tension in his stomach relent a little. He almost dared to relax, to take a deep breath, to celebrate the fact that they now had a straight shot to freedom, when a clicking of armored boots on the rocky sand made him turn.

Behind them stood a guard, spear ready, helmet askew. He opened his mouth to call out to his comrades, but Impa was already there, slashing at him with her stained knife. He jumped back, parrying once, twice, releasing a rallying cry before she jabbed the dagger into his throat. She pulled it out and started to run, motioning for Link to follow her. He did, panting as the sounds of approaching guards grew louder—men started to emerge from their tents, started to sprint back over to this side of the camp from the south, where the creature was deemed a false alarm. The prisoners had disappeared far ahead of him, which Link took as a good sign. Even Impa was outrunning him, twisting around tents, vaulting barrels with ease, barely touching the ground as she disappeared into the darkness beyond camp.

Link approached the edge of the encampment—limbs flailing, lungs shriveling. He knew his panicked run was clumsy, hazardous, but he had to make it to the darkness, he had to—

Something wrapped around his arm. Its end flailed in the air for a second, and with a horrifying snap, latched itself to his skin. Pain shot from his arm, and he glanced over to see a barbed whip pull tight around his bicep. The soldier with the whip yanked him back, twisting him in midair. His arm throbbed, his head spun, and he hit the rocky sand with a painful thud.

His vision reddened and blurred, and he tried to force himself to his knees, but the whip pulled his arm and he again fell forward into the sand. He could barely lift his head to see a band of soldiers surround him, spears and swords and axes pointed his way.

His heart stopped for a moment. His thoughts blurred and left him, snuffing out like candles and abandoning him to darkness. He froze, breath stuck in his aching lungs, and he sat petrified for a long moment before he could regain some semblance of cognition.

He knew he had no other choice. Moving his arms slowly, careful not to pull too hard against the whip lest its owner yank him back again, he moved his legs under him. He pushed himself to his knees, only to fall back into the sand. Forehead touching the ground, hands clasped above his head, Link grit his teeth and lowered himself into a supplicant bow, common to the servants of the Dragmire family.


The Rescue

Chapter Text

*

“Whoever said discretion was the better part of valor has not read many stories of heroes.”

Sir Yaerin of House Elanor, Royal Chevalier

*

 

Link did not know what to expect. He could have a spear thrust through his side at any moment, could have a whip coil around his neck and squeeze the life from him, he could have his head removed entirely before he even felt pain.

He was not a boy of extraordinary daring. As he threw himself to the ground, pressing his forehead into the sand, he knew it was the only thing he could’ve done. He was not sure whether it was merely to salvage his own safety, or to facilitate the escape of Impa and the others, but as soon as he completed his bow, kneeling for a few seconds before lifting his eyes, he knew he was not at risk of immediate execution.

The soldiers lowered their weapons, what little portions of their faces visible under their helmets contorted in confusion. One of them, presumably a captain, ordered some of the others to resume the pursuit, and sheathed his sword.

“What the hell is this?” he muttered, looking Link over.

“Hylian, sir,” one of the soldiers answered.

“Gods damn it, I know that. He ain’t Gerudo or one of ‘em savages.”

Hushed words of several confused soldiers hovered over him. Questions of his origin and reasoning poured unanswered from busy mouths: why did he bow? Was he running from or chasing the intruders? Did anyone know him?

The captain kicked Link’s side. “Get up and explain yourself.”

Link did not.

“Thinks he’s a stoic thing, he does,” the man growled. “You, and you—” he gestured to two soldiers— “haul the bastard upright.” Rough hands gripped Link and pulled him to his feet. The captain started to interrogate him, swiftly and ineffectually, growing more agitated by the second. Link kept his eyes lowered, lips drawn taut. He told himself to let the questions fly past his ears as if he couldn’t hear them at all.

“Sir.” A spearman in the forefront interrupted the captain’s flurry of increasingly profanity-laced inquiries. “I think I recognize him. I think he belongs to Gorman at the stables. He ain’t answering ‘cause he’s simple, or something.”

“Gorman, then?” the captain’s mouth tightened into a restrained frown. He narrowed his eyes at his mysterious prisoner, but the heat of his confused anger evaporated at the explanation. “That man’s always misplacing his underlings. Take him back to the stables, then.”

“I would, sir. But this kid didn’t come with us on campaign.”

The captain shifted perceptibly. Link kept his eyes focused on the tips of his ratty shoes and clenched his teeth. “Well, that’s odd.” The man’s cold, armored fingers touched Link’s shoulder, pulling away the cloth of his shirt and exposing his mark. “He’s certainly the King’s property.”

“Should we return him, then?”

“And disturb His Majesty for a disobedient stableboy? I think not. Just take him back to Gorman.”

Fervently, Link prayed a soldier or two would obey the captain’s command without comment. Evidently no gods were listening that day.

“Sir, if I may. What if he was with the intruders?” A few eyes turned to an outspoken bowman. “What’s the King more likely to punish us for: bringing him an innocent kid out of caution, or failing to bring him one of Ahnadib’s spies?”

Link could almost hear the cranks in the captain’s head turn. Then, after a long moment, he said, “Tie the bastard up and haul him over to the gold tent. Guess he’s got some explaining to do. The rest of you, get the hounds and off to the chase.”

Someone grasped Link’s arms and yanked them behind his back. One pair of hands pulled a thick cord around his wrists, while another searched him for weapons. His only knife was still stuck in the bloodied throat of the soldier he’d killed, and it had been barely anything more than a toy, sheathless and without worth. He had no sword, he had no shield, he did not even have the proper vestments for battle or stealth—just a patchwork assortment of intercultural civilian clothes. He had nothing incriminating on him, save perhaps the small charm Merel had given him, and that posed no threat to the soldiers.

As he was prodded forward by the sharp tip of a spear, he could not help but lament how the charm had failed him. He hadn’t wanted to throw himself on the ground and surrender, but he didn’t have a choice. He would’ve much rather fought his way through the soldiers and fled into the wilderness with Impa—

Oh gods, she would be absolutely livid. He could hear her reprimands in his head, delivered in her stern, deep voice. And Talporom—what sort of impression would he have made, letting himself get captured on his first mission? Goddesses above, Impa had turned to him in that Gerudo tent back at Ahnadib’s camp and said she trusted him. It was clear now that she shouldn’t have.

He hung his head, more in shame than fear, as he was hauled between the narrow tent rows in the encampment, past fires and curious soldiers. The whinny of horses ready for pursuit and the howl of excited hounds echoed across the camp, forcing a shudder from him.

The captain grasped his elbow and dragged him roughly to a large tent in the center of the bivouac, trimmed in gold and glowing with warmth. Link’s stomach knotted deep inside him, and he felt his breath leave his lungs. There was no mistaking the triangular sigil on the material.

The soldiers that escorted him shoved him roughly inside, and he fell to his knees. He barely caught a glimpse of the men gathered around him before he pressed his forehead against the lush red carpet that lined the tent’s expansive floor. Link did not have to see the generals, the officers, or the King himself to know all eyes were on him. Nobody spoke for a few long seconds—it may have come as a surprise to be presented with a young, underdressed and unarmed Hylian boy in the middle of a raid.

“Sire,” the captain started. A thud next to Link’s head told him he’d taken one knee. Out of the corner of his eyes, he spotted the soldier’s silver greaves, grains of sand falling from the creases of his boots into the lovely carpet. “I found this one near the site of the escape. He just fell to the ground when we cornered him. He won’t answer to us.”

For the first time in his life, he heard the King’s voice. His laughter was deep, restrained and noble. When he spoke, a shiver ran through Link’s spine, and he tried his best to hide it. “Of course he won’t. He’s deaf.”

Link heard the slight swish of thick robes and grit his teeth. He felt the carpet depress, just slightly, and knew the King had stepped forward. He couldn’t breathe. He kept his eyes locked onto one small stain in the carpet, and pressed his forehead even harder into the ground. He felt the King’s eyes bore into him, and expected the order any second: the sword would come down on his neck, the arrow would pierce his heart, one of the King’s officers would walk over and stomp him into the ground until dead.

But when the King’s voice came again, it was not with the order to execute him. “Where did you find him?”

“The north end of camp. near the perimeter.”

“Was he armed?”

“N… no, sire.”

“And he is dressed more like an orphan than a soldier.” The King released a short-lived chuckle. “I’m sure he has a most intriguing story to tell, if only he could tell it.” The King took a deep breath, silent for a moment, as if in thought. “Captain, excellent work.”

A shifting and clinking next to Link—the captain had stood up. “Oh. Thank you, my King.”

“I cannot help but wonder how he found himself here.” An uncomfortable silence emanated from the other inhabitants of the tent as the King pondered the possibilities. “One would suspect if he were with Ahnadib, she’d arm him appropriately. But then again, perhaps his presence is an accident…” He seemed to be enjoying this little puzzle, and he tapped his foot as his familiar stableboy lay prostrate before him, sweating. Link wondered if the King merely enjoyed watching him tremble. “Evidently someone lent him some Gerudo clothes. Perhaps Ahnadib, perhaps another rebel faction. But what would drive a boy like this to keep their company?”

The captain, now perhaps a little too comfortable with the King's praise, dared to comment: “Perhaps they gave the poor boy some loving, eh?"

A thick, terrible silence followed the suggestion. Link did not see what transpired when the King moved, but the captain suddenly stumbled back, gasping, armor clinking. A small splatter of something warm landed on Link’s neck, and he heard two of the guards rush to drag the captain away. Link went cold, holding himself absolutely still.

“Those are my people you’re disparaging,” the King said calmly. “Take care to speak of them with a little respect in the future.”

Despite the commotion behind him, Link did not lift his head; a deaf boy wouldn’t have been concerned with the stifled, agonized noises retreating out of the tent flap behind him. A drop of what he realized must’ve been the captain’s blood dripped down the side of his neck, but he remained perfectly still, perfectly silent.

He shivered when a large hand touched his shoulder. It bunched Link’s loose shirt and pulled him up in one strong motion, placing him on his trembling feet. Even at his tallest, Link stood well below the King’s shoulders; the most he could see of him was his wide black tabard, gilded with the sigil of his house. Link lowered his eyes, swallowing audibly. He spied a small spot of blood on the carpet, and a stained knife in the King’s left hand. The right gripped his shoulder, thumb pressing into his brand. A strong smell, thick but pleasant, like the scent of an extinguished match, wafted from the folds of the King’s intricately embroidered clothing.

“A mysterious turn of events, indeed,” the King said. Link stared at his feet, but he could feel the intense eyes of the monarch pick him apart like a cat toying with its meal.

“What do you wish done with him, sire?” one of the officers asked. “Shall we kill him for you?”

“Not yet,” the King said, and Link tried his best to seem ignorant of his words. “He might not be able to give us any information, but I suspect if he’s showed up here in such a sorry state, he’s been doing his best to come back to us.”

“S-sire?” one of the men started.

“I do not know under what circumstances the boy has found himself here; I will inquire of my general the details when he arrives. For now, I sense a test of loyalty is at hand.” The King let go of Link’s shoulder and turned to his officers, lined up around the wide, circular table. “Besides, I am fair-minded enough to know I owe him a modicum of clemency. He’s given me the fastest, most fearless warhorse I’ve ever had the pleasure of riding.”

Link knew the small swell of pride in his chest was misplaced, inappropriate for the moment, but he couldn’t stop its advance. He just did his best to try not to show he’d heard the King praise him. He locked his eyes on the ground and left them there, expressionless.

The King approached the table, gesturing to one of the half-dozen men at the perimeter of the tent. One of them nudged Link forward, to the King’s side. His heart fluttered somewhere in his throat as he gazed down on the expansive map of the region. He saw the blue line of the Gerudo Valley River, the icons of Silk and its eponymous bridge, he saw a thin line of road snaking into the red mountains, leading to the city of Onrago. The King leaned over the map, eyes wandering from the large, rectangular representation of their bivouac, back to the east, toward the camp in which Link had safely slept mere hours before. It was not marked on their map, but he could see a few hastily scrawled crosses in the vicinity where evidently the enemy’s hideout had not been found.

Link heard noises behind him—footsteps and the swish of the tent flap—but waited until the others turned to the entrance before he followed suit. A young man, who seemed to be something of a scribe, stumbled into the tent and saluted. “Sires, no sign of the escapees, the—”

“Stay here for further instruction,” the King told him, before turning back to the table. “No doubt they’re heading back to their camp as we speak. Let us see if we cannot beat them there.” The King’s wide mouth turned up at its corners, but did not break fully into a smile. “Unbind him.”

Link almost started at the sound of a knife being drawn behind him, until he reminded himself he was deaf. The blade didn’t plunge into him; instead, it slid between his wrists and with a short sawing motion, he was free. Link’s hands fell at his sides, and despite his overwhelming urge to rush for the exit, he stood still, staring down at the map with his best befuddled look.

The King turned to him. Instinctively, he looked away, but the man stared at him, burning him under his terrible glare, until he had to lift his eyes. His gaze met the King’s, and no words were needed. The resigned look in his yellow irises, the slight motion of his chin, the way his elbow leaned on the corner of the map; Link knew what he wanted.

Link lifted a shaking hand, and it hovered over the map for a moment as he thought furiously. He didn’t know if it was late enough in the night that the camp would be packed and fled to Onrago. Perhaps some warriors were still there—but Impa and Palo and the others would not be.

Hand trembling, he traced the route from the King’s encampment to Ahnadib’s. His finger slid along the map, following the crevices and shadows of the narrow canyon in which they had made camp. He landed on the shallow crest between two hills, and he tapped it lightly.

The King looked up at one of his officers, and the man bowed deeply. He put on his black helmet and left the table, taking the waiting messenger boy with him. Link’s heart pattered against his ribcage, and he backed away from the table, lowering his hand again to his side.

The King breathed a heavy sigh. “Today may be the day we quell Ahnadib’s little rebellion.” Link could see a flash of yellow as his eyes turned on him. “If not, the kingdom will be short one stableboy.”

Link lowered his gaze and deadened his expression, but he knew the look in the King’s eyes. He was meant to understand the threat, regardless of its words.

“Keep him out of our way until word gets back from the scouts.”

“Yes, sire,” a guard replied. Rough hands gripped Link’s arms, and he allowed himself to be led away from the King. He was manhandled all the way to the prisoner’s tent at the north end of camp, where he was quickly shoved inside. The bodies of the men Impa had killed had been removed (the morbid thought struck him that they were probably not even cold yet), but a few splatters of their blood remained, staining the tent wall and the small table, the chairs and the set of wooden dice.

Link was thrown down onto the ground, hastily lashed to the tentpole to which Talporom and his company of soldiers had been bound not so long ago, and was left alone. He shifted his arms uncomfortably, and closed his eyes. The stink of violence permeated the tent, along with the mixed scents of sweat, fear and exhaustion that the prisoners left behind. Link looked around him, thinking that it must’ve been a fair trade—his freedom for theirs.

He thought about what the King’s men might find at the location he had given them. They might find Ahnadib, they might kill her and her soldiers, or (and he wasn’t quite sure if this was worse or better), they would find nothing, and they would come back and kill him.

Goddesses above, he said to himself. Either they die or I do. I’m a coward, I’m a filthy coward and I’m still going to die.

He did not know how many hours he sat in lonely darkness. He watched the shadow of the guard outside his tent sway and pace, backlit by the small fire. It rubbed its neck, took off its helmet and wiped sweat from its forehead, picked its nose a few times, then went back to pacing. The rhythm was so consistent Link had the shadow’s entire routine memorized by the time a taller figure approached it. They spoke quietly for a few moments and the guard stepped aside.

Link knew this was the moment the King decided whether or not he should die. He watched the tall shadow carefully, but with a start, realized it was not the broad silhouette of the monarch. There was something oddly familiar about it, with its thin neck and slightly sloping shoulders. When the tent flap was pushed aside and a man entered, Link lifted his eyes to see a face he recognized.

The palace’s stable master stood before him, tall and lanky, big eyebrows drawn together. Link swallowed, staring at him, trying to quell the memories that flooded up within him at the mere sight of a familiar face. He wondered if Talon was here as well—or any of the other well-known stablehands.

Wordlessly, the stable master bent toward him, kneeling beside the tentpole and gently untying him. His wrists fell free at his side, and the stable master helped him up off the ground. The older man looked him over for a second before shaking his head in what seemed like bewilderment. A small, cynical smile appeared on his lips as he led Link out of the dark tent into the light of the fire. Link followed him in silence, the fate of Ahnadib and her soldiers weighing on his mind.

He almost bumped into the man when he stopped in front of the cantonment’s stables. It seemed a temporary construction, but sturdy enough—evidently the hands had been put to work digging postholes deep enough to keep the wooden structure standing. The familiar smell of horses and hounds filled his nostrils, and a deep sense of longing overtook him.

The stable master must’ve seen him eyeing the place for Talon, and shook his head. Link nodded in understanding. His disappointment didn’t last long, since at that moment, led on by an unfamiliar stablehand, the fire-red warhorse sauntered past.

Link couldn’t help himself. He jumped forward, and much to the surprise of the attending stablehand, threw himself at the horse’s neck, burying his face in her shoulder. She turned her head, seemingly unaffected by his sudden appearance, and snorted at his hair contentedly. He ran his hands through her loose mane, curling it between his fingers, and reveled in the feel of her, her strong scent, her kind energy.

His perfect, silent moment with the warhorse was tragically short-lived.

“Who the hell is that?” the other stableman asked.

The stable master’s voice was hoarse, as if worn down by the smoke of the Capital. “He’ll be taking over your duties in looking after Epona. King’s wishes.”

The stablehand backed off, shrugging, and Link stayed firmly attached to the horse. They named her—gods, who named her? Talon, perhaps? Link went over the sound of the monicker in his own head: E-po-na (he knew that wasn’t really her name; all animals had signatures much like names, but they were not in a language Link, or anyone else, could speak). He figured Epona was as good a name as any, if she must be called something. Of course, she didn’t answer to any name, because when Link trained her, he hadn’t given her one. She answered to looks, to nudges, motions and smells—all much more communicative for a horse than mere words.

Link broke away from the animal and grasped her lead, stroking her cheek. She nuzzled his chest, snorting, big black eyes wide, and he couldn’t keep himself from smiling. He glanced over to the stable master to see the man shaking his head, arms crossed. Something of a contented smirk hovered over his lips, but it was difficult to make out his face fully in the dim firelight.

The sound of frantic hooves beating the ground echoed through the small stables—Link, of course, pretended not to hear them. A black horse skidded to a halt before the stable master, and a slender man dismounted. He wore a narrow helmet and a longsword over his back.

“Any news?” the stable master asked.

“We just missed them; they might’ve known we were coming. The embers in the fire pits were still warm. But we think they’re off to Onrago. His Highness has called us all back, says we’ll just take them out in the town.” A wave of relief washed through Link.”They sent me back to tell you to get all of your hands up and ready. There’ll be quite a few horsemen coming in half an hour or so. Hounds, too.” The swordsman handed the reins to the stable master.

“Get the eastern stables to accommodate them. I’ll send some of my boys over. There have been a few delicate changes here; orders from the King."

“Is that so?”

The stable master tilted his head suggestively toward Link. He looked away, focusing on Epona’s flank, telling himself to act as if he could not hear them.

“What, that kid is our informant?” the man seemed to instinctively lower his voice.

The stable master seemed to have to think about the answer for a moment. “Weirdly enough. I reckon that’s what he is.”

“War is a strange thing, ain’t it?” The man’s voice softened as if his mind was wandering. He shook his head, gave the stable master his horse, and saluted. “Thank you, Gorman. I’ll see you at mess.”

“Keep well,” the stable master answered, leading the black horse toward Link and Epona. He looked the two of them over, standing so naturally side-by-side, and shook his head. He spoke with the confidence of a man knowing he will not be heard. “You’re one tenacious bastard, stableboy.” He paused for a moment. “Welcome home.”


Link is Brought Before the King

Chapter Text

*

“The autonomous region between the province of Faron and the Gerudo Territories is the site of some of the most fascinating cultural and economic exchanges in the country. The city of Onrago, like many Gerudo towns, once was nothing but a thieves’ fortress. But now it stands proud among the burning sands, gilded with the wealth of wormsilk. Its walls are thick and tall, furnished with designs of both Gerudo and Hylian origin, wrought in metal and the pink marble of the region. It stands as a marker that solidifies the once-tenuous friendship between Hyrule and the Gerudo Territories, and will hopefully do so for centuries to come.”

Wenstan Illar, “Interprovincial Exchange”

*

 

It was almost as if he’d woken up after a long, dream-flooded sleep. The smell of horses, the pawing of eager hounds, the ache in his back when he finished carrying saddles and bridles to and fro, the stinking surprise when he stepped into a pile of manure—he had thought these particular sensations had left him forever. But they easily returned, easily lulled him back into a sense of his duty, reestablishing his willingness to work in silence and satisfy himself only with the knowledge he’d been of service.

The echoes of his simple, humble past coaxed him into compliance, and after about a week, the guards stopped tying him to the tentpoles at night and let him wander the length of the stables unhindered. He had a watchful eye kept on him at all times (not an unreasonable precaution, since he had reappeared in the King’s company quite mysteriously), and there were always more than a few guards around him, making sure he tried nothing suspicious. But they could find no fault with him—after all, the King himself had appointed him the caretaker of the warhorse, and the King made no mistakes. Even the captain that had captured him, now sporting a long, half-healed cut running from the corner of his mouth to his cheekbone, could not find an excuse to report him when he stopped by to snoop. He just narrowed his eyes at Link whenever he saw him, a subtle look of hatred passing through his features (Link figured the man would scowl if he could, but his recent injury prevented him from forming any particularly communicative facial expressions).

Images of Impa, Palo, and Ahnadib left his head for the first few weeks at the stables. He spent most of his time making sure he did not slip up in his duties, since he knew one mistake might land him under the executioner’s axe. Any injury, underfeeding or other failure on his part to upkeep the King’s animals would cast immediate aspersions on his loyalty, so he worked himself to the bone. He served his function to the best of his ability, as he always had. He spent most of his time with Epona, more often than not had a broom or brush in his hand, and again ate meals that made him miss Irma’s cooking terribly. Apart from Talon’s absence and the desert landscape, it was just like being at the palace stables again.

But he heard everything. He heard the animals’ breath as they slept, he heard the horses’ whinnies and the dogs’ high whines, he heard the ubiquitous, enthusiastic gossip of the other stablehands. It surprised Link to learn how much of their conversations were devoted to trivialities, and how many words they simply threw away to the wind. He had gone so long without knowing his comrades were so verbose, it almost surprised him. Sometimes they spoke of the horses, sometimes of the campaign, sometimes of their lords and commanders, sometimes of old loves and their home back in Lanayru, sometimes they spoke of Link.

“I thought Talon said he drowned in the moat a few months ago—some accident.”

“I heard he followed us all the way here, because he missed that horse.”

“I think he’s actually spying for us.”

Some of their conversations amused him:

“Midna hurt herself on the hunt for the escapees.”

“Midna? She one of ‘em Gerudos on our side?”

“She’s the dog, you dolt. She had a little trampling accident with one of the horses.”

Link knew the individual in question. It had taken him a while to recognize her—the night of the raid, when the men and their animals returned from their pursuit of the escapees, he’d been tasked with bandaging the creature’s foot. The dog recognized him right away, but he had to take a moment to examine her, to look into her eyes and breathe in her scent, before he realized their shared history. The young dog had ridden through the town in his jacket, wrapped up against the cold, many months ago. She had been a puppy then, and now she was nearly fully grown, but she had immediately recognized him. Had he still been deaf, and still well-practiced in his sharp sense of smell, he was sure he could’ve returned the favor faster.

But he had to work with the senses he had. He had to admit, with his hearing, some tasks were made easier—he could much more quickly glean the meaning of stablehands when they spoke to him, instead of relying on the movements of their lips and their gestures, he could hear an upset horse from halfway across the stable, he could listen to the particular bark of a hound and interpret its feelings and needs.

But mostly his hearing did nothing but inform him of what was on the other stablehands’ minds. Shortly after his return to the stables, the news that colored all the workers’ conversations was the arrival General Haema and his men. They had been called from the Capital at the King’s request; apparently he had initially given Haema the responsibility of watching over the city while he was gone, but summoned him back to his side after the Gerudo Territories had demonstrated they were not so easily trodden upon.

Just hearing Haema’s name sent an ache from Link’s gut to his head. He could not banish the image of the tall general, stomping around in his white and silver armor, long hair falling from under his helmet over his shoulders. He remembered the dull ache of a boot digging into his skin, and the stinging, searing pain of the arrow that pierced his chest. He recalled the movement of the general’s hand as he gave the order to fire, and the face of the yellow-haired girl.

Link clenched his fists as he leaned against the stable wall. He slid to a squat, and crossed his arms over his knees, thinking. If Haema arrived and recognized him, the general might order his execution. If not, then perhaps he might survive for a little longer…

He reached into his pocket and removed Merel’s small pendant, looking it over briefly. It seemed useless and innocent in his hand, and he had kept it, despite its terrible performance, because it bore no marks that might inculpate him as a Sheikah spy. It did not have the iconic Eye, nor any other markings explicitly associated with the tribe. It seemed just a wooden triangle in his palm, etched with what looked like meaningless scribbles. He could’ve easily made it himself.

He wondered if Impa was thinking of him. He imagined her staring out a window in some hut somewhere in the vast desert, wondering if he was being whipped or burned by the King’s interrogators for her location. She might’ve thought he’d abandoned her to return to the King’s service.

Link was not sure himself if he had meant for things to end up this way or not. He remembered genuinely longing for Talporom’s escape, the fear that wrapped around him with the length of the soldier’s whip, the deep sense of regret gripping him when he pointed out the location of Ahnadib’s camp. But he also remembered the pride at the King’s praise, the joy at seeing the red warhorse once more, and the strange contentment that came over him when he resumed his work in the stables, as if nothing had ever happened.

The guilt of his betrayal washed over him in the span of half a breath. Suddenly, Link’s heart shrank inside him, and he found himself clutching at his chest, massaging his muscles, as if he could squeeze out the self-condemnation.

How dare he? After all Impa had done for him—after she had fished him from the moat and removed the arrow that otherwise would’ve killed him, after she took him to her village and gave him a home, after she led him to the spirits that granted him hearing, after she fed him, trained him, taught him, clothed him, sang to him… And he had the selfishness to consider returning to the life of the King’s stableboy.

He balled the charm in his fist and hit his own forehead a few times, berating himself for his cowardice. A hot tear streamed from the corner of his eye, dripping down his cheek and falling to the sand between his tattered boots. He gripped the pendant so tightly he felt it compressing its shape into his palm, and held back a cry.

He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t behave this erratically, not when he was being watched. He shook his head vigorously, shutting his eyes tight against the tears. He slowed his breathing, loosening his fist, and lifted his head. He opened his hand, slowly, and removed the charm, placing it back in his pocket. It had left a distinct red triangle on the inside of his left palm, and he stared at it, both fascinated and repelled by its shape. He did not know why the resolutions came to him at that point—he later figured the charm was finally working.

The gods have given me something useful, he said to himself. So I will use it. I will gather as much information as I can, and when I return to Impa, she will embrace me and tell me I’ve done well. I will show her I have not betrayed her.

So he listened. He eavesdropped on the stable master, eavesdropped on the soldiers, eavesdropped on the occasional officer who appeared at the stables to request a horse.

He gathered what he could about the situation in the region (and about the recent escape of the King’s prisoners—apparently they remained free, probably safe behind the sturdy walls of Onrago), and learned that the Gerudo hadn’t taken too kindly to the descendent of their deserter King coming back to reclaim the land. Some had celebrated his return, but many saw it as a prelude to forced annexation. Onrago had closed its gates to the King only because Ahnadib practically owned the city, but even some of their allies, the Gerudo who came to the camp to trade and deliver supplies, expressed some concern about the state of affairs. Link could not interpret what they said among themselves in Gerudo, but when they came by to make deals or gossip with the soldiers, he could always make out snippets of conversation.

“Of course Ahnadib isn’t going to cooperate with you,” one woman said to a stable hand. She was a driver in a caravan that delivered shipments of animal feed from Silk, and had a particular fondness for a black-haired stableman. “She owns this place, and she’s not looking for an investment partner. And your King comes here talking of unity—well, Ahnadib doesn’t speak that language. She speaks with gold, and nothing else.”

“Perhaps,” the man said, glancing this way and that before slipping his hands around her waist, “she’ll look on our great King’s handsomeness and learn the language of love.”

The Gerudo laughed, playing at removing his hands from her, but she did not push him away. She looked around. “Do we have time for some political negotiations?” she asked, seemingly to herself.

“Of course. Your caravan doesn’t leave until midday.”

“All right, but—we’ll be heard.”

The stablehand scanned his surroundings, and saw only Link, who seemed to be earnestly concentrating on cleaning the dust from Epona’s hooves. “Oh, don’t mind him, he’s deaf as a post. I’m s’posed to be watching him, but he ain’t going nowhere.”

“All right then, behind here?”

After they disappeared into the safety of the stable’s shadows, their exchange took on a somewhat different tone. “You’re not going to devour me, are you? I heard you Gerudo eat your men afterwards.”

A short bout of quiet laughter. “Only if they underperform.”

Their conversation devolved into protracted moans and hushed grunts. Link went back to cleaning Epona’s hooves, knowing he’d gotten as much information as he possibly could. He shook his head and focused his full attention to his duties, ignoring the muffled sounds that came from behind the rickety stable wall.

*

When General Haema and his company arrived, with all the pomp of a military parade, Link leaned against a stable post, watching the procession. He kept an eye out for the general, and when he spied him astride his white horse, without his helmet, armor shining in the orange sun, Link’s heart sank.

Haema must’ve sensed Link’s dread, since he turned his gaze briefly in the stable’s direction. Link met the general’s eyes, and watched them widen. Haema’s mouth tightened, a slight rubicund hue spreading across his countenance, but he did not halt his march. The surprise at seeing a dead boy rise again passed over him, imperceptible to anyone but Link, and he resumed his steady ride toward the golden tent at the center of the bivouac.

Link was not surprised when the stable master came to him later that night, motioning for him to follow. He put down his small dinner and obeyed, lowering his eyes and perking up his ears. He followed Gorman down the rows of tents, past laughing soldiers gathered around fires, eating or drinking or playing dice. The stable master led him to an ornate tent, black and squat, trimmed with gold. As they approached, Link heard muffled voices from between the slightly open flaps.

“My Lord, if he is who I think he is, it would only be prudent to kill him.”

“Quell your excitement, Sir Haema,” came the King’s deep voice. “You are not thinking rationally.”

“He is evil, sire, he will undo you if given the opportunity.”

“He certainly does not seem it. And what King would I be if I needlessly ordered the death of my loyal stablehand?”

“But he is not loyal. My Lord, I am a historian, like my father, and his, all the way back to the conception of my House. The old stories run through me with my blood, and I have heard this story before. Kill him while you can.”

The stable master approached the tent, nodding at one of the two guards at its entrance. He slipped past the flaps, informing the King of Gorman’s arrival, and they were summoned inside.

Link, as usual, prostrated himself on the floor, while the stable master bowed deeply. “I have brought him, your majesty.”

“Master Gorman,” the King answered. “You may leave us to it.”

Link saw the stable master’s feet move, felt his presence disappear. He continued staring at the floor until a rough hand gripped the back of his collar and hauled him upright. He stared into the ruddy face of the general, his eyes piercing, his white eyebrows drawn together in what seemed to be both anger and surprise.

“It’s him, sire. It’s most definitely him.” Haema let go of Link’s shirt and he dropped a few inches back to the floor, where he stood still, eyes fixed at his feet. “Lord, please consider the fact he made his way to the fragment of the triforce. I do not know if he’s been affected by it, but—“

“You said he and the insurrectionist’s daughter went to the southeast tower, did you not?”

“Yes, sire—“

“Then if he is who you suspect he might be, he went to the wrong place. If it indeed led anyone to it, it would’ve been her.”

Haema reddened even further. “Sire, I don’t think—“

“She is dead, is she not? You recovered her body?”

“Yes, sire.”

“Then we’ve nothing to worry about from her. If her discovery of the southeastern tower was indeed marked by fate, just our luck that the last scion of the old royal family was the daughter of an insurgent. This one, however…” The King stood, and approached Link. His heart thumped furiously, as if just being in proximity to such a powerful presence forced him to panic. The King gripped his shoulder, almost gently, and looked him over. “So where do you imagine he disappeared to for the winter? Was he hiding at the bottom of the moat?”

“I suspect the insurrectionists took him,” Haema said. “Perhaps they’ve enticed him to their side.”

“Now, what use would they have for a stableboy?” He looked back at Link with a hint of amusement in his wide face. “I wonder if they tried to get information from you, but had to turn you loose after finding out you had no words to give.” Mercifully, the King let go of Link, and turned back to Haema. “He gave me the location of Ahnadib’s camp. He is taking quite good care of my mount. If you have doubts about him, we will keep him as a useful prisoner. So far he has behaved, but if you wish to satisfy your suspicious nature, my dear general, we will keep him close.” The King again seated himself. “Tomorrow we march on Onrago. We will take the city, restock our supplies and continue west. You will have plenty of time to watch him, Sir Haema.”

The King waved his hand at Link, shooing him. He took a deep, reverent bow and stepped toward the exit, slipping by the two guards, but taking his time walking away. He stopped within earshot of the tent, making a show of removing his boot and shaking a rock from it, lingering just long enough to catch the next vein of conversation.

“Sire, propriety dictates we must execute the boy and be done with it.”

“If I kill him in this dark hour, he will no doubt emerge from some other shadow, some less accessible place in this wide kingdom. He will continue to be a thorn in my side, and in those of my children. No, Haema. the sheer amount of young men who think themselves chosen heroes is overwhelming. They’re impossible to snuff out completely—they’re like cockroaches. If indeed I have stumbled upon the one most likely to take up arms against me, my own stableboy, no less, it is best if I keep him close. Close, happy, alive. If his loyalty still lies with me, then…”

Link could not tarry too long. He did not want anyone to suspect he could hear the deep voices of Haema and the King, so he made his way back to the stables. As he curled up under a thin blanket, he thought about their strange words, the way they spoke as if they were not sure of the yellow-haired girl’s true lineage, their talk of insurgencies and ransoms, their baseless imaginings of him as some sort of hinderance.

They gave Link too much credit. If they thought of him highly enough to consider him a potential threat, they obviously knew something about him that he didn’t.

*

Metal clanging, horses screaming, shouts of men and women as blade met blade—Link’s ears flooded with a veritable cacophony. Of course, he merely stared ahead, expressionless, letting the clamor slide past him, insubstantial and thin as the dusty wind. The acrid smell of smoke and blood flooded his nose, and his eyesight blurred in the chaotic haze. He could not make out the details of the battle; the  tiny black soldiers at the distant walls of the city seemed like streams of sand, quick and unpredictable.

But the King stared ahead at the battle with narrowed, knowledgeable eyes. He sat upon his red warhorse, fully armored in black and gold, speaking calmly to his generals, who came and went on his orders. The army seemed a well-oiled machine, each constituent performing its duty, and no more, before its leader came back to the King to receive more instructions.

