He had been asleep. Soundly asleep. Blissfully asleep, under warm blankets, head resting on a fluffy pillow, in dreamless oblivion.
Link ruminated this as the horse under him snorted, and Link's mood soured. He was still sore from yesterday's Thousand Knives pose, his legs and arms completely worn out, and having his night cut short on what was supposed to be a day of feasting and celebration did little to improve his morale.
Next to him, Master Kohga looked decidedly more cheerful. In fact, Link couldn't remember seeing Master Kohga behave in anything less than a friendly, upbeat way. If Link hadn't been in such a foul mood, he might have been better company.
Behind them, riding, were two other Sheikah shadows ―field agents of the tribe―, their traditional hats low over their brows as they kept watch. Link hated that he was outnumbered. Where were Hyrule's good old knights?
"Is there anything better," Master Kohga said, "than an invigorating ride at dawn?"
He was joking, Link knew. Master Kohga loved to joke. And in other circumstances, maybe, this would have made Link smile.
"Master Kohga," one of the shadows said, in mild reprimand, "this is no laughing matter."
With the Sheikah, nothing ever was. But Master Kohga rolled his eyes, winking at Link conspiratorially. "The princess will be fine. I'm sure she made it to the Royal Ancient Lab with not even a scratch on her."
Link didn't even reply. He was supposed to still be in bed. Nayru's Day was a day of celebration, not just the princess' official birthday. It opened the season of harvests. It was customary for the smallfolk to exchange blankets on this day, in preparation for the coming winter, though it was still a few months away. They would place candles in every window and weave baskets to carry the hundreds and thousands of sheaves and bushels of food to come. It was a day to celebrate the small things, the wholesome things.
Like a good night's sleep.
But no. Some things, he realized, were not meant to be. His knight commander had woken him. The king needed his assistance. The princess had gone in the night.
And instead of sending the Sheikah alone, King Rhoam had insisted that Link go, too.
The Royal Ancient Laboratory wasn't exactly far from Hyrule Castle. In fact, it was just on the other side of the lake that served as a moat, to the west, where the sun set. A few hours' ride, at most.
How, Link wondered, groggily, had the princess managed to slip out of a castle that, despite what anyone said, was essentially perpetually busy, especially on her own birthday? Had she done it in a way that had not interrupted his sleep, Link might have been impressed.
But this princess would be the end of him. He just knew it.
Why had none of the other Champions been sent with him? Was that just too rude? It probably was. Mipha was a princess, too. And Urbosa and Daruk were leaders in their own provinces. And Revali― well, it was actually better that Revali not come along. That might have really ruined Link's day.
No, Link was the only one worth sending. He was just a squire, after all. Just a squire with a magic, darkness-sealing sword. Just a squire who heralded the end of times. You know. Nothing worth mentioning.
Oh, don't worry, people of Hyrule, I just embody the last bastion of hope for the kingdom. Why, yes, I will babysit the royal progeny. What else?
By the time Link made it to the Royal Ancient Lab, he was already out of patience.
He found the princess in a courtyard, making notes about a few flowers growing in pots, looking decidedly un-princess-like in the dirt.
The entire courtyard was actually impressive in its organization. There seemed to be labels to everything― the pots, the leaves, the plants, with dates, numbers and initials. Rows upon rows of plants at various stages of growth were carefully aligned lengthwise in the shade or the sun, as necessary.
Princess Zelda was kneeling in the dirt, furiously jotting down notes. She did not hear him approach, the furrow in her brow too deep, her concentration too great. The sun was at mid-morning by then. It promised to be a warm day.
Link crossed his arms and peered down at his princess, waiting.
She finished a sketch, then said, "Robbie, I think we need to water this one a little more."
"Robbie?" Link asked, lifting a brow.
Zelda started, falling back on her lovely arse, yelping. "Oh―" She scowled. "It's you."
Somehow, she managed to make that sound venomous. Link would have been flattered, had he not missed out on his blessed sleep.
He shifted his weight, and said nothing.
Zelda breathed out through her nose in exasperation, lips pressed into a thin line. She stood and patted the dust off her shapely behind in a way that did not attract Link's attention at all, then said, "Still doing the silent treatment, then?"
Yes, he was. He was absolutely still going to be as silent as he could. He glared at her, and she rolled her eyes.
"There's no need for anger. It's a lab, by the gods," she said, exasperated. "The greatest danger here is Purah's attempts at generating controlled explosions."
