The road up to Rito Village had been smooth. They'd stopped by the Royal Lab, but only in passing, then continued their way down the Hyrule Ridge, and across the Tabantha Great Bridge that spanned the Tanagar Canyon, to the dun coloured cliffs of Tabantha, where vast fields of wheat gleamed, golden, under the sun. The harvest was in full swing here, as cold winds already began to come down from the Hebra Mountains, far to the north, and even from the Gerudo Highlands, to the south, dropping the temperatures at night to near freezing. They'd camped two nights near Kolami Bridge, as seasonal storms had brought in strong winds and slippery conditions, halting the trek somewhat.
Link had overseen the construction of every camp, plunging himself into his duties like a man seeking an anchor. The two Sheikah shadows that accompanied them would only see them as far as the Rito Stable, at the foot of the many bluffs that led to Rito Village. Afterwards, Princess Zelda and her appointed knight would be guests of the Rito people, and the shadows would return to Kakariko Village in time for their own harvest. Every able bodied person was needed to bring in the pumpkins and carrots, the rice and the apples.
All across Hyrule, the bounties of summer were being collected. Scholars at the lab had predicted a difficult winter and recommended the felling of more trees, for firewood, than usual. Before departing, Link had seen to it that the farmers on the family estate, in Mabe Village, were ready for the harvest, too. He'd sent more of his earnings in hopes they would have time to make any and all necessary repairs to their homes, and given them an additional stipend to purchase warm clothing, as needed. It wasn't much, he knew, but it was all he and his mother could afford.
Some of the other squires, for their part, had withdrawn to oversee their estates, bringing home furs and riches, money and goods for trade and barter, should the need arise.
Link wouldn't have enough money for that. If food came to lack, he would have to request assistance from the King's own reserves. The shame of it was great, but it was better than letting the several families under his care starve through no fault of their own.
He was musing on this as he watched the sunrise that morning, gleaming over dewy fields and ripe crops. He heard her approaching, and did not stir.
"At last, the storms seem to have passed," she said.
Link hummed in agreement. The effects of the storms, he hoped, hadn't been too destructive.
They'd found shelter by the Kolami Span, under an overhang, but there had still been moments the day before where the lightning had seemed to strike directly overhead, spooking the horses. Storms like those could spell the end of a harvest if they had come with hail. Fortune, at least, was on their side.
"I found a few interesting insects," Zelda said, pulling out the device she carried with her every time she went out on surveys. It was a strange, rectangular thing that shone blue and orange, reminiscent of ancient Sheikah designs. She and Purah called it the Sheikah Slate, and it apparently could take pictures, perfect likenesses of moments in time. It was eerie to look at, actually.
Zelda was still talking. She seemed to find his new silence uncomfortable, and preferred to goad him into speaking as much as he had once tried to.
"… and perhaps if they were to be cooked, somehow, this would release their particular―"
"What now?" Link asked, blinking, pulled out of his musings. "You want to cook insects?"
She peered at him. "Well, yes, of course. How else are we to discover their hidden properties?" She turned to a butterfly as it fluttered past. "Oh, look! A Winterwing butterfly!" She raised her Sheikah slate and the device snapped, capturing a picture of the critter before it could fly away. Delighted, Zelda turned to the Slate and studied the likeness she had just taken.
It was then that a great flap of wings was heard, and Link rose to his feet immediately, drawing his sword… just in case.
But there was nothing to worry about. Above them, a group of Rito were descending, unimpeded by their light armour.
"Princess Zelda," one of them said. "Good morning." The group of envoys bowed low. "We come on behalf of Champion Revali, who has been expecting you."
"We were slowed by the storms in the past few days," Princess Zelda said, putting away her Sheikah Slate. "But I am glad to have company, at least."
Link tried not to be insulted.
"If you wish," the Rito envoy said, "we can carry you to Rito Village. Your attendants need not accompany you all the way there."
The Sheikah shadows looked relieved by this notion, but Link stepped forward. "I go where she goes."
The Rito were obviously surprised by his interjection, blinking at him as though he had been invisible. Then, ignoring his declaration, the leader turned to Princess Zelda and said, "Master Revali said you alone would be staying with us in Rito Village."
Of course he had, Link reflected, irritated.
"I suppose Link can handle the horses," the princess said, glancing back at him, and Link knew he would have a long day ahead of him.
"Very well," the Rito said, pleased, as though the matter were settled. "In that case―"
But the matter was absolutely not settled.
"I go," Link repeated, firmly, "where she goes."