Haema appeared and disappeared as frequently as the lowlier officers—he had his own regiment to maintain, after all. Link could see his white armor, his large, snowy horse above the rest, like a glint of a mirror on a field of dark ash. Haema towered above his own soldiers, above those who came rappelling down the stone walls of the city to meet him head-on. Gerudo arrows, shot from the battlements, glanced off his thick armor uselessly. Each time he returned to his King with news of the battle, or ready for a new command, he was always unharmed, and seemingly unsullied by the dust and smoke that colored the land a dark grey.

Even Link could not escape the grime that drifted from the desert battlefield below him. He stood at the King’s side, one hand on Epona’s flank, safe and far from the action. Link had not expected to be sent anywhere the horse did not go, but he couldn’t help the relief from bubbling up in his stomach when he learned he was to stay behind the King while he gave his commands.

Link tried to understand both the words and intentions of the King while he issued his orders, but he could not pick apart the specific warriors’ cant, he couldn’t follow the veins of strategy to their feasible results. He only watched the seemingly inhuman multitude of soldiers swarm Onrago’s walls, listened to their cries, smelled the smoke as arrows and trebuchets flung fire into the city.

The King’s men rallied at the gates, wheeling a massive shaft of wood and metal suspended on crossbeams. Link wondered what use such a large, seemingly dull log might serve on a battlefield, but when the screaming soldiers swarmed behind it and swung it into the gates (Link tried to keep from starting at the booming sound), he saw the strong wood of the fortress splinter, the metal bend, and knew the city would fall shortly.

He did not know how long sieges normally lasted, but given the comments of the officers and commanders, spoken in quiet voices and intended to be in confidence, it looked as if it would be mercifully short. The soldiers had left camp at the break of dawn, surrounded Onrago in the late morning, and by the time the sun disappeared behind the distant, bare dunes entirely, when the chaos was illuminated only by the raging fires, the gates gave way, and the King’s men flooded the city.

Haema returned with a smile on his face and not a smudge on his pristine armor, despite his poleax, hanging by his horse’s flank, splattered with all sorts of material normally found inside a human being.

“An effortless victory,” the general said, turning his snorting horse to face the rapidly dying battle. A few stragglers on the Gerudo side tried to hold the gate, but the King’s men quickly overwhelmed them. Link could almost see the city gates flood with red.

The King turned Epona and nudged her down the shallow slope toward the battlefield. Link hurried behind, heart pounding, as they descended the hill to the smoking remains of the fight. The King wove his way past the corpses of both his own and enemy soldiers, past squealing, injured horses, past discarded weaponry, past ripped, soiled standards bearing his own sigil, swaying in the slight wind. Link tried not to look at any of these stark reminders of his own betrayal; he tried to close his nostrils to the sharp scents of fear and blood, he just kept one shaking hand on the flank of the horse, gripping the edges of her shining gold caparison when she trotted a little too fast for him to keep up. He momentarily cursed himself for teaching the animal to respond so well to her rider, and not just him personally. That’s the point of a well trained horse, he told himself, sighing. She’s not going to listen just to me.

The going was slow, and smelly. The sounds of battle died up ahead at the city gates, and by the time the King arrived, surrounded by battle-worn, noble generals and one nervous-looking stableboy, the city had calmed. The citizens, enemy, sympathetic or indifferent to the King, had laid down their arms, retreated into their homes, busied themselves with hauling the dead away for burial or the injured for treatment. Occasionally a stray Gerudo could be seen fighting off the King’s men, apparently uninformed or simply uncaring of Onrago’s defeat—these (usually) women were either cut down or subdued and dragged out of the monarch’s noble sight.

The King’s path to the inner city was straight and uninterrupted by the chaos of defeat around him. The joyful cries of his own soldiers, the weeping of the Gerudo fighters’ children, the moans of the injured, the smell of smoke and the struggle to remove the bodies from his march did not seem to affect him. He just rode onward, through what appeared to be a once-lively market street, toward the large, ornate building standing at the town’s center. Link had a feeling it might be the hub of government for the small city, and the King was about to make his glorious entrance to the chagrin of the current rulers.

“Lord.” Haema’s voice traveled down Link’s spine like a shiver. “My men have returned no word of Ahnadib.”

“Have them scour the city.” Haema nodded and trotted off to relay orders, and the King, speaking seemingly only to himself, said, “You’d think after all her braggadocio, she would not prove such a coward.” Link stayed silent, as expected. He tried to look around him for any recognizable bodies without the King noticing, but he could not spy any familiar faces, any streaks of white Sheikah hair amid the smoky disorder. It seemed that if his friends lay among the dead, they had not fallen in the King’s path.

Link could not stop himself from thinking if only Palo were there, he might be able to shed some light on what the dead had seen. His stomach turned and he felt a little sick thinking of Palo and the others at such a time. His heart raced in his throat when he thought of how Impa or any of her family could be among the dead, draped over a battlement on the other end of the city, buried beneath other corpses, or among the fettered prisoners, marched off to wherever the King’s army might keep them.

He tried not to betray his dismay, but the King did not seem to hold any interest in staring at his own servant. He merely looked around him, at the fires that engulfed the watchtowers, at the rapidly emptying streets, and the well-dressed, frightened individuals who poured from the city’s central building, hands clasped in supplication. They had their own defeat etched on their dark faces, and pleas of mercy on their lips.

“Look well, stableboy,” he said, as if Link could hear him. “This is how you win a city. This is how you win a war.”


The Streets of Onrago

Chapter Text

*

“Many men will recall the battle between Mandrag Elgra and the Gorons as a long and arduous siege, but those in the front lines will tell you that the true battle only lasted a few minutes. Occupying those minutes was a hand-to-hand duel between Mandrag Elgra’s esteemed son, Prince Ganondorf, and the Goron patriarch himself, Durmia. One soldier sums the affair up in a few charming but arguably misinformed words: ‘They say you can’t know what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, but it’s clear now that the unstoppable force wins.’”

Samuel Red, Recollections of Soldiers: An Examination of the Eldin War

*

 

After the council of Onrago surrendered the city to the Great King of Hyrule, the wine began to flow. The man himself sat at the head of the table in the council chamber, flanked by his generals. Food and drink was called for, and, due to Haema’s copious warnings about not letting the little traitor of a stableboy have free roam of the city, Link stood in the corner, watching Onrago’s new lords celebrate their victory.

Every once in a while Haema would turn his large white head and shoot Link a threatening look. He knew better than to do anything but stand in silence, hands at his sides, stomach rumbling, as the councillors’ cooks, now prisoners of war, brought out plates of spiced meat, sour soups, large jugs of wine and stronger spirits. The cooks themselves seemed content only to be uncounted among the dead, but still, the King had one of his more magically-inclined generals wave a hand over the meal and declare it fit to eat before anyone dug in.

The sweet smell of the meats tortured Link, but he did not move, he did not beg. He merely stood straight, staring at the steaming bowls passed from hand to hand, at the glints of serving silver.

His situation did afford him a good look at the King’s generals. Of course, there was Haema, who rarely left his lord’s side, but there were about a dozen others. Some bore the large armor and thick, scarred jaws of long-time military men, a few smelled of black magic, and a few were robed rather than armored, perhaps tacticians or magicians—Link had only spied a couple of them during the siege. A few were women, with the same red hair as their Gerudo cousins—perhaps a little lighter, diluted with the Hylian blood of the Capital.

The youngest officer seemed barely older than Link—a well-dressed man who appeared to be some sort of protégé to one of the older knights. Most seemed the King’s age or older, a suspicion confirmed by their frivolous talk of battles past.

“This has been the fastest city I’ve seen fall my whole career—besides Leda, of course.”

“Well, Eldin didn’t really put up that much of a fight until the Gorons, did it?”

One man, with a thick black beard and slicked hair, laughed. “We can count ourselves lucky that Onrago was not occupied by the Gorons—it would’ve taken months to fall and we’d have had no one left alive to cook for us.”

“Tenacious things, weren’t they?”

Link bit his lip, deadening his face, hoping the trajectory of the conversation would not disturb him into making any facial expressions.

“And so strange. Do you remember your first kill of the battle?” one older soldier asked another.

“I do. I remember cutting one in the side, thinking it would be like hitting a rock with my blade—but gods dammit, was I surprised to see blood come out!”

“Hard on the outside, soft on the inside, as the saying goes.”

“Just like my old lady bakes pastries.”

A peal of laughter burst around the table. Link swallowed. He crossed his hands behind his back and squeezed his fingers tightly. He dug his nails into his own skin, letting the pain distract him from the conversation.

“You ever crushed one under a war hammer? Such a satisfying sound.”

“Of course.” Haema was the first to answer, face reddened with wine. “I lost my poleax and horse on the scree the first night—gods, that was a hell of a battle—picked up one of their own hammers. I found out then how a Goron kills another Goron; bring one of those down on their heads and—” the general smashed the table with a fist—“the rock splits right open. It certainly caught me off guard—rocks, having brains.”

“If you can call ‘em brains,” a woman said, and another bout of laughter lit up the hall. The King just crossed his arms at the head of the table and eyed his generals, something of a sardonic look on his face. His eyes lifted, glancing past his peers, and settled on Link.

Of course, he could not meet the King’s gaze. He squeezed his fists tighter behind his back, telling his stomach to settle, telling himself to ignore the conversation around him. When he lifted his eyes again, the King had returned to listening to his compatriots recall the glorious days of the Eldin War.

“It’s a damn good thing they split open at all,” the black-bearded man put in, “or else we’d have lost not only the battle, but some fine resources.”

“What do you mean?” the youngest man asked.

“I mean a Goron’s intestines make for some of the toughest material around. Half the pulleys in the Capital’s factories are wound ‘round with some sort of their sinew or another. You fold in that flesh with any rope and it’ll last for decades.”

Link’s stomach spasmed. He closed his eyes and grit his teeth.

“I have saddlebags made of their stomachs. Lasted me since the end of the War. Not a scratch on ‘em.”

“Perfect material really—tissue’s easy to cut when wet and alive, once you boil them, they’re tough as steel. You’ve gotta have some sturdy insides to digest rocks, after all. ”

“It’s only a pity the lot of ‘em were too stubborn for us to let ‘em live. Imagine if we had a constant source of such substance—not to mention the mining power.”

“Why,” one red-faced, obviously drunk woman said, “we’d rule the world by now.”

Many of the generals seemed to find this quip particularly amusing. Raucous laughter erupted from more than one. Link noticed, with a shiver, the King did not crack a smile. Apparently some of the others noticed as well, since the guffaws died down after a few seconds.

“I simply have to say I regret their stubbornness,” the King said, after the table fell silent.

“Sire,” Haema started, seemingly a little soberer than he’d been mere minutes previously. “With all my humble respect, it is not your regret to bear. It is their fault for resisting as they did. There was no point in it, especially after Durmia fell—”

“Then he should’ve come to me sooner. If the fate of an entire race could be sealed by one duel, I would’ve rather gotten it over with quickly.”

Sobriety seemed to grip the table, instantly and irrevocably. The King lifted his eyes to Link, who had to bite the inside of his lip to keep from scowling. Haema followed his King’s gaze. “What are you grimacing at, boy?” he growled. “You eavesdropping over there?”

With what may have been impetuosity, or a strong desire to change the subject, Haema burst from his chair toward Link, hand outstretched. Link told his arms to stay at his side, even when the general’s white-gloved fingers wrapped around his throat and lifted him slightly from the tiled floor. Fear gripped Link harder than Haema himself, and he gasped for air as the man looked into his face, cheeks red with ire and wine. “I asked you what you were grimacing at.”

Link’s eyes widened, and for a moment he was sure Haema had solved the mystery of the deaf boy back from the dead. For a terrible second, he was sure the general knew about his involvement with the Sheikah, about his raid on the King’s camp, about his ability to hear.

Then, like a wave of relief, his stomach growled so loudly it practically echoed across the chamber. Link stilled, eyes locked with Haema’s. A few unendurable fractions of a second passed, and then the King laughed.

As if following commands, the rest of the generals chortled with him, torturously cautious. When his laughter died down, so did theirs, nearly instantaneously and without the slightest hint of mirth.

“He’s watching us eat on an empty stomach, Sir Haema,” the King said, “because you wanted to keep an eye on him so badly. So if you dislike his pained looks, perhaps you should feed him. Dish him out a portion and serve it to him.”

Haema whipped his head around. A look of indignant fury passed over his face, and his cheeks darkened from red to a fleshy purple. As if instinctively, he squeezed Link’s throat tighter before finally releasing him, muscles in his jaw flexing, distorting the scars and scraggly light beard that had started to grow there.

But Haema did not argue. He stomped back to the table, gripped a small bowl and slopped some reddish stew into it. He wasn’t halfway back to Link before the rest of the table burst into terrible laughter.

The rage never left Haema’s face, even when he stormed back to Link and thrust the bowl toward him so hard some of the scalding broth spilled across his shirt. Link merely took the bowl, bowing deeply, trying to keep his rushing heart from pounding right out of his chest. The look Haema gave him was one step short of murder, and as the general turned from him, he was half sure the next time Haema saw him, he’d have that war hammer raised high, coming down to crack Link’s head open like a Goron’s.

*

The remains of the battle, mostly the bodies of Onrago’s soldiers, were piled up outside the city and burned. Link leaned on the stable fences by the city entrance, Epona snorting behind him, and watched the conquered citizens of the city carry their own dead—and the King’s—outside to the brown, rocky sands beyond the splintered gates. The only familiar face Link saw among the fallen was the twisted, wrinkled and sunken countenance of the Sheikah woman who had led their raid on the King’s camp. Her skin was paler than a Hylian’s, and a brown gash across her throat told him how she’d died.

Again, he found himself wishing Palo were with him, if only to relay his apologies to the woman. He would tell her he was sorry for his traitorous thoughts, and that he would make up for it by returning to the Sheikah a stronger man, a man with knowledge of the King’s camps and strategies. He would find Impa and tell her all he knew—if she was still alive.

He had not seen her body exit the city gates with the rest, but a terrible voice inside him told him he’d simply missed it—that she’d been carried out when his back was turned, that she was already burnt, that she had been fed to the King’s hounds, that even if she’d escaped the city, she was dying out in the desert, drawing her last waterless breath.

According to what he’d overheard, Ahnadib and a small faction of her warriors had snuck out of the city before it fell. He comforted himself with the thought that his friends might have been among those warriors to escape, and they were all riding west, deeper into Gerudo territory.

But that only meant the King would have to chase them. If the desert would not give up its cities because of the influence of the middle-aged matriarch, then the King would have little choice but to dispose of her. And so it wasn’t more than a few days after entering Onrago that preparations for leaving were made.

The King left Link under the watchful eye of Gorman. Generally, he was left in peace to care for Epona and get her ready for the long ride across the harsh desert, except for the occasional visit and subsequent threat from Haema. If he happened to run across Link in the course of his duties, he would always take a minute or two out of his day to mistreat him.

The mildest threats were nothing more than a look of disdain here and there, or a wide scowl. The worst was when Link would accidentally find himself within arm’s reach of the general, in which case he’d often be jostled, struck or prodded, or have to endure a short lecture he pretended not to understand.

“You may not hear me you little bastard, so read my lips: if you so much as look as if you’ll step out of line, I’ll have one of my archers put a bolt through you. Again.”

“You’re lucky his majesty favors you. Otherwise you’d be burning with the other useless bodies.”

“You’d better watch your back, you little shit. You won’t be able to hear me when I come up to slit your throat.”

Gorman did not seem to understand why the Ordishman had it out for Link; the embarrassing debacle in the council chamber seemed to be a secret shared only among the generals, who privately laughed at Haema from behind armored hands, over fine wines taken from the cellars of the city. As far as the regular citizenry was concerned, Haema was still chock full of indignant honor, and it seemed strange to them to have him pick out a certain peasant to harass when there were so many to choose from, and so available. But none could confront a man like that, much less a man of such high rank.

Still, when Haema was not in the near vicinity, threatening him, Link listened. When he was sure he would go unnoticed standing in the corners of this and that square, ears perked, when the eyes of the King’s bodyguards and generals were not on him, he gathered what he could.

They were to leave Onrago the following week. The city itself was to be left under the care of one of the King’s generals, a native Gerudo woman who knew the language and culture. What she would do with the city, once hers, seemed to be the topic of some speculation.

A stablehand mentioned he thought she would keep it running for as long as the King needed it as a base of operations. As soon as he found his way to the metropolis of Obra Garud and took it over, she’d burn it to the ground. Another said the King would burn both cities, after he’d reconquered his homeland.

One soldier said he was very sure Onrago’s new ruler was going to replace Ahnadib as the region’s womsilk monopolist, securing a constant and ample supply to the Capital.

“The King’s brought engineers with him,” the soldier said. “They’re gonna build another bridge across the Gerudo River Valley.”

“What for? Aren’t there already more than one?”

“He needs one wide enough for his engines. They’re gonna take the wormsilk to the Capital faster than you can ride there with any horse.”

The others laughed at him. “How do you know?”

“My uncle is in the engineering corps; he told me.”

Link was unsure what to make of this information but he stored it away anyway, piling it on top of the other lists and stories he’d maintained in his mind for the purpose of relaying to Impa later. Though, he had to admit to himself he had little idea of when later actually was, or if he would live long enough to see it.

*

When the King’s men prepared themselves to leave the taken city, when their ears and eyes were turned away from Link, he would lean up into Epona’s ear and whisper secrets to her.

Of course, he used no words. But he let loose a tiny, thin, high whistle from between his teeth into her sensitive ear. At the same time he would express his distress to her, clenching his muscles and adopting a look of pain. She usually blinked at him soundlessly, as horses are wont to do, but after a few hours (quiet, erratic, punctuated hours), she seemed to understand the sound meant he was in some sort of distress.

He could not tell her outright that sometime in the future, maybe near, maybe far, he planned to take up her reins, throw himself on her back and gallop out of the camp, never to return. He would make his way out in the dead of night, with his loyal mount and his mind full of information. He would ride Epona back to Impa, and she would be quite impressed with them both.

You come to me when I whistle like this, he told her, in no words but with faint sounds, looks and gestures. I am in trouble. You will come to me.

It took dozens of reiterations of the sentiment, but Epona seemed smarter and more tuned to the quirks of his human nature than other horses—even some of the hounds. He knew he could count on her when the time came to make his escape.

But with Haema breathing down his neck, and with little information but what he could muster from the gossiping stablehands, Link knew his return to the Sheikah would remain well over the horizon of the future. The best he could hope for was the opportunity to listen closely to the King or his other generals.

Strangely enough, it was Haema’s implacable disdain for him that made him a common sight in the King’s shadow. When they made ready to leave the broken and silent city, left under the care of a royalist Gerudo, Link managed to secure himself a place behind the King, mounted on a small brown horse taken from Onrago’s stables. His horse was old, shy, and much too weak for battle or escape. Both he and his mount were woefully undecorated, lest anyone think the young man following so closely in the King’s footsteps was his squire. He seemed nothing more than a beggar granted clemency and allowed to step within the bounds of the King’s glorious presence, a recipient of the monarch’s infinite charity. He supposed, to an extent, it was true.

They rode through the desert slowly. Carts’ wheels sank into the white sand, so the camp had swapped out many of its mules and horses for large camels and dromedaries, backs piled high with supplies. Only the King and his generals were allowed to retain their horses—most of the equestrian knights found themselves on equal footing with their lowlier counterparts.

The landscape itself was harsh and unyielding. As they marched away from Onrago and the shadows of the bare mountains, the sand turned from rocky red to smooth, shining white, thin as liquid. A sour wind occasionally screamed across the dunes, flinging small particles over the soldiers and their supplies. By the time they made camp the first night, the company was overflowing with complaints of the sand’s ubiquitous invasion of every possession.

“I just can’t get it out from between my toes.”

“It’s so bothersome, in your clothes.”

“Or your hair.”

“Or your bedding. Gods damn, my skin will never feel clean again.”

Even the food started tasting something like sand. Though Link was granted the privilege of dining within the generals’ large tent, on food vastly more palatable than those of the soldiers’, he could not ignore the bitter, gritty taste that permeated every bite. Some of the generals and officers eschewed food in favor of alcohol, but they soon learned that the habit was not conducive to comfort in the early mornings, when the camp packed up and moved on, deeper in to the desert.

Link could appreciate the stillness of the sands. When the howling wind died down at night, a heavy silence lay over the camp; it seemed even the crackling of fires and the idle conversation of soldiers quieted under the oppressive dark. Perhaps the company was too tired to speak, perhaps it was the strange, almost thaumaturgical power of that vast, empty place that kept the words inside.

Either way, most of Link’s time was spent in the presence of quietness—even the King’s finest seemed to show disinterest in discussing the violent, glorious days of wars past. While he enjoyed the silence more than anyone, he still could not help feeling cheated that only after he had been granted closeness to the King and his generals, they suddenly became taciturn.

A reprieve from his frustrations came in the form of the King himself, no more than a large shadow at the entrance to the generals’ tent. While the officers slept soundly, large beds unfolded against the thick tarp walls, lined up in the barrack much in the fashion of the lowlier soldiers, the King stood alone in the doorway, silhouetted against the bright red moon of the desert.

Link had been granted the privilege of sleeping on the floor by the entrance of the officers’ tent, a position well within the sightline of the soldiers who guarded their superiors in the night. Haema had insisted, and the King, reasonable as ever, acquiesced his general’s impassioned pleas. Link did not mind; while he was not allowed to rest with the animals, the army did provide him with a soft sleeping mat, a few worn blankets and a steady supply of fresh meals.

The King himself slept alone in his private tent, rather than among his officers, but he could often be spied walking purposefully around camp in the dead of night as if he had his own scouting to do. No one was sure if he did it merely for his own satisfaction, or to assuage some apprehension or another, but no one dared to ask. One does not question a man like that.

So when Link sat up to see the broad shadow of the King blot out the entrance to the officers’ temporary abode, he was not entirely surprised. The man clasped his hands behind him, staring out into the distance, as if he wished to catch a glimpse of something best seen from this particular spot in camp. It seemed he had no desire to enter the tent nor waken his officers.

Link shuffled slightly in his blankets, almost soundlessly. When the King, still within full view of the open flap, turned to look at the source of the noise, Link tried to shrink himself, to look inconspicuous against the backdrop of darkness and light snoring. But the King had already seen he was awake and watching.

So when the man turned slightly, lifting his hand in a rising motion, Link had no choice but to pull himself out of his thin blankets, barefoot, and, bowing his head in deference, obey the summon. Link exited the officers’ tent and took a knee, making to press his forehead against the moonlit sand, but the King stopped him.

He beckoned him, turning away from the tent, and the encampment entirely, and stepping toward the night. Link had no choice but to follow him, keeping his head down. The King strode forward, with purpose, as if he had some business outside of camp, his wide silhouette passing over the setting moon. Soldiers knelt as he walked by, mouthing their required respects, and he ignored them. He just led Link away from the bivouac, out toward the reddish, moonlit desert.

Link was quite sure the King was leading him away from the camp as one might lead an animal away from its stables before ending its life. But when the monarch stopped, planting his feet on the crest of a dune a few hundred feet away from camp, he did not turn and cut his stableboy down. He just stared into the moonlight, and took a deep breath.

“You can sense it, can’t you?” The King’s voice rumbled deeply, absurdly loud in the silent dark of the vast desert.

Link did not know what he was supposed to be sensing, but if it was a deep discomfort at being alone, at the King’s mercy, in the middle of a vast foreign land with no allies, then yes, he could certainly sense it.

“Surely a boy like you should be able to feel it. It’s everywhere here, in the sand, the sky…”

Link thought perhaps if he was still deaf, he might be able to acknowledge what the King spoke of, but all he could see and smell were the endless sands, and the lifeless quiet of the night. A harsh breeze passed over the dunes, ruffling the King’s dark cloak, and he almost smiled.

“There it is again. That wind.”

Link had to admit it did send a fearful shiver through him, though he didn’t quite know why.

“I’ve walked across the sands of my ancestors many times before, and I cannot get used to it,” the King said, amused at something Link could not see. “It seems too much time in Hyrule has dampened the desert blood in me.” He stood silent a while, just staring into the distance. He did not seem to care if Link heard him or not. “I never wanted to come back here. I never wanted to conquer this dry, desolate place. The whole reason my ancestors came over to Hyrule in the first place was because the winds here brought nothing but death. And now look at me.”

A sudden, harsh gale struck up sand and threw it off the crest of the dune, glittering in the stark moonlight. The King let out a subtle, mirthless laugh. “Ah, the desert has heard me speak ill of her. She is testy as ever.” He turned his back to the moon, and stepped toward the camp. “She has a magic that even her own people fear. But I vow I will not.”

Link followed him as he walked back to the bivouac, occasionally turning his head to glance at the moon watching them, round and red.

The King walked quietly for a while. The shapes of the tents cleared in the moonlight as they approached the camp. “I enjoyed this little sortie. I speak easy with you, I suppose because you cannot listen. It is like talking to a hound, but all the devils forbid my subjects see me hold conversation with an animal. No, I suppose you will do for now. Besides, my advisors insist I keep a close eye on you.”

The King again seemed to laugh at nothing, and another sandy gale forced harsh shivers down Link’s spine. He was almost relieved to get back to the safety of the bivouac.


The Wrath of General Haema

Chapter Text

*

“Even though he won’t admit it, every Hylian man, at one time or another, has harbored perverse fantasies about being kidnapped and violated by the so-called ‘Gerudo Horde.’ Of course, there is no such thing, and I have found that despite their reputation for sexual aggression, the Gerudo were nothing but friendly toward me. A bit vulgar, perhaps even forward, but there was no kidnapping, no male harems, no trade in men as chattel. I was not drained of my seed and promptly beheaded, as my cousins used to warn me. During my stay at Obra Garud, I did not so much as live out a fraction of my embarrassing adolescent fantasies, but I did make quite a few lifelong friends.”

T. L. Malona, Life and Travels of a Wayward Bard

*

 

There were two things in the desert the King’s men feared most: the sandworms, and the women. Link heard many a conversation illustrating both species’ habits of devouring men whole, or of placing curses upon them in the night.

According to all reliable geographical sources—Gerudo royalist guides, generals who had visited the area before, and one particularly outspoken military cartographer who had planned the army’s march from the Capital all the way to Obra Garud—they had nothing to fear from the worms. It was apparently the other source of the soldiers’ apprehension that posed any threat.

For at every hamlet at the shore of a nameless oasis, at every rickety waypoint, every trading post along the journey, resistance primarily came in a female form. Village matriarchs would refuse to accommodate the King’s men, young women would attempt to fight, seduce or rob the male soldiers, girls who were barely old enough to walk could be found surreptitiously enjoying the company’s dwindling supplies of food. Female (and some male) soldiers reported that they were given offers to join the enemy in exchange for clemency from the wrathful goddesses of the desert. As far as Link knew, all refused. He had not known if it was because of their staunch loyalty, or because they feared the anger of their own King more than that of the ancient deities of the sand.

Sometimes they were met with outright violence. More than one village formed a small militia group when told of the company’s approach, but, quite understandably, the Hyrulean King’s vast army outmatched them. Insurgents were executed promptly, prisoners captured and released, and each village they passed through was more or less left in the same state in which it had been found—perhaps with  fewer outspoken or aggressive leaders and maybe bereft of some food.

They moved through the desert virtually unimpeded. Word was that Ahnadib and what remained of her soldiers had met the Territories’ real army in Obra Garud, and planned to stage a final stand on the sands in front of that great city. No one was surprised to hear this news; the little hamlets and oases that resided between the cities of Onrago and Obra Garud were essentially without worth—the real fighting would have to be done over the wormsilk capital of the world, where the true wealth lay.

Slowly, steadily, the King’s army made its way toward that metropolis. Link found himself too busy to count the days; he found himself so wrapped up in caring for the King’s animals, he barely had time to feed himself, much less wonder how long he’d been with the company, acting as a useful prisoner, as the King put it.

Even in the quiet hours, when the moon would normally coax Link’s thoughts from his head and he could sort through them at will, he found himself occupied with other, more important matters. Every few nights, the King would come to him, bid him rise from his bed and accompany him on some short outing or another into the desert. Link did not know what these expeditions were for—apparently they satisfied the King in some personal way.

Sometimes it seemed that the monarch simply wished to escape the bustle of the camp. Sometimes he was silent the entire walk, sometimes he did nothing but hum to himself while he stared up at the desert moon, sometimes he spoke in a language Link did not understand, but could guess was Gerudo or another such dialect. When they were about halfway to Obra Garud (or so Link had overheard from a potentially misinformed archer), the King confounded him with a confession.

“I detest the smell of that camp.” The way the King looked at him as he said it seemed as if he could guess Link agreed with him.

He was entirely correct. The bivouac was a harsh place, full of sweaty soldiers and animals, full of smoke and blood. Water was scarce, so bathing was a privilege reserved for the higher ranks. Link knew he smelled terrible, but he couldn’t exactly make his way up to a convenient hot spring, or take water from Irma’s fire and sponge himself off, as he could in Kakariko.

“It reeks of humanity.” Link did not know what the King meant. “Of men and disease, of fighting and gambling and drink and all manner of untoward proclivities.” The King turned his eye on Link, glinting gold in the moonlight. “It is well known I often concern myself with more otherworldly things. And Sir Haema suspects you do, too.”

Link did not have to feign the confusion on his face. He just hoped it was the sort of confusion a deaf boy might make while trying to make out the lip movements of a conversation partner, rather than someone who was attempting to extract meaning from words he could actually hear. He did not know if there was much of a difference between those two faces.

The King stopped walking, and took a long breath, as if thinking deeply. Link saw the muscles in his jaw flex under his red beard, and spied a few veins in his neck pulsate with effort. “Do you know why I’m doing this? Why I have returned to this desolate place, the place my ancestors left behind? It is all for unity. For peace. If I leave the provinces as they are, skirmishes about autonomy and independence will rage for centuries to come. I have to repair this fractured land at any cost. I need to make sure Hyrulean does not fight Hyrulean, brothers do not fight brothers, as they have done in our terrible history of civil war. Well before my great-grandfather came to your land, well before the Schism and Eldin wars, the provinces squabbled like petty children. Hundreds of thousands died, and even more suffered, all over this.”

The King lifted a fist between Link’s face and his own. A sharp, discomfiting light shone from between his tightly clenched fingers, and his face contorted with effort. He slowly opened his hand, thick fingers flexed like a claw, as if restraining what appeared above his dark palm.

A small, infinitely bright light floated innocuously above his fingertips, pulsating slightly. It had no substance, it had no real form—it was more of the idea of a triangle than the shape itself, but the strange little thing forced Link to take a step back. He suddenly filled up with the same inexplicable dread he felt when he and the yellow-haired girl had come upon the mysterious light in the southeast tower of the palace. Deep in his gut, he knew this was the golden power Impa and the others had talked about, he knew this was the girl’s birthright, he knew that although the light, whatever it was, seemed to take a different, smaller form, it was still the same entity. Link stared down at the King’s open hand, marveling at the power he held within it, so small, yet bursting with such energy Link could not look at it without squinting. Something a little stranger than physical pain ran through him, and he gulped loudly.

Fortunately, the King closed his fist and the light disappeared. Link sighed, a bead of sweat dropping from the tip of his nose to the collar of his ratty shirt, but he did not have time to take a breath and relax.

Without warning, the King grabbed Link’s wrist. He surprised himself with the volume of his quick intake of breath, but he did not cry out as the King twisted it up toward the moonlight. He seemed interested in the back of his hand, turning it so he could better see it in the dim light. A sharp pain coursed through Link’s arm into his shoulder, but he did not know if that was because the King’s strong hand twisted his muscles, or the residual energy from that strange light pained him. But Link hid his discomfort, stilling his face and taking a deep breath as the King looked over his hand in a most interested manner.

“Hm. Nothing,” he muttered. “It’s hard to tell at the moment, isn’t it… Perhaps you have some potential, but you are nothing more than a lowly stableboy.” The King’s painful grip on his wrist loosened. “You are no threat to me.”

Much to Link’s relief, the man released his hand. He let it fall, resisting the urge to rub some of the residual pain from his burning wrist. The King turned from him, again staring at the setting moon. Half of its red face had been eaten away by punctual, monthly darkness, and by its partial light Link could see the King’s sullen smile.

“Some of us are born worthy of power,” he said. “Some, like you, must earn it. That’s hardly fair, is it not? Life never is. The strong must cut their way to the top, even if they are not born there. I was lucky enough to be born where I belong. My great-grandfather was not.” He turned to eye Link with his uncanny yellow irises. “I suspect you are not the kind of man who can cut your way upward.” Link lowered his gaze, as if to prove the King’s point.“But you know what they say about a broken blade.”

It may yet draw blood, Link answered in his head, echoing the words of the great spirit at the peak of Eldin. He wondered if it was a common phrase, or if the King had somehow extracted it from Link’s guarded mind with his intense stare. He shivered, wrapping his thin cloak tighter around him, and trotted after his monarch, holding his head low.

*

“There it is, sire,” Haema told the King, handing him a silver spyglass. “Obra Garud.”

The King raised it to his eye and looked at the smear of gray that dotted the horizon, past the white dunes shining in the sun. He stared through the glass for a few seconds before he smiled cynically. “It looks like our sisters on the outer walls have noticed us.”

“Have they?”

“You can tell by the obscene gestures they’re sending our way.”

Haema, as expected, turned a bright shade of angry red. “My lord, if you wish, I will personally behead those individuals.”

“My dear general, it is common knowledge that the Gerudo greet both friends and enemies this way. It is merely a cultural salute.” The King laughed slightly. “It looks as if one has decided to present us with her buttocks.”

Haema reddened even further, and Link could feel the spread of that fluster threaten to color his own cheeks. He swallowed, telling himself to un-hear what he’d overheard. “Sire,” the general said. “I cannot stand idly by while they show such blatant signs of disrespect—”

The King lowered the spyglass. “Patience, Sir Haema. They will have plenty of time to regret their incivility in the future.”

“Yes, your majesty.” The general lowered his head.

“In the meantime, send a herald to Ahnadib. She will want to look over our ultimatum before she condemns her soldiers to die by our hands.”

“Yes, sire.”

“And give him a banner. They might not let him past the gates otherwise.” The King turned Epona, nudging her into a trot, away from the massive city, its high, dark stone walls, and the frivolous women who danced on its battlements. Link followed him, leaving Haema to fume at the crest of the white dune.

The King trotted to the center of the camp, and dismounted by his tent. He handed Epona’s reins to Link and motioned for him to lead the horse away and tie her safely, as he usually did. He obeyed, and finding himself alone with her, took a fraction of a minute to lean up into her ear and whistle. The sound, barely audible to anyone but a horse, made her twitch, and she snorted in understanding. She seemed to be insulted by Link’s repetition; the suggestion that she needed to be told again and again that he wanted her to come when he called seemed to offend her. He knew she was a smart creature, and he only took the extra precaution because for some time, unnoticeably to anyone but him and the horse, he had lost some of that deep, silent language he shared with her. He did not know if it was simply because he’d spent so long away from her, but sometimes, when he found himself misunderstanding her, she would stomp and quiver in disappointment.

A few faux pas here and there were of no concern when it came to interspecies communication, Link knew, and as far as anyone could tell, he was his same old mysterious, deaf self. He just knew that when it came time to orchestrate his escape, he couldn’t afford one wrong note.

