Leaving had taken forever. When at last they finished waving goodbye, they were back on the lower road, their horses refreshed and fed, and they had to follow a turn in the road to be out of sight before they could put their arms down.
It had been a good time to rest, at least. Link had managed to sleep more, and eat more, and there really was something to be said for those hot springs. But leaving now left him feeling strangely bereft― the Gorons were boisterous, cheerful, and they didn't know their own strength. They reminded Link of one family, with all the happy simplicity that implied.
Staying amidst them with the princess was an uncomfortable experience. Part of him wanted to get carried away, to make jokes, to tease, and another part of him, a restrained and anxious part of him, seemed perpetually aware that he couldn't.
If Zelda hadn't hated him, he mused. He contemplated the thought often. Irritatingly often. And he never allowed himself to finish the thought. If he stopped, if he really gave in, he might have acknowledged he was attracted ―any red-blooded Hylian would be― and frustrated and… and…
No. Ideas of big happy families did not mix with thoughts of Princess Zelda, no matter how much he wished they did. Wishing changed nothing. She disliked him. She disliked traveling with him. She thought he was unworthy.
"Two down," the princess said, to herself, "and two to go."
Link didn't reply. He was still somewhat altered by the week he had just passed in her company. His nerves were just a little too frayed by the constant back and forth between extreme irritation and frustrated attraction, so it was best to mull it all over in complete silence until he cooled off.
Mind of the Crane, he reminded himself, surprised to be mentally thanking Master Impa for her training.
In the spirit of cooling off, he began to work at his earrings to remove them. The sapphires had done an admirable job, but as their horses began to descend into the lower plains and moved away from the heat of the mountain, he once again began to feel the chill in the air that betrayed that summer would not return for many months yet. Around them, some of the trees' leaves were changing colours, turning red and gold, and the inhabitants of Eldin they saw from the road were hard at work preparing high stacks of wood.
Ahead of him, the princess also removed her sapphire circlet, and tucked it safely into her saddle bag. She was quiet, today. Quieter than usual.
"Daruk is too confident," she finally said, startling him.
Link ignored the strange pull inside him. So what if they thought alike? It meant nothing.
She had glanced back at him, so he replied, "And Revali, too."
She nodded, slowly. Link thought she would say more, but she didn't. Instead, she turned back to look at the winding, descending road, and remained quiet a long time.
They were at the Ternio Trail Crossing, several hours later, when she spoke again. "When did you plan on telling me about the Yiga Clan?"
The question actually took Link by surprise. "I― what?"
"I asked Commander Rusl to tell me what the matter was, the reason we had to perform a detour to Kolomo Garrison. Your silence when I asked made me nervous."
He ought to have known. She was a curious person by nature. Of course she would have made her own investigation. "I wasn't sure you needed to know."
She turned in her saddle. "Since when are you allowed to make those decisions for me?"
Link felt the exasperation overtake him before he could stop it. "It's not like I was keeping it from you. It just didn't come up. And I didn't want to scare you."
He saw her eyes dart to the hilt of the Master Sword that peeked over his shoulder. Something trembled in her eyes, something that looked like anger. She turned back to face the road, and she said, "You think a bunch of Sheikah defectors would be enough to scare me."
"Why not?" Link said. "They scare me."
"So much for courage," she said, mockingly.
"Courage isn't stupidity," Link argued. "I should know. Master Impa drilled all the oaths and virtues into my head for months on end." And that was when he wasn't busy fearing her, too.
"Months," she echoed, bitterly. "Oh, what hardship. Months of training. I shall weep for you."
"You know what?" Link said, before he could stop himself. He even pulled in the reins, and his horse obediently stopped.
Part of him screamed to stop, but there was no stopping it now. The little voice of reason was being drowned out by a rush of frustration. Frustration at her ― her voice, her arrogance, her perfect lips, her soft-looking skin, her irritability, her sadness, her distance, her beauty, dammit, her long blonde hair, her hands, her sketches, her Slate ― and frustration at himself ― his helplessness, his loneliness, his thoughts, his weakness, his anger, his bloody buried wants ― everything mixed together into white hot rage. And it all came out, in one raw torrent of vitriol.
"I know you don't like me," Link continued, clenching the reins in his fists. "I know you think I'm unworthy. But I have as much control over this as you." He inhaled, glaring. "There you have it. If I could take it all back, if I could put the Sword back into the pedestal and pretend none of this were real, I would, alright? Would that make you feel better?"
He meant that question to be ironic, but part of him wondered ― could he? Maybe there was no other way. Maybe the Sword would choose someone else.
She was looking at him oddly now, and Link suddenly realized that she could end him and his entire career as a knight at that exact moment. Then, in a voice he had never heard from her before, she croaked, "No. It wouldn't."
And, with eyes that seemed strangely bright, she turned away, and nudged her horse to continue.
Before Link could rearrange his thoughts, she kicked. Her horse broke into a canter, then into a gallop, and she was away before Link could muster his bearings.
He urged his horse to follow suit, clicking his tongue and leaning forward, a motion his horse understood viscerally, and it surged forward, as though electrified.
The road down from Akkala and Death Mountain was treacherous. It was often steep to one side, and it was poorly maintained in places, with rocks large enough to damage hooves and horseshoes, as well as thick mud patches that could be slippery underfoot. It was dangerous enough to climb, and as they descended at a racer's pace Link's mind was flooded with visions of broken necks and thrown victims.
If something happened to her because he had snapped at her, he'd never forgive himself.
Just my job, he repeated to himself, feeling his horse skidding in places, as he instinctively rearranged his weight to make the descent easier on the poor creature. It's just my job.