Zelda inhaled, to argue, when one of the shadows said, "I will handle the horses. That way, her Highness remains escorted by her appointed knight."
The defeat in the princess' face was almost worth it. Link nodded, satisfied, and the Rito envoys looked crestfallen, having clearly not expected to carry two adult Hylians all the way to the bluffs where they roosted.
Well, they could blame their Master Revali, Link decided. There was no way he would settle with waiting in the stables while the princess assessed Vah Medoh. Link's fate, too, hung in the balance.
In the end, it was decided. The leader of the group would carry Link, being the strongest of them, and two others would carry Princess Zelda, in turn, to ensure neither risked exhaustion, which might be fatal for their charge. One of the Sheikah shadows bid them a pleasant trip and turned back to the Hyrule plains at once, while the other shadow gathered up the reins of Link and Zelda's horses and tied them to his saddle. It would be slow going, but at least it would be less stressful without having to keep an eye out for the princess.
"I would have been perfectly safe," Princess Zelda said, primly.
Link smiled. "Excellent. I'll be happy to see it for myself."
In the end, he found himself regretting the experience. The princess was offered a blanket of thick Rito wool, but nothing had been planned for Link, and he discovered that flying was a frostbite-inducing affair, in cold winds that the sun was now too weak to compensate.
They flew for a little under an hour, but every minute was painful. When at last the cliffs and stones of Rito Village grew close, Link was close to freezing, and he was eager to find himself a bracing fire near which to warm himself.
Touching the ground was a relief, and he turned to the princess to assess how she was faring.
But that was a mistake. With the thick blanket wrapped around her, her nose and cheeks pink with the cold, and her eyes bright in the morning sun, Princess Zelda was a vision. The urge to bring her in close was alien, almost overwhelming.
For the first time in his life, Link was relieved to hear Revali's voice.
"Princess," the pompous ass said, spreading out his wings in genial welcome. Around him, many of the Rito had gathered, curious to see their future ruler, and when the princess gratefully relinquished her blanket, they bowed with similar flourish.
"Revali," Princess Zelda said, warmly, stretching out her hands for him to seize. "Thank you for your hospitality."
"It is my great honour to welcome you here," Revali said, bowing low as he held her hands graciously. Then, noticing Link, the proud Rito stood tall once again and said, "And I see you brought the help."
Link said nothing. It was better to say nothing, especially when Princess Zelda turned to look at him.
"Master Impa thinks it will be good for Link to see Vah Medoh," she said.
"I'm sure he will have all sorts of useful insights," Revali said, in a tone that clearly stated the exact opposite. Then, managing a smile, the birdman said, "Well, I'm sure we can manage to find him a comfortable little corner to sleep in."
Like a dog. Link smiled politely. He knew Revali thought little of him.
Their rivalry had begun while Link was still a page, some ten years ago. The boys of Hyrule Castle Town who were worthy of training to become knights, or at least guards, became pages first, tasked with fetching and carrying, as well as ferrying messages and polishing armour. Still, those boys who had demonstrated an early aptitude for the arms were allowed to participate in a junior tourney of sorts, a smaller version of the greater melees and jousts that squires and knights partook in.
Link had been so proud to enter his first tourney. He had always had an inclination for the tests of the body, for combat, archery and racing, even for riding, though he was still only a novice and ponies were more than large enough at the time.
He'd outdone and outperformed all the other boys, earning himself the attention of the knight commanders, who'd personally congratulated him on his ability with training swords.
In fact, he'd done well in every discipline but one, where he'd arrived second. Archery.
At the time, the thin little Rito boy had been smaller than even the littlest Hylian page, but he had a lightness to his movements that betrayed great agility. And he handled the bow like he had been born with one, like the extension of his wing.
Link had been amazed by it. He'd approached the boy named Revali who, with a haughtiness Link would soon learn to know well, had challenged Link to an archery contest that Link lost, handily. Soon, their every interaction was a competition, borne with friendly asperity. They would wake in the morning to compete, ribbing each other mercilessly.
One day, the young Revali had explained he intended to become a great warrior, and that he would then become the Princess' chosen knight.
Callously, Link had teased him about it. No one had ever heard of a Rito becoming a knight. Their hollow bones made them excellent archers, but terrible fighters. He'd driven his point home by pointing out how terrible Revali was with close-range combat.
Children can be cruel, Link reflected. They might have been friends, had Link simply been kind. In time, the truth would have come from the mouth of the knight commanders. The Royal Guard was reserved to Hylians only, and the Rito boy's dream of being the princess' chosen knight would never come true.
