Hyrule Castle was ready to withstand a siege, judging from the unending trail of food carts and boats that lined up at its gates and docks. It had operated on reduced help for a week now, having sent home all guards and servants whose families lived in areas that would soon be unreachable due to snow. Hyrule Castle Town was preparing for winter, too, as citizens boarded up windows with thick pads of cloth that would prevent the cold from seeping in through single-pane glass.
The trees were completely bare now, mere scratchings amidst a carpet of browning leaves. The grasses were still green, but that green was fading. A few squalls had left a harmless dusting of snow in shaded corners, but nothing lasting had yet fallen from the sky. Still, with every passing autumn day, the days grew shorter and the skies seemed to grow heavier, lower.
A true, lasting snowstorm would be upon them any day now.
Link watched the frantic activity below the battlements in silence. He sat on the walls a lot these days, looking out over a dreary Hyrule. South, far over the rolling hills, he knew, his own mother was commanding the family acreage like the captain of a ship, mustering all the resources she could to prepare the farmers for the annual season of hardship. The days were colder. The stones he sat on were less and less comfortable to the touch, and he had to dress up in a thick doublet and warm cloak when he intended to sit out for more than a few minutes.
His training with the Sheikah continued. Here, in the Castle, Master Impa did not seem to care about the rhythm of the world. Buried deep in the bowels of the Hill, perhaps she did not see the yearly changes. Perhaps she didn't care. In a way, it was comforting. The training he underwent was one of the only true distractions he had. These days, they made him practice stealth, and he had developed the habit of moving about as quietly as he could.
Zelda hated that. He tended to approach in silence, startling her out of her studies. The last time he'd tried, she'd thrown an inkwell at him, perhaps before she even realized what was going on. She'd missed his face, but the ink hadn't.
… They were not on friendly terms at the moment.
Most of the squires had gone back to their family estates by the time he had returned with the princess. What few squires remained did not seem comfortable speaking with him. Link no longer slept in the guardhouse and barracks with them. He had his own room, under the princess' tower, high above them, as befit a knight.
An honour and a privilege that he would have preferred to do without. Those few weeks since his return had been the loneliest of his life. The princess clearly did not like having him around, especially now that he lurked from shadow to shadow under Master Impa's orders, and he had no friends he could turn to in the long hours that separated dawn from dusk.
Following an altercation regarding his gluttonous appetite, most importantly how revolting the size of his bites were, the princess had decided to have her meals in her laboratory tower. Now that he was no longer expected to dine with the princess, he supped with the commanders and castle knights. Men of experience, with stories and lives behind them, who had no interest in a green boy, even a boy who wielded the Blade of Evil's Bane.
His afternoons were idle now, too. He was expected to read and train, to be the Hero. He had tried to bury himself in fighting practice, but there was only so much he could do to keep himself busy between noon and supper.
So instead, he wandered the Castle, keeping out of everyone's bustling way, practicing at silence.
By now, he was fairly sure he knew every nook and cranny he could access. The kitchens, the dining halls, the treasury, the armouries, the balconies, the long, broad curved hallways and the narrow, claustrophobic corridors, the prison block, the training grounds, the wilting gardens.
The library. But she was always there. He tried to avoid the library.
In the end, he often returned here, to the battlements, looking over gloomy Hyrule in silence. Somewhere south, near the Gerudo province and some Tabantha highlands, reports spoke of areas and plateaux that were still clinging to late summer, where fruit still finished ripening under the last vestiges of warm winds from the west. Here, though, the cold was seeping in.
Link looked up to the sky, noting the length of the towers' shadows. Soon, he would have to accompany the princess to her afternoon prayers. He hated doing that. She would always be so absorbed by her work, sometimes with a smudge of ink on her cheek or her nose, and she would blink at him in confusion, her concentration gone, like a bubble of contentment she would have to create all over again.
Seeing the disappointment on her face every time she saw him was like a daily and slow torture. Forcing her out of the only refuge she seemed to have, having to mutely withstand the sight of her resignation, and marching her like a prisoner over to the shrine of the Goddess Hylia, where, under the dead and uncaring eyes of Din, Farore and Nayru statues, she had to kneel before the pool of purified water and pray… It was difficult.
This was what he had become. A gaoler. Master Impa had dismissed this notion, of course. He was a motivator, she insisted, he was obeying his king.
