Princess Zelda was a mystery.
She could go from excitable, to irritable, to melancholy in the span of minutes, only to be drawn out of her shell in seconds whenever she saw something interesting.
She had spent most of the trip back from Rito Village explaining the minutiae of the adjustments she'd made to Vah Medoh, wondering aloud about the machine's abilities and specifications. Link had learned early on that nothing he said really registered, as she was mostly the sort to speak her thoughts out loud. She wasn't looking for his input, that much was obvious.
A message had reached them on the road back, when they made it to the Tabantha Bridge Stable. The nomadic stable masters typically packed up their stables of wood and furs and canvas as soon as winter came. Winter typically meant a great nomad gathering in the south of Hyrule, until the more distant roads became passable for horses again in the spring. Most wintertime commerce went to the Rito instead, who were both unimpeded by snow and mostly immune to the cold.
The stable had clearly been slowing down its activities. Most of its beds were free and the stalls, which usually housed upwards of twenty horses, were deserted. Link and Zelda had stationed there after a boy, the nomad son of the stable master, by the looks of things, had hailed them off the road. A message had come for Link.
Usually, correspondence was issued to the princess, so both of them had been curious.
The message had arrived three days earlier, and requested that Link present himself, as soon as possible, to the Kolomo Garrison, near Lake Kolomo. A warning was issued: reports were advising of banditry and danger in the Breach of Demise that separated Link and the princess from Carok Bridge and the Central Hyrule plains. The Sheikah recommended that they trek south instead, to Jeddo Bridge, and follow the main road south. A full briefing would be issued once Link reported to Kolomo.
Link had expected the princess to protest, but she seemed strangely relieved, even perking up a little. She had spent the next week capturing pictures of the wildlife, as they went around the Seres Scablands, down to the Nima Plain and Safula Hill, across Manhala Bridge and into Coliseum Town near the Great Plateau that had once been the heart of Hyrule Kingdom and now served mainly as a religious centre. They rested there a full day before departing on a last stretch of road, trekking past the impossibly high ancient walls of the Plateau and reaching Kolomo Garrison by mid-afternoon.
Garrisons, Link knew, were no place for a princess, but Kolomo was one of the larger garrisons, where many of the soldiers already lived with their wives and children. It oversaw a large part of southwestern Hyrule, patrolling the roads that connected the Gerudo Desert with the rest of Hyrule.
When they arrived, the commander was evidently relieved to see them. The princess was shown to a richly furnished room in the commander's estate, as befit her station, and Link was assigned a private room in the barracks, which was more than he expected.
Sometimes, he forgot he was a knight.
"This entire swath," the commander was explaining, later that evening, after Link had eaten with the other guardsmen, "is currently considered impassable."
He was designating a part of the North Hyrule Plains, including the Breach of Demise, on a large map of Hyrule spread between them. The area he was pointing to was a vast territory, but mostly uninhabited, where the main appeal consisted of agriculture and the road that led to the Royal Research Laboratory.
"Do we know whether the bandits are organized?" Link asked.
Commander Rusl nodded. "They all belong to a clan, they say. The Yiga Clan. This is particularly alarming because we've been receiving similar reports out of Gerudo Desert. We actually think their main hideout may be somewhere there. Unfortunately, the bastards are slippery, and they look just like your average Hylian traveler."
"What do they want?" Link asked.
Commander Rusl shrugged. "There's no telling. But the Sheikah are worried. Some of their intelligence agents claim the Yiga may be more than just a clan of bandits, that they may be a rogue offshoot of the Sheikah themselves."
Link thought of Master Impa and Master Kohga, whose patience and skill were truly terrifying to behold. He shuddered. "Let's hope they're wrong."
"They rarely are," Commander Rusl grimly said. "Which is actually why they requested you be personally advised. As the princess' appointed knight, it may fall to you to protect her from them. We are trying to coordinate with the other garrisons and outposts to track Yiga movements, but with the harvests in full swing, many of the men are distracted. I fear the first sign of Yiga presence you might see will be their knife at your throat."
Link exhaled slowly, trying to find the Mind of the Crane. "How safe are the roads in Central Hyrule?"
"Safe enough," Commander Rusl said, pointing to the two long rivers that ran south from the lake around Hyrule Castle. "The Regencia River to the west and the Hylia River to the east have so far appeared to serve as borders to their encroaching. It would be wise to be careful all the same."
"And they've given no indication of their intentions," Link said, trying to keep the incredulity out of his voice.
"It could be anything," the commander said. "They could be trying to poach caravans of food now that so much of it is being transported and stored. They could be trying to take over some territory with the understanding that Hyrule won't want to give them an honest fight before spring."
Or they could be agents of Calamity Ganon, Link thought, grimly. As soon as he returned to Hyrule Castle, he would consult with Master Impa and Master Kohga. He would have no choice, much as he hated the idea. Their instinct, he knew, would be to prevent the princess from traveling, but that was not a viable solution. When spring came, she would want to continue visiting the Divine Beasts in person. In truth, no one was better suited for the task.