Link opened his mouth to retort. It was on the tip of his tongue― oh, really, controlled explosions. Nothing to see here, then. But he wouldn't give her the satisfaction. He clamped his teeth together and glared harder, and realized that she would win no matter what, judging by the triumphant glint in her eye.
Genius witch, he fumed. No man could resist the appeal of explosions, controlled or not, and she knew it.
"Anyway," she said, "if my father were so concerned for me, he would have sent the army. Not you."
Argh, not talking was difficult. She was goading him. And she was good at it. But it was a matter of honour now. Link clenched his jaw and stared her down stubbornly.
Realizing he was going to remain silent, the princess gave up. She sighed and turned away from him. For a moment she looked down at the research notes in her hands, and she traced her sketch with a finger. It was a good drawing, well-proportioned and detailed, highlighting the essential features of her subject, with clinical notes in the margins.
"Mother loved plants," she said, in her perfect aristocratic tone. "And though I cannot use her power, I can at least do this." She looked up at him, green eyes like young leaves in the spring, "Sometimes, we just need a break."
Link tried to summon anger ― what about his break?― but he couldn't hold on to it. He sighed. "Your father is worried."
"He always is," Zelda said, irritably, and Link appreciated that she didn't gloat at the breach of his promise of silence. "And I cannot blame him. I know what awaits us as well as he does."
"Do you?" Link asked. Because he sure didn't.
"Of course," Zelda said. She peered at him in curiosity, then an expression dawned on her face that was part horror and part disgust. "Wait. Has anyone told you?"
Link shrugged, but Zelda deciphered the motion too easily. She looked horrified, then resolute, her pink lips puckering together in anger. She slipped her notebook into her pocket, then dusted her hands again.
"Come with me," she said, in a tone that brokered no argument.
She led him, resolutely, to one of the lab's doors, under the amused gaze of Sheikah onlookers, and Link knew better than to protest.
"Purah!" Zelda called out, as she banged the door open. The strength of her determination surprised him. She was never this way at the Castle. And suddenly Link understood why she might have needed to escape.
A sudden pop, followed by a miserable fizzle and the acrid smell of burning hair. A diminutive Sheikah woman appeared, with wide round glasses and a decidedly sooty look. She blinked at them both in confusion, then said, "Oh, Zelda, I think it has finally happened. I accidentally turned your clone into a man."
"What?" Zelda blinked, looked at Link, rolled her eyes, then reached for the woman's glasses and wiped them on the hem of her shirt, completely non-regal, placing them back onto the woman's nose. "No, Purah. I keep telling you, you think you see double, but you do not."
"Oh." The Sheikah woman called Purah eyed Link with a squint, then said, "Well, he's perfect! Why didn't you say so?"
"Perfect?" Link echoed, uncertainly. That did not bode well.
"Wait right here," Purah said, "I will fetch the shock apparatus."
Before Link could argue, Zelda pressed her lips together and reached out. "This," she said, seizing the back of Purah's shirt and holding onto it firmly, "is Link, wielder of the Master Sword."
Purah looked disappointed. "He would have been perfect for my experiment."
"Purah, he is the Chosen Hero," Zelda said, "and he doesn't know what he is up against."
Purah's distracted gaze suddenly sharpened. She now looked at Link and seemed to be a different woman entirely, all traces of scatterbrained flurry utterly gone from her demeanour. She squinted. "Oh," she said, now sounding like the wise woman she must have been. "So my sister has not told you."
"Sister?" Link echoed.
"Master Impa," Zelda clarified, impatiently. "Purah is her elder sister."
Purah reached up, grabbing Link's chin firmly, and examining his features with the clinical fascination of an entomologist studying a particularly rare species of butterfly. "Hrm." She turned his face this way and that, searching for something, though Link wasn't sure what. When at last she released him, she said, "Well. He is perfect."
"I wish you would stop saying that," Zelda said, evidently annoyed. "He obviously is not."
Link didn't have time to give her a roguish grin before Purah grabbed him by his collar and yanked him forward, towards a long table full of various instruments and piles upon piles of books. "Look here," she said, her strength completely unexpected from a woman of her size. Terrifying in itself.
"I'm looking," Link croaked, his throat surely bruised forever by the experience.
"This is what you will be sealing."
The image in the book was an engraving of a large pig… dragon… monster oozing thick furls of smoke. On either side of it were two vaguely humanoid figures, one white, one green, but there was little else to decipher.
"A pig," Link said.
He could almost feel Zelda irradiate frustration in the corner of his vision.