But he knew, from the strain in the Sheikah Master's eyes, that she, too, found the task difficult. That small sign of kindness had endeared Master Impa in Link's eyes a little.
To her credit, the princess never said a word of protest at prayer time. She never argued, never refused, never complained. Link was grateful for that. He wasn't sure whether he had the authority or the right to force her to pray. And part of him wondered if he'd even have the will.
After supper, the knights and guards went to drink in town, but Link was still considered too young for anything stronger than light ale or mulled wine, and he often found himself alone again. If he was lucky, the Sheikah Purah would find him and keep him busy with her experiments. In another life, this might have bothered him, but he was now so starved for company that he didn't mind, and she certainly talked enough for two.
Sometimes, though, especially when Purah and Robbie were away on a quick jaunt to the Royal Research Lab ― they went by boat now that the roads were not considered safe ― Link found himself sitting by the large hearth in the kitchens, listening to the cooks eating and shutting up the cupboards for the night, or he would tour the battlements again and try to strike up a conversation with the shivering guardsmen there.
Lonely. Sometimes he got so lonely he would even enter the library, look for the princess. But she usually ignored him if she was alone. Or, if other courtiers were there, she would let them gawp at him, would watch Link's comfort slip away until he could withstand it no longer and left. Sometimes he tested his own patience, holding out as long as he could.
Once the bells rang the twenty-second hour, he followed the princess up to her tower, hopefully without argument, though sometimes they did exchange a few nasty quips, to the great annoyance of Master Impa and other guards. Once she was safely within her quarters, he could finally retire to his own room and dive into the oblivion of sleep before it all started again, the next day.
That evening, a bitingly cold breeze seemed to be howling in the halls, clanging against the windows, and between hearths Link could swear his breath was coalescing in front of his mouth.
The princess would be fine, he knew. She had a massive hearth that the servants lit for her and thick downy blankets. She would be cozy and warm. Part of him wondered if it would be enough to warm the dark recesses of her heart. Here in this dead, drafty castle, he struggled to see the heat in her, wondered where the feisty, investigative girl he'd accompanied to Death Mountain had disappeared to.
Link, on the other hand, had to light his own fire. It was a tedious task that usually took about an hour. He'd brought back a few more flintstones from Death Mountain, and they sparked magnificently, but then he would sit in front of the hearth a long time, with a wool blanket wrapped around his shoulders, staring into the fire as it grew. The room wasn't large, yet it took forever to warm up.
The wind howled outside, whistling, and it seemed to seep in through the very mortar and stones of the walls. It was an eerie feeling. Link found himself afraid, somehow, afraid that perhaps this was how Calamity Ganon would appear ― not as an entity he could fight, but instead as a monster of darkness and cold, indomitable, pervasive. Unstoppable.
He shivered, and that was when he heard the footsteps running by his door.
For a moment, he doubted his own senses, but years of training had taught him to, at the very least, investigate.
He swung open his door and peered out into the dimly lit castle hallway. The princess' chamber door was ajar, and the footsteps were fading in the other direction. With barely a moment's thought, Link tightened the blanket around his shoulders and grabbed the Master Sword from where it leaned, by the door.
Of course she was sneaking out. Of course she was. He glanced back mournfully at the warmth he was now leaving to fade out, and braced himself. The Yiga. His oath. Her green eyes. His knightly duty.
He sighed and followed her.
Down the hall and down the winding staircase he went. Link would occasionally get a glimpse of a flowing nightgown, and in one instance a sconce shone on silky blonde hair. His heart was racing, wondering whether it was a good idea to follow, to keep to the shadows, but he knew she did not want to see him, and he wasn't about to begin a new fight at so late an hour. He was getting very good at keeping quiet and dodging her anger.
Anger. He remembered the inkwell, the barbs, the cool ignorance of his presence. They were like bickering children, and all he wanted to do was tug on her pigtails, tie them to the back of her chair, something. Something to fight back.
The castle slept ― and what parts didn't sleep would be out on the town until at least the wee hours. She walked down the hallways without interruption, and he followed with the same ease.
A non-negligible part of him was irritated. As her protector, it seemed almost too easy to follow her. If the Yiga Clan were to find her, it would be so easy to hurt her. He knew. Sometimes she made him want to shake her. Sometimes he shut his mouth to avoid saying the exact things he had on his mind.