Thereafter, the rivalry between Link and Revali had become poisoned by jealousy and irritation, until they simply stopped speaking to one another. Revali could be unkind, too, and one too many jokes at the expense of Link's father ― or rather, how lucky it was that Link could rely on his father's reputation to achieve his position ― had driven a permanent wedge between them.
Link had hoped never to have to speak with the boy again, but Revali had gone on to become the Rito Champion, and Link had been chosen by the Master Sword.
Fate. How irritating.
Revali showed Princess Zelda to a nest house, where thick furs covered the walls to keep out the wind. Most houses, Link realized, were open to the elements. The Rito were naturally immune to the cold, dealing with frigid altitudes often. But Princess Zelda's little designated abode was warmly insulated, with a central firepit and thick feather duvets.
As soon as she was settled in, Zelda was back outside, requesting to see Vah Medoh. They were meant to stay for a week, Link knew, but she was nothing if not studious.
"How long will it take to reach Vah Medoh?" She asked, as she walked alongside Revali to one of the town's many outward facing platforms. Link, as usual, followed along silently, grateful to be back on the ground. Well, platforms. Close enough. "I heard it can be quite a challenge to make it onboard."
Revali smiled, his green eyes creasing at the corners, and for a moment he almost looked charming. "Skies, with my help, it will be a few minutes, at most."
Princess Zelda nodded, shivering. "Good." She pulled out the Sheikah Slate from its holster at her hip, and said, "I've been studying the adjustments you asked about, and I think they will be a bit of a challenge, but I'm sure we can figure it out."
Revali inclined his head politely. "In that case, let us begin."
"Begin?" The princess asked, her breath coalescing in the morning air. "But I―"
At that moment, a powerful whirring sound was heard, as the great Divine Beast appeared overhead, the machinery suddenly loud now that the sound wasn't obstructed by the village constructions and rocks. Princess Zelda stepped back in surprise, and even Link couldn't help but gape.
The Divine Beast Vah Medoh, named in honour of a Rito sage from an age long past whose actual name was otherwise forgotten, was massive. It seemed made entirely of the same materials as the shrines and the Sheikah Slate, but it was built on a scale that Link had never fathomed before.
And it flew! Link actually felt dizzy to look up at it, as though the ground were tilting under his feet.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Revali said, his chest puffed out. Much like a rooster, Link thought sullenly.
Princess Zelda's mouth was slightly open, her green eyes wide. "I knew it was large, but I didn't think― How does it stay up there?"
Revali shrugged. "I'm sure you'll find out." He bowed low. "May I carry you, Princess?"
"Wait," Link said, before Princess Zelda could reply. Both of them turned to look at him in irritation ― Revali for the interruption, and Zelda for having to wait before she could focus on her studies.
"Sir Link," Princess Zelda said. "It is not up to you to decide― Oh."
Link was holding out a warm coat. It was pointless to say more. His princess seemed almost chastised. Meekly, she took the garment and slipped it on.
Then, before Link could argue against it, she climbed onto Revali's back, and they were off, the sudden gale of their takeoff blowing dust into Link's eyes. He flinched, and by the time his vision cleared, they were high above him, already mere minutes away from boarding the Divine Beast.
Feeling strangely bereft, Link looked about himself, wondering what to do.
There were Rito children looking at him. Fledglings? He blinked at them, and they shrunk a little.
Well, did he look that scary? Link cleared his throat. "Is there a place I can, er, practice? With my sword?" He jutted a finger to the Master Sword strapped on his back. "It will help me keep warm."
"We don't use swords here," one of the fledglings said, clearly the bravest of them.
Link nodded. He knew only too well. A brief moment of remembered shame took him. "Right. Sorry. I'll just… uh, sort myself out."
"Are you a prince?" One of the younger fledglings asked. A girl.
Link chuckled. It surprised him, and the fledglings peered at him in confusion. A prince! No one in Castle Town would have made that mistake.
"No," he said, smiling despite himself. "I am most certainly not a prince."
"Master Revali said the princess would be accompanied by his rival," another young Rito said. "But if you're not a prince―"
"I am a knight," Link said, gently, smiling. "A lowly knight, actually," he amended, remembering the princess' words. "I am Princess Zelda's protector."
"She doesn't seem to like you," the girl Rito said, and Link sighed.
"Why are you Master Revali's rival?"
Link let out a long breath. "Well, we were in a tourney together, and we've been fighting for the honours ever since."