Haema’s arrival cut his moment with Epona short. The general, as was custom, gave him a violent sneer as he passed, and Link lowered his head, tying Epona to a hastily hammered post and removing her saddle. He cleaned and brushed her as the camp settled down. Tents cropped up around him, the dim yellow firelight reflecting off their white sides, and the harsh sun crept low in the west. When he finished tending to Epona, he obeyed the roar of his empty stomach and made his way to the officers’ mess, a long, grayish tent where he was allowed to take his share of food the colonels and lieutenants did not finish.

Inside the tent, he found a few officers still lingering at the far end. Link eyed them, hoping to remain inconspicuous as he gathered a few scoops of cold rice and some dry curry. He piled them into his dirty bowl and sat down to eat in silence, catching a few words here and there from the animated men and women.

“So… that’s how it went.”

“Of course that’s how it went. This is Ahnadib we’re speaking of. She’s not going to just roll over and give up her wealth of silk. That’s not how she runs her business. At least she sent our herald back alive. My father told me Gerudo like to send messengers’ heads back via catapult, with their messages crumpled in their mouths.”

“I saw him when he got back here and he was very much alive. He said that there weren’t only Gerudo soldiers with Ahnadib when he delivered the ultimatum to her.”

“Oh, so she’s got some of our own with her? Hylians?”

“No. Sheikah.”

Link’s ears perked up and he went still. He clenched his jaw, the dry powder burning his tongue, and swallowed loudly. One of the officers turned to eye him over her shoulder, and seeing their eavesdropper was nothing more than the King’s deaf stablehand, went back to speaking.

“You think it could be the same insurgents who broke into the palace last autumn?”

“No, they killed them, remember? Threw their bodies in the moat.”

“Ha, I didn’t expect there to be so many Sheikah. Goddess knows there aren’t many of ‘em left.”

“Not after Queen Elgra was done with ‘em.”

“And the Ordishmen before her. Devils below, it’s like the whole world wants them dead. Not that I can blame it.”

The officers made their way to the tent’s entrance and out into the night, taking their bitter laughter with them.

Link set down his empty bowl and wiped it off with his sleeve. He put it under his arm and stood, taking a deep breath and sauntering out of the mess. He turned toward the officer’s tent, head low, thinking deeply.

From what he could glean from the excited lieutenants’ conversation, it seemed Ahnadib had several Sheikah around her. Link could not know how many, but his most optimistic guess would be four, plus whatever members of the tribe they’d sprung from the King’s camp—the only Sheikah corpse he’d seen in Onrago had been that of the older woman who had led the raid to liberate the prisoners. He was aware of the discouraging possibility that he’d simply not seen the others’ bodies before they’d been burned, but he knew in his heart Impa would be among the living. He was sure that if she weren’t, he would’ve felt it, somehow. He wasn’t nearly as keen to the sort of insensible undercurrents of perception as he’d been when he was still deaf, but whatever vestigial hypersensitivity he’d retained told him not to lose hope.

Impa was alive. Talm was alive. Even Palo, who hovered so near to death he could see right into it, still drew breath. He knew it.

He was as close to them as he could get, before the inevitable battle started. If he wanted to warn them of the King’s numbers, his strategies and how many soldiers and of what type would assault the city, he’d have to get to them before the King made his move. And if it was true that Ahnadib had already sent back their herald with a rejection of their terms of surrender, he didn’t have much time.

It would have to be tonight. Sometime in the darkest hours, he would have to make his way to Epona and they would have to ride out into the desert before anyone noticed. They would have to make it to the city without being followed or shot down, and then he’d have to convince whoever guarded the gates of Obra Garud to let him in…

Goddesses above, he had one hell of a night ahead of him. But, hand instinctively wandering to his breast pocket and removing the charm of courage Merel gifted him, he vowed that he wouldn’t falter. Now might be the only chance he had to get back to his allies, and although he knew he did not have as much information on the King and his strategies as he would’ve liked, he might have enough. Maybe if he told Impa all he knew, she would be able to glean some useful information from it.

He stopped at the officers’ tent, and took his usual place by the entrance. He unfurled his bedroll and sat on it, dropping his bowl beside him and staring at his crossed legs. It was still fairly early in the night, and he would have to wait until the rest of the camp fell into a deep sleep before he could sneak out of the tent and make his way to Epona.

Then there was the problem of the King. He had left Link alone these past few nights, instead preferring to busy himself with other, more pressing matters than taking his servant out for a walk. It was unlikely that the King would show himself at the tent flap, but if he did, Link would have to endure a hike and a lecture before he could make his daring escape.

So he waited. The officers filed in one by one and took to bed, their ugly snores filling the barracks and drifting out into the mercifully empty doorway. The sounds of camp died down, the fires snuffed out, and the King did not appear. Link waited until well past the usual time for his arrival, and when he did not show his face, he slowly pulled the sheets off him. He pushed himself to his feet, taking care not to wake the others, and snuck to the tent flap.

Outside was one disinterested, drowsy-looking guard. Link tapped him on the shoulder, and he seemed to snap awake, looking over at him with disdain. Link motioned that he had to relieve himself, and the guard gave him quick, uncaring permission before sinking back into his stupor. Link did not have time to marvel at how the guard managed to sleep standing up, and he stepped toward where the sanitary engineers had built a temporary privy. He passed a few incurious guards on his way, but before he arrived, he took a sharp right and slipped into the shadows.

He tried to remember what Impa taught him about how to slink through the dark undetected. He slowed his breathing, kept his eyes peeled for any signs of movement, and quickly slipped behind the nearest tents. When he was safely concealed in the darkness, he dropped to his knee, looking around him for any spying eyes, and whistled softly. It was a high, almost imperceptible whine, meticulously pushed through his teeth and lips. A few soldiers here and there might be able to hear a slight, brief, annoying sound, but it was unlikely that any would wake themselves to investigate. Link could hear Epona’s hooves a few tents over, stomping in anticipation. She had heard him. She was awake, and she would be ready.

He knew he didn’t have time to prepare her properly. He would have to grab her mane, swing himself up on her bare back and ride as fast and quietly as he could to the edge of camp. He inhaled deeply, rethinking his whole plan, breath quivering in his throat, but remembered his vow not to waver. He felt the small charm warm against his chest in his pocket, and snuck out from behind the tents, toward the post where Epona waited.

She turned to him and snorted when he approached. He raised a hand, quieting her, and crept up to her side. He quickly scanned his immediate surroundings before giving her a reassuring pat on the cheek. He lay his hands on her harness, and with a deep breath, gathered his courage. He slipped his  trembling fingers around the knot that held her to her post and loosened it.

He froze, heart pounding somewhere near his throat. A slight shifting of sand, the swish of a cloak—Link was not alone. His breath left him, but he told himself he could not turn around, he could not hear the soft footsteps approach him. He knew who stood behind him, watching him fiddle with the horse’s halter, but he could not look. Slowly, he retightened the rope, his hand naturally moving to Epona’s cheek, and he started to stroke her. She blinked at him in confusion—his rigidity, the way his heart clanged against his ribcage like a drum, his warning whistle—all had told her he was up to something. She had fully expected excitement, and when Link did nothing but readjust her halter and give her a comforting pat on the face, she snorted almost derisively.

He was not particularly inclined to interpret her movements and sounds, not while the King stood and watched him. He could feel those intense eyes on his back, but he could not force himself to turn around. For what couldn’t have been longer than a minute or two, but what seemed like hours, the King stared at him. He tried his best to interact naturally with Epona, stroking her favorite spots, making sure she was comfortable, and pretending to feed her a pellet or two out of his hand.

When he was sure he’d pampered her for a reasonable amount of time, he turned. He feigned surprise when he saw the King standing a good distance away, wrapped in his desert cloak, backlit by the full red moon.

He fell to his knees, and the King motioned for him to rise, as usual. He looked up at the tall man, searching his features for any sign of suspicion, but all he saw was a mild, cynical amusement. The King waved at him to follow, and strode off toward the edge of the camp.

Link was not sure if he had the time to get on Epona’s back and ride off before the King could order his men to shoot him down. He hesitated, one foot toward the horse and the other toward the King, and his eyes flitted between the two. His charm of courage had gone cold in his breast pocket, and his heart fluttered weakly in his chest.

The King turned, giving a wide frown, as if inquiring as to what kept his servant busy enough to ignore his divine ruler. Link gulped, and after glancing back once more to the fire-red warhorse that stood calmly at her post, he followed his King out into the desert night.


The King Speaks

Chapter Text

*

"Two worms squirm in the sand,
they do not mate,
they do not fight
For they have no reason to.

They only write for us
in the sinking dune
an answer to a question
we have not asked.

At the end of the struggle (if it is a struggle)
one falls quietly to the earth;
the victor (if it is a victor)
leaves to us this knowledge:

There is, and has been,
one Worm,
for the Worm is eternal.”

Rubooru Bada, White Sand: The Collected Poetry of Obra Garud

*

 

Link hadn’t realized exactly how tired the King looked these past few weeks. The wrinkles in his face seemed to have deepened, the rings under his eyes darkened in the red moonlight. He seemed so weary as he stared at the walled city in the distance, jutting like crystals from the dunes.

He said nothing for a long time. He seemed satisfied with merely having someone stand beside him as he viewed the horizon.

“It’s strange. This is the town my great-grandfather left to conquer your land. And here I am, conquering it back.” He turned his face toward the moon. His eyes seemed like amber in the night, his beard like unworldly fire. “Sometimes I wish I could give it up. That I could lay down my sword and crown and wander into the sands, never to return.” He paused to smile. “But I will return. They say a Gerudo’s soul never leaves the desert, no matter how far he may wander. Perhaps mine is still out there. I suppose this is what I’m here to find out.”

The King watched the full moon for a while in silence, while Link stared at his boots. He occasionally glanced toward the distant city, wondering if he would be able to escape the camp before the soldiers awoke to begin their predawn duties. Perhaps, if the King was hasty with his monologuing, Link could leave during the changing of the night guard; that would be easiest—

“It is all about necessity, I suppose. Yes, that is what my grandmother used to tell me: this is my duty. All of it. The kingship, the campaigns, the executions and negotiations. All for unity.” He closed his eyes for a moment, and a harsh smile crossed his face. “The Gorons would not pay the necessary price for unity. The Zora were too cowardly to even think about facing it.” He turned to Link. “And what about you? Are you a coward?”

Link thought about the stables, about the yellow-haired girl, the trip to Kakariko, his ascent up Eldin, the months he spent under the Sheikahs’ tender care, the ride to the desert, his capture—and every time he’d faltered along the way. Yes, he answered inwardly. I am a coward.

“I don’t think you are.” Link lifted his eyes to the King’s, face contorted. The uncanny way the man answered his thoughts sent a shiver through him. “I can see that you’re not. You’ve been taught that cowardice is the only way to survive. And it is true, to an extent. But the mighty are never cowards. They are brave, and ruthless.” He turned again, but instead of facing the city of Obra Garud, his eyes wandered to the boundless horizon beyond it, where the red moon set rapidly. “Tomorrow, we follow the blood moon to the west. It is a place I do not wish to go, but perhaps there I will find what I need.”

Link blinked. He mulled over the King’s words rapidly in his head. If he were skipping the city altogether and going to the west, then whatever traps Ahnadib had laid for him he would not face;  whatever forces the Obra Garud army were mustering he would not fight. But he had mentioned he would be conquering the city… Perhaps it was a question of when, and from what direction. Link tried his best to hide his confusion, but the King met his stare, locking him there and examining him.

He heard a sound somewhere below them, in the trough of the dune. He ignored it, telling himself that he could not sense the sand shifting, could not hear the small sounds of frantic footsteps as something crept up the side of the hill. He told himself that he was not aware of the shallow intake of breath, the light grunt of a small throat.

The King turned, and Link, spying his cue, turned with him. Out of the darkness, from the shadows of the dune, tumbled a girl, barely older than a child. Her eyes narrowed angrily beneath her short-cropped red hair, her brown skin shone with sweat. Her lips drew back over gritted teeth, and she lifted a fist, something long and sharp clenched between her fingers. She positioned her knife blade-first, muscles flexing, and rushed toward the King, letting loose a harrowing screech.

Link stepped forward, reaching out a hand to stop her, but she focused solely and completely on her target. The King turned, stretching out a long arm quickly, almost leisurely, and gripped her about the throat. He lifted her from the ground, and with a gasp she started to kick. She swung the knife up at his arm, blade clanging against his armor, and seeing she could not cut through his metal plates, she dropped the knife and clutched at the hand around her throat. She kicked furiously, but her legs were barely longer than a child’s—a girl of her size, even if she landed a good strike, would not do much damage to a man like the King.

Link stepped forward, reaching out to the tall man, but he could not plead. He wasn’t sure if it was because he knew he could not risk exposing his ability to hear and speak, or because he was simply afraid to protest. But, as if in response to his agitated movements, the King loosened his grip on the girl’s throat.

“What brings you into my company at this late hour?” he asked through gritted teeth.

The girl gasped for air, face contorted in rage. “You… Your men… killed my mother.”

“I apologize. I’m sure it was nothing personal. But I’m also sure it was necessary.”

At this reply the girl screamed again, striking out furiously. The King tightened his grip, his mouth spreading into something that might have resembled a smile had it been on the face of anyone else. It seemed a reluctant grimace, almost an admission of defeat.

“Little assassin, this is all the knowledge I can give you before we part. Know what is necessary. Her death was, and so is yours.”

Link almost cried out. He flung himself toward them, reaching for the King’s unoccupied hand, so that he could not draw his blade and cut the girl down while she dangled helplessly at the end of his grip. But before Link could spring within reach of the King’s free arm, a sickening, blood-chilling snap echoed across the dunes. The girl’s legs stilled, and her head drooped limply, her arms falling to her sides. The King dropped her and she crumpled in the sand, legs curling under her, eyes staring blankly into the sky.

Link fell to his knees by her side, releasing a cry with an intensity that surprised even him. He reached to her wrists, her neck, to check if her blood still flowed, he smoothed back her hair from her eyes to see if there was any life left within them. Of course, he could find none.

He shook, turning to eye the King over his hunched shoulder. There was no triumph in his face, as Link would expect from a lesser man at besting his enemy, but he could see something of a derisive smile pass over his lips.

The King’s teeth shone in the light. “You really do like caring for animals.”

Link clenched his jaw, pale hand still gripping the dead girl’s wrist, and kept himself on his knees, kept his head down. It took all his strength to stop himself from getting up, grasping the knife the girl had held only moments before, and trying to finish what she started. But he just trembled, red-faced, as the King strode up behind him.

“Do not concern yourself with the dead,” he said. “It will do you no good.”

He knew he had no right to take up the girl’s weapon and finish her deed. She had thrown herself at the King blade-first, and he’d defended himself. But he didn’t need to kill her so ignobly, after she’d already dropped her knife. He didn’t need to take the time to impart wisdom to her before he snapped her neck. Link bit his lip, loosening his grip on the would-be assassin, and let the King pull him to his feet. He clenched his fists at his sides and averted his gaze from the monarch’s face, preferring to stare at the sand below him.

The King did not seem to mind. He turned away from Link, cape billowing in the desert wind, and retreated from the corpse. His gait was calm, joyless. Link, knowing he had no other choice, followed him back to camp, glancing back only once at the body of the young girl, deathly pale under the setting moon.

*

For days, Haema spoke of nothing but Link’s complicity in the assassination attempt. But after smacking him around a bit, getting no answers from the frightened, confused stableboy, who had no means of relaying instructions to an accomplice, he and other officers had to admit that the girl had acted alone.

It was generally agreed upon that no militant Gerudo faction would send a girl so young and weak to tackle a threat as big as the King of Hyrule. It certainly hadn’t been the work of Ahnadib; she knew better. The items recovered from the dead girl—her golden knife, her shining jewels and silken clothes—designated her likely a wealthy child from Onrago. It was presumed her family had died in the battle or been displaced by another family loyal to their new King.

“We have left many such orphans, rich and poor,” Link overheard the King say to one of his officers as they burned the girl’s body. “Such is the way of war. You spare the children, and they only seek revenge. To let them live is to offer your own life, in a way.”

“Perhaps we should not spare even the children, then,” the officer replied.

Link did not see the look the King gave the man, but he knew it was something of a glare of disapproval.

With the girl dead and burned, and her motives and origin somewhat easy to guess, Link was exonerated and left again to tend to Epona. But despite the widespread acceptance that he had nothing to do with the assassination attempt except for having been with the King in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was kept on a tight leash.

Gorman, as well as a few other men, were tasked with watching him night and day, and when they put him to work, there was always a guard or two keeping an eye on him (of course, ever since his mysterious arrival at the King’s camp, it was ordered that he be watched every hour of the day, but since Link had made their duties so easy, the guards had neglected them, for the most part). He knew, under this renewed watch, he would not have an opportunity to ride to Obra Garud unseen. He had squandered his chance when he had chosen to accompany the King on his walk rather than jump on Epona’s back and gallop off, taking his chances with the royal archers and the pack of hounds that would no doubt follow him to the city.

He spent nearly a day chastising himself for both his lack of skill and his bad luck. If only he’d left the officers’ tent earlier, or later, the King might not have found him at Epona’s post. If he’d done the courageous thing and attempted to take the horse while her lead was still loosened, he might’ve been able to outrun the guards—after all, in the King’s own words, Epona the country’s fastest and most fearless mount. He spent hours berating himself as he worked, trying to ignore the burn of watchful eyes on his back.

But by the time three days had passed, when the excitement had died down and the King continued his preparations to march into the west, Link had recovered from the initial disappointment of his failure. He might not have another chance to escape to Obra Garud, but the King’s attack on the city seemed at least a while into the future, if he was planning on making his way into the western desert first. Link could not guess what lay in wait for the King out in those empty sands, but his cryptic words about souls and spirits and the desert’s ancient, magical wind echoed in his head.

He was not sure if he was supposed to accompany the King into the wilderness or not—it appeared as if the route they would take was long, dangerous, and without water. Some men admitted that it would be best to leave the horses in the care of the stablehands while they rode better-suited beasts into the sands. Since they could not secure dromedaries from Obra Garud, with its wide, metal gates shut to them, they decided to pick out the strongest and fastest among their own stock, already worn down by the journey from Onrago.

Link sometimes watered and fed these animals, but they did not seem to require much care, especially from a boy like him, who knew only about horses and hounds and other animals commonly found in the Capital. He doubted the King would take him along—so whatever it was in the wide desert that had attracted the monarch’s attention would remain a mystery to him.

Link just did his work, silently, glumly. Sometimes, if he kept his eyes closed for too long, he’d see the face of the girl from the desert, neck twisted, pupils unmoving under the bright moon. When he thought about her too hard, he’d find himself gripping his broom, his brush, or his own wrist with such frustration his knuckles would whiten. Sometimes the face of the little assassin blurred, and he’d see the features of the yellow-haired girl, expressionless on that brown skin.

His ire and sullenness was not lost on the other stablehands. Sometimes he’d overhear them talking about him, sometimes catch them staring at him as he did his furious work. He didn’t have the inclination to stare back, or to wave them away; he just continued his duties, faithful as ever. In his head, he tried to conceive an alternate plan, to find a way to attempt a second escape. But nothing came to him. His head was empty except for the King, his work, and the two faces of the girls, so different in shape, color and circumstances, but both with the sinking universality of death in their eyes.

He had no escape route, no recourse, no resolve left. The little charm Merel had given him sat useless in his pocket, and his heart could gather no courage from it. Even Epona seemed to know he’d given up, and despite her occasional nuzzles and snorts, she did not attempt to cheer or reinvigorate him. She could probably sense it was too late.

It had always amazed him how horses could be so right so often.


The Little Assassin

 

Chapter Text

*

“A friend once told me that Obra Garud was the most luxurious city this side of the world. But while we praise it for its lush lounges, mouthwatering delicacies, bathhouses and other meaningless pleasures, we must not forget its rich culture of the arts. There are dozens of schools of dance, thousands of public mosaics, a long tradition of poetry, some of the world’s most beautiful architecture—and all this originates from what was once just a hideout for outlaws. I have only danced once in Obra Garud, and I will never forget the event. Or at least, I would like to say I will never forget it. Even one night of the best Gerudo wine will make you forget almost anything.”

Errachella, Eldine Performer

*

 

Two nights after the assassination attempt, and the night before the King was to leave for the deep desert, the stables received unexpected visitors.

Caravans making their way from Onrago to Obra Garud were not unusual. Many bands of travelers, traders, mercenaries, and wanderers without homes had followed the King’s march westward, along the great winding road between the two cities. They attached and detached themselves to the train of soldiers at oases and hamlets, safe from bandits in the shadow of the army. They were a common sight at the edge of camp, but rarely did they make their way inside the cantonment.

So it was somewhat surprising when a trio of Gerudo civilians appeared at the stable, ragged from traveling and caked with dust. Their apparent leader was a young woman with short-cropped hair and bright golden eyes. She did not wear the usual cotton and leather of her traveling countrywomen, nor did she wear plates of shining armor—instead she was draped in a silk robe, more suited to a palace than the long road across the desert. Her anklets and bracelets jingled pleasantly as she knocked on the posts that comprised the temporary stable.

Gorman was not sure what to make of her. He took one look at her delicate stance, at the jewels adorning her face and hands, and decided she was a ransom, some noblewoman’s daughter, who’d escaped her prison tent and wandered off. He almost called for the guards when one of his underlings, an excitable black-haired stablehand, emerged from the shadows with a welcoming grin.

“Wait, wait, I know her,” he said, trotting up to them. The woman smiled at him thankfully, and he took her hand. “We’ve met before. She’s with one of the caravans that came from Onrago.”

“That’s right,” she said. Her voice was soft, colored a little by the languages of the desert, but she spoke Hylian very well. “We didn’t make it to Obra Garud before they shut their gates—and they won’t open them even for peaceful travelers.”

“Well, can you blame ‘em?” the stablehand laughed. “They’ve got the world’s mightiest army at their door; they’re probably scared shitless.”

A subtle look of disdain passed over the woman’s face, but no one seemed to notice. It hovered over her features for a fraction of a moment before she settled into a shy smile. “I suppose so. But we’re camped a little ways away. The others didn’t want to come too close to your encampment, but we’ve run out of food and can’t make the trip back to Onrago. I thought… if you had any left… since you know me, you might… you know…” She drifted off, cheeks reddening slightly.

“I’ll see what I can do for you,” the black-haired man said. “There ought to be some food left in the officers’ mess.”

“Three of us, we have. My accompaniment must eat too.” She gestured to the two Gerudo standing behind her. One was male, with a traditional guitar across his back, the other was a curly-haired woman, with striking eyes and a face Link almost recognized. He stared at her for a moment, wondering if he had seen her in Onrago, if she was a child of an old family there, like the little girl who had tried to kill the King…

“Aye, I can get them some, too,” the man laughed. “If I’m stealing food for one, might as well be stealing food for three. Punishment’s the same.”

“Thank you. Such kindness,” the woman smiled. “We will repay you, of course.” She nodded to the guitarist and he opened a small satchel at his side, in which Link spied the glint of colored glass. “We have some vintage from Silk… it is quite nice, but one cannot feed oneself on wine alone.”

“I’d beg to differ,” the black-haired man replied. “Wait here, I’ll get you and your musicians some grub.”

When the stableman slipped off into the shadows, Gorman turned to the woman. “So, how do you know him again?”

“A little more than halfway to Obra Garud, our caravan came upon your army. He and I met on the road, and he gave us a gold coin to perform for him.”

“Perform?”

“We’re a troupe from Onrago.” She lifted her head, pride glowing in her lovely brown features. “I’m a fire-dancer, and this is my accompaniment. We were on our way to Obra Garud to make a name for ourselves there.”

“Quite poor timing, I should say,” Gorman admitted.

The woman lowered her eyes. “Yes, well, war and hunger do not wait for you, so you cannot wait for them either.” She paused. “But I have no doubt your King of Hyrule will settle this quickly and peacefully. I don’t think even Ahnadib will have the means to resist an army like this.”

Gorman seemed to relax a little. “So… traveling musicians trying to make it in the big city, eh?” he smiled, scratching the back of his head. “That’s a familiar story. You ever heard of Errachella?”

“Of course,” she answered. Something of a smile passed over her colored lips. “Every performer looks up to her. Especially considering her disability.”

“Well, we have our own deaf worker here, and he seems to do all right.”

At Gorman’s gesture, her bright yellow eyes glanced over to Link. They were intense, full of a heat he was not sure he understood, so he avoided them—he found himself looking deeply into the spaces between his sandaled toes. “Does that one dance like Errachella, though?” the woman asked.

“I’m afraid not.”

Link felt her gaze bore into him, and he sank further into himself, crumpling under her stare. “Perhaps I will teach him,” she answered. “He will be skipping the halls of the gentry in Obra Garud with me by tomorrow’s end.” 

“Doubt it.” The black-haired stableman had returned, some leftovers in hand. He passed out the bowls to the woman and her companions, and they all ate eagerly. “Goddess’ love,” the guitarist murmured, “I was so hungry.”

“Now how about some of that payment?” the stablehand asked, reaching for the leather sack.

Three slender bottles appeared, opened before they were even laid upright. The wine began passing from hand to hand, inverting itself as the liquid poured down the throats of every stablehand there. More servants appeared like vultures, drawn to the sound of a cork popping or the rare sound of lively conversation.

“So what is a fire-dancer?” Gorman asked, stealing a bottle back from an eager ditch-digger.

Before the woman or her companions could answer, the black-haired stablehand stepped in. “Saw her dance once on the way here, it’s wild what she does. Wild. Worth a coin or two to see.”

“Is that so?”

“Fire-dancing is a tradition that has been passed down for generations,” the woman said, mouth half full, a ball of rice pinched between long fingernails. “Ten thousand years ago, when the world was nothing but desert and ocean and sky, a blind oracle wandered the sands—”

“Really, Gorman, it’s a sight,” the black-haired man said.

“Let her finish, boy!” Gorman slapped the young stablehand upside the head, and he quieted down.

The dancer smiled, glancing back to her accompaniment. The guitarist seemed preoccupied with his food, but the flautist exchanged a knowing look with her. There was something strange in her stare, but Link could not quite place it. It stirred anxiety in him, but not fear. Somehow, her face was more compelling than it was disquieting.

“In those days,” the dancer continued, “the nights were so cold, the wind so bitter, that even the moon turned to ice. Families, flocks, whole towns would die in the night, frozen to their own blankets. It was a miserable world, back then. So the wandering oracle prayed to Din, the goddess of the blazing sun, and the goddess took pity on her. She descended from the heavens and gave the oracle the gift of flames—and bestowed heat upon the world.”

“I thought fire came from the dragons,” a stablehand said, raising the wine bottle to his mouth.

“What, you believe the old Goron stories?” another retorted.

“Fire comes from flint, you idiots,” muttered a third.

This fire came from Din,” the dancer said. “She gifted her people with a flame that burns without wood, and that cannot be doused. Only through that flame have we survived in this world, and only through dance has the memory of the event been preserved.”

“So the oracle taught everyone else to do it, huh?” Gorman tried his best to preserve the thread of the conversation as his increasingly inebriated underlings argued about the veracity of old Goron tales of dragons and torch slugs.

“She did—” the woman stopped when the wine made its way into Link’s hands. Before he could bring the bottle to his mouth, she raised a bejeweled palm. “No, no, not for him, he is too young.”

Link looked into her eyes, saw the seriousness with which she addressed him, and a deep suspicion curled in his gut. He looked down to the bottle, at the shining glass and the liquid inside, then back up at the performers. The flautist wore a sincere look on her face—concern, perhaps, but certainly not for his wellbeing.

These were not ordinary musicians. They brought with them the scent of secrecy, an sense of wrongness he could not quite piece together. There was a plot crawling in the shadows behind the cantonment, and he was sure it was prowling for him. Whether that was good or bad, he could not guess.

He did not drink.

“Shouldn’t waste wine on him anyway,” one of the workers said.

“Would be funny to see how he handles it, though,” laughed a stablehand. “Bet you he chokes like an infant.”

“Come on,” Gorman said. “The poor boy has been rather down lately. He needs a good wine.”

“In my country,” the dancer answered, “It is considered uncivil to allow children to drink.”

“Won’t be your country for much longer,” one worker muttered under his breath. He reached over and plucked the wine from Link’s hands.

“He deserves it for his hard work as much as any of us,” Gorman replied. “Asides, he’s not a child—”

“Yeah, give him a little, see how he takes it!”

A shuffling of feet sounded behind him, and Link saw the flautist’s golden eyes widen. Rough hands gripped him and, laughing, one of the ditch-diggers reached up to grasp his jaw. Before he could protest, his face was yanked upward, his mouth pinched open, and a generous portion of wine splashed down his throat.

He had had some strong Old Riko whisky, and some heavy rice wine from Kakariko, but none had burned his mouth like this. He froze, fire dripping down his chin as the ditch-digger clamped his jaw shut. He cringed as the burning sensation forced its way down his gullet and into his stomach, and when the man released him, he gripped his neck, sputtering desperately. Then the wine, and the shock of its forceful entry, stilled in his stomach.

Link’s face must’ve been something to behold, since the entire stable began to laugh at his expense—except for the Gerudo performers. The dancer merely glanced back at her accompaniment, as if for instructions. The flautist nodded solemnly, and the guitarist gave an indifferent shrug.

“That was cruel,” the dancer said, stepping forward and snatching the bottle from the brazen ditch-digger.

“He enjoyed it,” the man replied. He opened his mouth to laugh, but before he could, the dancer tipped the bottle to her own lips. She held the wine in her cheeks for half a second, then leaned forward and spat her mouthful into the air.

The wine burst into flame as soon as it passed the dancer’s colored lips. A wave of heat tore through the stable as each droplet popped into a searing light, twisting and condensing to form a column of hungry fire—aimed directly at the ditch-digger.

The man raised his arms in desperate defense, ducking as the flames curled and roared above him, dissipating smokeless into the air. He dropped to the sandy floor, eyes wide, as the dancer hovered over him, preparing to take another swig.

“You mad bitch!” the man nearly screamed, but before he could scramble away or retaliate, the black-haired stablehand stood, laughing and applauding.

“I told you all it was worth seeing,” he said. His enthusiastic clapping elicited a round of cautious applause from the stablehands, and, after a moment of embarrassed silence, even the ditch-digger let out a chuckle. The dancer, after giving her victim one last glare, turned back to her audience and bowed deeply.

“More!” one of the men shouted. “Do some more!”

“Give us something to drink to!” another put in.

The woman looked to her accompaniment, and after a moment of indecision, both began to play. The guitarist struck a passionate cord, the flautist raised her instrument to her lips, and a sweet, rhythmic melody rang out. Link pretended he couldn’t hear, but the tune brought some relief to his stomach, where the heat of the wine still ached in him. He almost recognized the song—the trills and arpeggios of the flute reminded him of the gurgling of the streams around Kakariko, and the notes wound around the harsh strums of the guitar like a river.

The dancer waited for a downbeat, nodding her head twice before dropping her weight, and her robe. She twisted the silk mantle around her shoulder, glistening with jewels and gold chains, and let it fall to the feet of the musicians. She pulled her arms loose of its bell sleeves, revealing two gargantuan bracelets, wider than fetters and composed of brilliant gold. She spun them around her jingling arms, each great circle traveling from elbow to wrist and back again. The torchlight shone like suns in the golden rings, and a cheer rose up from the stablehands as they clanked together, summoning a hot spark.

The tiny glint of fire grew, pulsating with each beat of the music. The dancer twisted around it, orbiting that small star, before raising her arms and striking her bracelets together again. Two more flames licked to life from the sparks, floating gently with the rises and falls of the flute and the movements of the dancer’s hips. She pulled her sash from her waist and swirled it around the three flames, cradling them, weaving the silk between them. A few men gasped—Link among them, since he was so sure the blood-red sash would catch fire.

Miraculously, the silk passed through the flames untouched, but the fires began to grow. Without wood or cloth to burn, Link did not know how the floating orbs survived, but with each turn of the woman’s body, with each thump of her sandaled feet, the pulsations of the lights grew more intense. The stablehands were transfixed—the lights flickered in their eyes as the torches around them grew dimmer, nearly diminishing to candle flames as the dancer’s fire grew.

She twirled and swayed, unwinding the sash from the lights and holding it above her head, following its translucent length through the air. Both the woman and her fire seemed to merge into one being, one smooth, eternally moving entity. Link sat dumbfounded at the dancer’s movement, at the way her gold-clad feet lifted and fell, at the way the silk danced like a small, crimson river. At one point she inverted herself, legs rolling over her in one smooth motion, back bending, and when she twisted upright again, Link could not for the life of him figure out how she’d done it. He was so enthralled, the sounds of the music seemed to fade away into nothing, leaving only the dancer, only the strange story she told with her movements. It was a lovely, almost spiritual dance, and Link could see the movements of the ancient oracle in it, alight with Din’s fire and spreading it to the four corners of the cold, empty world.

The stables were silent now, apart from the strumming of the guitar and the lilting flute, and the only light to be seen was that of the dancer herself. She slowed, lulling the fire into a sleepy, circular rhythm, dozens of eyes watching her, glazed, entranced. The torches burnt down to nothing, flickering into smoky darkness, and the entire stable smeared into a vertiginous blur. Everything grew hazy but the dancer—even the twangs of the guitar bent in the air, played as though through molten waves of heat.

Then Link heard the clink of the bottle hitting the ground. He turned to see the Silk wine roll unnoticed at the feet of the black-haired stablehand. The man’s stare was empty, his mouth open, his eyes half-closed, his fingers flexing and relaxing where they once held the neck of the bottle. He swayed on his little stool, unaware of anything but the dancing lights. The rest of the workers weren’t much better—Gorman’s head dangled forward, swaying, and the ditch-digger rocked on his heels in the sand, eyes closed. His face was blurred, and shadows streaked like charcoal across them.

Panic started to move in Link’s gut. His own head began to spin, and when he looked at his feet, the world seemed to shift under them. His hands shook, a bead of sweat dripped down his forehead, and he glanced to the dancer, the only figure that was still clear in his sight. He stared into her yellow irises, bright against the purple makeup that surrounded them, and he saw no mirth in her face. Instead, he saw determination, solemnity, displeasure.

He should’ve recognized it sooner. He should’ve known not to let the dancer’s smiles and the flautist’s music reassure him. They had tricked him as thoroughly as they had tricked the rest of the workers—though he had the audacity to think he could see through it. The lurking plot, he realized, had nothing to do with him. These assassins were merely sent to raid the royal camp in disguise, to poison the King’s men and animals, perhaps to poison the King himself.

And Link could not tell them he was not their target, that he was their ally, that he did not deserve this death—he couldn’t move his mouth, he couldn’t move at all. He could only bob his head and moan, numbed with anger and disappointment.

His escape, his education, his climb up Eldin—all of it had been for nothing. He would die here with the other powerless, loyal servants, a nameless corpse among thousands of nameless corpses piling up behind the King’s army.

This is what I get for my cowardice, he thought, as the world darkened around him.

To die in the service of the King, another voice inside him answered, is the noblest of deaths.

But it’s not my death.

One of the men beside him fell off his stool onto the sandy ground. The flute had stopped playing, but the guitar continued, strumming quietly as the world broke into white-hot pieces.

“On your feet.”