He hadn't been knightly. The right thing to do would have been to say nothing, to take it all in and let it all go. But he had let the boy inside win, and now the knight had to fix everything.
Because it's just my job, he insisted. Ahead of him, already several hundred feet down, the princess' horse wasn't faring well. It was skidding every other step and struggled to control its bearing, edging closer to the edge of the path and a possible tumble down into the rocks.
Then, it reared, and Zelda was thrown.
Link's heart seemed to clench inside his chest. The whole world seemed to slow to a crawl as her body fell, a tumble of blue fabric and blonde hair.
She landed in the grass on the side of the road. Link wasn't sure how― it all happened so quickly. He vaulted off his own horse and scrambled over.
The princess sat up, and Link felt a surge of overwhelming relief ― she was fine, she's fine. She isn't hurt, just a little dusty, just a scare―
He slid to his knees next to her, his movement digging tracks into the red mud, and reached out to check her face.
She slapped his hand away, and suddenly he remembered who she was. Princess. Princess Zelda. And he was just a knight. Just a lowly knight. But his heart was beating with raw fear, his only thoughts were a jumble of primal emotions, and for a moment the difference between his elementary terror and his higher reasoning was a canyon too vast to bridge.
He fell back on his arse, and tried to focus on his breathing. She's fine. She isn't hurt. She will be fine.
And then he heard her sniff. She raised a shaking hand to wipe away at her face.
Like a dam breaking, a wave of self-loathing overcame him, badgering his conscience. She's just a girl, he told himself. A girl with nothing to show for her efforts, and the eyes of the world upon her. And I should know better.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"Gods," she said, her voice trembling. He couldn't see her face, but she seemed to be crying out to the entire world. "One moment alone. Please."
She was a hammer blow to the chest. Link forced himself to stand up. He dusted himself off as well as he could, hesitated, then walked off to retrieve their horses.
As he walked away, he felt a pinprick of cold on his face. Looking up, he saw it was snowing, the skies a uniform gray. Not real snow, he mused. Tiny miniature droplets of ice that melted as they touched the ground. They didn't count. Not yet.
He found the princess' horse huffing and spooked amidst a copse of trees, the foam on its lips a testament to how hard she had been riding. It welcomed his touch and he took a moment to brush down the sweat from its coat with a handful of dry autumn grass, humming a soft tune the stablemasters called a song for horses, gentle, ancient, comforting.
He checked its hooves one by one, cleared out most of the dirt and even a few rocks that collected in the groove between the shoe and the hoof, then clicked his tongue, and the horse seemed to have regained some semblance of calm.
His own horse had come to his side, called by the humming, and Link checked it, too, then he grabbed both bridles and led them back to the road.
The princess had collected herself. Her nose was pink and her eyes were puffy, but she was once again in control of her emotions. She did not look at him directly, her gaze fixed somewhere beyond him.
"Winter," she said, hoarsely. She, too, knew it was on the horizon now, mere weeks away.
Link nodded, handing her the reins to her steed. The horse nickered, displeased, and the princess' expression wavered. She reached up to caress its nose, and it turned away, impassive.
Link looked away as the princess' lip quivered. He pretended to be deaf when she pressed her forehead against her horse's neck and whispered apologies.
Horses. Link pushed himself into the saddle, remembering the words of the stable master in Mabe Village. Horses were both the brightest and dumbest creatures to walk the world. Dumb because they spooked at all and nothing, and they did not know their size. Bright because they recognized kindness and had the ability to forgive… with time.
Princess Zelda pulled herself up into the saddle. Her horse, which usually behaved with such patience and calm, stomped and seemed restless under her. She pretended not to notice.
Without a word, she nudged it forward. Link followed suit, and they once again began the slow descent into Central Hyrule.
Winter, Link mused, somberly. Granted, they were still high up above the plains. Further down, the tiny ice crystals would be nothing but a thin, cold, autumnal rain. When it did come for good, winter would last months. Most roads, including the one they currently traveled, would be impassable. The Hylian world would shrink, blocked in by the snows and the cold, quieting down, muted. A season of pickling jars, knitting, weaving and thick stews, a time for huddling, for hiding, as the days grew shorter and the nights grew clear and frigid. Winter meant minding your resources, counting the sheep, the goats, the cows, the cuccos, and estimating how many needed to be kept alive to ensure prosperity when spring returned.
A season of wet boots and wet wool, a season of cold wet toes, a season of frustrated idleness.
Link wondered if winter felt different in Hyrule Castle. It would be his first winter there. Would the grand halls be drafty and cold? Would the reduced number of courtiers make it feel empty?
He was so absorbed by his thoughts that when his horse stopped, he blinked.
The road was narrow, squeezing between two rocks, and ahead of him the princess had stopped. She was looking down at something near the side of the road.
"Sir Link," she said.
He dismounted and walked over to see what was going on.
Shyly, she said, "That mushroom, there." She pointed to a blue-capped mushroom almost the size of his hand. "Could you… Would you mind retrieving it for me?"
Blinking, he mutely strode over to the fungus. It seemed innocuous enough, with a light blue sheen that almost matched his Champion's tunic, and he bent to pluck it from its place in the shade. It felt cool to the touch.
Then, he turned back and handed it up to the princess, who grasped it gently, her Sheikah Slate already out and ready to capture it.
Dusting his hands on his pants, Link looked away. He was about to return to his horse when her hand on his shoulder stopped him.
She wasn't looking at him, but she wasn't looking at her Slate either. "Thank you."
Somehow, Link thought she didn't just mean about the mushroom. Unsure of what to say, he nodded. She nervously moved her hand away, as though she had been burnt, and that was Link's signal to return to his horse.
They said nothing else to one another that day, nor the day after.