"An incarnation," Purah said, "of every ounce of malice, evil and darkness that ever has been. A creature so foul and somber that its triumph would plunge the world into an unending era of despair and violence. A creature that would, in no uncertain terms, spell the ending of our time."
Link blinked at the page. The thing still looked like a pig dragon. "Is the pig snout a metaphor or something?"
"It is malice made flesh. It will find your greatest fears, your darkest secrets, your most malevolent thoughts, and make them reality," Zelda said, flatly.
"Actually, much like a sniffing hog," Purah mused.
"Is that some sort of poetry, or―?"
"We are scholars," Princess Zelda said, eyeing him with a hard gaze of pure jade. She was visibly trying to drive a point home. "We do not deal in metaphors or poetry. Especially not where the Calamity is concerned."
"There is nothing about this threat that is an exaggeration," Purah confirmed. Link found that ominous. "Imagine," she continued, "everything and everyone you have ever cared about."
Easy enough. The list was short. His mother, his father, a few of his fellow squires, some childhood friends, and the farmers on his family's tiny estate, and the group of Zora children he'd grown up playing with, back when his father had been posted in Zora's Domain, and Mipha, of course, who had always been so kind, and Daruk, who was like a second father to him, and the boys in Castle Town who cheered when he had time to show them how to shoot a bow, and the lady in the market who made his bread and always added more spices just for him, and the guard at the gatehouse―
On second thought―
"Now imagine being possessed of the very urge to destroy them," Purah said, dragging him back to reality. Link frowned at her. "And imagine," she added, "that they have the same urge about you."
Now Link felt a strange emptiness in his gut, the kind that began to build when he and the lads had too much to drink, that heralded a time in the not so distant future where they'd be vomiting in unison in a ditch somewhere.
He imagined Castle Town, as he had seen it only this morning, awakening in festivity, only the madness that seized the city was a bloodlust almost unthinkable. In his mind's eye, he saw mothers smothering their babies in their laundry, fathers drowning their sons in the town fountain.
"Imagine a world where love vanished utterly, and all memory of affection became a thing to be mocked, where friends did not hesitate to crush you for advancement and lovers simply… forgot."
Link glanced at Zelda, wondering if perhaps Purah wasn't being melodramatic. But Zelda's expression was hard, and perhaps that was the true horror of it.
She was just a girl, Link realized. Just a sixteen year-old girl, with the weight of the world on her shoulders, and until this moment, she had supposed he knew what lay ahead, and was taking his responsibility lightly.
But no one had explained. Perhaps they had all grappled with the truth for so long that it had never occurred to them to tell him.
Were they serious? Was this truly the Calamity? Surely, and here he imagined his own mother, in all the dignified grace of her widowhood, her beautiful face smiling on him with pride, surely the people were better than this?
"Pay attention, Chosen Hero," Purah insisted, and Link turned back to her. "Destruction of the world at the hands of some great distant evil is something anyone could rally against. But Calamity Ganon is like a poison."
The image of Link's mother seemed to wilt, the kindly features turning to a horrible mask, a parody of kindness, and the distortion that came with it made Link's blood run cold.
"This evil," Purah promised, "will turn us, too, one and all. We will gleefully burn the trees, uproot the flowers and kill the good creatures of this land. We will watch the world suffocate under our yoke, we will strip it of all that is good and nurturing."
Now Link saw the small acreage of his family land turned to ash, the people turned to lifeless husks of greed and madness. The small grove of trees where he'd played at catching bugs in his youth burned, the critters dead, the farm animals crying out.
Purah's voice was mournful. "We will exhaust everything the world has to give, and when at last nothing remains upon it but what few of us were strong enough to survive, we will choke, too."
No. There was no way. "But―"
"Ganon is powerful," Purah said, softly. She seemed old, now, much older than her couple of decades. "The Calamity nearly won, aeons ago. It was beat back by my ancestors, and the incarnation of the Goddess, and a hero of great strength and courage, as well as an army of machines, and four Champions of immense skill, but the battle was long and arduous, and very nearly lost."
The silence settled over them, and in that silence, the echoes of Link's visions faded, leaving instead a small, shriveled inkling of truth in their place.
"And now we have… me," Link said, peering at the illustration of the Calamity with a growing sense of unease.
"And the little lady," Purah said, brightly, though Princess Zelda's own expression, when Link turned to her, seemed far less convinced.
In fact, given what Link knew of the princess' fruitless efforts, the young woman seemed downright angry. Angry at the world, angry at the Calamity, angry at him… but, most of all, angry at herself.