Two brands gripped his elbows, burning his skin as they tugged him toward the fiery haze. He saw the dancer above him, body swaying with the undulations of the music, fires pulsating obediently at her back, warding off the darkness.

“Move, boy. Keep moving your feet, stay awake for me.”

He couldn’t. The fire had consumed the dancer now, crawling across her face and hair, and she held him against her, burning. He could not tell if he was dancing too, or if the world danced around him as he lay completely still.

“Shit, I knew this would happen.”

He recognized the voice, but he couldn’t wrestle meaning from the tangles of words in his mind. He just groaned, head spinning, stomach turning.

“Hold his arms—he’s gonna—”

He was burning alive. He didn’t know who to call for help. He opened his mouth to shout the King’s name, but nothing emerged.

“Oh gods, drag him—”

Link thought he saw the face of the sun, the bright, Gerudo face of the goddess Din, and begged her to let him go. He did not want to die here, as a slave, as a casualty in this attempt on the King’s life. He did not want to be burned on the pyre, ashes to blow away in the night wind.

“Quickly! I’ll signal…”

The hallucinatory shape of a shadowy Eldine wolf hovered before him, composed of formless words, blinking with molten-red eyes. The only way home is in death. You will be better for it.

“Before they wake up…”

Will I?

He struggled to breathe.

“This… wrong…”

“How did…”

The words faded in Link’s head as the white light consumed him.


The Dancer

Chapter Text

*

“Medicine man, cut up my skin,
Doctor witch, burn away my sin,
I’ll pay gold and silver rupee
To cure this sickness that is me.”

Folksong of the Plains Provinces

*

 

“I warned you it was potent.”

The voice sounded familiar, but still too distant for Link to pin down. He tried to move his legs,  tried to struggle toward the sound (sometimes the idea of sound still surprised and bewildered him), but he couldn’t.

Am I home?

You’re the physician. If you were that worried you should’ve gone yourself.”

Link groaned, pain churning up from inside him, and his throat burned horribly. He spasmed, blind, and clenched his fists.

“Oh, gods, all over himself.”

“Lucky there wasn’t much left in his stomach.”

“That’s hardly a comfort.”

Link could swear he could place the voices, he could see the faces from which they came, but only  hazily. The only distinction he could draw between them were shapes etched in red. He saw a three-pronged symbol, he saw thick stripes over cheekbones, he saw the diamond mark of a healer, and he saw two eyes, painted red and glowing slightly, staring back at him, the long red tear from each twitching as its owner squinted.

Palo, Link said in his head. He wanted to ask if he had come home, if he was dead. Maybe Palo could only see him through those red tattoos, on the other side of the veil of death. Maybe he would be able to tell the others that Link was sorry. Sorry he abandoned them, sorry he could not stop the King’s march into the desert, sorry he had died so ignobly—a helpless servant murdered by nothing more than a passing troupe of musicians.

“Hey, he’s twitching a little.”

“Get him water. Get him lots of it.”

Something cool touched his lips. The acidic taste of vomit still sat on his tongue, but when someone pinched his mouth open and poured down fresh, cold water, he drank it eagerly. With each gulp, the pain in his stomach subsided a little, and he slowly ascended from deep unconsciousness. He swallowed, sensation returning to his tongue, his face, his hands and chest.

When he had control of his eyes again, he opened them fully. He could make out a few shapes emerging from the light, colored with a haze of confusion. Link did not have the strength to try to wipe the blurriness out of his eyes, so he squinted as best he could. Slowly, recognizable features materialized.

The first face he saw looming above him, wearing a contrite frown, was the dancer’s.

“She… killed me,” Link croaked. The water had helped, but his throat still burned with the effort of speaking.

“She certainly tried to,” came the reply. It was a deep, male voice, wholly unfamiliar to him, and when the face it belonged to emerged from the blurry shadows, it took Link a minute to recognize it. “You were not supposed to drink the wine.”

“That wasn’t my fault,” the dancer replied. “And besides, he’s fine now.”

“T… alporom,” Link croaked, slowly.

Impa’s father gazed down at him, red eyes narrowed severely. His mouth was drawn taut in what Link surmised might be frustration, but might’ve been deep thought. He started to mutter as he held his hand to Link’s forehead, checking for fever.

“We… rescued you…” Link muttered, attempting to recall that night.

“Well, you tried. My poor daughters don’t know when to let a man plan his own escape,” he said, fingers still probing Link’s forehead. “They come careening in after me the first sign of danger—it’s like they don’t trust me. They think me a frail old man.”

Suddenly Link realized that there were a few people missing from this scene, people he would very much like to see. “Where’s Impa…” he rasped.

“She’s here. So is Talm, so is Palo. They’re all fine.” Link sighed and closed his eyes. “No, that does not give you leave to fall back asleep.” He grit his teeth as the strong hands of the physician pulled him up, propping him against the pillow at his back. “You need to tell me how you feel.”

The more vertical Link moved, the harder his head throbbed. He lifted a fist and held it to his burning temple. “Not… good.”

“Not a surprise. Do you still feel like you’re going to vomit?”

“No.”

“How about the pain?”

“Just… in my head.”

“What did you dream about?”

The last question caught Link by surprise. He lifted his wide eyes to Talporom, momentarily forgetting the pain. “I didn’t. I don’t usually—”

“Good. Sometimes the serum can traumatize a man from the mind out. I’ve read it can give you images that stay with you, if you take too much.” He paused for a moment to eye the dancer with disapproval. She threw up her jingling hands and rolled her eyes. She stepped back into the hazy dark, and Talporom again turned his attention to Link. “Can you stand up?”

“Maybe… I… how did I…”

“Save your breath. For now, focus on getting your legs out from under the covers. There you go.”

Sternly, but with a gentleness that surprised him, Talporom helped him out of the small cot. He seemed to be under a curved white tarp, beams of sun creeping in through its holes and tears, lighting the thick dust like snow. The base of the tent-like structure was made of creaking wood, and opposite him, he spied a round, closed door.

He coughed and rubbed his eyes, before Talporom grasped one of his arms and offered support. Link’s arm could barely fit over the man’s broad shoulders, but he accepted the help as he was escorted out of bed and to his feet. He took a few steps toward the door, looking down at himself, at his bare toes, bare chest and greenish skin, and wondered how long he’d been asleep, and how sick he’d really been.

Talporom reached out and pushed the door open, flooding Link’s vision with harsh sunlight. He lifted a hand over his eyes and stepped forward into empty air. Talporom caught him, supported him and lowered him to the ground, and when Link’s frantic heartbeat slowed, he turned to see he had stumbled out of a large wagon. High walls of dark stone surrounded the small, dirt square, crossed with wagon tracks and footprints. A few other vehicles in what he guessed was the dancer’s caravan stood around the perimeter of the square.

Next to one, seemingly deep in thought, stood Impa. She cupped her chin in one hand, decked in an odd mixture of Sheikah and Gerudo garb. She turned when she heard him emerge from the wagon, and for a moment, his heart stopped. He could only imagine how angry she would be, how frustrating and disappointing his capture must’ve been to her. He worried for a moment that she knew all about his  inner betrayal, about the weeks in the King’s camp he’d spent dangerously close to contentment.

But when she saw him, a large, relieved smile crossed her face. She strode toward him, arms spreading, and his heart again pounded into regularity. She practically ripped him from her father to squeeze him tight, before releasing him and laying  a hand on his shoulder.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“I think so,” he replied, unsure.

She still smiled at his answer. “Welcome to Obra Garud.”

*

They had saved his things. In the wagons of the dancer’s caravan, he found his sword and shield, his hunting bow, some of his clothes, and Talporom’s old green hat (the man had said that Link was more than welcome to have it—in fact, he had long since forgotten it existed). Although few of his clothes would  do him good in the desert heat, he was still thankful when Impa told him she’d kept them. It comforted him to know that she’d had enough faith in his survival to bother looking after his old things. According to her, the others had not been so sure.

“During the raid, when we saw you were missing, Talm and I wanted to go back to help you,” she told him. “The prisoners went on ahead with Palo, and we doubled back to see if we could find you. You’d already disappeared, and we couldn’t stick around to wait for you. I’m sorry.”

Link shook his head. He rubbed the back of his neck where some bug had bitten him earlier in the afternoon, and leaned against the side of the wagon. The others were elsewhere in the dimly lit courtyard, procuring food and water for the night. “You always told me how important it is to stick to a plan. You did what you could without risking everyone.”

“So you have learned a thing or two in these past months. Yes, I had to get to the rendezvous point with the prisoners. By that time we knew the King would rally his troops and try to track down Ahnadib’s camp. So we set off toward Onrago.”

Link knew that had been a part of her plan, but he still could not stop a pang of guilt from pulsing through him when he thought about how he’d pointed out the camp’s location to the King and his men.

“Of course,” Impa continued, “we worried about you, but when the siege of Onrago started, we had no time to linger and see if you were with the army. We had to get out the west gate and deeper into the desert. We could not know if you were taken prisoner or killed—there was no reason for us to think they would spare you. Don’t tell him I told you this, but every once in a while I’d find Palo out in the desert, scouring it for your spirit. He never found you, but he was still convinced you were dead. It wasn’t until Ahnadib introduced us to Galra that we had any hope of finding out.”

“Galra?”

“She’s our dancer. She followed the army for a while in her caravan, spying for us. I told her to keep an eye out for you, and she reported to me the most peculiar thing. She said there was a deaf worker matching your description at the camp, caring for the King’s warhorse.”

Link tried to hide the self-accusatory grimace as he stuttered to explain. “Impa, I—” 

“It was clever of you,” she said, before he could throw himself down that particular hole. “And you kept up the act for so long. An admirable deception.” He lifted his eyes to her wide smile. “I wanted to come for you the moment I heard you were alive, but we were still out in the desert in Galra’s caravan.  If the King decided to come after us, we only had a few tarps and camels to use as protection. Ahnadib told us to wait until we got to Obra Garud so we’d have a wall to retreat behind, even if the gates were closed to everyone else—I tell you that woman’s got more connections in high places than you can imagine. When Galra offered to act for us, I asked my father to give her the means to get you back.”

“She insisted.” Talporom’s voice echoed suddenly across the square, and he emerged from one of the wagons with a large basket of flatbread in his hands. He knelt across from his daughter and Link, unrolling a ratty carpet over the dirt and setting the basket on it. “I have to say I wondered why both my daughters—and Palo, even—insisted so adamantly that we rescue you. I hadn’t heard any reports of your skill or exploits, I didn’t even know who you were.” He paused to call Talm to the meal. She arrived with Palo, carrying a bowl of reddish paste and a jug of water, and sat down next to them. “But if Impa has even a sliver of the insight my mother had, I have an obligation to listen to her.”

“Never mind the rest of us were saying the same thing,” Talm said bitterly. She ripped a piece of bread and dipped it into the paste. “I could barely believe it when I heard the news. Had to go see it for myself.”

Link stared at her a moment, realization washing over him. “You came for me. You were the flautist.”

She gave him a wink. “Unrecognizable, wasn’t I?”

He smiled. “I wouldn’t have ever known… you looked so Gerudo. There was something familiar about you, but…”

“Something familiar?” she sighed in what might’ve been disappointment. “Maybe I really do need to work on my disguises.”

“You are truly skilled in your craft,” Talporom said. “But you are far from a master.”

“You shouldn’t lecture me on mastery of my craft when you can barely heal a simple winter sickness.” Talm stuffed her bread into her mouth defiantly.

Impa smacked her sister upside the head, but Talporom just frowned, pulling the food toward him. “It was a complex illness contracted by a girl too foolish to dress for Eldine winter. Must you always bring that up?” he pushed the food toward Link. “Have some, boy.”

Link’s stomach rumbled loudly as he reached for some bread. He did not know how long he’d gone without food. “H… how long was I… sick?”

“About a day and a half,” Talporom answered. “Longer than anticipated. I expect the rest of the stable might be coming to about now.”

“So… they’ll be all right?” Link asked.

“As ‘all right’ as you. Their awakenings will be much worse than yours, depending on how much they drank.”

“Same rules as every other intoxicant,” Palo laughed quietly.

“Now that your ordeal is over,” Talporom continued, “I need you to tell me everything. You had free reign of the camp, or so Galra tells us. Everything you saw or heard, you will relay to me and Ahnadib.”

Link glanced up at him, all his plans and resolutions reemerging in his head. He nodded, thankful that the Sheikah man seemed only concerned with what information Link could give him, rather than his inner motivations and duplicitous actions. If anything, Talporom was practical, like his daughter, and Link could only hope he did not hold grudges. 

“Tonight, if she can see us, we will talk to her. No doubt she’ll finally convince the Obra Garud council to pull themselves together. Even those gilded fools will have to know everything they can about the King’s plans if we want to survive the coming siege.”

Link swallowed, hesitating for a moment. “But… that’s what’s strange,” he said. “The King won’t attack the city. Not yet.”

Mouths abruptly stopped chewing, and four pairs of red eyes stared at him. He flushed a little, worried that he’d said something stupid. But he continued anyway, recalling what the monarch had told him. “He’s going west, past the city and into the desert. I heard a guard say Haema was going to keep an eye on things, to keep the troops ready, just in case. He’s only taking a few soldiers with him, and some camels.”

Talporom knit his brow, resting his chin in his hand thoughtfully. “The west? Sounds like he’s heading for the Haunted Waste. Not even the Gerudo go out there anymore.”

“He told me some weird things about spirits and the desert when he talked about it—“

“Wait,” Palo nearly laughed. “The King said things to you, personally? He took time out of his day to talk to you?”

“He thought I was deaf.”

“Still—“

“Perhaps a man like him has no one else to confide in,” Impa suggested.

“Now, why would you think that?” Palo asked, and she shrugged, resuming her meal.

“This is some unexpected news,” Talporom said. “Ahnadib should hear it.” He made a move to get up, but Impa gripped his sleeve.

“At least finish eating,” she said.

He smiled and settled back down, taking another piece of bread and scooping some paste with it.“Yes, all right. Gods forbid I disobey my eldest.” He took another bite, smile disappearing only when Talm released an annoyed sigh and rolled her eyes at him.

*

Link did not have much time to admire the architecture and culture of Obra Garud as Talporom led him through the streets. The building in which Ahnadib had taken up residence was near the center of the city, where the fresh, blue water flowed freely, bubbling up from the generous oasis at the heart of the metropolis. Talporom led him down a few back streets, clean and framed with decorative awnings, plants hanging like falling water from windowsills. He stopped at a tall, slender door, more of an intricate screen than anything, decorated with the shapes of crescent moons and soaring birds. Talporom rapped twice, and an unfamiliar Gerudo face appeared on the other side of the screen.

“Welcome back,” the woman muttered, unlocking the door for him. “Ahnadib wasn’t expecting you, so I can’t guarantee she can speak with you immediately.”

“That’s fine. We’ll wait here.”

The woman nodded and left them standing in the small entrance hall, under the warmth of the arched, torchlit white ceiling, adorned with simple mosaics. A pair of tall plants with large, fan-like leaves stood at the doorway where the woman disappeared, silk curtain shuddering behind her. The smell of something spicy met Link’s nostrils, and he suddenly wished he hadn’t wasted his appetite on the filling but undeniably bland paste he’d shared with the Sheikah.

They didn’t wait long. The woman reemerged from behind the curtain of blue silk and beckoned them, turning on her gold-clad feet and leading them deeper into the building. At the other end of the hall, beyond a pink-lit doorway, Ahnadib waited, surrounded by a room so decorated in silk tapestries and ropes of gold it seemed more of a tent than a building. She sat back in a chair of intricate wood, carved much like the screen of her door, and beside her lounged Galra, dressed again in her long purple robe. A few steaming bowls of saffron rice, curry, fresh bread and wine sat on the table and set Link’s stomach to rumbling all over again.

“If you wish, you may seat yourself and eat,” Ahnadib said. “There is more than enough.” She reached out a bejeweled hand and took a piece of bread.

“No thank you, we’ve eaten already.” Link deflated a little at Talporom’s quick reply.

“Very well. Tell me what news your friend has brought back.” Ahnadib broke her bread, eyeing Link with something of a mildly sadistic grin. “I heard Galra tried to murder you with her awful dancing.”

Galra laughed nervously. “Mother, please.”

Talporom frowned. “Whatever went wrong, on my part or your daughter’s, is in the past now. We have him back and he will recount for you whatever he can.” He nodded at Link and the Hylian stepped forward, trying not to let the smell of the food distract him from his memories.

It felt strange to talk at length after remaining silent for so long, and his voice was hoarse with disuse, but he told Ahnadib everything he knew. He told her of what he’d overheard from the guards, what the King himself had said to him, the offhand comments of Haema and the other officers, the grumbles of the workmen, the gossip of the Gerudo girls who came to beg or bargain with the soldiers. Most of it was utterly useless, Link knew, but he still told Ahnadib everything he thought might be relevant.

When he was done, he saw that the bread she’d broken remained uneaten in her hand. She stared at him, yellow eyes flaring intensely, and frowned. “Are you sure he said he was going to the west?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he answered. “It sounded like he was looking for something.”

“From the activity in his camp, it seems like he doesn’t want us to know he’s leaving,” Galra said quietly, leaning over to her mother.

“There are few things a man like him can seek in the Haunted Waste, and none of them bode well for us.” Ahnadib paused for a moment, stroking her generous second chin. Her eyes narrowed, her wrinkled mouth pursed. “Does he have a guide?”

“I think so,” Link answered.

“He had better, or else he’s not coming back from those sands.” She looked at Talporom. “You have a deadseer, correct?”

“Yes.” Talporom seemed a little taken aback by the question, but stood in calm silence as Ahnadib thought further.

“Galra,” she said, turning to her daughter. “Is Nabru still keeping vigil at Molgera’s temple?”

“Yes. She doesn’t come out until sunset three days from now.”

“See if you can interrupt her.”

Galra almost spit out her wine. “Are you kidding? Mother, she’ll destroy me.”

“If that woman will break her vigil for anyone, it will be you, dear.” Ahnadib turned back to the two men waiting at the other end of her table. “And we do not have much time. She is the only one I trust who knows the western sands well enough.”

Talporom recoiled a little. “You don’t suggest we—“

“If that snake-hearted spawn of Ganond seeks something in the far reaches of the desert, we must get to it first. I know you of Hyrule might not put much faith in your own dwindling magic, but it is still strong here. There are things many of us dare not speak of that live beyond the Haunted Waste, and many more we do not even know of. There are ancient things, evil things, that could destroy this city in an instant, if put into the hands of a magician strong enough. I’ve no doubt the King will bring his best and wickedest sorcerers with him—I don’t know what he seeks in the desert, but we must find out, and we must make sure he doesn’t get his hands on it.” Ahnadib reached out and took a goblet of wine in her fingers, raising it to her lips before continuing. “I will take care of things here. Talporom, I request you remain with me to continue fortifications of Obra Garud. It’s probably best if we send few people into the Waste anyway.” She made a face that Link couldn’t interpret as anything other than a grimace. “The desert has a way of decimating large groups.”

Talporom took a deep breath. “Honorable Ahnadib, you know this place and its people far better than I. It is my duty to help you in any way I can. I will decide which one of us to send into the desert tomorrow.”

Ahnadib bowed her head as if in thanks. “Let the deadseer decide. He will certainly be going, and he will be in good company. I’d trust Nabru with any life. I’ve trusted her with my daughter’s for many years. On the morrow, Galra will lead you to her. Until then, rest well.” Ahnadib dismissed them with a wave of her wine glass. “You will need it.”

*

Enveloped in the protective light of his homeland’s uncanny moon, the King donned his black cloak. A heavy feeling of portent swept over him, and the smell of black magic nearly burned his nostrils. He narrowed his eyes, gazing into the expanse of desert before him.

“Sire.” Haema appeared beside him, ghostly white, omnipresent armor glinting in the night. “We have not recovered the boy.”

“As expected,” the King replied solemnly.

“Aye, sir. My men interrogated the stable master and some of the other soldiers that were with him that night. It seems they were all poisoned after exchanging frivolities with a passing caravan. When they came to, the boy and the caravan were gone. We found wheel tracks, but it appears as if they’ve gone to Obra Garud.”

The King clasped his hands behind his back and let loose something that was close to a sigh. “Well, General Haema, you were right. I did not believe you, since he showed no signs of ever becoming a threat to me. But if the enemy wanted him back that badly, you must be correct about his identity.”

“The Sheikah are a tricky lot, sire. This could be a ploy to convince you he’s someone he’s not. They might want to distract you with him while they work in the shadows.”

“Quite a risky rescue to pull off if he’s of no value to them.”

Haema was silent for a while. “They may have only returned here to kill him. They might’ve poisoned him purposefully, after seeing him working for you. They might’ve thought he was a lost cause, and he was better off dead.”

The King pursed his lips. “You think they killed him with the hopes that another like him might appear somewhere else? I don’t think so, Haema. The Sheikah aren’t known to gamble.”

The sound of spitting dromedaries met the King’s ears, and Haema turned to watch the small procession of magicians, soldiers and animals approach. The leader of the group, a Gerudo crone with evil eyes and a toothless scowl, bowed deeply to him. She would lead him where he needed to go.

“Sire, are you sure you must leave tonight? Why not in the morning?” Haema asked.

Because the desert calls to me and I cannot ignore her. “Because, we have little time. If you’re right about the boy, and I’m quite sure you are, he has no doubt told his allies about my plans.”

“How can he tell them anything, if he’s deaf?”

“He’s not deaf.”

“Sire?”

The King sighed as the old woman approached him, handing him the reins of a large, strong dromedary. “He’s not deaf. When we were in the desert, he heard my little assassin approach even before I did. He twitched, and for just a moment, his eyes followed the sound. He might be a trickster, but he is not trained in all Sheikah aspects of deception.” He climbed atop the animal and looked down at Haema’s moonlit face, contorted with the beginnings of one of his famous rages. “After I killed her, I taunted him, just to see if he would react. With each word his blood boiled a little more. No, Haema, he is not deaf. I suspect he was sent into my camp with the assumption we would think he was.”

Haema’s armored fingers clenched in anger. “Then, has he always had his hearing?”

“I don’t believe so. He always had a reputation as the deaf stableboy. Either he’s been deceiving everyone he’s ever known since the moment he was born, or something, somewhere, granted him hearing.”

“What could be powerful enough to do that?”

“I don’t know, but whatever it is, I do not desire it as an enemy.” The King urged his mount forward, and Haema followed beside him.

“So he was sent here to gather information, and went back willingly to Ahnadib’s faction?”

“I do not know. Whether he is a mindless tool of powers greater than him, or an agent of his own free will, no one will ever be sure. It’s his lot in life to struggle with that question.” Strangely, the King found himself smiling.

Haema seemed nothing but confused. “Sire?”

“Take good care of the camp while I am gone. I will see you in a week or two, if things go well.”

“And if not?”

“Then I suppose the army is yours to do with what you will. Make sure my demise will not go unnoticed.” The King laughed and kicked his mount into a trot.

“Yes, sire! I will burn it all in your good name!” Haema called back, saluting.

The King had no doubt that should something untoward happen to him, his general would scar the land forever. Whether he returned or not, he vowed the desert would not forget the day it defied its rightful King.


Ahnadib's table

Chapter Text

*

“The Gerudo people, like any clan, boast their own wealth of religious sects. There is a whole host of desert goddesses, from their snake-headed colossi to lowly fox-nymphs, but one of the most fearsome, and misunderstood, deities of the land is the armored worm, Molgera. I say ‘misunderstood’ because despite the obvious gynocentricity of the cult, many male scholars, in their infinite self-aggrandizement, assume the worm is worshipped as a phallic symbol. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Molgera, it is written, births her children from her mouth, without the aid of any male. She is a symbol of fierce motherhood, of parthenogenesis, her long body representing the length of the birth canal and her mouth the opening from which all life springs. Molgera is an all-female symbol, and to assume otherwise is a gross misinterpretation of her cult.”

Edra Li, Religions of the World

*

 

The intricate walls and towers of Obra Garud glowed like ivory under the burning sun. The buildings were trimmed with mosaics and wooden screens so delicately carved they appeared like brownish lace from a distance. Men and (mostly) women walked among the shades of the carvings, under the arches of marble and other, rougher stone, shouting, talking, haggling. They seemed strangely unconcerned with the prospect of the King’s army invading their walled city.

The market was bursting at its silk seams with buyers and sellers—barrels of spices piled high, blankets and rugs spread out and hung up for display, treasures and trinkets shining in the light. It took all Link’s strength to keep his eyes off the wares and on the footsteps of his companions, whom he knew he could’ve easily lost in the bustle.

A pair of young girls crossed his path, laughing, smelling of oils and spices. They glanced over their small brown shoulders at him, round-eyed and smiling. One reached out a smooth arm to him, cupping her hand as if expecting him to drop a gift in her palm.

Galra saw him slacken his pace, stopping to observe the girls, and trotted up beside him. She shooed them away in fierce Gerudo, and they fled, robes billowing, sending curses and obscene gestures behind them.

“You’d best watch out for those kids,” Galra said to him before taking up her stride once more. “They’ll slit your throat and steal your purse before you can pinch one of their plump, rosy cheeks.”

She was off again before he could ask if it was true of many Gerudo children, or of those ones in particular. He just trotted a little closer to the group, falling into Palo’s tall shadow. When they stepped from the market street out into the city center, the din quieted down. The oasis, perhaps once as unremarkable and natural as the occasional pool the army had passed on its way to the city, was ringed with white and blue tile, statues and shady palms, benches and shallow recesses where the town’s residents could draw water. It was certainly a much more attractive water source than the small, grimy wells that dotted the Capital’s infinite streets.

Link was about to ask Galra about the sky-blue water, but Talm had already apparently thought to interrogate her regarding other subjects.

“I didn’t know you were Ahnadib's daughter,” she said, sidling up to the dancer as they passed the oasis.

“The one and only. She kept popping out sons until she finally had me. The miracle daughter. I can hardly count my brothers, there are so many.”

“Where are they?”

“Oh, here and there. Most of them are in the Obra Garud militia, as captains and fighters. Some work finding and collecting wormsilk. One oversees a silk processing plant in the Capital. He keeps taunting me by sending letters saying he knows this and that important dancer at the Opera, and he’ll put in a good word on my behalf.” She laughed. “As if any performer would even talk to that deadbeat.”

Talm laughed with her, and they fell into an animated discussion on the topic of dance. Link’s questions about the oasis drifted away on the wind as the city’s central square shrank behind them and disappeared entirely when they rounded a corner.

The buildings started to change—instead of intricate wood awnings and thin, silk-festooned houses, the structures widened, thickened, grew taller—soon the buildings were so grand only one or two could fit on each block. Stone towers thinned toward the sky, deep, golden peals rang from belfries, the sound of chanting floated from tall windows, the smoke of incense and burnt sage drifted down the street—the bustle of daily life was gone, making way for the austerity and slowness of ritual.

“Where is this Nabru again?” Impa asked, interrupting Galra and Talm’s conversation.

“She’s at Molgera’s temple.” Galra’s face fell for a moment. “She may come out, she may not. She still has a few days of vigil.”

“Which one is Molgera’s?” Palo asked, folding his hands behind his head as he walked. “There are more temples than gods in all Hyrule, it seems.”

“You could say that. Din has more than one here—she seems to be favored among the triumvirate. Even Hylia has one, but only foreigners go to her ceremonies. Mostly people divide their worship between smaller gods, depending on whether or not someone’s traveling, or having a baby, or dying. Or falling in love,” she nudged him playfully. “There’s a god for every occasion, you know?”

Palo shrugged. “I suppose.”

"And then there's Molgera. She has the oldest cult I know of, but not just anyone can join, not like the others. You have to show dedication. And endurance.” She stopped before a shallow fence, made of sandstone and lined with small carvings. She looked back at the four of them before opening a thin gate wrought of white iron. “You all can come into the courtyard, but you two—” she pointed to Link and Palo—“can’t go any farther.”

They turned to one another briefly as Galra led them into the small, tiled quadrangle before the intricate face of the temple. A few women in white robes lounged on the plain benches in the courtyard, walked along the shadows of the cloisters, talked with one another in quiet voices. They all turned as Galra strode toward the temple, companions in tow.

The building’s facade, comprised of dark grey stone, stretched to the sky. Carvings of armored sandworms glinted on its face, swarming around windows and twisting between pillars. Round, toothy mouths protruded from the images, the smaller worms latching like lampreys onto the back of the largest. The length of the greatest creature circled the facade several times, twisting over long windows, and finally terminated in a massive, symmetrical mouth above the temple door. From the wide, double jaws of the mouth emerged the graven image of a woman, perhaps a daughter of the worm or the personification of it—Link wasn’t sure and didn’t have time to ask. He’d barely taken his fill of the facade when two acolytes, white-robed, red hair cut short, strode up to them and started speaking simultaneously.

“Only women allowed in the temple, foreigner,” they said to them, switching languages several times just to make sure they understood.

“Of course,” Galra answered, motioning for Link and Palo to kindly wait outside. Impa made to follow, but one of the girls prodded her shoulder, holding her back. With a skip of his heart and a flush of embarrassment, he realized they doubted her. But he had to admit that if he watched her from behind, her short hair and wide pants would indicate nothing about her sex.

Impa came to the same realization, and perhaps regretting her practical but unflattering choice of wardrobe, scowled. “I am a woman,” she said.

One of the girls smiled slyly. “You sure as hell don’t look like one.” Galra, wide-eyed, turned to watch them accost her companion. The acolyte’s eyes wandered to Link, amused. “That little voe, on the other hand, might get past the eyes of the priestesses unnoticed.”

The second girl chuckled. “Yes, but there’s no guarantee he’ll come back out intact.” With this, they both fell into devious laughter.

They seemed remarkably impious for devotees of a goddess, but perhaps they only struck Link as such because he’d only seen the nuns of Hylian goddesses, modest and devout, silent and polite. He’d never minded interacting with them during his time in the Capital—they spoke just about as much as he had, and they certainly didn’t make jokes.

“Enough,” Galra barked, and the girls’ laughter died down. “We’re here to see Nabru.”

Their eyes widened, and one of them started running her fingers through her short hair nervously. “Nabru’s busy.”

“I know. Take me to her. It’s important.” Galra’s frown forced the girls to turn, and folding their hands, they headed toward the temple entrance in silence. Galra followed, Talm behind her. Impa, perhaps unsure if she’d secured permission to pass, or perhaps because she did not care, chose to stay behind with Link and Palo. As the women entered the mouth of the ancient temple, she crossed her arms and leaned against the stone wall of the courtyard, looking at her feet.

Link wasn’t sure if he should say anything to her, so he just stood beside her and joined her in staring at her tabi-clad toes. Palo was the only one who seemed willing to speak.

“I see you’ve got your harp but not your sword. Why aren’t you bringing Bloodletter with you?” he asked. Although a nondescript short sword hung at her hip, Link noticed the large blade she’d carried on her back across Hyrule remained suspiciously absent.

“Because, if the royal army marches on Obra Garud, my father will need it there with him.”

Link, eager to jump on a topic of conversation that was not about Impa’s apparent failure to live up to the beauty standards of the cult of a giant worm, decided to ask her about the sword. “What’s Bloodletter’s story? Is it a…” He searched for the right word, thinking back to the extensive vocabulary Impa and her family had stuffed down his throat during the winter. “Is it an heirloom?”

Impa leaned toward him, smiling a little. “Yes—well, sort of. That sword and my father’s staff, Bonesetter, are part of a matched set. They were my grandparents’, and they had intended to pass them down to their sons. But my uncle died during the Eldin War, so my father ended up with both. He had a firstborn to pass one of them to, so I got Bloodletter.”

“He wasn’t going to give up his beloved staff,” Palo said. “And since Mardon came down from the mountain and said his daughter was going to grow up to be a great warrior, she got Bloodletter.”

Link narrowed his eyes. “Mardon?”

Impa flushed and fell silent, so Palo took up the conversation. “The younger brother of the Goron patriarch.” Link remembered Impa telling him she’d once met one of those strange people, though she was too young to remember it. “He came down to pay his respects to Talporom, saw he had a newly-born child, and blessed her on the spot. Come to think of it, Impa really had no choice in the matter, when it came to her tattoos. She was a warrior from the time she was born.”

“It’s not like you had a choice, either,” she said quietly.

Palo’s smile faded a little. “The choice seems an illusion to me.”

“What choice?” Link asked.

“In their eighteenth year, a Sheikah will receive their tattoos, designating their role in the tribe,” Impa started.

“You’re supposed to have a choice in it—some people, like Talm, fully buy into it,” Palo continued. “She knew what her tattoos would be when she was a child. But she thought it was of her own volition. Some, like Impa and me, just accept the way it is. Impa was blessed by a Goron leader—of course the whole village would assume she would grow to be a warrior. Me, on the other hand… well, my fate was sealed the first time I complained of seeing strangers around the graveyard.” Palo laughed bitterly.

Link thought of all the tribal roles with which he was familiar. There were dozens, perhaps even hundreds, but he’d only seen as many tattoos as he’d met Sheikah, and there weren’t many left. “Well, what did you want to be? A healer, like Talporom?” Link asked.

Impa and Palo looked at one another, almost confused. Her lips pursed a little. “I suppose I’ve never given it much thought.”

Palo shrugged. “There was, and still is, little point in speculating. We are what we are. There’s no use regretting what we’re not.”

A slight commotion from the mouth of the temple brought Link’s attention to the far side of the courtyard. A crowd of acolytes spilled out in a messy flow of white robes, and after them trotted Galra and Talm. Link tried to read their faces, watch their stances for any sign of success or failure. He didn’t have to look long, since shortly after the two exited the temple, out came a magnificent woman Link could only assume was the infamous Nabru.

She was of greater stature than any woman he’d ever seen—on par with General Haema, at least—the only person Link could think of who was taller was the King himself. She dwarfed the people around her; she almost had to duck through the large doorway to the temple. Her red hair fell in a long braid across her muscled shoulder and down her loose, white robes. A pair of large, intelligent eyes shone from above her hooked nose, and a slight smirk crossed her lips. The scent of oils and incense clung to her, filling the courtyard as she emerged.

She narrowed her eyes, scanning the cloister, until they settled on the three strangers leaning against the wall. She smiled, and with a few long strides of her bare legs, approached them, laying her hands on her hips and towering over each.

“These are the people who have interrupted my vigil?” she asked. Her voice was deep, as one might expect from a person that large, but there was still a softness, a humor to it, that told Link she wasn’t entirely infuriated with cutting her religious devotions short. “I suppose if it’s as important as Galra tells me, I’ve no choice.”

The woman in question stood beside Nabru, the top of her head barely approaching the giant’s shoulders. “Nabru,” the dancer started, motioning to Link and his companions. “These are Link, Impa, and Palo—”

“You’re the deadseer?” she bent to Palo, narrowing her eyes at him. He raised an eyebrow in response, but Link could see him lean back slightly, adjusting his footing as the woman loomed over him almost threateningly. When Nabru had her fill of him, she crossed her arms and retreated, smiling. “Are you prepared to face the desert?” she asked.

Palo nodded, the others following suit.

"Well, you’re more prepared than me. I still have to wash all this perfume off, or I’ll attract every sandworm in the land.” She waved her hand. “Give me an hour. I’ll meet you at the western gate. Bring lots of water and fast horses—unless you want to get swallowed.” She gave them a wry smile and turned from them, white robes blowing in the wind, and disappeared beyond the cloister’s gate.