The princess would not like being surrounded by guards, Link knew. She sometimes seemed to barely tolerate his own lone presence, and only because she could sometimes make herself forget he was there. He would occasionally catch her glaring at the Master Sword, when she thought he wasn't looking.
No, she would not take kindly to a full guard detail.
"Would you like us to send a full contingent as an escort?" Commander Rusl asked.
Link blinked, surprised. He wasn't used to his opinion being asked in any capacity, especially when it came to the princess' safety. But then, he was her new appointed knight.
Looking at Commander Rusl gave Link the general idea that requesting a full contingent would be ill received. Soldiers were often delegated to local farms to provide additional help at harvest. Any distraction to protect the princess would be considered an unfortunate necessity, but Link doubted any of the local farms would appreciate it.
"Er, no." He mused over the idea. "I think we will consult with the Sheikah on the matter. But thank you for suggesting it."
Commander Rusl managed to hide his relief somewhat. "Whatever you think is best," he said, politely. He did not share his opinion on the Sheikah, but Link was fairly sure it was similar to his own, and that of most Hylians. Still, the choice was not theirs.
"We will most likely stay here a few days," Link finally said, after a lapse of silence. "If that isn't too much of an impediment."
"Of course," Commander Rusl said, nodding gravely. "Take all the time you need to choose your next course of action."
"Will you permit me to join the guards during their training routines while I'm here?" Link asked.
He knew the answer would be yes, but protocol required that he ask. As a knight, Link was technically of a higher rank than the Guard Commander. To assume anything was given would be to divest the man unduly of his privileges.
Besides, Link still felt like a boy, sometimes, unworthy of speaking as an equal with a man of such experience.
To his credit, the Guard Commander never even implied that anything was amiss. He gave his cordial consent, and Link excused himself. It was getting late. The sun had just set, and the guards were now changing in preparation for the first night shift. The garrison town seemed to be quieting down, the houses giving out a warm glow through their windows where candles were being lit.
The shadows danced in the dusk, and Link found himself trying to control his unease. If he stopped to think about the weight of all his responsibilities, he might crumble in a panic. It was bad enough that a group of utterly unprepared people were attempting to stop the greatest threat of their time, but Link was now saddled with a princess who loathed him, and he had to protect her from a rogue Sheikah clan whose designs were yet unknown.
"We used to be more."
Link's senses exploded in alarm at the unexpected voice. Yiga, his brain screamed a moment before it recognized the voice. Link's arm twitched once, the only sign that he'd been about to reach for his sword, and he focused on catching his breath and slowing the rapid thundering of his heart.
He turned. The princess was standing beside him. How had she sidled up next to him without him hearing her? Had he really been so preoccupied?
She was looking at the stone and wood houses, her interest not melancholy but clinical instead.
"More?" Link croaked, trying not to let on that she had essentially scared the living daylights out of him.
Zelda nodded. Sometimes, when she was in her studious, scholarly pursuits, she didn't look like a princess at all. That, in itself, was terrifying. She was almost… approachable, fascinating, her interests and passion shining through like a beacon that called, that made him want to join in.
No, Link decided. Appointed knight. Incarnation of the Goddess. No touching.
"I am beginning to suspect," she said, peering with detached interest at the candlelight that began to replace the fading sun, "and our studies have certainly given us reason to believe it may be true, that there was a time, in the long distant past, where we Hylians did not light up the night with mere candles."
Link's eyebrows wanted to join with his hairline. "How else would we light our homes?" He asked, trying not to sound skeptical. "Fireflies?"
She didn't get upset with his stupid suggestion, which only made him more nervous. She even smiled a little, almost whimsically. "No, but I think they might have studied the luminescence of fireflies and imitated it."
Link tried to picture a world cast in the ephemeral green and yellow glow of insects and worried about Zelda's sanity. "We would need so many fireflies," he dumbly said.
She snorted. "They didn't use actual fireflies," she said. Then, she sighed and visibly gave up. "I want to go out by the lake, and the guards won't let me go alone." Then, a part of the regal politician entered her pose, and she asked, "What was it the commander needed to discuss?"
Link hesitated, wondering how much he ought to tell. She would not be happy to hear the Sheikah would want to surround her with even more guards. Maybe he could argue to Master Impa that he was enough. He certainly trained enough ― every morning, before breakfast, just like when he was at the Castle ― and he was fairly confident he'd be able to defend one girl. A princess, certainly, but in the end, she was no larger and no broader than any ordinary person… A very stubborn one.
But still. Just a girl. Having Sheikah around would probably be more frustrating than useful, anyway. He'd never be sure of their intentions.
"I would hate for you to be mistaken, so do note that your silence is not comforting at all right now," Princess Zelda said, flatly, in what seemed to be an attempt at humour.
Link actually couldn't help but let a tiny smile quirk at his lips. "Sorry, I, uh―"
"If Sheikah intelligence intends for me not to visit all the Divine Beasts," she said, "you can tell them that they are―"
"No, we need to see the Divine Beasts," Link interrupted. A split second later, it occurred to him that interrupting was very rude, especially when the Princess had been speaking.