"I don't believe you," the braver fledgling said. "Master Revali is the best archer in the world."
"I'm sure that's true, but I can hold my own with the sword, the spear and the mace, on horseback or not. I may not be as good as Revali for archery, but I came pretty darn close."
"Is riding a horse difficult?" One of the boys asked.
"Not if the horse likes you," Link said, kneeling by them. They were young. The Rito had lifespans slightly shorter than the average Hylian. Revali was already considered a full blown adult, by Rito standards, though he was younger than Link. They aged fast. While these children looked anywhere between two and nine years old, they might have been as young as several months only. "If you want, I'll show you how it's done when my horse arrives at the stable outside the village."
The boys looked excited by this prospect, which made Link feel a bit better.
"Does the princess wear pretty dresses, sometimes?" One of the girls asked.
Link turned to her, thinking of the travel wear the princess always used on the road ― practical, comfortable, it had to be a disappointment for anyone expecting finery.
Then again, it would have been uncouth to point out that no dress would ever round out a bottom quite as well as the princess' pants did, so Link simply said, "When she's in the castle, yes. She likes to wear blue. All kinds of blue. Midnight blue, sky blue, blue sometimes so pale it looks like a shadow on pure white snow."
"I like blue," the Rito girl said, her wings gently pulling at the hem of her light blue skirt.
Link smiled. "I can show you a few of the dances the nobles perform in court."
The girl's face brightened. "Oh, I'd like that!"
It was good, Link considered, that the children had warmed up to him. Clearly the adults all preferred to side with their Champion, and gave him the barest of courtesies. They gave him a tiny insulated hut near the princess' own and told him where he could find food, but little else. It was the children who showed him around the village, showcasing its quirks and hiding spots, explaining the way they lived, hunted and slept. They told him which males courted which females, along with the sordid gossip that necessarily arose in such a small settlement, making him swear not to tell.
They roamed the entirety of the village, from top to bottom, north to south and east to west, and in a way Link found himself enjoying their company a great deal more than Revali's arrogance and Princess Zelda's cool distance. While the Rito Champion and the Princess of Hyrule spent their days, from early morning until late evening, up in the damned Divine Beast, adjusting and tweaking its controls, Link enjoyed a return to his own childhood, discovering insects and playing silly games with an audience that appreciated him for who he was rather than what he was meant to do.
Occasionally, when the fledglings returned to their abodes at midday for a quick lunch, Link would find himself back on the landing platform, peering up at Vah Medoh, and longing to be a more active participant in his own fate. He had stopped going when Revali had found him there, presumably having come down to retrieve a meal for himself and the princess. The Rito Champion had managed to make himself even more insufferable than usual, reminding Link of his own inadequacy, challenging him to fight him aboard the Divine Beast, and mocking him for his inability to fly.
"Despite these truths, it seems that I have been tapped to merely assist you. All because you happen to have that little darkness-sealing sword on your back. I mean, it's just… asinine."
Asinine indeed. Revali didn't seem concerned by the danger before them at all.
From that moment on, Link instead sought refuge in the shade of the trees that grew near the base of the village, eating his meal in silence and solitude, wishing he could be home with his friends rather than here.
One afternoon, one of the boys, Akoot, asked Link to help him fly.
"I can't fly," Link said, laughing. "How could I possibly be useful?"
"It's easy," Akoot promised, as the other fledglings nodded emphatically. "You just throw me!"
"Throw you," Link echoed, skeptically, peering at the others to find out whether they were mocking him.
"Yes," Akoot said. "It'll be like when Master Revali uses his Gale force, only… I'm not strong enough to do it."
Link leaned back against the stone. They were sitting in the shade. The day had been unusually warm for the autumn season, and many of the Rito villagers were using this as an opportunity to prepare a feast, to wish the princess farewell. For once, they were glad Link kept the fledglings out of their talons. "I don't know if that's safe," he said.
"But you're strong," Skett, Akoot's brother, exclaimed. "It'll be even better than when we use the blanket."
Link laughed. "If one of you gets hurt, I'll be in trouble."
"But Sir Link," young Medli said, "we can all fly already, we just can't take off very fast."
"Right," quiet Komali said, "even if you accidentally throw us off the platform, we can just fly back."
Link sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "If you were Hylians, I would get in so much trouble."
"We're not Hylians," they said, excitedly, almost in sing-song.
Link had already made his decision, but he let them simmer in anticipation, pressing his lips together severely and looking at each one of them in turn. They were holding their breath, and Link finally relented. "Fine," he said, as they exploded into a chorus of excited shouts and whoops. "But I want one of your big brothers or sisters to keep watch while we play."