Link looked at Palo, who still seemed to be recovering from the invasion of his personal space. He waited a moment, seemingly clearing his head, before he crossed his arms and smiled. “I like her.”

*

Link stood at the city’s western entrance, still shut tight against any of the King’s forces that might seek to enter, and loitered. Galra had convinced the watchtower’s guards to let them through, if only because it was well known at that point the King’s army had few intentions of marching on the city anytime soon. Link did not know how many citizens of Obra Garud had knowledge of the King’s trek into the desert, but his camp had been still and quiet for so many days, the townsfolk found it easy to forget about the imminent threat, so far away on the other side of those tall walls.

Half an hour into the wait, the horses started to fidget, snorting and stomping in anticipation. Link lay his hand on one of their necks, wishing fervently for Epona’s company. These native horses could sense they were heading west, and feared it—but he knew the fire-red warhorse would stare the wilderness in the face with no hesitation. He lay his forehead against his horse’s cheek, comforting it, although he was just as anxious for the ride out.

Galra said that since the King took camels, he intended to go what she referred to as “the long way around”—avoiding the dark sands of Wormhaven and the haunted part of the Haunted Waste. If they wanted to beat him to wherever he was going (Ahnadib hypothesized it was a long-abandoned temple in the far reaches of the Waste, since there were no other landmarks within a hundred miles), they would have to pass directly through Wormhaven. When they reached the other side of that dangerous stretch of worm-infested land, they would come to a small oasis where their horses could drink and they could refill their canteens. Beyond that, the roaring winds of the sandstorms would obscure their sight, and they would have to rely on Palo to find them a guide among the corpses who had met their ends in the wasteland.

Link could not say he looked forward to the trip. But when Nabru appeared at the end of the road, waving excitedly, her large frame adorned in leather padding, red pants flared wide, his heart slowed a little, and some relief flowed through him. The way she smiled almost mischievously, the way she sauntered casually up to them, the way her large, black horse followed her with no concern for the future, eased a little of his anxiety. He knew a human could falsify her true feelings by changing her expressions or voice, but a horse could not lie. If that animal was comfortable in Nabru’s presence, despite the anxiety emanating from all others around it, Link knew he could trust this weird, giant woman.

Nabru greeted them heartily, spreading her arms and giving them what Link might’ve guessed to be some sort of obscene salute. She approached them, calling up to the women on the watchtower in Gerudo. The red-haired heads at the top of the tower disappeared, and a few moments later, the gates to the west opened with a metallic creak. Link watched the doors shine in the harsh sunlight, and mounted his horse. He patted its neck reassuringly before nudging it into a trot, out the gates and after Nabru. Galra stayed behind, giving each of them—Talm, Palo, Link and Impa—a polite salute as they rode out into the desert.

At first, it was silent, almost pleasant going. They did not push their horses too hard in the heat, and by the time the sun set ahead of them, they still had a few miles to go before they had to worry about the hungry inhabitants of Wormhaven.

“When we get to the place where the sands turn dark, and start to move on their own, like water, then you follow me closely,” Nabru told them, dismounting as they stopped for the night. “You stray from me, you’ll get yourself nice and swallowed.” She smiled, almost as if pleased with the thought.

Impa seated herself on the sand, removing the wrap of cloth she’d worn over her head as protection against the sun. She shook sand from it, futilely, and sighed. “How long do we spend in Wormhaven?” she asked.

“If you keep up a nice gallop, not long. Seems like an eternity, though, especially if you have one or two of Molgera’s hungry children following you.” Nabru searched through her small pack and pulled out some dried meat, which she dined on thoughtfully. “But you’re safe with me. I know my way around them.”

“If you don’t mind me asking—” Impa attempted to start.

“I don’t.”

“How are you familiar with such a place? Are you in the wormsilk trade?”

“No. Even those who hunt down and collect wormsilk don’t wander too far into Wormhaven—it’s a good way to get your workers killed and your stock destroyed.” Nabru stuffed another strip of meat into her mouth. “I found myself in Molgera’s wilderness wholly by accident. Accident, or fate, you choose; I don’t care. I was in a little trouble with the law, you see—and took my chances in the desert as opposed to the Obra Garud council. The desert spared me where they vowed they would not. I returned a changed woman—I pay my respects to the right people now; the great Worm rather than the authorities.” She chuckled. “Still, they tolerate me. I do my work for Ahnadib and Ahnadib pays the council, so I’m a free woman.”

“Exactly what is it you do for Ahnadib?” Talm asked.

“Well, originally I was hired to protect some of her silk caravans as they made their way from Obra Garud to Onrago. For a while I was Galra’s bodyguard. Whenever she needs anyone killed, I’ll do it for her.” Nabru laughed, finishing her meal. “Not that she needs very many people killed. She tries to not make enemies in the first place.”

A bead of sweat made its way down Link’s cheek, and he swallowed audibly. It did seem as if Nabru had the power to crack his neck with one hearty wring of her hands—he imagined the people who must’ve found themselves on her bad side, begging for mercy before she cracked them in half over her knee.

“Did Galra inform you as to the true nature of what we’re doing out here?” Impa asked her.

“Oh, she did. She knows me well—she seems to think my hatred of Ganond’s ilk surpasses my devotion to my matron godhead. I realize now that destroying one is serving the other.”

“How so?”

Nabru chewed, thinking for a few seconds. “Listen well, Sheikah. The desert is wild and endless. The notion of conquering it leaves a sour taste in any Gerudo’s mouth. Especially by a Hyrulean-bred man such as Ganondorf. If he gets his way, there will be no wild worms, no autonomous nomads, no reaches of wilderness left untamed.” The looks on the others’ faces must’ve told her they did not quite understand—not entirely. “Though there are certainly more than a few of my people who would once again welcome the rule of a King, that is not true for most of us. Many of my people harbor a lingering resentment toward Ganond, especially this deep in the desert. He might be mostly a legend after so many years, but the sting of his betrayal is fresh enough to us. He was our King. We gave him everything a King could want. And the bastard leaves us, for nothing but the promise of a better land. He abandons us back when times were hard, back when the winds wore away at our walls and Obra Garud was nothing more than a thieves’ fortress. But then we finally change our habits from stealing to selling—we find silk, we find buyers, we get rich—and now his descendant wants to come back and force us into his kingdom? No, we will not bend the knee to a monarchy who abandoned its people in their time of need, only to return to grasp at the spoils of their hard work.”

Palo smiled. “If all the citizens of Obra Garud are like you, the city has nothing to worry about from the King’s troops.”

Nabru shook her head, unwinding her braid and letting her dark hair fall across her wide shoulders. “Unfortunately, many do not care for these things. As long as they have food and water, as long as they have coin and pleasure and wine, they do not care who rules them. Most would not notice if the angry spirit of Ganond himself came back and overthrew the council of the city.” She unbuckled her leather plates, laying them beside her. The moon lit up her hair like long streaks of flame, and she shook it out before reclining on her bedroll. “My people have always been fiercely independent. But what we don’t like to admit is that we need Hyrule. I’ve been along my fair share of trade routes, and I can tell you, it’s our close alliance with your land that keeps us as happy as we are.” She folded her hands behind her head. “When Ganond left and we allied ourselves with Hyrule—when we could come and go freely from your land to ours—that was the best thing that happened to my people. I love my homeland, but as you can see, it is harsh and unyielding. We need the things your country provides in exchange for our gold and silk and whatnot. We do not want to go back to the old days of hostility, when we were nothing more than scavengers and thieves. And you don’t want us to, either, believe me.” She eyed them with something of a humorous menace. “Ahnadib says you’re planning on reinstating the old royal family, but she also says that we will not lose the friendship that the Conqueror King’s reign forged between us.” Nabru paused for a moment, smiling, perhaps stifling a laugh. “I’m perfectly content with deposing your King, as long as Hyrule keeps supplying us with good food. You know how hard it is to shit on a date-only diet?”

When she let loose a hearty chuckle, they laughed along with her. Some of Link’s anxiety left with his voice, out into the desert night. Even Impa seemed charmed at Nabru’s humorous vulgarity. As she pulled out her bedroll, attempting to shake the sand from it, Nabru lifted her head a little.

“The desert gets cold at night. You might want to sleep closer together.”

She shrugged when they politely dismissed her suggestion—after all, the lingering heat from the afternoon still hung heavy around them. But sometime during the night, each one of them found him or herself shivering, teeth-chattering and wishing for merciful warmth. By the time day arrived, announcing their departure for Wormhaven, they had all unconsciously piled together like puppies in the stable, shivering in one another’s arms.

When Link awoke to find his companions limb-locked and snoring slightly, heads on stomachs and arms wrapped round one another in protective subconsciousness, he snuggled in closer to Impa’s shoulder, and let a smile cross his lips. In the warm company of his companions, he knew he could face the long ride through Wormhaven, face whatever lay beyond. He might be a coward, he might tremble in terror at sights the others might scoff at, he might be faint of heart and slow of mind, but he would keep up, he would do his best.

If I am a coward, I will be the bravest coward in the land, he thought. It is true what Palo says. I am what I am. No use regretting what I’m not.


Nabru

Chapter Text

*

“Architecture in the Gerudo territories is well known for its traditional roots as prisons and fortresses. While most of these buildings have since been repurposed for regular use, many small jails, scattered about the cities of the desert, still function as holding cells. Curiously, the most common reason to be thrown into one of these cells is for a crime the Gerudo had sanctioned as their livelihood for hundreds of years: thievery. For if there is something robbers hate most in the world, it is being robbed themselves.”

Wenstan Illar, “Practicality and Historical Monuments”

*

 

Wormhaven spread before them, sand glowing darkly under the rising sun. The dunes were long and round, uniformly shaped, and each mound seemed to span a length beyond Link’s vision. He squinted at their distant, cross-hatched configuration and saw such deliberation in their shapes he realized no wind could have sculpted them.

“Worm tracks,” Nabru muttered, watching his eyes widen at the sight of the valley of dark sand before them. “They come here to spawn. Well,” she smiled, “one comes here to spawn.”

“One?” Link asked.

“There is only one Worm,” Nabru answered. “And She is eternal.” The woman nudged her horse down the slope of the large dune on which they stood, toward the expanse of Wormhaven. “The idea is,” she called over her shoulder at the others, “to get through here as quickly as possible. But remember, even the smallest worm is faster than the average horse.”

Link suddenly wished that he had managed to take Epona in his escape from the King’s camp. Although the desert-bred steeds Galra had given them were swift and tireless, he still longed for the familiar shape of the warhorse between his knees, the comforting scent of her, the way she keenly obeyed his commands seemingly before he even gave them. As he nudged his current horse down the side of the dune, into the valley of black sand, he prayed for them both.

He glanced over his shoulder to see the Sheikah follow. Like him, they had wrapped strips of brown cloth around their faces to keep out the sand—so he could not see if any fear colored their features. He gulped, and decided to be thankful that they, in turn, could not see the terror that haunted his frown. Giving them a reassuring gesture, he turned his attention from them and focused on keeping up with Nabru.

Her horse seemed proportional to her figure—long-legged, heavily muscular, and as she pushed  it into a more intense gallop, Link doubted his steed would keep up with hers. But the horse under him, perhaps out of fearful familiarity with the dangerous terrain, flew across the sand, dust billowing in the wake of its thundering hooves.

Link did not know how long he rode, accompanied only by the sounds of his and his mount’s haggard breathing, the thump of his heart beating in time with the panicked hoofbeats. When a wide, deafening noise billowed around him like a wind, it was so close, so encompassing, he thought it must’ve come from somewhere inside him. It wasn’t until Nabru urged her galloping horse closer to his and called out he realized the sound had been the shifting of sand—mountains of it, moving like water around him.

He turned his head to see a shaft of black burst from the sand beside him. Larger around than the oldest trees in Eldin, the worm emerged from the ground as a fish from water, creaking and rumbling like the earth it sprang from. It twisted beside him, round mouth opening wide in the air, and he caught a glimpse of a row of sharp teeth. Its armored segments shone in the harsh sunlight before it dove back to the sand, black plates arcing over the ground as its long tail followed its head. Link’s horse reared for a moment, letting loose a disheartening screech, before pivoting itself away from the worm. He did not fight the animal as it galloped away from the suspended length of seemingly endless black body, but merely turned his head to see the tail emerge from the sand and soar along the sky. When the worm’s end finally disappeared into the soft earth, the deafening gale of sound had reduced to a slow rumble.

Suddenly Nabru was beside him, motioning at him, shouting above the wind and the beat of horses’ hooves. “Stay with me!” She looked behind her, to make sure all followed. She urged her horse to the right, toward the hilly ripples where the worm had disappeared, and the animal obeyed. Link followed her, heart thumping in his ears, trying to ignore the harrowing sound of earth shifting below him. He decided to trust Nabru as her horse trusted her, and followed in her tracks faithfully and quickly. When the worm burst from the sand once more, jawless mouth open wide, it passed over him like a massive, squirming bridge, overshooting the company of horses and disappearing into the dark sand, unfed. When it emerged again, hungry, Nabru led them away from its trajectory, circumventing the waves of sand that poured from the force of its movement. She seemed to know where the worm would appear and where it would land, and made sure to gallop somewhere between those two points—more than once Link found himself in the dusty shadow of the giant worm, narrowing his eyes against the torrent of sand that poured from its belly.

A second worm, too small to swallow a horse but big enough to wound one, burst from the ground, squirming and slithering like an angry snake. Nabru seemed to concern herself with the larger one, so Link rotated himself in the saddle to keep an eye on their new stalker. The smaller worm, round-mouthed and hungry, screeched as it squirmed after them, long, alien tongue unfolding, probing the air for their scent.

When the creature’s eyeless, dark face struck out toward Impa’s horse, tongue brushing against its tail, Link turned himself in his saddle and fumbled for his bow. He had never shot from horseback before, but he managed to nock an arrow, hands shaking, as Impa’s mount bolted in panic. He saw her struggle to bring the horse back under control, attempting to steer it away from the small worm and into the shadow of the large one. The creature slithered after her, screeching, and Link drew his bowstring.

Suddenly Nabru was beside him, red braid whipping in the wind. In the chaos of the horses’ movement, in the thick clouds of dust and the sand churning like waves around him, he saw her huge hand reach out, impossibly fast, impossibly precise. She snatched the arrow from his bow before he had time to release the string, and, after giving him the most poisonous look he’d received since he’d last seen Haema, snapped it in her fist like a dry twig.

She shook her head and steered her horse toward Impa’s. The Sheikah urged her horse sharply to the right, letting Nabru drift between her and the small worm. The creature changed its target, teeth shining in the dusty light, launching itself out of the sand toward the Gerudo giant.

Then it was gone. Both worms disappeared back into the ground with sudden deliberation, leaving nothing but clouds of dust. Nabru turned in her saddle to make sure all were present, and slowed her horse. Panting and snorting, the animal seemed grateful for the reprieve, but it did not last long. Nabru’s wide brown ears perked up, and a deep, uncanny rumble coursed through the earth beneath them. Link’s horse fidgeted nervously, flicking its tail, and he gulped.

The rumbling grew louder, and with a fierce shout, Nabru kicked her horse into a gallop. It flew across the sand, and Link’s mount wasted no time following suit. The great, terrifying shaking grew louder, and Link could feel the earth move even through the frantic gallop of his horse. Ahead of him, Nabru shouted something incomprehensible, and he saw her reach back and wrap her hand around the spear that lay across her saddle. Link tightened his grip on the reins and leaned forward, urging his horse onward, away from the terrible rumbling. For a moment, the earth fell quiet, and he knew Nabru had led him out of danger—he let himself take a breath, and sighed, before a deafening boom echoed around him.

What burst from the sand behind him was far bigger than the worm he had assumed they’d outrun. Its black body twisted in segments above him, wide and long as a river. The length of it came between him and the sun, and he could see the shadow of a mouth at its front, large-lipped, pincer-like jaws opening in the air. The length of its tongue spanned dozens of feet, the flexible cups of its maw opening wider than the gates to Obra Garud itself. Feelers wiggled inside the red cavern of its mouth, prodding at the clouds, as it curved its impossibly large body against the setting sun.  It did not take Link more than a second to realize in whose presence he rode. As he lifted his eyes to the giant creature, he knew this magnificent creature couldn’t be any other than the ancient deity, the mother worm, Molgera.

Nabru lifted her spear above her head; she carried her body proudly atop her horse, letting loose a piercing shriek of joy. Perhaps for the first time, perhaps not, she met her matron god.

The great worm, seemingly uninterested in a meal so small and unsatisfying as Link and his companions, soared above them, turning against the sky in a magnificent length of shining armor and rigid bristles. She glinted in the sun, a long, terrible shadow, and for a moment Link could believe the worm really was eternal.

Through the joyful ululations of Nabru and the haze of sandy wind, Link watched the worm curl in the dust clouds, long, blue-tipped tongue probing the air, mouth opening and closing over the blurred shape of the distant sun. She bent impossibly high, turning her face down to the ground, retracting her tongue before diving to the sand. When the sloped head met the earth, a resounding boom nearly shook Link off the back of his horse.

His heart danced somewhere in his throat, his lungs struggled to draw breath, he blinked and teared up against the wave of sandy wind that radiated from the impact. His horse shook its head and snorted, hooves pounding, swerving, but it stayed in the shadow of the worm, in the tracks of Nabru.

Slowly, loudly, Molgera slithered back into the earth, huge armored segments undulating into the sand with mighty sprays of dust. The ground shook so mightily Link was unsure where his horse’s hooves ended and the sand began, he wasn’t sure if the worm had ripped the ground apart with the force of her dive.

The din, the fury of the squirming god, seemed to last a lifetime. But after what must’ve only been a few long seconds, the last segments of the giant worm retreated into the sand. The intense shaking of the earth lessened into a fervent rumbling, and in Link’s blurred vision, the ground stilled. When the dust and sand clouds cleared, when he could tell the earth from the sky again, they had reached the edge of Wormhaven.

After the sand lightened and the earth solidified, Nabru pulled the reins and her horse came to a stop, panting furiously. She turned and looked back over Wormhaven, the dark sand glinting in the setting sun, and slid off her mare. The others, with relieved sighs of varying magnitude, followed suit. Link was thankful to have his feet touch solid ground once more, and even though the rocky sand still shifted under his boots, it did not have the same fluidic instability as the dark dunes he had just escaped. He reveled in the firmness of the earth beneath him for a few moments, before he was suddenly and unexpectedly displaced from it.

Nabru bunched the loose fabric of his collar in one giant fist and shoved him with such force he staggered across the sand, barely catching his balance with his back foot. Her eyes flashed furiously, and her mouth contorted in a grimace as she prodded his shoulder. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Impa step forward, as if to defend him, but thought better of it when Nabru eschewed physically harming him in favor of shouting in his face.

“That was my matron deity’s child you were about to poke full of holes,” she barked. Link gulped, straightening himself back up. “You’re lucky Molgera granted us passage, even after you almost shot my spiritual sister.”

Link stared at her for a moment, thinking of the toothy, round mouth that had slithered after Impa and nearly latched onto her horse, and dared to consider refusing to apologize. He bit his lip, trying to compose an explanation in his head, about how he couldn’t just sit back and watch Impa get hurt, but he had been out of practice speaking for so long he could barely get out an incomprehensible stutter.

Fortunately, Nabru’s anger couldn’t obstruct her joy—after a few seconds of staring deep into Link’s face, a wide smile appeared on her thick lips. Something of a suppressed laugh escaped her, and she clapped Link on the back so hard his breath left him in one distressing wheeze. “But gods damn, was She not magnificent?” she asked.

Link nodded, half in agreement, half in complaisance. He slumped in relief when Nabru finally turned his attention from him, unconcerned with threatening him further. She trotted back to her panting, exhausted mount and focused on unsaddling it. She stroked the creature’s black cheek with a large, loving hand, and cooed words of sympathy and praise into its ear. Link could tell by the way the horse flicked its facial muscles that it understood her. It almost seemed proud to have served her so well.

Link’s animal, sadly, was a different story. It trembled, still fraught with distress at what it had encountered in Wormhaven. As the others dismounted, congratulating one another on a successful, if not terrifying, ride, and waxing poetic about the size and grandeur of Molgera, Link tried to calm his horse with gentle touches. By the time he’d managed to convince it through soft strokes and encouraging words that it was no longer in danger, Palo had already unpacked their dried supper. Nabru knelt at the edge of their little encampment, forehead pressed to the sand, muttering fervent, thankful prayers in the direction of Wormhaven. Her voice was low, colored with the flairs and throaty lulls of the Gerudo language. 

Link sat down opposite Palo as the last rays of sunlight dissolved into the deep blue of night, and rubbed the chill out of his hands. He briefly thought of how he’d like a fire, but realized they had nothing with which to start it. It surprised him how quickly the desert could swing from sweltering heat to bitter cold. It was not as bad as the darkest days of Eldine winter, but he could not help himself from scooting closer to his companions as the stars brightened above them.

Impa removed her long cloak of gray cloth, pulling out her small lyre and laying it across her lap. Nabru, now finished with her prayers, glanced at the instrument curiously, smiling as she brought a strip of dried meat to her mouth. “Are you going to play us a song?” she asked.

“Yes. But you probably won’t recognize it as one,” Impa replied, and readied her fingers on the strings. She took a breath and plucked, and a deep, unearthly sound rumbled from the lower strings, trembling through the air like an unintelligible word. Link closed his eyes against the forceful sound, but with that wave of dense noise came a comforting warmth, a resonant heat that banished the chill from his bones, and stayed long after the sound ended.

Impa lowered her lyre. “I thought I’d save us the trouble of sleeping piled like animals in the night,” she said.

“Concerned for our dignity, as always,” Talm said, but Link could see her body relax in the merciful heat.

“It won’t last long, so we’d best try to get to sleep before it fades.”

Nabru seemed smitten with, but unsurprised by, the strange magic still emanating from the silent harp. “I’ll be damned,” she said. “Looks like you Sheikah have some witchcraft in your blood after all.”

Palo shrugged. “Only a few kinds. Healing and shield magic.” Nabru gave him a curious look,  and he continued. “Disguise, protection, illusion, things like that.”

“Ah. We have our own illusionists over here. Probably of a different breed, though.” She motioned for Impa to give her the harp, and a little hesitantly, she complied. “I was taught all magic comes from the desert.”

“It could be true,” Palo said, as Nabru took the instrument in her lap. “Who’s to say it didn’t begin here, and wander into other lands?”

Nabru shrugged, and plucked a few strings. She frowned when her earnest strums generated only silence. “Never had it in me, anyway.”

As she handed the harp back to its rightful owner, Link could not help but recall the King’s monologues; how he had expatiated on the thaumaturgical properties of the desert wind, how he had regarded the wild magic in the air with envious reverence. The strolls they took had seemed like rituals, rife with portent. He swore he could still hear the echoes of the King’s voice, still smell the faint air of black magic. Even the encompassing heat of Impa’s music could not stop the chill from running up his spine.

“So, that Wormhaven is a hell of a place,” Palo said, finishing his meal. “Can’t say I’ve been anywhere like it.”

“Not many can,” Nabru said. “And fewer can survive to tell others about it.” She winked at them, as if congratulating them on their successful ascension to some lauded status among the Gerudo. She pointed at Impa and Talm. “You two are now qualified to be acolytes in the temple.” Her finger wandered to Link and Palo before retracting, almost disappointedly. “You, not entirely. It’s a very traditional religion.”

Palo smiled. “Surely you can’t deny I would look fantastic in those white robes.”

Nabru threw her head back and laughed. “You’re asking the wrong woman. I suppose if you grew your hair long and applied enough paint to your face, you’d make a… striking girl. Your Hylian friend would have an easier time, though.” Nabru shook her head, broad smile widening. “If ever I see you wandering the halls of the temple, I promise not to say a word. You have survived Wormhaven just as any woman could. I am of the rare opinion that Molgera does not judge the sex of those who show her the proper respect.”

“As it should be,” Talm said. Link could almost sense an indignant tone in her voice—and by the way Impa whipped her head to glare at her, she could hear it as well. He knew if Talm offended Nabru in some way, there were bound to be broken bones.

But Nabru met the small challenge with nothing more combative than a glint in her narrowed eye. “That is true. We still have a long way to go in that respect, but in my grandmother’s generation, things were worse. We have come far. We no longer abandon our baby boys to the mercy of the climes and the gods. We keep them in our homes, raise them like daughters, against the oldest traditions.”

“But you still don’t consider them full-blooded,” Talm continued.

Impa swallowed audibly. “Forgive her, Nabru. She’s just very fond of men. In general.”

The Gerudo’s smile did not fade; it was patient, secure. It was the grin of a person who knew her power, her beliefs, were not to be shaken. It reminded Link of the King’s. “Tell me of your southern provinces, you Hyruleans, and the station of women in those parts. They flee their homes, flee being relegated to a life of domestic servitude. Maids from Relta, Treefall—villages across Faron and Ordona, even sometimes the Capital—arrive in Onrago with dreams and aspirations. Budding warriors, scholars, painters, singers, businesswomen, poets and politicians—all fleeing their own families for a taste of freedom. True, we may have a quirk or two when it comes to gender, but we let our men do what they want. We do not silence them, we do not lock them in a home and tell them their only worth is in parenthood, we do not tell them they cannot pursue their wants because they had the misfortune of having been born male.” When Talm opened her mouth to retort, Impa’s elbow met her ribs. Nabru closed her eyes, reaching back to unbraid her hair. “In this land, everyone has the freedom to pursue their desires, should they possess the strength. It is not like the southern reaches of your land, where the women are told to be quiet and bear children.” Her scowl softened a little. “You, Talm of the Sheikah, are lucky to have been born into a tradition that allows you to choose your path.”

“That was our mother’s gift to us,” Impa said, before her sister could continue. “She left Faron to escape a marriage she did not consent to.”

“It is a common story,” Nabru said.

Link thought for a moment. “So what is yours?”

“My story?” Nabru seemed taken aback. When he nodded solemnly, she shrugged. “It’s a common one, too, around these parts. I was born in Obra Garud goddess knows how long ago. Grew up pilfering my sustenance—I wasn’t good, I wasn’t sneaky, but I was damn strong for a child, so I lived as well as any other. The first time I was thrown in prison I escaped, so the second time they sent me to the penitentiary on the north side of Wormhaven. I threw a few guards off a watchtower and went on my merry way.” Her hair, unbraided, fell across her shoulder and she stroked it smooth. She smiled as if recalling something particularly pleasant. “I walked across Wormhaven back to Obra Garud, and found myself on the way. When I got back to the city, I was a woman who had been blessed by the Worm Eternal. I had nothing to fear from the laws and punishments of civilization.” She unpacked her bedroll and lay herself down on it, fiddling with the buckles on her leather armor. “Either through luck or by the divine will of Molgera herself, they did not imprison me a third time. The council had heard rumors of my return, but after I was declared an apostle of Molgera, they could not touch me.” She removed her pauldrons and stretched out her arms. “But, blessed as I was, I still had to eat. I joined a fighting pit and won my meals that way. That’s where Ahnadib found me.”

“What was Ahnadib doing at a fighting pit?” Impa asked, almost incredulously.

“Looking for a bodyguard,” Nabru answered. She lay down her head. “She knows the city—she knows where to find the toughest fighters, the loyalest captains, the richest patrons, the hardest workers…” She clasped her hands behind her head and stared at the stars. “If anyone can keep Obra Garud out of the hands of Ganondorf, it’s her.”

Impa lowered herself to the ground, relaxing in the radiant heat her music had instilled in the air. “I would’ve said the same thing about Onrago.”

Nabru sighed slowly. She seemed to think for a moment, a solemnness overtaking her, and closed her eyes. “Me too.” She rested in pained silence for a few seconds. “But I still have faith in her. If she can trust me despite all my flaws and failings, I should trust her despite hers.”

“She’s the best chance we’ve got,” Palo admitted.

“And she thinks the same of you,” Nabru replied. “That’s why she sent you out here, to the edge of the world. She knows whatever it is the Hyrulean King seeks in the desert, you will manage to find it first.”

“How exactly do you propose we go around looking for it?” Talm asked. “I’m sure you of all people know this place is massive.”

“Massive, but empty. There are few oases in the wasteland. We will not have to search many.” Nabru glanced up to Palo. “Besides, we will have a guide. Tomorrow, we will approach the edge of the Haunted Waste, where our deadseer will do his work. Beyond that, I cannot say what we will find.”

It was Nabru’s surety that had kept Link optimistic about their expedition into the wasteland; when she turned over and closed her eyes, he felt his courage falter without her guidance, and his heart sent itself into a frantic flutter. He swallowed, watching his other companions drift into sleep and silence, and reached into his breast pocket.

Sighing, he pulled out the familiar triangular charm. He held it in his palm, running a finger along its edge before clutching it close. It embarrassed him how often he had to consult it like an oracle, but when he tucked it back into his pocket, his heart had slowed, his mind relaxed.

Even if he had to rely on a small wooden charm to help him sleep, he didn’t mind. Warmed by the faint echoes of Impa’s harp, he closed his eyes.


 The Worm Appears

Chapter Text

*

“In Silk I met a banished Sheikah deadseer. She had no name, no clothes that could indicate her as a member of the tribe, even her tattoos were faded, or so it looked to me, an outsider. She said she hadn’t been back to Kakariko in a decade. She could no longer find the way. ’Why don’t you just follow the ghosts of other villagers?’ I asked her. She just laughed at me, and said, ‘There’s a reason these spirits haven’t crossed over into the next world. Hardly one in a million knows the way anywhere. Ghosts are ghosts because they’re lost in the first place.’”

T.L. Malona, Life and Travels of a Wayward Bard

*

 

Palo sat cross-legged at the crest of a golden dune, his palms turned to the sky, as if he could  interpret the pulses of white sunlight that beat down on his sensitive skin. He stared beyond his closed eyelids into the far haze of the desert, tattoos glowing dimly in the sandy wind.

Talm lounged nearby, picking particles of sand from under her fingernails, Nabru leaned against her spear, butt buried in the earth, watching him closely. Impa and Link stood by the horses, lingering at the small but clear oasis that served to mark the beginning of the stretch of land the Gerudo called the Haunted Waste.

“The horses are restless,” Link said. He knew it was a useless thing to point out—the animals themselves made it obvious, but the half-nervous, half-bored silence of his companions made him uncomfortable enough to break it.

“They can sense the dead around us,” Impa replied. “They’re afraid of joining them.” She brushed dust off her horse’s twitching flank. “Eldine horses are not so skittish.”

Link thought for a moment, filing through what he knew about the history of the province, about the city of Gorons and the razed towns along the mountain roads. “They are used to the dead,” he said.

“Yes. Even well before the Eldin War, they were raised on grass watered with blood.” She took a moment to glance over the horse’s curved back, to where Palo sat silently on the top of a nearby dune. “Any non-native rancher would call for aid when his horses spooked for no reason. Back then, deadseers were in high demand—common, even. But now… well, he’s all we have left.”

Link glanced over at the man in question for a moment, but his mind hesitated on the mountains of Eldin. “One of the lieutenants, at the King’s camp, mentioned something about Ordona invading.”

Impa frowned. “Yes. The Sheikah are no strangers to trying times. Before Ganond came to Hyrule, we had to stave off the attacks of neighboring provinces. When the Ordishmen found that our soil was rich and our forests wild, they came over in droves, cutting us down where they found us. For years both the Gorons and Sheikah fought to retain their ancestral land, but after so many decades of slaughter, we grew tired, our numbers grew thin. The royal family stepped in as mediators, and lent us a sympathetic ear. By royal decree, the lowlands were ceded to the Ordish, and we got the mountains.” Impa ran her hand down her horse’s grey neck thoughtfully. “I suppose, given the circumstances, it was the best they could do for us. But we had to give up our capital city.”

“Old Riko?”

“It was still called Kakariko back then. My people rebuilt it in the mountains, where no outsiders could find it and take it from us the same way they had stolen our last capital.” She grasped a few stray hairs of mane in her fingers and twisted them gently. “Ordona wanted the whole province. But the queen did not let that happen—she negotiated a truce between us and secured peace in Eldin. The royal family has been my people’s closest ally for as long as our records go back. Besides the Gorons, of course.” She sighed. “But now they are gone.”

Link’s lungs emptied when he thought of the triumphant bragging of the King’s lords around their feasting table in Onrago. An image of Haema with a war hammer flashed through his mind, but it made way for the face of the yellow-haired girl as she fell from the battlements. “And so is the royal family.”

When Impa raised her red eyes to him, he could not read the expression behind them. “We have few allies left. That is why we must protect the ones we have now.” Her gaze wandered to Nabru, lounging against her spear. “We cannot let the Gerudo Territories fall.” Hearing the conviction of her words forced Link to reassess his hope that the King might make peace with the Sheikah. Each had an utter determination that could not surmount the vast rift that split their goals and convictions.

A cry from Palo wrested Impa from her thoughtful muttering, and Link from his silent contemplation. He followed her as she stepped around their horses, toward the deadseer, who had now tumbled off the crest of the dune and lay on his back in the sand. Eyes still closed, the lenses of his tattoos stared into the white sky, glinting. Nabru and Talm skipped up and knelt at his side, and he twitched a few times before opening his mouth to groan.

Nabru put her large hands under his shoulder blades and helped Impa pull him into a sitting position—his head drooped for a moment before he lifted it, and gazed at them all through his eerie, glowing tattoos.

“He told me what you wanted,” Palo said. His voice had certainly come from his own throat; it had the same timbre and pitch as Palo, but the inflection, the accent, was wrong. It was as if someone else’s words had come out using his voice, and it made Link reel in surprise.

Even Nabru seemed startled. But she held onto Palo, keeping him upright, as the Sheikah sisters, who were not nearly as bewildered at his odd necromancy, leaned forward.

“Are you willing to guide us through the wasteland?” Impa asked Palo, or the person who now occupied the space behind Palo’s decorated eyelids.

“Perhaps. I’ve only a moment right now—but I could not in good conscious continue without warning you.”

“Warning us about what?”

Palo’s tattoos moved from Impa to Nabru. “I once chose to trust a Gerudo, too. Although it makes no difference to me if you follow her or not, I felt as if I should tell you. To go to the other side of the Waste only invites death. I will guide you there, but if this woman is like her compatriots, you likely will not return.”

Talm gulped, but nodded in assent when her sister spoke on all their behalf. “We wish to go regardless.”

“Very well.”

Palo went limp for a moment in Nabru’s arms. His head bobbed forward, before he jerked it upright, as if he had fallen asleep sitting and jolted himself awake. He opened his eyes.

“Well?” Impa asked him, as if nothing at all out of the ordinary had happened.

“He’s our best chance,” Palo replied. He stood up, Nabru still holding his elbow. She backed away when he brushed himself off, good as new, and declined further support. “He’s not pleasant, oh no. But he knows the way. There aren’t too many spirits who have made it all the way through the Waste. Fewer still who remember how.” He crossed his arms and sighed. “Most travelers die before ever getting to the other side, so they’re useless to us.”

Impa turned back to the horses. “I’m glad you found one at all.”