But she seemed relieved rather than offended. "Good," she said. "Then whatever else it was, I don't care. Now fetch something warm if you want, and let's get moving."
"Wouldn't you rather wait until morning?" Link asked, frowning.
She was already striding away, so she did not take kindly to his question. Exhaling dramatically, and in that moment she looked exactly like a sixteen year-old girl, which made Link smile and his heart thump bizarrely, she turned partway and said, "Skies, stones, seas and sands. Snails. Snails that glow in the dark."
"Right, fetching my doublet," Link immediately relented, jogging away, and chuckling to himself.
"I heard you laughing at me," she admonished, later, as they walked the gravel beach of Lake Kolomo under a thin crescent moon.
Link wisely chose not to say anything. She glanced back, but in the faint moonlight, her expression was unreadable.
"You have no idea," she said, her voice soft in the clear night air. She turned back to examine the ground where she trod, occasionally bending over to peer more closely at luminescent mosses and mushrooms. "You think I'm doing this for entertainment."
It had to be partly for entertainment, Link considered. She often had him retrieve flowers and mushrooms from cliffs, where he regularly risked breaking a limb. But she was a princess, she'd argue. It would look very badly if he allowed her to injure herself under his watch. Sometimes, she'd watch his exertions and he was sure he'd hear her giggle.
But she didn't appear to be in the mood for personal entertainment tonight. She actually seemed angry again now, though Link wasn't sure what he'd done to deserve it this time.
"You think we know all we know because someone had the decency to write it in a book," she was grumbling. It was directed at him, he knew, but she didn't seem to care whether he was even listening. She did that a lot. "But everything about this prophecy, everything of the legend that is guiding us… We have nothing but hearsay and scientific discoveries to guide us. The research I and Purah and Robbie are undertaking… It aims to verify the stories." She paused on the beach, crouching down to dig through the waterlogged gravel as gentle waves lapped at her boots. She was intent, but she was still talking at him. "And if my power doesn't awaken, at least I will have done that much."
"Your power will awaken," Link said, trying not to betray the terror that seized him every time she reminded him of how utterly incompetent the six of them were.
She stilled in the night, and suddenly Link worried she would crumble, or throw a rock at his face. But instead she became cold, and she said, "You can go to sleep if you want. I'll be only a few more minutes."
She was dismissing him. Clearly, he had seriously angered her. What was wrong with this girl? He was only trying to show her a little bit of faith.
"You think I should be praying right now," she said, coolly. "What do you even know about anything?"
"I never said that," Link said, the anger at her accusations rising inside of him. She managed that a lot, making him angry. And making assumptions.
"You were a lowly squire," she said, "and now you're a lowly knight. A glorified guard. And having that Sword on your back does not change that."
Link clamped his mouth shut. She was not going to get a rise out of him.
But instead of snapping at him, she let out a long shaky breath. Then, apparently collecting every last ounce of decency and courtly decorum within her, she managed, "I'm sorry. I'll be better in the morning. Tonight I'm just… angry."
She found a glowing snail, hiding halfway in the water and gravel. It emitted a faint green light, and she snapped a picture of it with the Sheikah Slate.
"The stories paint a world that is just and good," she said. Now she wasn't speaking to him, precisely. It occurred to Link that she was kneeling in the water, as she did every opportunity she had, as though praying to the goddesses required it. "But it isn't. A just world gives its rewards to the worthy. This one doesn't."
Link felt a muscle leap in his jaw. He knew he was unworthy of the Master Sword. A kinder person would have kept that observation to themselves. Especially since he couldn't defend himself against a princess. And the cheek of saying it to the gods instead― did she think he was stupid?
But Link cooled his emotions deliberately, seeking the Mind of the Crane. There was no changing his circumstances. He would adapt, he would let her insults fall unheeded, as rain on the swan's back. Sticks and stones, Master Impa had continuously repeated.
But now he knew why Master Impa insisted on the mindfulness exercises. They were damned necessary.
"I would like to return here in the morning," the princess finally said. She rose, and turned to look at him in the moonlight. "If you don't mind."
Asking for his acquiescence was a poor apology, but Link knew it was the only one he would get, so he nodded, curtly.
The next morning came, crisp and bright, with the decision that they would not stop by the Castle, and that they would head directly for Goron City instead.
"These Divine Beasts… so much we don't know… But if we want to turn back Calamity Ganon, they're our best hope."
Not for the first time, Zelda pretended that no argument had occurred the night before. She had a spectacular knack for that. Perhaps it was part of being a princess, especially one that grappled so often with failure. For a moment, Link wondered how often people pestered her about her absent powers, and whether she ever felt safe enough to put them in their place, the way she did with him.
Maybe, he considered, King Rhoam and Master Impa had considered his low rank a boon. Now the princess had a dummy to focus her anger on.
Still, when he lay awake in his tiny room, peering at the ceiling, Link caught himself wishing he could be something different. A source of comfort? A friend?
Ridiculous. He'd never understand her, probably. But he didn't need to understand her moods to protect her. He just needed to be a lowly knight.