"We also have the Champions," Zelda said, but her voice was worn, like the spine of a book one revisited too often, and there was no warmth to that comfort. "As soon as we decipher how the Divine Beasts function, I'm sure… Well."
But Link knew what that meant. Something was rising inside him, even as his blood seemed to grow heavy in his limbs, something that felt vaguely like panic.
"We have… nothing," Link managed, his gaze darting from Purah to Zelda, and back.
Now the princess gave him a curt nod, and Link finally understood why she was so angry.
"Well, the Sword is something, at least," Purah said, with forced optimism. "So things could be worse."
A sword. They had a sword. A sword he was expected to wield. A sword he was still training to use.
Now Link understood the anger his princess felt.
"We have nothing," Link repeated, and his breath came faster now. His entire body felt antsy. He could hear the pounding of his pulse inside his ears, and little else. The world seemed to grow dim as the fear took over.
The Champions had no idea. Often, they seemed content to boast and brag, or simply assume all would be well. The King and Master Impa had done nothing to warn him. They spoke in vague terms, explaining he would have to wield the Sword that Seals the Darkness, as though the knowledge were some innate truth that had simply invested him when he'd pulled the damn thing from the pedestal.
The kingdom was blind. Utterly and completely unprepared. The Divine Beasts barely functioned, the Champions did not feel any urgency, the princess had no sealing powers, and the Guardians the Sheikah had uncovered could barely move.
And him? He was just a squire. He had no honours, no title. He was nobody.
"I need a moment," Link said, to no one in particular, and he strode to the door.
He burst out into the sunlit fields behind the lab, beyond which the spires of Hyrule Castle rose in the morning sun like diamond-tipped spears, proud, strong, true. He walked, and walked, in a straight line, away, away.
Had any of their declarations been said with humour, Link considered, he might have dismissed them. But the fatigue and frustration were too real, too akin to the empty, void gaze of the older knights, the ones who had truly known battle, the hate and the blood, and the rampaging death. Before his own father's defeat in the field of battle, Link had seen it in him, too, sometimes, the long-suffering agony of knowing the unknowable and having no one to unburden upon. Link had tried, but to what end? What could a boy, a page, barely a squire, achieve to relieve the ache of war?
Link's breathing came faster and faster, and he was dizzy. It seemed he couldn't breathe in enough. His entire body felt numb, felt ill, felt distant, felt heavy. He stumbled through the grass, green― so green― like Zelda's eyes in the sun― his hands fumbling at the strap on his shoulder.
The Sword and its scabbard came loose, and Link grabbed it, throwing it to the ground beside him, breathing, breathing, he couldn't stop breathing, yet there was no air now, no air to breathe―
The tears of terror came next, here, as he fell to his knees, unable to breathe, and he shuddered. His whole body heaved, and before he knew it, he vomited out bile and his meager breakfast, trembling.
Mother. If this evil existed, he might hurt his own mother at its beckon. All his friends, all the squires he trained with― Mipha, and Daruk, who had been so kind―
He spat to clear his mouth, then looked at the Sword. It gleamed in the grass, obviously unfazed, unaware of his terror, as inanimate objects do. But he felt angry with it.
"Why me?" He managed, croaking. "I'm nobody!"
The Sword didn't reply. Unsurprising, yet infuriating.
"I can't do it," Link managed, softly. Here, in the open field, it seemed no one was listening, and yet the whole world was present. "I don't know why you chose me, but I can't do it." He jabbed a finger at the Sword, for all the good that did either of them. "You made a mistake. And you need to take it back!"
The Sword did not move. It did not speak. It didn't do anything. Because it was a sword. Somehow, Link found himself feeling a wave of empathy for Zelda. Was this how she felt when she prayed at the Goddess Statues in the realm, and heard nothing but silence in return?
"They barely made it last time," Link pleaded, though he didn't know to whom, exactly. "How can we achieve anything now?" The thought of failing them all was crushing, overwhelming, and he felt all strength leave his body.
The earth was soft under his fingers, the grass silky, still a little wet with dew. The wind was warm, carrying with it the gentle scents and sounds of life. And Link listened, listened until he was so still he stopped breathing.
But the world had no words of advice for him. It simply was.
He sat there a long time.
When he returned, near noon, Zelda stood by the door. She seemed to be waiting for something from him, though it wasn't clear what.
Link did not meet her gaze. He couldn't. He walked past her, back into the lab, and went to his required post, by the door, both his hands on the pommel of his sword. When the princess followed him in, her gaze landed on the Sword, and her fists clenched.
But neither of them said anything.
What was there to say?