Palo followed, folding his hands behind his head. “He’s quite insistent that Nabru is going to murder the lot of us once we arrive on the other side of the Waste.” The Gerudo raised her eyebrow indignantly. “It happened to him, after all. He and his team followed their guide to the hideout of some cult in order to study their dying language. Turns out the blood of linguists is a hearty meal for their old goddesses.” Palo shook his head. “I should let him know you already tried to feed us to your god, and she did not find us fit to eat.”

Nabru laughed, pulling herself up onto her mare. “Which cult? I know of a few who are not shy about their histories of throwing helpless foreigners into the hungry mouths of their deities.”

Palo closed his eyes for a moment as he swung his leg over his horse—he seemed to be looking at something beyond the horizon. His lips moved slightly, shaping a few syllables. “The Sisterhood of the Nameless.”

“Ah. The Colossus witches.” Nabru nodded knowingly. “Your little ghost will be reassured to know they have all long since left this world. May they all be damned to hell.”

“Nice to know we won’t have to deal with them, if they’re dead,” Talm said.

“But I said nothing about death,” Nabru replied. “For a Gerudo witch, leaving this world can mean one of many things. Regardless of how they departed, they are at least no threat to us. Their temple has long since been abandoned.” Nabru’s brow furrowed. “There are few monuments beyond the Waste, and the Colossus is the nearest. It is likely your King is headed for it. It was said to have once been a hideout of his great-grandfather’s, after all.”

“Then we ought to be on our way,” Palo said. He urged his horse into a trot. It kicked up sand behind it as he guided it away from the oasis and into the desert. Link followed, glancing over at Impa before nudging his mount after Palo’s.

The deadseer spent most of the journey with his eyes closed. The going was slow, obscured by the shadowy haze of the mild sandstorms that billowed in their wake, and when Link would glance over to assess the state of his companions, he would catch a glimpse of Palo’s glowing tattoos in the dusty light. Occasionally the deadseer would mutter something nonsensical under his breath, or turn his head up to the sky and mouth silent words; sometimes he would rein his horse to a complete stop, the others lounging impatiently behind him, as he stared into nothingness. After a few minutes, he would regain himself, and nudge his mount onward as if uninterrupted.

The sun set ahead of them, protracting their shadows across the scattered sands. Link’s stomach rumbled, and as the sun slipped behind the dunes, he reached down for his flagon and wet his aching throat. But Palo kept riding in silence, stopping and starting, seemingly wandering aimlessly.

Link urged his horse next to Impa’s and leaned over to her. “Are you sure he’s leading us the right way? I mean… the ghost. Not Palo.”

Impa smiled at the question. “Deadseeing is a taxing endeavor, Link. It is difficult to talk to those who have passed on—it is a slow and draining process. But Palo has never let a spirit deceive him. I’ve no doubt we will make it through this wasteland.”

The confidence in her voice reassured him. As the moon rose behind them, and the desert chill swept down from the sky, the kept on. The horses trod haltingly onward, shaking their heads and snorting. Link ran his hand across his mare’s neck, trying to lend it some reassurance, but as the freezing night descended on them, swallowing the wasteland, he couldn’t help but share in its anxiety.

They travelled through the night. Link’s head bobbed as he dozed off and jerked awake, only to have the horse’s rhythmic sways lull him back into a shallow half-sleep. He saw nothing interesting to occupy his thoughts—the Haunted Waste was devoid of any landmarks or monuments, and even the dunes, which had rolled with such consistency in the other parts of the desert, had shallowed and flattened. The only movement he could make out was the thin swirling of the wind kicking up sand, the only waymarkers he had were the stars, dimmed and obscured by the dust clouds. There was nothing but flat, endless sand in every direction.

When the sun rose, distant and pallid, discolored in the brown wind, Palo sped up his horse. Link, brought to life again from his mindless stupor at the sudden action, kicked his steed and followed. The horse, perhaps yearning for an end to the monotony, eagerly complied, and the group galloped for a few long minutes before Palo drew in his reins and his horse skidded to a halt.

Before them, pristine and untouched by the mild, constant sandstorm that had accompanied them all the way through the wasteland, glinted a blue oasis. A few trees arched over the pond, fan leaves waving in the breeze. Vegetation, hearty but sparse, dotted the soil around the teal water. Far beyond the oasis, obscured in the haze of sunrise, jutted a massive mesa with an unnaturally flat top. It struck Link as a table on which gods might eat.

The horses, eager for water, stepped to the oasis, and Nabru slid from her mare. She patted her horse’s side as she eyed the monstrous rock standing tall against the sky. “This is it,” she said, and Palo nodded, dropping to the ground beside her. “We must be cautious,” she continued. “There are far more frightening things in the desert than that King of yours.” She crossed her arms. “But still, if he is already here, we must stay hidden.” She pointed past the rock, to the south. “They will arrive from that direction, if they did not make the mistake of wandering through the Waste. We’ll have to tie the horses out of sight, and cover our tracks.”

Link let his horse drink, and knelt down beside it to fill himself and his flagon with the clear water. Nabru walked to the other side of the oasis, squinting at the distant, rectangular rock. When she returned, she led them to a small collection of boulders, behind which she tied her mare. The others followed suit, and when their horses were hidden to her satisfaction, they set off toward the giant rock.

They took a circuitous route, occasionally stopping to let Impa remove her lyre from her back and play a tune that produced a gust of wind. When her song threw enough sand over their tracks to cover them sufficiently, they continued on. Once they stopped to feed themselves, since they had not eaten anywhere in the Haunted Waste. It was past midmorning by the time they got close enough to the mesa for Link to discern its features.

He saw cliffs of brown and red, a few hardy, thin plants clinging to their tall, cracked surfaces. The long rocks cast shadows where they split from the cliffs, arcing toward the sky, or where they protruded and retreated from the main body like grooves in some sort of giant tree bark. A few pillars jutted from the sand, remerging at the top of the mesa, like numerous, red legs of a massive rock table.

But most magnificent of the features of the rock was the Colossus itself, carved into the cliff’s red surface. It bore the likeness of a woman, cross-legged, eyes closed, hands open across her chest in some sort of religious salute. Link wondered how long it had taken to carve the woman, wondered which one of the masons had the courage to climb the cliffs only to chisel out the perfect lines of her thick eyelashes, the elegant curve of her snake-like headdress. As he drew closer, the absurdly intricate details of her became clear—from each individual stone strand of her long hair, to the nails on her bare feet. Whoever had carved this goddess had done an impeccable job; so much so that Link would not be surprised to see her get up, push herself off the wall of the mesa, and go for a walk.

At the base of her crossed legs stood a row of impressive columns, beyond which loomed a massive arched doorway, framed with intricate carvings of worms, women, and what Link could make out as some Gerudo writing. It would’ve been quite the portal to pass through, if it had not been blocked. Large, yellowish bricks had been stacked in the doorway, carved to perfectly fit the shape of the passage. Nabru examined the stones, pushing against them, kicking at them, only to find they were solidly placed. She tried to wedge her fingers into the small cracks between each stone, but they only came away dusty with mortar.

“I suppose one of you Sheikah lot will have to work your witchcraft,” she said.

Palo glanced at Talm. “I don’t know what you expect us to do about it,” he said. “I don’t know about Talm, but I didn’t bring any explosives with me.”

“Have her do that thing with her harp.”

Impa flinched. “I can try.” She stepped up to the doorway, and after a deep breath, drew her fingers across her lyre. The shrill sound nearly knocked Link to his knees, and his hands rushed up to his ears as Impa’s arm flew back, sending a wave of power from the strings. When the sound subsided, echoing in to the desert, they uncovered their ears and stepped to the doorway, only to find she had dislodged nothing more than a few pebbles.

Talm scratched her head. “That was… disappointing.”

Impa sighed. “I suppose we ought to think up something else.”

A long conversation began. They heatedly and quickly discussed the merits of having Impa try once more, twice, however many times it took until the whole front of the temple came down; they estimated the time it might take to find an alternate passage and whether it was worth it, they even discussed climbing the Colossus and trying to find a way inside through the canals of her ears.

While the conversation echoed across the sandy portico, Link turned his gaze to his surroundings. He had little to offer the conversation: he did not have an instrument capable of expelling waves of fury, like Impa, he did not have sufficient knowledge of Sheikah bombcraft to blast in through the door, nor did he have the strength to scale the Colossus and find a way inside. All he had were his wits and his keen senses.

He saw nothing at first that piqued his interest. Only endless sand and a few rocks scattered around the entrance to the temple. When his eye caught a slight streak of movement, he decided he might as well investigate it. He was useless enough just standing there, so he stepped away from the portico, past the Colossus’ bent knee. The intricately carved stone made way for plain, jagged rock, and he climbed off the platform and down into the white sand, hoping to get a better look at whatever had caught his eye.

What he saw surprised him, but only because he had not expected to encounter another living being so far into the vast wasteland. It was a small fox, sand-colored like everything else, large ears flaring from the side of its head like two white sails. It had a delicate face, furry cheeks tapering to a dainty muzzle, dotted at the end with a little black nose. Its eyes were the same deep gold as Nabru’s, and glinted with the same wild fierceness. Link had seen this face before, atop the shoulders of the statues of fox nymphs which stood tall against the temple walls in Obra Garud. He wondered if this creature was indeed a nymph, in its full animal form, or if it was some sort of spiritual guide, willing to lead him to his destination the same way the wolf had on Eldin, so many months ago.

Just to see if the animal would tolerate his presence, he scooted closer to it, lifting his arm and reaching out. With a flash of its teeth and a dissatisfied flick of its bushy tail, the sand fox fled. It skittered across the white ground, kicking up dust where its tiny feet landed, but it left a distinct trail Link figured he had no better option than to follow. He knew it was an illogical reaction stemming from a childish disposition, but always his first instinct was to follow an animal that had run from him. He tracked the small steps of the creature, away from the Colossus and along the tall walls of the mesa.

The tracks led a few dozen yards away from the temple entrance, and terminated at a small crevice, shaded between two outcroppings of red rocks. Link knelt by the opening and peered inside, wondering if he’d glimpse the surprised face of the white fox staring back at him, but he saw only darkness. He muttered his disappointment and prepared to pull himself back to his feet, but the echo of his voice kept him kneeling. The sound that had returned to him from the hole was not muffled and shallow, as it would have been had he spoken into a fox-sized den. He wasn’t too experienced with the nuances of sound, but he had lingered under the echoes of Elder Merel’s cave and its offshoots enough to know whatever cavern lay beyond the hole was larger than he’d anticipated.

He pushed his arm into the hole, half expecting to feel teeth clamp down on his fingers any second, but he felt nothing sharp, nothing harmful. The walls of whatever tunnel lay beyond the opening widened fast, and it felt as if he was groping not a thin passage, but the expansive wall of some sort of chamber. If the hole opened up so quickly, it would take little work to fit himself inside the opening and see what lay beyond. So he removed his sword and shield from his back and set them aside. He dug at the hole, scooping fistfuls of sand until it had widened enough for him to fit through. He put his feet into the darkness first—he figured if he were to be bitten by the fox (or any other creature waiting in the shadows), he’d rather be bitten on his toes than his face. He pushed himself off the sand and slid into the hole.

The drop was short and mild, but it was enough that it forced his stomach into his throat. His feet hit sand with a soft thud, and he fell forward, into the cold darkness of the cave, his momentum carrying him into something of a tumble. When he regained his footing, he stood up and dusted himself off, catching his breath for a moment. A streak of thin light poured in from the opening, but it was not enough to illuminate his surroundings. He groped in the darkness for a moment, standing on his toes and reaching up to see if he could feel the ceiling, but it was too far above him. So he turned his attention back to the small entrance.

It stood a little higher than his head, and was small enough that he could hardly believe he had managed to wiggle through it in the first place, but he knew that given enough time, and with more than a little effort on his part, he could haul himself back through and inform Impa and the others of his discovery. He was just about to grip the stones around the small opening when suddenly a face appeared on the other side. It seemed a featureless silhouette against the bright sun, but Link could tell from the messy bun that it belonged to Talm. When he crept a little closer to the fissure, he could see her red eyes twinkle and the corners of her thick lips upturn a little.

“Did you get stuck in there?” she asked. “Do you need me to help you out?” She seemed more amused than surprised to find Link in this odd sort of predicament.

“I don’t think so,” he answered. “I think this might be a way inside the temple.”

“Well, you seem to be inside something, which is much better than we were doing,” she said. Talm kicked at the opening, spraying dust into the chamber. Link backed up, wiping grains from his eyes and coughing. When she finished widening the hole enough for her to slip through, she landed on the floor next to him.

She reached into the leather pouch she kept at her waist for some flint. She pulled a thin stick and a strip of cloth from the pack and fashioned a small torch (Link could tell she had executed this maneuver many times before with little or no light), and managed to fill the room with a yellowed glow.

They found themselves not in a natural cave, but what was no doubt a temple chamber. The walls were decorated plainly, images of moons and stars carved into the large, crumbling bricks. In the far wall stood a thin doorway, beyond which lay only darkness. Spiderwebs clung to the ceiling and trembled in the corners, and small animal droppings littered the floor. Talm glanced down at her feet in disgust for a moment before handing the torch to Link.

“It’s not the most glamorous of entrances,” she sighed. “But it’ll have to do.” Link held the torch high as she made her way back to the small opening. “We split up to search for you after we noticed you’d snuck off.” She glanced over her shoulder and gave him a pretty smile. “You did a good job of giving us the slip. Pretty soon you’ll outdo us Sheikah.”

Link basked in her words, swelling a little with pride, but checked his own ego when he saw how she pulled herself up through the opening in one swift, smooth motion. He could not move like that—and he knew he had quite a bit of learning to do before he could earn himself any more compliments from her. Gracefully, she lowered her head back to the hole and smiled. “Wait here while I fetch the others.”

Link stood alone with the flickering torch as her silhouette left the crevice. He took in his surroundings and breathed the cool air, shivering. He watched the shadows dance across the crumbling bricks and wondered what sort of ghosts, creatures and curses inhabited the walls around him. But before he could scare himself into a panic, he heard familiar voices approach, muffled on the other side of the wall. Talm’s face appeared again at the fissure and she greeted him with a smile.

She slid through the opening, followed by her slender sister. Next came the head of Nabru’s glinting spear, with which she picked at the sides of the hole, shoveling away sand until it was wide enough for even her broad shoulders to fit through. Palo came last, perhaps out of caution, or perhaps because he wanted to view the odd spectacle of Nabru squeezing herself into the crevice from a well-lit vantage point.

When they all stood at the center of the dusty room, Impa took the torch from Link. Her smile widened in the dim firelight. “Did you follow an animal here?” she asked. He could tell she spoke only half in jest.

“A sand fox,” he answered, and Impa’s face broke into a grin.

Nabru clasped his shoulder so hard he could swear he felt a bruise forming. “You’re a bit of a sand fox yourself, kid,” she said. “Small, quick, with a face you just want to squeeze.” Link turned a little red, and Nabru chuckled. “Now, business. To the belly of the Colossus, pregnant with who knows what horrors.”

Link chose to wear her confidence as a shield against his fears, and fell into step behind her as they all followed Impa and her reassuring torchlight deeper into the temple.


Palo's Vision

Chapter Text

*

“The priests of Hylian deities often prophesy the world will end in fire, heat and destruction, as the patience of the benevolent goddesses wears thin with the sins of mortals. The Gerudo, however, foretell a different, calmer apocalypse. One day, without warning and with no one at fault, rain will come to the desert. The water will fill the oases and towns, flowing from the sands to all surrounding countries, until no land is left uncovered. All will die, but it will be a serene, silent death, and the world will sleep in darkness until the gods decide to remake it as it once was. Then, time will begin again, all that has passed will pass again, and life will continue as it always had, in the same way it always had. That is, until the next World Flood.”

Edra Li, “Why the Worm Eats Her Own Tail”

*

 

The cavernous hall was silent, save for the airy sounds of Impa’s torch. The light fell over the walls, casting flickers on the crumbling bricks, amplifying the shadows of the cobwebs that covered the stone. Insects and rodents had made their homes in the pitted walls; ants and tiny red spiders crept along the rocks, and in the larger holes some creatures had stuffed twigs and fur for bedding. With each step, Link could hear the quiet squeaks and skittering of mice. A rogue centipede, perhaps half a foot in length, crept from a crevice between two bricks and wiggled its long antennae at Talm. She reeled in disgust, with something of a muffled yelp.

Nabru’s laugh echoed so loudly through the hall Link thought it would send the ceiling tumbling down on them. “What, you’re going to tremble like a little boy at the sight of a bug?” She reached out and crushed the insect’s head between two large fingers. Talm scowled, but Nabru had only a proud smile to offer her. “Fear not, maiden. I will protect you.”

Talm only crossed her arms, avoiding the small splatter of yellowish slime where the centipede had met its end. She fell into step behind Impa in silence, as the floor of the dim hallway began to slope downward.

“I can’t say I’m fond of where this is going,” Palo said with a hint of irritation. “Few good things happen this deep under the earth.”

“And those few good things happened only when the Gorons were still living,” Impa replied. She trod onward anyway, no fear in her voice, no hesitation in her strides.

Nabru shook her head. “My people’s livelihood is made beneath the earth,” she said. “Or have you forgotten already the origin of wormsilk?” She seemed unconcerned with the path’s downward slope, but when the shallow incline made way for a rapidly descending staircase of crumbling stone, she hardly seemed pleased.

“Well, this just got worse,” Palo said. Link could sense no anxiety in his voice, only annoyance at the inconvenience of how much further it seemed they would have to go.

“We have a guide now,” Nabru said. All turned to her, eyebrows raised, and she motioned toward the wall to her right. “Look.”

Link did. Where there had been plain brick before, adorned with nothing but spiderwebs and insect dens, there was now a wall of intricate carvings. He stepped back as far as he could before he hit the opposite wall, and examined the pictures of stone and shadow. Shapes danced against the light of the torch, the most prominent of which was the image of a long, armored worm, curling from the top of the stairway and extending to the darkness far below. Other carvings surrounded it—depictions of fox nymphs, long-haired women with arms raised to the sky, and stone-carved fields of wheat, dunes and phases of the moon. It fascinated him, but he was not sure how it would guide them from one end of the temple to the other.

Nabru decided to assuage their curiosity. “It is the story of the world,” she told them. It did not appear to Link to be a narrative of any form at all, but he took another long glance at the wall, lit by Impa’s flickering torch. “Here, we have the beginning,” the Gerudo continued, motioning to the base of the wall, where the worm’s body first emerged from the sand. “This is when the world was born, when Molgera came from the ground and birthed all other life from her mouth.” Link could not see the worm’s mouth depicted in the brick—her length spanned farther than his eyes could make out, but he did spy leaves of grass sprout below her body, the outlines of wild animals and women on their knees, worshipping their mother goddess. He followed Nabru’s finger as it pointed out the chronology of the world. “Here is where civilization begins.”

“Where?” Talm asked, and Nabru led her down the hall, waving at the illustration of the rise of Gerudo society. Link could make out the rounded tops of buildings carved into the wall, much like the temples he’d seen in Obra Garud.

“This is the beginning of the other races,” Nabru said, tracing her finger across a carving that was all but incomprehensible to Link. “First come the Gerudo, then from them descend the other peoples of the world—the Sheikah, the Hylians, and all other sects and colors. From different gods rise the Zora, and the Gorons, and the tree-people of the south…” Nabru’s face contorted in thought. “I can’t tell you which gods created them. Galra told me once, but it went in one ear and out the other, as they say.”

Link was impressed regardless; it was far more than he had ever known about any mythology. All he knew of were Hylia and her daughters, matron deities of his race, and the wild god-spirits of the Sheikah, who did not claim to create anything. The birth of the world through Molgera’s mouth was new to him, but believable enough. After all, he was not offered an alternative theory from Impa or her people—when they spoke of gods, they spoke not of creation, but of duty and protection, healing and full harvests. The Sheikah did not claim to know from where the world had sprung.

Nabru led them along the wall, showing them how the newly-created people dispersed—the Zora into the water, the Gorons into the mountains, the Hylians and similar races into the corners of the habitable world. A few minutes after the excitement of creation died down, and the length of the stone worm writhed around the walls and ceiling with years of early history etched on her belly, they encountered the first fork in the passage. Nabru ambled to a halt, raising her eyes to the ceiling, where the armored stomach of the worm’s image split in two. “Ah, so this is how it is.”

“How it is?” Impa asked, raising her torch so Nabru could see better by its light.

“This is the birth of our first king. The first male child ever born in the desert.” Her yellow eyes wandered from the left passage to the right. “The story goes that the moment of his birth, the worst sandstorm in our history swept over the desert and blotted out the sun for a week. Only one of these passages shows that.” Her finger wandered to the left. “So, that is our path.”

By the light of Impa’s torch, and occasionally stopping to recall the events of her people’s history, Nabru led them through the passages and stairwells of the dark temple—winding, straightening, ascending, descending and ascending again. More than once Link considered the possibility she might misremember the story and lead them all into a trap, but even when she wavered, her indecision lasted no more than a few seconds. She was confident, and Link supposed he would have to be, too.

Nabru seemed to enjoy the game. Whenever there came a fork or a particularly interesting illustration in the narrative, she would stop to point it out—this famine and that queen’s reign, this war and that founding of a city-fortress. She led them through dozens of Molgera’s molts, occurring every century or so, until the passage narrowed and the events under the worm took on a more catastrophic, abstract tone.

“We are nearing the end of the world,” Nabru said. She nodded to the carving of the worm that had accompanied them through the darkness. “Unfortunately, it only ends one way.” Link did not ask—partially because he was not particularly anxious to know, and partially because before he could form the words of his query, Talm let out a surprised cry.

“Something is shining down there,” she said, almost eagerly. Link wondered if she had spied jewels or other such treasure, from the way her voice lifted. He trotted down the stairs after her and her sister, until he came across what was most definitely the end of their route.

Below him glinted dark water, surface reflecting flickers of torchlight. The stairs descended into the silent ripples uninterrupted, leading ever downward into the water. The forward march seemed to terminate here—at the other end of the small pool stood a wall, the bottom half of which lay submerged. Link squeezed his way between the sisters and knelt at the edge of the pool.

“And here we are,” Nabru said. “The drowned world.”

Link raised his eyes from the black water to her frowning face. His gaze wandered back to the wall, to the infinite length of the worm, twisting down into the pool with ease and confidence. There was nowhere else to go but into the water. “The worm keeps going,” he said, gesturing to it. “Even though the world ends.”

Nabru nodded. “Of course She does. The Worm is eternal.” She pulled her spear from her shoulder and leaned on it, staring into the water. “But I am not. I’m afraid if you’d like me to come down there with you, be warned I might not emerge again.” Something of a grimace crossed her features. “I am not the world’s most graceful swimmer.”

“Just hold your breath and I’ll drag you along the bottom,” Palo offered.

Nabru laughed, perhaps nervously, perhaps with a little frustration at having finally encountered an obstacle that actually threatened to impede her. She stared at the pool as if considering letting Palo lead her down into the water, when Impa shoved the torch into Link’s hands and removed her harp from her back.

“I doubt this will work, but it’s worth a try,” she said. She spread her feet wide, as if preparing for the recoil from plucking her strings, and ran her fingers across the lyre. A strange singing came from the instrument, eerie and quiet. It forced ripples through the surface of the water, coaxing the liquid up and away from the center of the pool. The dark water undulated and foamed, climbing up the walls, splitting and churning to the vibrations of the old strings, until Link could make out a small passage at the base of the wall ahead of them. It appeared from the rapidly retreating water, narrow, dark and wet, but certainly big enough for them to pass through. Impa pulled at one last note and the path became clear—until the sound faded and the water splashed back down into the pool, churning with dark foam and submerging the passage again in darkness.

“Forgive me,” Impa panted. “I can’t hold up that much water for long.”

“At least we know there’s a way forward,” her sister said. She dropped her bag at her feet and removed her cloak. “I’ll swim ahead and see if there’s a place to come up.” She had her sleeves rolled and her pointed shoes off before her sister could protest. Link just held the torch up as Talm dove into the water, nimbly sliding beneath the black surface.

A few bubbles popped up behind her, and Link stared into the water, heart pounding in his throat. The others watched with equal intensity in deafening silence, eyeing the ripples for any sign of their companion’s return. After what seemed to him far too long, Talm reemerged with a loud, desperate gasp. Impa knelt by the waterside and clasped her arm, pulling her to dry rock. She rolled onto her back and caught her breath for a moment before speaking.

“It’ll be… a stretch,” she panted. “But take a few deep breaths… beforehand, and you’ll be fine.”

Impa waited for her sister’s breathing to slow before stepping into the water herself. She glanced back at Link, holding the torch above him, and narrowed her eyes. “If we leave the torch back here by the stairs, can we still swim by its light?”

Talm shook her head. “It took only a few kicks before I couldn’t see the light anymore. It’ll be pitch black, but I can get us to the other side. Just hold onto me and we’ll get there. We’ll have to light another torch when we reemerge.”

“I didn’t think we’d encounter water in a place like this,” Impa sighed. “But if we keep the wood and flint in the inner pouch of Palo’s pack, it might stay dry.” They spent the next few moments debating   which valuables to secure in Palo’s watertight sheep-stomach pouch, and packing them accordingly. Most of their food and other necessities still sat in the saddlebags with the horses, safely hidden near the oasis.

When all was sorted, and Talm sank down into the water, Impa followed her closely, grasping  the folds of her clothes for guidance. Link, in turn, grabbed Impa, and when Palo’s hand secured itself around his belt, he heard Nabru’s low, dissatisfied voice carry across the small chamber. “If you let me drown, deadseer, there will be no afterlife for me. I will haunt and torment you for the rest of your days.”

“Duly noted,” he replied. He didn’t bother to mention to her that he was probably used to that sort of thing already. He gripped the butt of her spear, she held the side nearest the blade, and he led her into the water after them.

“Are we prepared?” Talm asked. Although a definite no, Link’s answer stayed put in his throat. The sisters knew he wasn’t the best swimmer, even after those lessons in the river near Kakariko, but he knew he could trust them to guide him. When he nodded cautiously, Talm took a large breath and dove.

As Link lowered himself into the water, he filled his lungs with the temple’s dusty air. The pool wasn’t particularly cold, but he couldn’t help but tremble a little as he submerged his head and opened his eyes. He could see very little of the underwater passageway—it seemed the torch’s light could not penetrate the pool more than a few feet.

Link gripped the sash around Impa’s hips a little harder as she swam forward. They sank toward the flat floor of the passageway, and by the time his feet touched the stone, the surface light had dimmed to nothing more than a distant flicker. He could see nothing; he could only feel the tug of Impa’s clothing as she led him through the black water. Palo’s hand gripped harder around his belt, and he propelled himself forward with his free hand, deeper into the darkness.

After less time than he would’ve liked, his lungs started to ache, and he could hear his heart beat desperately in his chest. When shadow enveloped him fully and the last light of the distant torch faded, he started counting, begging each second to be the one where he could kick off the bottom and breathe. Impa sped, pulling him a little harder, and he wondered if they were nearing the end of the passage, or if Talm had managed to lead them to a dead end. He did not know if he had enough air to return to the stairwell.

His fingers were numb, his hands weak, so when Impa’s sash slipped from his grip, it took him a second to realize he’d lost his guide. He didn’t know how, or when, but suddenly he could feel nothing but water in his hands. Before him loomed absolute darkness—whatever shadows Impa disappeared into had swallowed her wholly. She was gone.

Link began to panic. His heart leapt into his throat, his lungs seemed to twist in his chest, and every inch of him screamed for air. He almost kicked off the bottom of the passageway, toward what might, just might, have been a pocket of air. If there was only a bump in the stone, a small perturbation into which air had trickled up, he would be able to refill his lungs, to continue on and find Impa—

Then he realized Palo’s hand still gripped his belt. Both his companions behind him were as blind as he was, and would follow him wherever he went. They had put their full faith in him, and here he was, floating aimlessly in the darkness, drowning in his own cowardice. He thought of the choice words Palo would have for him if he stopped and panicked and drowned in the center of the dark waterway. He thought of Nabru, equally blind, holding the end of her spear, and her anxiety that should she die in water, she would not find her way into the afterlife.

Link let out a few bubbles and pushed forward. His lungs screamed, his legs ached, and he stretched out his hands to grope in the darkness for any obstacles. The weight of the two people behind him kept the going slow, but Link pushed on, praying, heart struggling to pump what was left of his breath into his blood.

When the tips of his fingers touched a wall of stone, he knew he could go no farther. If this was a turn in the passageway, he was afraid Palo would have to continue without him. He pushed off the bottom and floated blindly up, up toward what was equally likely to be solid stone as it was to be breathable air.

When he burst from the water and gasped for breath, he nearly cried in relief. Palo bobbed up behind him, grunting as he pulled Nabru heavily after him. She broke the surface with a gasp and a cry of joy, her voice immediately descending into a gurgle when she sank back down into it.

“Help me with her,” Palo’s voice echoed in the darkness, and Link groped his way over to them. He felt for Nabru’s arm and gripped it as she again broke the surface, coughing.

“There’s a platform over here.” Impa’s voice hit Link’s ears like music. He helped Palo drag their splashing Gerudo companion to the source of her words, and soon they had all pulled themselves on a flat expanse of rock. Link could hear Palo rustling through his pack as he searched for dry material. Nabru kept muttering to herself in Gerudo between coughs; Link couldn’t understand the words, but he could make out the grateful sentiment—she must’ve been offering thanks to whatever god had led her through that water, despite Link’s ineptitude.

Suddenly Talm’s breathless voice filled the room, sharp with disquiet. “What was that?”

“What was what?” Impa’s was calm, but noticeably cautious.

“Something there, right there.”

Someone cried out, and with a harrowing sound of tense string, a flash of light burst from Impa’s harp. The room filled in a split-second with sharp blue, blinding Link more than the darkness could, but before the light snuffed out, he could make out a horrible, hairy shape lurch toward Impa, long legs dancing, fangs probing. Before Impa could strike her harp again and summon another flash of light, a cry echoed through the room, followed by the sound of metal meeting flesh and a horrid, inhuman screech.

Link desperately pulled himself from the floor, stumbling toward the source of the commotion, but before he got there, the noise died down, replaced only by Talm’s shallow panting. As Link groped for the sisters, Palo managed to pull out his flint and light a torch.

The yellow glow filled the watery chamber, and Link stepped back, revulsion turning his stomach. The body of a spider, larger than a hound, convulsed on the stones, hairy legs twitching in its death throes. Talm stood over it, twin swords drawn, and watched the yellowish blood spurt from its middle, her face contorted in revulsion. When the spider finally stopped moving, Talm leaned to her sister, gripping the wet edge of her sash, and cleaned her blade on it. “This is officially the most disgusting mission I’ve been on,” she growled.

“Don’t wipe that on me,” Impa said, trying to tug her clothes from her sister.

“You owe me one for saving your life. I’m not getting any of that gross blood on me, that’s for sure.”

Palo shook his head, helping Nabru off the wet stone platform and toward the sisters. “I guess next time we all go down a cobwebby hole you can wait outside,” he smiled. Nabru shook the water from her spear and stood at Talm’s side, watching her wipe her sword on her frowning sister’s clothes. Impa endured the indignity, instead turning her attention to the passageway beyond the room, which, much like the hallways that had come before, led into darkness. When Talm had her swords cleaned to her satisfaction, she slid them back into their sheaths and retreated from the spider’s corpse. Palo, the new torch-bearer, stepped ahead, and with an air of reserved caution led them into the hallway.

The passage was plain and narrow, and led sharply upward. There were no illustrations of the world’s history, no giant arachnids, no pools, no obstacles, no worm (Nabru theorized the carving had looped around beneath the water and met its own tail back at the top of the stairwell). They followed the straight path in silence, occasionally stopping to catch their breath when the climb steepened. Palo led them up the slope until the corridor widened, terminating in a large doorway. Dim light, perhaps from a distant window, poured through the passage, and Palo stepped through, raising his torch. The others followed, and emerged into a large, golden-lit hall.

Small round windows, multitudinous and intricately arranged into geometric patterns, shone high on the ceiling. Link crept past Palo and his now-lowered torch, mouth agape, trying to absorb what he saw. On the wall farthest to his left, past the dozen or so massive columns and the mosaic-studded floor of the temple, he recognized the shape of the blocked doorway. Brick and mortar sat firmly in its ornate frame, closing the temple off from the outside world. The only way into the room, besides their little hallway, seemed to be the tiny windows dotting the highest reaches of the sanctuary.

The walls of the massive hall were lined with statues in various poses: arms outstretched, hands clasped in prayer, fists raised as if to put up a good fight. Around them, between the pillars and crevices of the nave, lay ornate carvings of domestic scenes, battles, and rituals. Link would’ve liked to kneel and study these depictions, interpreting whatever stories they contained, but he could not keep his eyes from the farthest wall opposite the door. Carved in stone, with a vague expression of contentment, a monumental figure loomed, dressed and decorated much the same way as the giant woman of the Colossus herself. She sat cross-legged, hands upturned, elbows bent, a massive stone snake crawling up from her arm and wrapping around her head to form an elaborate headdress. Her eyes were closed, her look serene, and Link figured she must’ve been some sort of lauded priestess or goddess. At her feet stood a raised dais, and on that, an altar, draped in red cloth and coated in dust.

He could not stop himself from focusing the entirety of his attention to the altar below the goddess’ knees. The same sort of curiosity that had taken hold of him in the temple on Eldin rushed through him again, and he stepped toward it. The sheer volume of dust that coated the red silk told him it had remained undisturbed for many years, so it was with a wave of satisfaction that he grabbed the corner of the cloth and threw it off the altar.

He was not sure if he actually had expected what sat before him. It was a small shard of metal, long and thin, nearly identical to the one he’d found at the altar of the god-spirits of Eldin. It glowed almost blue in the golden light, and as he looked at his reflection in the metal, his narrowed eyes and unsurprised frown, he knew in his heart he should have known as much. He reached out and gripped the metal lightly, so as not to cut himself on the still-sharp edge, simply because he knew he had no other option.

Suddenly Impa was beside him, watching him lift the scrap metal from the altar, the same half-expectant look on her face. Generally, Impa knew much more about everything than he did, but the expression she wore told him she had no answers. So he turned to Palo, who out of all of them, had the most reliable and voluminous pack. “Will you keep this for me?” he asked.

Palo, his look of bewilderment mild and fleeting, stepped forward and obliged, slipping the thin piece of metal into his bag. The other Sheikah, well-acquainted with silence and secretiveness, were used to the unexplainable, so they didn’t counter his request with queries or demands for clarification. They could probably guess whatever information Link and Impa shared had been given to them on the peak of Eldin—they had no right to such knowledge.

Nabru, however, did a poor job of quelling her curiosity. “What is that? Is that what your King wants?” she asked. Link could almost see the gears turn behind her intelligent eyes as she tried to determine the significance of what appeared to be a scrap of useless metal. But he could tell her nothing meaningful. He was nearly as ignorant as she was. He could not tell her if this is what the King desired so much he’d cross miles of wasteland to get to it. He could not tell her why, deep in the desert and far from the nation of Eldin, an abandoned temple of a long-dead witch cult would house a fragment that matched the one he had found on an altar to the Sheikah gods. He knew in his heart these two shards had come from the same whole, but he couldn’t say why.