That was how he ended up on the landing platform, throwing squealing and laughing Rito fledglings into the air.
"Your turn, Skett," he said, reaching for the boy. If they had been Hylians, he might have been exhausted by now, but the hollow bones and diminutive sizes of the Rito made them as light as pillows, only squirmier. "Can you feel it?" He asked the boy, whose giggles shook his entire body. "The wind comes, and it gathers around you, just like with Master Revali, and it launches you UP!" And he threw the boy straight up, and the boy screamed with delight, zipping up higher than he'd ever achieve on his own.
"My turn, my turn," Komali said, his little wings reaching up, and Link was swarmed by more fledglings than he could throw, all clamouring for his attention.
"One at a time," Link laughed, trying to be heard over the commotion.
"What in all of Hylia…?"
He knew that voice. The fledglings fell silent, and Link turned to see both Revali and Princess Zelda, peering at them, speechless.
Link gently put Komali down, and fell to one knee. "Princess," he said, bowing his head. Around him, the older fledglings imitated him. The younger ones merely gaped back.
"What is the meaning of this?" Revali finally said.
Link felt anger surge within him. "The fledglings wanted to play," he managed instead, rising.
"We wanted to fly, Master Revali," Akoot said. "Just like you do it! And Sir Link was helping us."
The Rito Champion scoffed. "Helping you? He can't fly. He's just a Hylian."
Link's gaze crossed Princess Zelda's. She had an odd look on her face, and Link felt the sudden certainty that he looked exactly like the lowly knight he truly was, rumpled, out of breath, surrounded by scrawny, grabbing hands, and he felt his heart squeeze with shame.
Only… it was her fault. He had asked to accompany them to Vah Medoh, and Revali had scoffed then, too, asking him how a mere soldier could be of use up there, in the belly of one of the greatest inventions in history.
And none of the adult Rito cared to spend any extended time with him. The only ones who wanted to see him were the young.
Had she expected Link to stay alone, inside his hut, like an automaton, with no needs or interests, no compulsion to keep himself entertained? He was just a soldier, true, and not a noble one, even, but that did not make him so dull witted that he was satisfied with his own lonesome company.
"He was throwing us," Skett said, looking chastised, clearly upset that he had disappointed their hero. "We aren't strong enough yet to fly like you."
The expression in Revali's eyes changed somewhat, and his gaze darted from the fledglings to Link, then back, and something in his stance softened, imperceptibly. "He was throwing you. To imitate my Gale."
Little Medli nodded emphatically, and Link shifted his position, his instinct to protect the girl should Revali be cruel to her. She was the sweetest of them, gentle, kind, and patient. No one, not even her own personal hero, was allowed to hurt her.
But Revali did no such thing. Instead, he drew up tall and said, "Well. Yes. I suppose it might be time to teach the lot of you how it's done. Properly."
The light changed in the fledglings' eyes, and they exploded into a cheer, jumping up and down, flapping their wings excitedly. They swarmed the Rito Champion, a storm of feathers begging for his attention, and Revali seemed changed. He was smiling, clearly uncomfortable with the amount of excitement around him.
Well, any day he stole Link's spotlight, Link supposed, was worth gold. The Hylian Champion felt suddenly very lonely.
It was then he noticed the princess was still looking at him, not at Revali or the commotion. Her expression was still unreadable, a combination of puzzlement and something else that could have been disgust… or wonder, or anything in between.
When she finally turned away, pulled out of the moment by the tribe's Chieftain, Chief Watarara, Link felt a strange sort of relief.
That evening, after their packs were made and their early morning departure prepared, the village organized a feast. There was music and dancing and fish prepared in a dozen different ways, warm stews, rich mushroom roasts, wildberries in thick applesauce, and freshly baked pies. There was enough food on display to feed an army, so Link partook with great appetite.
He even danced a courtly step with Medli, though she was very light and very short, and absolutely incapable of turning in the right direction. Across the fire pit, the princess danced with Revali, and they chatted as friends. Link couldn't hear what they were saying, but he felt something in his gut when he saw the way Revali gazed at his princess, smiling kindly― uncharacteristically gently.
"Do you wish you were a prince?" Medli asked, as Link lifted her and sat her against his hip, if only to make the dancing less painful on his back.
She had caught his look across the fire. Link stubbornly turned away. "No."
"You're a liar," she said, quietly, omnisciently. But she didn't press the matter.
Thank the gods.