He could guess it had once been a blade of some kind. He did not know if it had been a dagger, a short sword, or a thin blade that might adorn the end of a spear, like Nabru’s, or if it was a section of a massive broadsword, like the King carried. All he knew was that whatever it had been, it was not a common tool. But he didn’t have time to dwell on the metal’s past for long, nor did Nabru have time to interrogate him about it. The next moment she opened her mouth, instead of her deep voice, a savage boom echoed across the hall. They all turned their eyes to the doorway to see a rain of dust puff from between the bricks, just as another deep thump sounded.

It did not take anyone long to deduce who was pounding at the entrance to the temple. The volume of the strikes, the way the whole wall seemed to shake as the sounds echoed across the chamber, told Link it would not be long before the bricks crumbled and the King stepped into the temple. Cracks appeared in the stone, and another shower of dust fell from the doorway.

Impa, perpetually clear-minded, took a few seconds to throw the cloth back over the altar. She could not replace the dispersed dust, but at least to an unobservant eye, the altar could’ve looked undisturbed. Palo extinguished his torch and Nabru raised her spear, as if she wanted nothing more than to charge at the entrance. Impa gripped the Gerudo’s arm in silence, and narrowed her eyes at the rocks trembling and crumbling at the door. She motioned for her companions to follow her before retreating into the shadows, away from the resounding bombardment at the entrance.


The Spider Attacks

Chapter Text

*

“Any son of my brother is a son of mine.”

Goron Precept

*

 

In the early hours of the desert night, when the last sliver of sun disappeared behind the distant dunes, Talporom sat cross-legged on the outer wall of Obra Garud, atop a particularly intricate marble arch. Curves of metal wrought around the stone provided him good enough handholds that he could carry Bloodletter up with him, slung heavy and absurd across his back. But when he pulled himself onto the arch’s center, where the decorative stone and protective metal flattened into a comfortable ledge, he figured the trip was worth it. No one would follow him up here, to the heights of the wall—his self-imposed silence would not be broken by a nervous soldier desperate for orders, a commander wishing to discuss battle plans, a wandering civilian asking when the inevitable siege would begin. There would be no (or, at least few) little girls up here on the wall, asking where he was from and if they could touch his tattoos, and then, inevitably, slipping a hand into his waistband to see if they could pilfer a coin or two. He did not mind the girls, for the most part; their large, mischievous eyes reminded him of Talm’s, and the contrition on their faces when he invariably caught them red-handed and gave them a stern talking-to reminded him of his daughters at their guiltiest.

Talporom pulled Bloodletter from its scabbard, and looked at himself in the reflective metal. He did not know how many years the blade had been in his family, but it showed few signs of wear, a scrape here and there on the metal, but not a hint of rust. He attributed it to his own meticulousness and that of his eldest daughter.

He pulled a cloth from his waist and ran it along the steel. His eyes lingered on his own hands (he wondered how they had gotten so wrinkled since the last time he’d looked), and knew if he did not have Bloodletter to care for he’d sit up here and bite his nails all night. How many times have I cleaned this blade? he thought. How many times has she? Hundreds, thousands?

He wondered how many hands it had passed through, how many parents cursed their children with the burden, and how many children were more than ecstatic to receive it. When he handed it to Impa for the first time, her palms were already worn and scarred from fighting. He could almost still feel the warmth of his brother’s hand on its hilt as he extended it to her—she had known the fate of its last wielder well, and she received it eagerly anyway. She should’ve known better, they both should’ve, but the foolish smile she gave him that day warmed his treacherous heart.

And now the gods had given her something worse, and she had accepted it with grace and enthusiasm. After Impa had come back into his life after more than a year of absence, something about her had changed. He had expected as much—she was a young woman, still learning, still growing, but when she told him of her stableboy, of her failure in the Capital to save the young princess, about how the gods had called her up Eldin (she could say no more about it—Talporom knew the creed of silence that governed the mountain), he recognized that something fundamental about her had been lost.

When she showed him the new lyre Merel had given her and ran her fingers along the strings, what emerged from the instrument was not music, as he expected. It was not the calm, meticulous melodies she always plucked, it was not the language she had learned to speak as a girl and through which she communicated her deepest thoughts and longings. It was something violent, something inconceivable—it was a sharp light, a gust of wind, a feeling of unnatural sleepiness or a wave of force. He had almost wept for her in that moment.

He remembered the small girl at her mother’s side, plucking the strings of her grandfather’s instrument, content without words, immersed in her own form of communication. She had drawn such comfort from the instrument in times of stress or uncertainty. But now, the gods had turned her comfort into a thing of violence.

Talporom did not know if Impa cared. It was with a proud smile she showed him her new lyre, it was with a gratified glint in her eye that she pulled the strings. And he had to respect her position. After all, the power was hers to command, not his—he had no right making decisions about how she should feel. But he knew he would miss her arias and jigs, he would miss the daughter who could play tunes for her own enjoyment on a mundane instrument. On the rare occasions he would return to Kakariko, the first thing he’d ask of his daughters was a duet, energetic Talm on the flute, Impa accompanying her with a severe but charming dignity. She always did take her music quite seriously.

But Mount Eldin changed people. He had seen it happen to Merel, he had seen it happen to his own mother, when he was a young boy. The day was still clear in his mind, when his mother had left his infant brother in his arms and followed her companion up the side of the mountain. A few days later, she had returned with a distant look in her eyes, and words of prophecy on her lips. She spoke of legends, of eternity, of repetition and the inevitable sins of the future. She spoke of the death of his brother years before it happened, she spoke of war yet to come and kings yet to fall.

Listen well, Talporom, she had said. I am not long for this world, for I have already seen limitless years. Time overtakes you, no matter how long you run from it. He had not known what she had meant—he still didn’t, but he had some idea it was the price she paid for her gift. The future was reserved for the aged; Renepa’s body, though not five decades old, succumbed to the burden of senescence her mind had brought on it. She left his world earlier than anyone expected, but she had bequeathed him enough cryptic words to occupy his own mind for a lifetime: You must understand, child, I do not see forward in time. I simply see farther back than anyone else. I look over the walls that others choose not to.

Talporom wondered if his mother had seen Impa ascend Eldin. He wondered if she had seen him here this moment, either far in the future or infinite years in the past, cleaning his sword alone and thinking about both of them. He wondered if she knew the price Impa had paid for her new power—if her music had been the only cost, or if there was yet more she had to lose. He did not wish to dwell on it, but on quiet nights like this, when the looming threat of battle set everyone’s mind ill at ease, he had little else to think about.

“Fancy finding an old man up here.” The voice was musical, feminine, and instantly recognizable as Galra’s. “But they say Sheikah don’t age like the rest of us—spry and limber till the end.”

Talporom did not take his eyes off Bloodletter. He watched the simpering face of the fire-dancer in the blade’s reflection as she lingered next to him. “What are you doing up here?” he asked her. He tried not to sound agitated.

“Every night, since I was a little girl, I would find a suitable place—the city wall, or a temple roof—and walk the length of it on my hands.” She smiled. “It’s how I upkeep my balance.”

He did not disbelieve her, but she seemed eager to show him. She gripped the marble with bent fingers and lifted her legs above her, locked straight, toes pointed, and slowly made her way back and forth across one side of the arch, unconcerned with the danger, unimpeded by the slope of the marble. When she bent her legs over her head and twisted herself to her feet again, Talporom could not deny he was impressed.

“The real question,” she said, panting a little, “is what you’re doing up here, when you should be down at the barracks, discussing strategy with my mother.”

“There is little to discuss at this juncture. Haema has not moved an inch since he arrived here. We have fortified everything as needed. Now, we must focus on waiting without panicking.” He resumed cleaning Bloodletter.

She stayed silent for a long moment. “You’re here to get away from everyone. I can go if you prefer to be alone.”

“I admit I did not expect anyone to follow me up here,” he replied. “But you may stay if you wish. After all, it is your city, it is your wall.”

Galra gracefully lowered herself beside him. She raised a long-nailed hand and summoned a tiny, illusory flame, weaving it between her fingers almost nervously. “Do you think they’re all right, out there?” she asked.

Talporom knew of whom she spoke. “I have faith they will return. They have never failed to come back to me, no matter how long they have been absent.”

She lowered her eyes, closing her fist over her little flame. “Must be nice to have that sort of surety. Nabru’s the strongest person I know, and even I worry sometimes she won’t come back.”

“To fret about her is to doubt her abilities. She is capable, she is strong. So trust her.”

Galra’s lips, colored a slight purple, parted in a smile. “I suppose. It’s not something I can help, though. She’s been my closest friend for years. If I lost her, I don’t know what I’d do.”

“You have too little trust. Trust Nabru to return, and trust yourself to survive without her should she fail to.”

The Gerudo put her fingers to her temples and rubbed slowly. “You make it sound so easy.”

“It is.”

They sat in comfortable silence for a moment, watching the distant torches from the King’s camp flicker in the night. It had been discouragingly quiet, and he could still entertain the hope that the King had died somewhere out in the desert and would not return to awaken the camp from its sleepy state. He knew it was too much to hope for; and besides, if the King died, undoubtedly Haema would march on the city out of sheer spite, burning all in his path. He knew how men like that operated.

“I’m curious,” Galra said. He wondered if the young woman had followed his trail of thoughts to the King and his generals, but her mind seemed to be elsewhere entirely. “Is Palo your son?”

“Palo?” Talporom frowned. “In a sense, I suppose.”

“So you’re unrelated?”

“As unrelated as two people in a clan as small as ours can be.”

Something like disappointment crossed her features. “He seems very much like a brother to your daughters. But now I see he’s—”

In a wave of amusement, Talporom realized she must’ve been concerned for his availability. He interrupted her with a sound that almost counted as a laugh. “Are you planning on courting him? Did you come up here to ask for my blessing?”

Galra, usually so cool and pleased with herself, blushed desperately. “Of course not. A Gerudo woman does not ask for a parent’s blessing. I believe a young man can make his own choices.” She averted her gaze. “I was simply curious.”

“Take my advice, Galra. And pass it on to any of your friends who may be interested in seducing him. Palo does not concern himself with such matters.” She looked at him inquisitively, but without malice or distress. It pained him to find himself burdened with explaining the details of certain Sheikah sensibilities, but her frown was earnest, her concern genuine. “Palo is what my people call a shirodi kauto’epan, a free spirit.”

“A what?”

Shirodi kauto’epan. In the old language, it means a soul without burdens. A person free from the worldly shackles that bind him to others.”

“So he’s taken a vow of celibacy or something?”

“No. No vows. Although some of us do, for reasons of our own. But Palo has never needed a vow. He has never needed to voice his reasons. There are no reasons. He simply is.”

Galra’s brows knit together. She opened her mouth, and Talporom prepared to equivocate away any questions she prepared, but something else caught his attention. Somewhere in the back of his mind, an alarm of recognition sounded, and he found himself standing, Bloodletter at his side. Galra mimicked his movements, following his eyes to the grounds below, near the barracks, where something more subtle than a shadow stirred.

“What is it?” Galra asked. She could not see what he did, which was expected. The caster of the shadow art was skilled enough.

“We have an unexpected visitor,” he said. Galra gave him a worried look. “There is no danger; this is one of my own. You may follow me down if you can.”

He sheathed Bloodletter over his back and stepped off the arch, falling a few feet before latching onto a bar of metal. He pushed off the side of the wall onto the lower battlements, sliding where he could, dangling when necessary. He could almost hear his joints creak as he made his way down the side of the wall. He was not as limber as he used to be, but no one who was not trained in Sheikah arts could tell.

But Galra kept up. She was a little more reserved with her movements, but it did not surprise him to see that the fire-dancer could swiftly and safely descend the wall—given she could climb it and walk along it on her palms with no problem. When Talporom landed on the intricate bricks that lined the roads of Obra Garud, Galra was quickly at his side, recovering her footing. Together, they walked toward the barracks, where the city’s army was stationed in preparation for the King’s inevitable raid.

Talporom slipped between two of the arched buildings, Galra close behind, and let out a soft whistle. He turned his head and glanced down the row of barracks, where he saw a small shadow move. A slight puff of sand was all he could see of his visitor, until she stepped out of the shadows, lifting a hand to greet him.

The woman was easily recognizable. Among Sheikah, she was a rarity—white-skinned, brown-eyed, black hair cut straight across her brow. The tattoo on her cheek shone all the brighter for her fair skin, but she had earned it just as any other Sheikah would. Her father theorized she had been a daughter of a plains tribesman, but the moment Sheim had picked her up and carried her to Kakariko, she was considered a full member of the clan.

“Elpi,” Talporom breathed. “I thought you were supposed to be in Silk.”

“I was, but I was reassigned as a messenger.”

Talporom crossed his arms. There were few pieces of news important enough to necessitate a personal delivery.

Elpi glanced over at Galra, her dark eyes narrowing. “It is for your ears and yours alone.”

Talporom nodded to the Gerudo, and she slipped away, pouting slightly. He took a moment to investigate his surroundings, ensuring no overeager guards or Gerudo townspeople stood close enough to hear their conversation. “Speak,” he told her when he was certain they would not be overheard.

“My father sent word to Merel from the Capital.”

“And?” A knot formed in the pit of Talporom’s stomach. “Is it about Balras?”

“No. It’s about someone much more important.” Talporom’s eyes widened, but Elpi corrected herself before he could come to too many conclusions. “About a possible someone. Right now all we have to go on are rumors that a certain insurgent had a second child. We still haven’t found her. Or him. My father is searching, but he has the authorities on his heels. It happens when you assassinate a couple dozen people in the span of a few weeks.” She shrugged. Her casual disregard for the severity of her father’s work almost charmed him. She knew what Sheim did best, and supported him regardless. Sheikah children were usually quite good at accepting the moral quandaries of their parents.

“Very well. I will send someone as soon as I can. Are you going to the Capital to help your father?”

Elpi shook her head. “Wherever this child is… if the child exists, they are well hidden enough, considering even Sheim cannot find them. They will go nowhere. I was given orders to assist you in whatever way I can. Elder Merel says this matter is more pressing.”

Talporom clasped her shoulder. “If the elder wishes it, you are welcome to stay. We could use more Sheikah faces around here.”

“Always, we could use more Sheikah faces.” She gave him a charming smile. “Now, I was promised there would be good food here in the city. Lead me to it, honorable Talporom, or I’ll lay down and die right here.”

Her shining eyes forced his thoughts to his own children. Even with my own blood far away, I am surrounded by other men’s daughters, he thought to himself. Daughters of all colors and lineages. He could not say he minded. He just motioned for Elpi to follow him, and made his way toward a well-lit boulevard, where Galra waited for them.

*

Link held a hand to his chest, as if he could quiet the heavy, breathless pants that seemed to echo louder than the commotion at the entrance. He followed Impa and the others back toward the dark passage from which they had come, but Impa skidded to a halt before they could throw themselves into it. Her eyes were locked on the stretch of wall beside the passage, where a thin outcropping of stone led up to the buttresses. It seemed too steep to function as a stairwell, but could’ve been something of a ladder up to the rafters for maintenance purposes, or to afford the ancient artists footholds when carving their designs into the stone arches. Impa looked it over, glanced up to the shadows around the ceiling, and motioned for them to follow her in silence. Then she gripped the first stone and started to ascend.

The clambering was tough, but the rocky ladder provided enough purchase for them to pull themselves toward the shadows at the height of the pillars that lined the room. Something that looked like a water conduit stretched between the buttresses, sloping shallowly downward. It led toward the large statue at the far end of the chamber, and terminated in a small passage beside her arm. The Sheikah had no trouble balancing on the edges of this thin aqueduct, but Nabru, who could barely fit between the curve of the buttress and the wall as it was, seemed to be sure she would crack it beneath her massive feet. So instead of following the others along the duct to the other pillars, she settled herself on an outcropping of the column’s chapiter nearest the stone ladder, pulling her spear behind her to hide its glint in the shadows. Link, heart in his throat when he saw nothing between him and the distant, rocky floor but a thin stone conduit, followed his companions into the farther arches, with a better view of the doorway. When he reached the buttress on which Impa crouched, the loud, dusty shuddering of the blocked entrance deepened. Link heard the crack of stone, the crush of mortar, and he slipped behind Impa with a sharp tinge of panic. He told himself to calm down, told his heart to cease its frantic palpitating, and sank into the safety of the shadows. He took a deep, silent breath, and watched.

It did not take long for the temple entrance to crumble in a shower of dust. When the powdery debris billowed into the chamber, golden afternoon light flooded the room. Link gripped Impa’s arm (he was not sure why), and waited for any sign of the new visitors. It seemed an impossibly long few seconds before the tall, black shapes of the King’s robed magicians emerged from the clouds of dust. Behind them, a thick shadow appeared, cape flowing like water. When the great sovereign stepped into the chamber, brushing dust off his wide shoulders, Link’s breath abandoned him.

The King glanced around for a few seconds, eyes wandering from the goddess, to the altar, to the statues and pillars that lined the walls. For a brief, horrifying moment, his yellow irises passed over their hiding spot, but they did not linger. He strode forward purposefully, gaze locked at the goddess’ crossed feet, and a small pack of thick-robed servants followed. He walked past the pillars, past Link and his companions, past the altar and its red covering, uninterested in anything but the statue.

One of the magicians lifted its covered, faceless head, as if to sniff at the air. “Sire, I smell a rat,” it said, and from what little of the voice came echoing to Link’s hiding spot, he could not tell if it was male or female, or something else entirely.

“Then seek it out,” the King replied, without breaking his long stride.

The magician lifted its hands, long, gnarled fingers probing from the infinite folds of its robe like the feelers of some pale insect. It turned its body, muttering to itself, palms seeking out the source of its unease.

Link’s heart pounded so loudly against his ribcage he was sure the magician could hear it. He wanted to lift a hand to muffle its deafening drumming, but he just crouched, petrified, breathless. From the corner of his eye he saw Impa’s fingers weave a complex symbol into the air before her.

What would’ve been the magician’s face, had it not been entirely obscured under a dark robe, lifted to the buttresses among which they hid. Its gaze (if one could call it that) settled on their location, and its pale palms lifted toward them. Link tightened his grip on Impa, but she continued to draw furiously in the air. The chill of shadow magic crept up Link’s spine as she completed her spell and cloaked them in it.

The magician hesitated for a moment—if Link was correct about the intention of Impa’s nonverbal incantation, the object of its interest must’ve momentarily disappeared. It curled its long-nailed fingers in what may have been confusion, but it did not take its face from the buttresses. Only when something at the base of the pillars caught its eye did it turn its attention from them.

A white fox, wide-eared and small, scurried frantically from the shadows, sharp claws clicking on the stone mosaics. It hastened past the magician, who let out something between a hiss and a cry of surprise, and with a terrified flick of its bushy tail, disappeared into the sunlit debris at the temple entrance. The magician watched the animal scuttle to the safety of the temple’s portico, and after glancing suspiciously once more in Link’s direction, he turned to follow his ruler. Evidently he was willing to accept the sand fox as the source of the irregular smell that had piqued his suspicion.

Link’s heart did not slow, but he quietly, cautiously released the breath he’d held during that short ordeal. He silently thanked the fox for its diversion, and closed his eyes for a moment in relief before returning his attention to the King.

He stood at the feet of the goddess, stroking his beard thoughtfully. His soldiers and magicians lingered at his side, long robes peppered with sand and dust. He stared at the statue for a few minutes in silence, before he stepped up to her feet and touched her. He ran his fingers along the curl of her shoe, gripped her anklet for a handhold and hoisted himself up onto her crossed legs. He stood tall, one foot on an ankle, the other on her knee, and stared at the curve of her stomach for a few moments before crossing his arms and laughing to himself. His chuckle was low and restrained, but the potent silence of the temple coaxed it to the highest roof beams. “Of course,” the King said. He stepped forward, right hand outstretched, and lay his fingers above the fold of the statue’s trousers, on its decorated belly button. He muttered something incomprehensible, hand still laid gently on the stone, until a large rumbling echoed throughout the chamber. He lifted his head, retracted his hand and stepped off the statue’s legs, landing at its base in a billow of black cloak.

Link’s heart skipped a beat when the rumbling made its way up the buttresses, threatening to shake him loose, but Impa gripped him tight. He sent a glance over to the others to see if they were all right—Nabru was still wedged uncomfortably between the column and the wall, Palo and Talm held fast, as any decent Sheikah could.

Down below, the scraping of stone and the light tapping of falling pebbles quieted. Link strained to see, leaning, Impa tightening her hold on his arm. He dangled dangerously close to the sightline of the King and his men, but they seemed sufficiently distracted by the base of the statue. A short, thick shadow had appeared on the wide plinth supporting her, and the King knelt before it. He raised a dark hand to motion to his magicians before he disappeared entirely into the statue’s base. One by one, his men followed suit.

They were again alone in the massive chamber. Link released a breath he did not notice he held, and turned to Impa, only to see she was quickly, silently motioning to her Sheikah companions behind the adjacent pillar. Despite the absence of the King and his magicians, she seemed adamant that they should remain silent; her frantic motions described as much.

Link watched her hands carefully, interpreting the subtle motions of her open palms, and of her finger following the length of the thin aqueduct to the far wall. Palo and Talm nodded; from what Link could gather, they had agreed to wait in the main chamber while Impa investigated where the King had gone. She gently prodded Link to follow, and crouched on the dry conduit. She sprang from her hiding place and ran along the aqueduct, silent, quick and low.

Link tried his best to emulate her, but each beat of his foot on the stone sounded like an alarm in his head, each glimpse in his peripheral vision of the height between him and the floor set his heart in frantic knots. He kept his arms to his sides, and his eye trained on his destination, and through some miracle or another, he slid to a halt behind Impa on the far wall.

To his left sat the goddess, her stone shoulder close enough he could’ve reached out and touched it. Before him, the small aqueduct fed into a tunnel in the wall, screened by an intricate grate of metal. It would be a tight fit, but he and Impa could crawl through, if they could manage to remove the brass partition. Impa knelt before the tunnel and unsheathed her knife, wedging it between the grate and the stone that surrounded it, prying one portion loose, then another. Before Link could even offer to help, she sheathed her knife and gripped the metal screen, fingers curling around the floral designs, and pulled. It came loose from the wall with a heavy, short creak, and she froze, listening to its echo for any signs of response. She handed the grate to Link when she heard no indications of the King’s men, and he lay it gently and quietly down on the conduit behind them. Without hesitation, and perhaps without knowing whether or not this small passage would lead them to wherever the King had disappeared, she entered the shadows.

The tunnel was long, straight, and terminated in another intricate grate. A dim, orange light shone through it, lighting the farthest portions of the tunnel, and Link crawled up to it, narrowing his eyes. When he pressed himself against the metal, he saw the shapes of the King and his company far below, and he didn’t know whether to be relieved or terrified at the constancy of Impa’s baffling intuition. He again found himself holding his breath, in case any of the magicians below him lifted their eyes to the grate in the wall. His hands trembled slightly, so he balled them into fists at his sides. He grit his teeth and surveyed what he could of the room below him.

The aqueduct curved around the edge of the circular room, winding its way down to the center, where a statue of a snake’s head loomed, mouth open. It boasted eyes of sapphire, and below its curled stone lip, four fangs of ivory. The aqueduct disappeared behind the statue, only to reemerge as its tongue, terminating in a delicate stone fork between its lower teeth. Below the dry conduit, under the snake’s watchful protection, lay a pool of bright, clear water. While everything in the room had collected a thick layer of dust, the small oasis, lined in bright tiles, glinted clean and fresh.

The rest of the room seemed to fade when Link stared at the water. The King and his men, too, seemed enticed by its shining surface. The sovereign stepped up to the pool’s edge and knelt. Link thought he might’ve wanted to inspect the water more closely, but something about the way he lowered his head reminded Link of genuflection. The King did not touch the water—instead he lifted his right hand above his head, open-palmed, and began to speak.

Link could not understand what came from his mouth, but the throaty lulls and the musical, deep tone told him it was Gerudo. His magicians stood by in silence, watching him closely, as he recited what must’ve been the longest incantation Link had ever heard. Granted, he’d only encountered the curt, elegant spells of the Sheikah, and had watched the lips of the King’s mages when they performed their duties back at the palace, but the King’s invocation seemed to last for minutes on end. He did not seem to take a breath between stanzas of the chant; he held his hand high, almost glowing gold.

Link pressed his eye up to the grate when he noticed the water move. Small ripples appeared from its center, glinting silver, rising higher with each syllable the King uttered. It foamed and curled under him, almost moving to the rhythm of his chant. With a low, conclusive growl, the King finished his songlike spell.

The water seemed to burst open. Droplets flew from the pool, suspended in the thick air, and steam curled up past the stone snake’s forked tongue. The round drops and bright streams of water that flung from the oasis hardened, floating like specters in the light. They thickened, sharpening into ice, before flinging themselves at the King’s men.

Some of the magicians raised barriers in time to save themselves, others, pierced through by the uncanny slivers of ice, fell to the stone floor and did not rise again. The King stood at the water’s edge, unconcerned with his men struggling against the barrage of frozen projectiles. He just stared into the water as the cries of his magicians died down, the survivors pulling themselves to their feet once more. The pool rippled almost angrily now, steam rising, circling the room in a thin haze.

A bejeweled hand broke the surface of the water. It rose slowly, fingers curling, followed by a long brown arm. Water seemed to cloak the skin as it emerged, falling diaphanous over shoulders, arms, stomach, hips and ankles. Long red hair intricately braided, eyes golden bright, cloaked in ice and steam and wearing a smile that could entice a heart or stop it entirely, emerged a woman.


Goddess

Chapter Text

*

“We are all born of woman’s blood. Blood is a ritual performed under the light of the changing moon; a harbinger of womanhood. A bloodstained woman is a natural woman.”

Gerudo Warrior’s Creed

*

 

Link’s lungs twisted inside him. He could feel Impa tense at his side, preparing herself to fight or flee, but he could not tear his eyes away from the person who had emerged from the water. The icy needles she had summoned from her oasis sparkled around her like jewels, hovering in the dusty air. The mist from her pool cloaked her shoulders like a robe, and the jewelry on her wrists and throat seemed as much a part of her as her long red hair. When her body had risen entirely from the water, clothed in steam and shining gold, she appeared to hover above it, toes barely touching the surface. Her eyes stayed locked with the King’s, and her large, colored lips opened slowly to speak.

The words echoed through the chamber like music, sending a chill down Link’s spine, but he could not understand them. He squinted, trying to extract meaning from the shapes of her curled lip, from the movement of her eyes, streaked heavily in black and gold. She spoke slowly to the King, in deep, tonal Gerudo, and even when she paused to gesture or take a breath, he did not reply. He stood in silence before her, almost deferential, as she said something that seemed to frighten his magicians.

The King did not take his eyes off hers as she raised her hand, twitching her finger almost imperceptibly. The needles of ice at her side disappeared with a harrowing whistle, plunging into the throats and faces of the King’s men. They fell in silence, crumpling to the floor in a flurry of dark robes, but their sovereign did not seem to notice or care.

The woman extended her hand to him, bent elegantly at the wrist, rings and bracelets shining. The King took it gently in his, and kneeling, pressed his lips against it. The woman’s smile spread, and taking her eyes off the man before her, raised them to the screen above the aqueduct. Her golden irises shone brightly, hovering over the shadows that covered Link. She twitched one eyebrow briefly, almost playfully, telling him with no hint of uncertainty that she knew he watched.

When her yellow gaze met his, a paralyzing, freezing pain swept from his heart outward. He clutched at his chest, gritting his teeth against the cry that threatened to billow up his throat and out his mouth. But Impa’s strong hand wrapped around his arm, pulling him back, away from the grate, away from the woman on the other side. When she dragged him from that petrifying golden stare, his heart thawed, his breath returned, and he found the strength to chase after Impa.

He could almost feel the woman’s eyes on his back as he scrambled through the darkness. He could almost feel her gaze pierce the stone between him and that enchanted pool, following him as he fled, too slowly, through the tunnel. As he struggled toward the distant light, he half expected the small passage to flood with angry steam or needles of ice, or the sound of musical, witchlike laughter.

Link burst from the darkness as if from deep water. He gasped, dusty air filling his lungs, as he tripped after Impa, stumbling through the golden light of the temple’s main chamber. His heart skipped a few beats when he accidentally kicked the grating they had left sitting on the conduit. It spun from the stone, and for an infinite second it hovered in midair, turning like a tossed coin, before hitting the floor with a deafening clatter. All was still for a second—Impa turned and widened her eyes at him, and he could see Palo and Talm’s shapes emerge from the shadows by the walls. Impa stilled for half a second, lips pursed in thought, before deciding their course of action. She motioned for the others to come down from the buttresses, and signaled the command to flee.

She launched herself from the aqueduct in silence, landing on the nearer arm of the goddess. Her strong hands gripped the ledges of its jewelry, and she barely slowed her fall before she pushed off and rolled safely to the floor. Link followed, fearfully, clumsily, kicking off the conduit and grasping the statue’s arm. He managed to push himself forward, dropping onto one of her crossed legs before he jumped to the floor, copying Impa’s roll and launching himself after her.

As he sprinted past the altar, he glanced behind him, to the shallow door at the statue’s base. He saw no sign of activity, no indication that the King or the terrifying woman would emerge from it. Link did not want to think about those needles of ice flying into his throat, or the burning steam of that chamber crawling out to wrap around him. He just followed Impa, praying that no one heard the racket he’d made, hoping that the woman hovering over the water hadn’t told the King that their ritual had attracted a couple uninvited spectators.

Talm and Palo dropped to the floor in silence, and Nabru tumbled in a clang of armor and obscenities. She landed unharmed, but with a louder racket than Link had made with the aqueduct’s gate. He sprinted past her, giving her a hurrying look, and within a few seconds they had made it to the entryway of the temple. Link rushed through without looking behind him; he did not want to see if the King had followed the sound of metal on stone, did not want to see the shadow of the man at the base of the goddess.

He and his companions flew out onto the open portico, only to find a pair of well-armed soldiers guarding the door. After the initial shock of seeing a whole host of strangers fly from the entrance in a wave of panic, the men lowered their spears and chased them across the stone court. Palo turned, and dodging a powerful thrust of the first guard’s spear, lifted a foot and kicked him in the soft spot between his helmet and breastplate. He drew his knife to finish him off as the guard’s partner ran toward them, weapon raised.

He didn’t get two steps before Nabru’s spear, heavy-tipped and bending with the motion of her arm, met the guard at the neck. With a harrowing crunch, the blade ripped through mail and met flesh, sending the guard flying at least half a dozen feet before his head even left his body.

Palo stood stunned for a moment, knife still in the throat of his own adversary, before he grunted in approval and swept after his companions. He leapt from the stone portico and onto the soft sand, following the others into the desert, toward the oasis where there horses waited. They had not gone a few hundred feet from the temple when Impa suddenly slowed. Link skidded to a halt by her side, and followed her gaze to the hurried footprints they had left in the sand.

“Keep running,” Impa told him. She shoved him with her elbow as she drew her lyre from her back. “Ready my horse and I’ll catch up.” He knew better than to disobey, and fell into step with Nabru, glancing behind him to see her run her hand across her instrument. A terrible, thick sound emanated from the harp, and a massive billow of sand swirled up from the ground like a dark cloud. Impa stepped away from it, strumming, coaxing more sand into the air, covering their tracks and enveloping the area in a thick haze. She turned and stumbled after them, occasionally plucking a few more billows of her sandstorm, and when she was sure she had summoned enough to cover their trail, turned and sprinted after him. She caught up to them easily with her long strides, feet kicking up dust. No one spoke, no one looked back—the only sounds that accompanied them were the quick, desperate puffs of their hurried breath, the creaking of Nabru’s boiled leather and the whistle of Impa’s little sandstorm raging behind them.

Link’s lungs burned with exhaustion, his legs shook, his mouth was dry and tasted of sand, but when they reached the oasis, there was no time to rest or drink. They stumbled to their horses, fumbling to untie them. The animals snorted, surprised at the sudden, chaotic entrance, but did not complain as their riders threw themselves on their backs and kicked them toward the Haunted Waste.

“What are we going to do about a guide?” Talm called over the rush of wind.

“We’ll find one once we get there,” Impa answered. She looked over to Palo, and he widened his eyes at her, frowning. Link recognized the doubt in his face, but he said nothing as he followed Impa, kicking his horse to the edge of the dark, haunted sands. They maintained their deep silence as they descended, directionless, into the Waste.

 

“What in all the goddesses’ names went wrong back there?” Talm demanded.

The winds were cold and sharp, sand obscuring the sky as night fell. Palo sat a few yards away from them, legs crossed, palms turned up, muttering. He had not yet found a ghostly dragoman, but they were far enough into the Waste Impa was sure the King could not follow them.

“We were seen,” Impa replied. She removed a large flagon of water from her horse’s side and drank deeply from it.

“And here I had faith that you lot were subtle,” Nabru grunted. She leaned on her spear and watched Palo sit and murmur to himself a few paces away.

“We made no mistake I could gather,” Impa said. “Well, at least not until we came back out.” The clamor of the grate falling to the floor filled Link’s ears, and he reddened.

“You sure flew out of there,” Talm said, folding her arms across her chest. “Did the King see you?”

“No. No, it was his… it was…” Impa raised her eyes, as if she could find the correct word somewhere in the sky. “It was a woman who rose from the water.”

Nabru turned her head, eyes wide, pulling her spear from the sand and approaching to better hear the conversation.

What?” Talm almost laughed. “Who rose from where?”

“There was a room beyond the statue.”

“Well, we figured that.”

Impa ignored her sister’s interruptions. “And in that room was a pool. He seemed to summon her from the water.”

“How did he do that?” Nabru had joined the interrogation.

“I don’t know. I didn’t hear everything they said.” Impa closed her eyes, brow furrowing. Link certainly couldn’t help her—the only meaning he had gleaned from the conversation were the woman’s strange motions, facial expressions, and twists of her wrist as she summoned her magic. And even then, all he’d figured was that apparently she did not mind the presence of the King, but had some sort of grudge against his underlings. “My Gerudo is less than great,” Impa continued, “but she said… if I heard right, she said she had been sleeping for a long time… and she does not enjoy waking up to unworthy company, or bad company, or… maybe just ‘the company of men.’”

“They are generally one and the same,” Nabru quipped, as if she couldn’t help it despite the circumstances.

“And then she killed the King’s magicians.”

“What, just like that?” Talm snapped her finger.

“Yes. She drove them through with ice from her pool.”

“Ice,” Nabru muttered.

Talm’s eyes widened. “Well, that explains why you were in such a hurry. And what happened to the King?”

“I don’t know,” Impa answered.

Link recalled the way the woman’s golden eyes danced when she looked at the sovereign, the way he lifted his hand toward hers. “I don’t think she means him harm.”

“How would you know?” Talm demanded.

“He kissed her hand; she spared his life,” Impa answered for him. “If that doesn’t constitute some sort of deranged alliance, I don’t know what would.”

“We must tell Ahnadib of this,” Nabru said. She started to pace. “Yes, she would very much like to know.” 

Impa turned her gaze to Link as Nabru muttered to herself. “So, that metal we found…” Link knew she wished to speak of its relation to the scrap they discovered on Eldin’s peak, but couldn’t. He nodded in understanding. “That was not his goal.”

“Why would it be?” Talm said. “It’s just junk. And look where you found it. On the sacrificial table? Goddesses above, who knows how many throats it’s slit.”

Link had to admit the likelihood of Talm’s theory. Though he did not quite know the purpose and history of the temple on Eldin’s peak, he was at least familiar with one story about the Colossus. He wondered if the metal had played a part in killing the linguist whose ghost had led them across the Waste.

“Hurry up!” Nabru shouted. He looked over at her to see her with her hands on her hips, leaning toward Palo. “This place is infamous for being haunted, how hard can it be to find one goddamn ghost?” He didn’t respond; he didn’t even seem to notice Nabru’s increasingly aggressive shouts.

Impa gripped the giant’s elbow sternly. “You can’t hurry something like that,” she said. “We need to rest while we can, unless you want the horses to die under us on the way back. He will find a guide soon.”

“He’d better, unless he wants me to smack some haste into him.” Her frown darkened, but when she saw that Palo was not hurrying (and unlikely to start), she sighed and slid to the ground, crossing her legs. “Tell me more about this woman you saw in the temple.”

Impa related all that had happened, never missing a beat in the narrative where Link could jump in and contribute—the woman rising from the water, what Impa could make out of her words, the way she looked up at them as if she’d known from the beginning they were watching her. She did not mention an ice-cold feeling spreading from her heart when the stranger held her gaze, but Link was not sure if even he’d felt that unexplainable sensation, now that the ordeal was behind him.

It was difficult to tell the time of night when Palo returned to them, eyes ringed with fatigue, claiming to have found a guide. “This one can take us to the edge of the Waste,” he said. “She says she knows the fastest way.”

“Good,” Impa replied, and wasted no time mounting her horse. “Ask her if she knows anything about the Colossus witches.”

“Is that what you saw beyond the statue?” Palo frowned.

“Perhaps. We can’t be sure.”

Palo closed his eyes for a moment, mouth moving slightly. “She knows nothing. She died looking for wormsilk. She never made it to the other side.”

“Pity you can’t summon the first man,” Nabru said. “I’m sure he’d have a thing or two to say about what he saw in the Colossus before he died.”

“He told me all he could,” Palo answered, pulling himself onto his horse. “He was blindfolded most of the time. Hell, who knows, it could’ve been whoever you saw beyond the goddess statue that ate him.”

Link’s stomach turned. “Ate him?”

“Did I not mention that before?” He shrugged at Link’s stare. “Well, it looked like someone did. You should’ve seen his torso. It looked like the boar we cut up at the winter festival.” Link tried to imagine the scenario, and couldn’t. Palo watched his face contort in disgust, wearing the beginnings of a morbid smile. “Well, don’t look so offended. I’m sure he tasted just fine.”

“Palo, we’re in a hurry,” Impa reminded him.

He shook his head and nudged his horse forward, closing his eyes and letting his tattoos and whatever lay beyond them guide him back through the wasteland.

 

“It’s quiet.”

It did not need to be said. It was clear enough how unnaturally still the sands of Wormhaven lay under the white sun. The grey dunes were silent for miles—there were no waves, no shifts of sand, no distant rumbling of wormtracks. The horses seemed relieved to find the land free of predators, but Nabru’s mare, used to the area, appeared to be nervous about the sudden change of atmosphere. It snorted in protest when she urged it down toward the dark sands, but obeyed.

Link and the others followed their Gerudo guide across the empty land, waiting for the unmistakable sound of a rumbling worm, but the ground remained unmoving for miles. Link pushed his horse onward, up to Nabru’s side, carefully preparing his questions for her.

Talm saved him the trouble. “What the hell happened here?”

“I don’t know,” Nabru answered. “I’ve never seen it like this. There are always a few… at least a couple, here and there…”

There weren’t many things that could’ve changed since the last time they had traversed Wormhaven. “Do you think—” Link started.

“It was that witch,” Nabru said. “I know it. Somehow, she…” the Gerudo did not seem to have any idea where she was going with her accusation, but she seemed sure of its veracity.

“All right then,” Palo started. “Let’s say she did this. Let’s say she emptied this place of worms, all from a distance. Now we’re stuck with the questions of how and why. Both unanswerable.”

“Exactly,” Impa muttered, but her sister seemed to latch onto the idea that the witch—or whatever she was—had somehow managed to clear out the miles of land between the Waste and Obra Garud.

“What sort of person could do something like this?” Talm’s voice was soft, but echoed across the empty landscape like a shout. “Did she scare them all off?”

“She couldn’t have,” Nabru answered. “Worms fear nothing.”

“We know nothing about what happened here,” Impa reminded them. “And we’re wasting time speculating. Meanwhile gods know what our enemies are doing.” Her inflections were confident and firm, as usual, but Link could hear the waver of anxiety in her voice. “We should take advantage of the circumstances and hurry through Wormhaven. Maybe we’ll come across a few later on.”

They didn’t. As they rode quickly and silently, the landscape did not change. The dark sands rose and fell as lifelessly and gradually as any other windswept dune in the vast desert. It appeared the worms had taken their roaring and rumbling elsewhere, leaving only empty stillness.

It was as if their entire journey across Wormhaven was one silent, held breath. It wasn’t until they reached the eastern edge of the dark sands that any of them could release the sighs they didn’t know they held inside them. When they stopped for the night, halfway between Wormhaven and Obra Garud, Nabru knelt at its edge and lowered her head to the sand, praying fervently in Gerudo. Link heard Molgera’s name invoked more than once; he didn’t know what sort of pleas Nabru sent to her armored goddess, but she seemed fervent—distraught, even. He supposed it shouldn’t shock him to see such a steadfast adherent lament the ejection of her spiritual sisters from their sacred land, but it still made him shiver a little to see a woman so strong entreat a higher power so vehemently.

Link spent most of the night dividing his attention between eavesdropping on Nabru’s ardent invocations and focusing on the conversation between Palo and the sisters, who all had their own ideas about what had happened at the Colossus.

“Clearly that woman has something of value to the King,” Impa muttered between bites of cured meat. “Otherwise, he wouldn’t have wandered that far into the desert.”

“If she’s one of those infamous witches, you’d suspect he wanted to learn some magic, or at least ask her for some,” Palo suggested. “Though if that’s the case he’s probably dead.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He’s a man,” Palo continued. “A particularly masculine one at that. You’ve seen—well, I’ve seen what those witches have done to men. At least, to that linguist who led us across the Waste.” He inadvertently pulled a strip of meat from Link’s hand and took a thoughtful bite. “You said she killed his magicians—she probably wouldn’t stop there. She might’ve taunted him for a little while, let him flatter her, but I bet you she ate his liver when she was done with him.”

“What is it with you and cannibalism?” Talm asked.

He shrugged. “The linguist told me that’s how the Colossus witches made offerings. The nameless goddess lives inside all her worshippers, and to put a sacrifice on the altar, so to speak, you’ve got to eat it.” He finished Link’s jerky and reached for another one. Link let him, since his appetite had waned for some reason.

“Don’t believe every story you hear about our people,” came Nabru’s voice. She had finished her prayers and now stood over them, frowning widely. “The Colossus witches might have been the vilest snakes in this land, but their ways were still rooted in our foremothers’. Foreign men have been accusing us of ‘eating’ them for centuries.”

“So you think a Colossus witch would’ve welcomed a Hyrulean King into her temple?” Palo asked. 

“I cannot say. But remember, Sheikah, there is a reason we dislike Ganond’s ilk in this land. His bloodline has been linked to the cursed Wastes since its conception. Many Gerudo were of the mind he was dabbling in dangerous magic even before he went to Hyrule.” She sat beside them and helped herself to Link’s leftover jerky.“Why do you think we turned against him after the Conquest War? It was not just because he abandoned his people. By the time the War was over, he was no longer Gerudo. He had become something else entirely.” 

“Either way,” Impa started, “the King is no idiot. We have to assume he knew what he was doing when he traveled to the Colossus.”

Link cleared his throat. “The King talked about… before he left for the desert, he talked about magic. About the wind… and souls, and being lost. The desert called to him, or something. I don’t remember.”

“That’s Ganond’s blood talking,” Nabru muttered.

“He… he said a lot of things. He talked a lot. Sometimes in Gerudo. I didn’t understand everything.”

“And I don’t understand anything,” Talm sighed. “All this desert magic, and redead witches and missing worms. I just want to sleep.”

“Whatever is happening,” Impa said, “the best thing we can do is get back to Obra Garud and tell the others about it. I just have this feeling…” She fell silent, words evaporating into the night, replaced by a thoughtful frown.

Link looked at Palo’s concerned scowl, then at Talm’s perfectly plucked brow furrowing in sleepy anxiety. It was easy for any of them to guess Impa’s feelings. It was much harder to doubt them.

 

Ahnadib did not appear pleased. Then again, she never really did—Link could not recall ever seeing the woman smile, but the way she cupped her chin and furrowed her eyebrows seemed even more solemn and troubled than usual. Talporom, flanked by Galra and a white-skinned Sheikah Link had never met, wore the same look, crossing and uncrossing his arms almost impatiently.

Nabru took one knee before her employer, staring at the gilded feet poking from her long, billowing dress, and recited to her all they had learned in the desert. Ahnadib just stroked her second chin, jewelry jingling, frown widening with each turn of events. When the tale of their encounter with the woman inside the Colossus’ temple arose, Ahnadib had to interrupt her subordinate.

“He found what?” The intensity of her tone forced Talporom to shoot her a concerned glance. Galra, too, seemed to pale at the news Nabru conveyed.

“You know the Colossus has been abandoned for more than a century, mistress,” Nabru said. “But these two—” she motioned to Link and Impa—“saw a woman rise from a pool of water, very much alive. She responded to the summons of that coward King of theirs. Apparently she killed his underlings with blades of ice, but left him unharmed.”

“Ice?” Ahnadib growled. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Impa answered.

“And that’s not the worst part,” Nabru continued. “When we rode through Wormhaven on our way back, it was completely silent. Not a worm in sight.”

Ahnadib’s face contorted, her jaw flexed, and she bit the inside of her lip. She tapped her fingers furiously against the arm of her ornate chair. “What sort of witch…”

“I don’t know, mistress.” Nabru lifted her head. “But I have an idea.”

“Rova,” Ahnadib breathed.

“Rova?” Talporom asked. “Ahnadib, have we something to worry about?”

“If what your children tell me is true,” she answered. “But I do not want to believe it. Our people have spent hundreds of years ridding our land of the evil that spreads from beyond the Waste.” She raised a hand to her forehead. “Since well before Ganond’s time, the rova witches tormented every settlement west of Onrago. They kidnapped and indoctrinated our daughters, violated and murdered our sons, burnt entire villages and left the charred corpses preserved in sheets of unmelting ice… I do not know how many of the old stories are true, but tales of their cruelty have haunted our people through generations.” She shifted in her chair. “More than a century ago, we thought we were finally rid of them. The last two living rova accompanied Ganond on his conquest, and we thought we could put their sordid history to rest.”

“But now we know better,” Nabru growled.

“Do you think Ganondorf will bring this witch back with him when he returns?” Impa asked. 

“We cannot afford to doubt it. Whether he sought her alliance or merely her teachings, we cannot say. But we must assume the worst.” She turned to Talporom. “Does this change our preparations?”

The Sheikah cupped his chin. “I will have to learn more about what kind of threat this witch could be. I’ll discuss things with you later.” His red eyes settled on his daughters and their companions, noting their wind-burned complexions, the fatigue in their stances, the smell of sweat and horses wafting from them. “For now, we should let the travelers rest. They have done well to bring us this information.”

“Very well. But we will have to gird our loins if we want to survive the coming battle with our city intact.” She dismissed them with a wave of her hand.

Outside Ahnadib’s house, in the warm shadows of her intricate wooden screens, they could greet one another informally. Talporom embraced his daughters, nearly lifting them from the ground with his large arms, before his light-skinned companion approached, laying a hand on Impa’s shoulder.

“How long has it been?” she asked.

“Years, possibly. We never seem to find ourselves in the same city at the same time.” Impa returned the gesture, smiling. “It’s good to see you are well, Elpi.”

“You too. And Talm, baby Talm, come here.” Talm reluctantly let the woman embrace her, wearing a frustrated scowl. Elpi mussed her curly hair, dislodging her bun, and when she let go, Talm retreated, gathering her locks in her hands and replacing them.

It never failed to surprise Link how quickly Sheikah could switch from their emotionless scowls to warm smiles when the eyes of the world moved elsewhere. They shed their dispassionate, invulnerable frowns and dropped the formal language, exchanging clasps of hands and quips and embraces. Link only counted himself lucky that he was thought of as Sheikah enough to witness a display of affection other races and peoples rarely, if ever, could see.

Talporom approached him and Palo, grasping their shoulders tightly. “And again the gentlemen return alive, despite my daughters’ best efforts,” he said. A rare smile passed over his lips. “All of you probably have much you want to talk about, but we can do that after you clean yourselves up. Ahnadib has lent us a private residence. It is not far—you probably want good food and a long rest. And you will no doubt make good use of its bathing rooms. You all smell terrible.”


The Ancient Witch Rises

Chapter Text

*

“‘Do you feel that rumbling?’ the old crone asked. She lifted her gnarled hand to the moonlit window. ‘Do you sense the coming maelstrom? Do you hear that shifting of sand? Deep beneath the earth, miles below where you stand; that is the sound of a worm turning.’”

Etran Olrani, “The Little Gerudo Girl,” from Ordish Children’s Stories

*

 

Impa stared at her folded hands, brown in the firelight, counting her scars. She barely listened to the flurry of multilingual conversation around her. Pidgin Hylian, Gerudo, and a wealth of rarer desert  dialects bounced around the chamber unheeded. Her father, Ahnadib, and a host of councilwomen and commanders stood over a table, looking down on the large plan of the double-walled city, arguing, agreeing, gesturing. Palo and Elpi stood behind Talporom, silently watching the motions of his fingers as he traced escape routes from the city. He illustrated where scouts were to be posted on both walls, and what to do should the King’s army breach the outer bulwark.

“They won’t be able to,” one confident Gerudo commander put in. She had a wide stance and the musculature of a circus strongman, and did not seem interested in the possibility of retreat.

If they do,” Talporom tried again, “we should take care to fortify the council hall—the whole district. Food should be stored, weapons stockpiled—”

“What of evacuation?” someone asked. “We don’t have room to fit all the people from the outer districts behind the inner wall.”

Someone suggested opening up the catacombs as a sanctuary for civilians, and most laughed at him. They all knew any Gerudo would rather die at the end of an enemy’s blade than from the slow, painful poison of giant vipers and other long-fanged monsters rumored to live beneath the city.

A soldier suggested something that sparked a heated argument between two councilwomen, but it had been so heavily accented Impa had not understood it. As usual, I contribute nothing, she thought, folding and unfolding her hands.

Someone said something about the state of the citizenry; about how they would not obey orders to evacuate or relocate when they did not even believe that the Hyrulean King, who had lingered so idly outside Obra Garud for so long, would even attack the city. Another asked what they could do about the men and women who had raised pulpits on street corners and claimed the King had every right to their city, being the only living descendent of their last true ruler, Ganond. Another council member expressed grave concerns about the inevitable looting when the battle started. With each answer, ten more questions emerged, and the quarreling continued.

Link had uninvited himself from the meeting when he promised a couple of passing Gerudo children that he would help them find their cat. Impa knew he’d probably return with no cat and likely no purse (and, miraculously, no heightened sense of suspicion—she was not sure if he even had a hint of that necessary cynicism in him), but she bid him farewell and good luck and sent him on his way, deliberately sparing him the boredom of the meeting. She rested her chin on her fist and thought of what she’d say to him (if anything) about what her father had told her.

“It is important I tell you now, while I have a moment of peace,” Talporom had said. “I don’t know when I will get another chance.” She was so fresh out of the large marble baths of their temporary abode the steam was still rolling off her skin. It did not seem a good time to have a serious conversation, but the way her father dragged her out of sight, into the shadows of the building’s far halls, took her mind from her bare feet and damp bathing robe. She just followed him to the palm-shaded loggia, into the quiet air of the coming night. She spied a two women on a balcony across from them, but they did not seem interested in eavesdropping on a half-naked stranger, since they appeared to be locked in a passionate kiss.

Impa focused her attention on her father, who seemed equally unconcerned with her disheveled state. “Elpi brought some news from the Capital,” he said.

Impa’s heart hastened a little. She wondered what information could possibly come from that smoke-choked city. Perhaps word of Balras, or of the small group of ineffectual insurrectionists they had allied with in the past, or Link…

“It appears there may have been another child born of the man you and Palo were sent to follow.”

“Wait…” Impa started, pausing to collect her thoughts. “You mean Nohansen?” He nodded, and her eyes widened. “Did he survive the raid on his house? I wasn’t there when they—”

“He’s dead. Long dead. It’s been confirmed many times over. But shortly before he died, a woman, the wife of another man, may have conceived by him.”

Impa’s heart fluttered somewhere in her throat. “Does that mean…”

“The rumor remains unsubstantiated. Do not get too hopeful.”

“How… how did we not know this before?” she asked, then cupped her chin in thought. “If his lover was already a married woman, it makes sense that they would try to keep it as secret as possible…”

“That’s one reason. There was also the fact that we already knew he had a healthy daughter, almost grown. We had to focus on her.”

The girl’s face flashed through Impa’s mind, her determined but troubled features, the noble way she hid her fear when dashing through the shadows of the palace. Something inside her started to ache. She lowered her eyes and her father gripped her shoulder.

“I am telling this to you and you alone, because I do not want the rumor to spread too widely. Should it prove false, it would be a blow to morale that we do not need. But you are the person I can trust most to responsibly bear that information.” She lifted her eyes to his. “I do not need the others distracted by this revelation. You, of all of them, are the most realistic; you will keep or divulge the news with prudence, I trust.”

“I… what are we to do about this?” Impa asked.

“What are we to do? Keep Obra Garud from falling. Keep the Territories out of the hands of the King. Secure the safety of our allies and the citizens of this land. When that is done, we may worry about this child.”

Impa pulled her robe tighter around her chest, but she did not know whether it was to keep it from slipping off or to try to muffle the loud beating of her heart.

“Now, go dry yourself properly,” Talporom said. “There’s work to do around here.”

She had said nothing to anyone about it. Granted, she hadn’t had much time, with all the preparation, fortification and organization that had to be done around the city. She had simply put herself to work, helping her father arm all capable combatants, ensure the safety of their food supply, and the compliance of the citizenry. She had done her best to make herself useful, but when it came to these meetings of strategy… well, she was very much sure her presence was wasted.

She knew she should’ve paid attention. She knew she should accept any opportunity to learn about all elements of warfare—battles were won on tables and with pawns, not with the skilled swordsmanship on which she prided herself. She knew in another time, when her people were more numerous, they had room for specialization. We are spread so thin, she thought, instead of focusing on the argument over the table. Now each one of us must do the job of three or four. No wonder the infamous perfectionism of her tribe was deteriorating. And she wasn’t helping it. She was helping nothing.

She stood, and no one noticed. They were so engrossed in the complexity of the city’s problems, they did not turn when Impa silently crept to the door and released herself into the hallway. She walked down the sunlit hall, eyes fixed on the geometric designs of pink marble spanning the floor. She wondered where Link could be, and if he had found that (probably nonexistent) cat the Gerudo children had tricked him into searching for. She rebuked herself for having forgotten to take his purse from him before he dashed off. But that was fine—they had everything they needed at the luxurious residence Ahnadib had lent to them. He would not need coin to buy food or a bed anytime in the near future.

When she reached the end of the hall, she noticed a dilute shadow dance on the wall across from her. She turned and saw Palo trotting silently down the hall after her, so she waited for him, arms crossed. “Bored too?” he asked.

“I think Talm is right to skip these sorts of affairs,” Impa admitted. “None of them are worth attending.”

“For her, maybe not. But your father thinks you can learn a thing or two from them.” Palo fell into stride beside her as they made their way down the lengthy stairs of the council building and toward the large, intricate doors.

Impa sighed. She did not need to tell Palo that she learned nothing from any of them. “Give me someone to cut, and I will. Give me something to steal, and I will. But I cannot stand the pointless meandering of the tacticians’ tables. I think I am far more useful elsewhere.”

“Me too. We all are. But someone has to endure that boredom.” He sighed. “Let’s let Talporom do it for now, I suppose. He seems to enjoy it well enough.”

When they reached the front gate, they walked unhindered past the guards and into the street. Instinctively, Impa headed in the direction of their residence, Palo beside her. “Hey,” he started. “We should take advantage of the baths while we still can. I have this feeling in my gut this might be our last chance before the inevitable siege.”

She couldn’t say she disagreed with his instinct. It had been a few days since they had returned to Obra Garud—no doubt the King had marched triumphantly back into his camp by now. Either he was busy making preparations to take the city, or he was already marching toward it. The scouts on the outer walls would spread the word of that circumstance—hopefully she would be clean and relaxed by then. She would have her sword and mind sharpened and ready.

“I could use a good soak,” she admitted.

After they had wound their way back through the streets and to their residence, after the water had been piped from the boiling brass tanks into the large marble tubs of the building’s baths, Impa floated on her back, staring at the ceiling. Palo lounged half-submerged on the other side of the pool, arms spread, towel draped over his face.

“Reminds me of the hot springs at home,” came the muffled sound of his contented voice.

There was no smell of pine and minerals, no whisper of the high mountain winds through bending trees, no lovely contrast of the cold air with the hot water. But there was the pleasant scent of sandalwood and perfume, and the afternoon light spilling through the glassless windows glowed pinkish-gold against the marble. It was nothing like Kakariko, but it was certainly satisfying.

Palo lifted his head and removed the towel, glancing at her. She twisted her body in the water and floated up beside him, breathing in the sweet-scented steam of cactus flower and chicory. A few sticks of incense burned in the corners of the room, and decorative plants and flowers mixed their scents with the heavy air. “It’s surprisingly spacious in here with just two people,” Impa said.

“Yeah,” Palo sighed. He took a moment to glance around the chamber, as if wondering why they were the only two smart enough to shirk their obligations in favor of bathing. “I know Talm likes to wander off and ignore her duties, but it seems unlike Link to miss out on the fun of a tactical gathering.” He lifted his toes from the water and stared at them like he was waiting for them to wrinkle.

“He promised some Gerudo kids he’d help them find their cat.”

Palo’s laugh echoed across the empty marble. “They’re going to lead him to some alley and rob him blind, poor kid.”

“That’s what I think. But he’ll be better for it. He might develop some sort of wariness.”

“Yes, well, he doesn’t seem to possess much of that to begin with.” Palo’s eyes lowered and a concerned frown passed across his features for a moment. “Sometimes I wonder why a kid like that ended up in our company.”

“You know how long of a story that is,” Impa replied. “You were there for all of it.”

“I know.” He dipped his hair in the water and reemerged, slicking it back over his head and wiping his face. “Merel seems to think he’s been chosen by some god or another.”

“When did she tell you that?”

“I don’t recall. Sometime during the winter festival, maybe. I had smoked a little too much firegrass so I don’t remember the details.”

“The gods, is it?” Impa felt some unnamable emotion stir in her chest—she could not tell if it was excitement, or agitation, or something else entirely. Perhaps it was the anticipation of a playful and aimless theological discussion she and Palo always found themselves falling into, ever since they had been teenagers. “I don’t quite believe that.”

“You don’t? You’re the one who went up Eldin with him. Hell, for all I know you could’ve met the gods.”

“Plenty of our people entreat the spirits of Eldin, and plenty get their pleas answered. It doesn’t mean they were chosen by gods. Our patron spirits are small, Palo. They are close to the earth and do not control the lives of humankind.”

“And, like any of us, they can die,” he admitted.

“They can. And they do, often. More so now than they used to.” Impa splashed some water on her face and rubbed it into her skin. “But I can believe in spirits. I have seen them. I have not seen the gods of the Hylians, or any of the thousand deities they worship here in the desert.”

“Except Molgera.”

Impa smiled. “Oh, yes. Molgera. I must admit she does seem quite godlike. But she is alive, like any of us. Whether or not she is actually a god is not our business—but she certainly seems worthy of worship.”

Palo folded his hands behind his head. “I can believe Molgera is special, for a worm. I can believe in the little spirits that live in the shrines around Kakariko. I can even believe in the Hylian goddesses, if I smoke enough in one sitting. But I’ve met a lot of dead people in my time, and not one of them has claimed to meet their maker.”

Impa stood, rubbing soap across her arms. “Did you ask?”

“Didn’t need to.”

She paused, thinking for a long moment. “I think it’s irrelevant.”

“What’s irrelevant?”

“The question of whether or not anyone is chosen by a god is irrelevant. Take Link. We chose him, Palo. I chose him when I decided to rescue him from the palace moat. You chose him when you agreed to help me remove his curse. We both chose to take him back to Kakariko with us, and he chose to obey the elder and ascend the mountain. No gods involved. Just us.”

“That’s not what Merel believes.”

Impa sighed. “Merel is a woman worn by the burdens of caring for an entire village. She has to put her faith in something other than herself. It must help her bear the weight of responsibility. It would be almost narcissistic for her to admit that she is the only reason Kakariko is alive and thriving.”

“Then would it not also be narcissistic to assume we’re the only ones who get to choose the path Link takes?”

Impa splashed at him with a cupped palm, and he laughed, wiping the water from his face. “All right, I get your point.” He lifted himself from the water with Impa, and she handed him a robe. He shrugged it over his shoulders and helped her with hers, tying a thick knot at its waist and patting it down. Outside the large, curved windows, the sun crept behind the intricate domes of the city.

“Should I scour the town for something to eat?” Palo asked.

“That sounds satisfactory.” She slicked back her wet hair from her eyes and sighed. “I had better go find Link. Make sure he hasn’t been stabbed and left to die by a gang of wayward children.”

“Also satisfactory. I’ll see you in a while, then.” As Impa watched Palo disappear down the hall, she only hoped he would put on some clothes before wandering out into the streets for food. He had a habit, when too relaxed (or after too much firegrass), to emerge in public half-dressed. All his parts were the same to him, it seemed, and he was just as likely to forget to cover his bottom as his top. Impa figured the girls who lounged on the streets would have no problem with it, and so long as he didn’t care, she wouldn’t either.

She crept to the generous changing room where her family had stored the extra clothes Ahnadib’s servants had leant them, and pulled on the absolute minimal amount. She wrapped a band around her chest, pulling on a pair of civilian trousers before quickly drying her hair and exiting the room.

She did not have to search far for Link. She found him in a salon nearby, sitting on a liberally cushioned window seat. Above him, an arch of open sunset glowed, past the intricate marble columns that framed the glassless portal. A small lizard scurried across the sill, next to his face, but he did not seem to notice it, nor did he seem to notice Impa’s entrance. He was fully engrossed with the task at hand.

He bent over Impa’s lyre, plucking carefully, soundlessly. His eyes followed the long vibrations of the strings, watching the white blur of each note resound in a sound-space he could not hear. He did not seem distressed to discover he could not play the instrument—he looked quite content to watch the strings rather than listen. His eyes glinted, his brow was smooth and relaxed, the corners of his mouth rose a little with each pluck.

Impa did not want to interrupt him, but when she moved silently across the room and sat opposite him on the window bench, his hand froze, his eyes widened, as if she had caught him doing something terribly wrong.

“Keep going, if it pleases you,” Impa said.

Link shook his head. “It’s just… I’m no good at this.” He shoved the harp back to Impa with surprising haste.

She took it and looked it over. “Well… firstly, it seems I’m the only one who can coax a sound from the thing. I’m sure you could be a good musician if you practiced. You’ve just never tried. You were never taught.”

“It’s not like a deaf child could learn it,” he answered.

“You’d be surprised what deaf children can do,” Impa said. She lay the harp at her feet and scooted toward him. He averted his eyes, as if she were about to scold him. “Surely you’ve heard the name Errachella.”

“Once or twice.”

“She couldn’t hear since childhood and became the greatest dancer in the country. So don’t sell yourself short.”

He stayed silent for a while, staring at something on the other side of the room. “I… was just thinking. I haven’t heard you play harp.”

“Of course you have,” Impa said.

“I mean… music. I’ve never heard your music.”

“Yes you—” She stopped herself when she realized he was right. She had recited Sheikah hymns to him, she hummed often; but she had never played a tune for him on her lyre—she had never played a tune for anyone since her climb up Mount Eldin. She hadn’t been able to. Her strings spoke a different language now. “I suppose you haven’t.”

“Can you play something for me?” he asked.

His hopeful tone made her heart sink. “I don’t think I can.” It would be a lie to say she did not miss her music, but she had been loaned a talent much more useful, one that she had no choice but to value. She supposed she had not completely considered the pain of her lost songs; she had been distracted with so much else. But the disappointment in Link’s face turned her heart a little. “I’ll work on it. One day I’ll play you a real song. Something that doesn’t knock down walls or start fires.”

He smiled and lowered his eyes. There was something about him, something about the way he avoided her gaze, hung his head, that was wrong. He seemed to shrink before her, like he was climbing back into the shell he had made for himself in the years of his silent servitude. She reached over and gripped his knee, sternly. “What’s the matter?” she asked him. He lifted his eyes to hers, so full of contrition, shining almost green in the setting sun. “Out with it.”

“I…” He bit his lip for a moment before continuing. “I don’t know if what we’re doing is right.”

She released his knee. She raised an eyebrow and looked him over, at the bead of sweat on his forehead, at the remorse in his eyes. She almost laughed. Of course something like moral ambiguity would torture him to this degree. She sighed, scooting closer to him on the window seat, and touched the back of his hand, gently. “Tell me.”

He seemed eager to release the admission. “The street kid who lost the cat… she was so worried. She wanted to know where it was at all times, so she could keep it safe when the fighting started. She said it was her only family left. She told me… she said her father was a Hylian soldier, her mother was a trader. When the war came, her mother sided with the man she loved. Ahnadib’s fighters killed both of them.” He paused for a moment. “That girl… she doesn’t want revenge. She just wants the fighting to stop. She hopes the King will conquer the city, because she thinks the killing will only end when he wins. And I’m afraid… I’m afraid to believe she’s right.”

Filled with a sudden anger that surprised even her, Impa resisted the urge to shake him. His downcast eyes, his wringing hands, they were the inescapable signals of an incorrigible coward. But she didn’t reach out and smack sense into him. She only took a deep breath and tried to hide the look that crossed her face.

He didn’t appear to register her feelings—he seemed so caught up in his own. He raised his fist and held it to his forehead, speaking more into his wrist than to her. “I know, I know the King is cruel. I know he hurts people. But I’ve hurt people, and so have you, and so has everyone. And he was kind to me. He didn’t kill me when he should’ve. He should’ve killed me.”

With a painful twist of her heart, Impa’s anger vanished. Link raised his eyes to her, and she recognized the nature of the rage that swept through her from her own doubting heart. She had struggled with the same sort of thoughts in her worst moments. True, Ganond’s family were pretenders to the throne, but the technological and economical advances their reign had brought were unprecedented. Garona’s peacemaking, and Elgra’s patronage of the Capital’s most ambitious artists and engineers had built the Capital into the place it was now. To deny the good the Dragmire reign had done would be to erase an important chapter in the country’s history. But it would not stop Impa from destroying their family.

She realized she was not angry with Link for discovering the confusing complexity of war and progress, she was angry with him for torturing himself over it.

Link continued. She let him—this was the longest she’d ever heard him speak. “I feel like… I feel like I’m trying to hold water in my hands, but it leaks through the cracks between my fingers. I don’t know if I can fix anything—or if any good we try to do won’t just drip away? How do we know if it’s right, if it’s worth it?”

Impa took a breath and squeezed his hand. “We don’t. But here are the things I do know: Hyrule has always had its problems, but under the old family rule, there were no mass exterminations. The Gorons were still alive, and the Zora were still here. We Sheikah were not on the brink of extinction. The River Hylia wasn’t clogged with factory waste. There were no slaves, and the spirits were still common.”

“But the damage is done,” he said, quietly. “Getting rid of the King won’t bring back the Gorons, or the Zora. It won’t bring back the spirits or dead Sheikah. It won’t bring back… it won’t bring back the princess or the old royal family.”

The sadness in his eyes told her he had not quite healed from his ordeal in the city; that he still held the face of the yellow-haired girl in his memory.

Impa’s father had never explicitly told her to keep silent about the news from the Capital. He had implied it, of course. But everyone, especially Impa, knew Link was not a talker. Her mind turned over itself a thousand times in a second, convincing her he did not need this distraction, then arguing that he did, then deciding it could wait, then deciding it couldn’t. In the end, she gave in to the idea of lending him some hope.

“It might be back already.”

His eyes widened. Of course, he did not know what she meant. But he could recognize the tone of optimism in her voice.

“This is just between you and me, Link.” He nodded. “The royal family’s bloodline may have reemerged somewhere in the Capital. When we drive out the King from this land, we will go see for ourselves. But if you ever want to find out if the princess’ family is still alive, you will fight with us. You will fight, and you will survive, do you understand?” The sternness in her voice forced him to nod. “It is normal to have these doubts. There is no truly good side in a war. We all fight for imperfect beliefs. You mustn’t let that drain your hope. The only sure way to lose a fight is to throw down your sword before it starts.”

He rested his hand over hers, and gave her a weak smile. She was sure he was about to respond when Palo burst in, a large platter of still-steaming food in hand. Talm tumbled in beside him, hair done up in Gerudo fashion, smelling overpoweringly of perfume. Link and Impa separated, the vein of their conversation lost in the sudden rush.

Talm seemed all too pleased to see Impa. “Well, well. Wait till I tell father I found his stringent little protégée slacking off. In her underclothes, no less.”

Impa rolled her eyes. She slipped from the bench and helped Palo set down the gargantuan plate. “Where did you get this?” she asked.

“Galra gave it to me,” he answered.

“It was sad,” Talm put in. “She had this whole platter made for him and he just runs off with it without a second thought.”

Palo frowned. “I thanked her. Profusely, if I remember.”

“Palo, she clearly wanted you to invite her to share it with you.”

“She didn’t say anything,” he replied. Impa shook her head as she helped him divide portions, breaking bread and scooping sweet-smelling pastes.

“She was afraid you’d say no if she asked. Gods above, it was so obvious.” When Talm seated herself beside Impa, the scent radiating from her was so strong it was almost nauseating.

“What in hell’s name have you done to yourself, Talm?” she gagged.

“Do you like it?” She shook out her hair, spreading her obnoxious new scent. “Galra took me to the city baths. They did my hair and gave me this perfume they said could entice any man I wanted it to.”

“Entice? I think they meant repulse,” Impa said.

“It doesn’t smell bad,” Link put in, kindly, as usual.

“It’s all right, I suppose,” Palo admitted.

Talm grinned. “Clearly these gentlemen are far more refined than you.”

“So, did you find your cat?” Palo asked Link.

“Yes,” he answered. “And what a cat. It must’ve been some sort of wild desert cross-breed. It scratched us all up.” His contrition, his confusion, seemed to have disappeared. Impa suddenly held no regrets about telling him the news from the Capital. As he recounted his search, she saw life return to him, word by careful word. Propelled by the energy of his hope—or maybe a good meal—he once again let himself crack through the shell of his silent doubt. Impa wished he could be his full self more often. He was oddly beautiful in those moments, though he didn’t know it, and she wasn’t about to interrupt his story just to tell him.


Impa Talks to Link