Oh, to fight the Yiga, Link fantasized. It would be so good to release the helpless frustration. He could imagine himself sinking his fist into a traitor's face. Maybe Zelda wouldn't think he was so useless and boorish then. It would serve her right to be saved by the man she loathed the most.
She entered the Goddess Shrine. Now Link hesitated in truth. There were no sconces in there, only tall narrow windows that let in the moonlight, and it was unbearably cold as a result. He approached the doorway as quietly as he could, letting the carpet absorb the sound of his footfalls, and he peered through the door jamb uncertainly.
As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw the Shrine in the gloom, an octagonal room large enough for a hundred, with a long center aisle that led to the pool and, beyond, the altar. A crest depicting the Triforce cast a shadow in the moonlight, falling over the quiet princess.
She was kneeling in the water. Link shivered in earnest. That water was no warmer than an icy river, yet there she was, her long white nightgown soaking through, sticking to her thighs where she kneeled, the frigid water lapping at her. The sensation had to sting, at the very least, but she did not shiver or recoil.
Something of the anger in him wilted, and an uncomfortable sensation of awe replaced it.
She wasn't praying. Her hands were at her sides, fingers dipping in the water, and she wasn't performing any of the common mudras or chanting the usual mantras. For a moment, she seemed as still as the Goddess Hylia before her, maidenly rather than motherly, alabaster rather than stone. And Link hated how beautiful she was, trying as he was to cling to his own irritation.
"You sent me a dream," she said. She was speaking softly, but in the cold, still air and the nightly silence, the words reached Link with some clarity as he stayed in the shadows and remained behind a column. "You showed me a barren wasteland, deserted and cold. I called out, but… I had never felt so alone."
She spoke gently, but Link knew her well enough by now to hear the underlying tone of anger. Part of him wondered whether he should leave her to her confessions, but a larger part of him refused. Curiosity, perhaps, that he tried to justify as protective duty.
"And when I cried for someone ― anyone― to answer my call, you sent him." Now her hands closed into small, white-knuckled fists, and her voice began to tremble. "Is this your idea of a joke?"
The Goddess statue looked down on her with her usual benevolent smile, distant, as cold as winter.
Clearly, the princess thought the smile looked too ironic for her taste. Her hand darted, and a splash of water slapped against the Goddess' face. Link averted his eyes, heart pounding at the implied insult.
"Why?" Zelda cried, the anguish in her voice like a knife in Link's gut. "I asked for help― I asked you to help me open my heart, my mind― I wanted to honour my mother, and my grandmother― And you send me him!"
Stupidly, it was then that Link realized who she was talking about. His hand tightened around the sheath of the Master Sword, shame overtaking him.
So. She really did hate him. He oughtn't have been surprised by that, and yet the surge of hurt managed to take him off guard. Had he been so despicable, really? Annoying her had been more of a game than an actual war.
Link didn't hate her. In fact, most of the time, he rather liked her. He liked the way she scowled at the puzzle of her studies, the fire in her green eyes when she reprimanded him, and the way he sometimes managed to startle her into amazed shock before she could remember she wanted to be irritated with him. He liked the way her voice rose several octaves when they argued over nothing, and the way that anger seemed to make her cheeks flush and her chest heave.
And he liked that she often stood up to him on her own merits nowadays, rather than invoking rank at every turn.
"In the dream, I begged," Zelda said, once again speaking softly and dragging Link back to painful reality. "I begged him to go away. But he never spoke. He just k― I just―" A strangled, anguished sound barely left her throat. "Why did you give me that dream? What message could you possibly hope to send me?"
There was no reply. The silence weighed heavily in the shrine, like the pall over Link's heart. Outside, the wind blew against the windows and they rattled. In the cold, Link tightened the blanket around himself and slipped the Master Sword's strap over his bare shoulder.
"Impa says I will understand your will in time," she continued. "But the more I pray to you and the less I believe it. I asked for my power, and you gave him the Master Sword. I asked for my courage, and you appointed him to me." Now her tone changed and suddenly the sixteen-year-old girl she was came through in full ironic splendour: "Thank you for that, really. What a reasonable boon to grant."
She inhaled, trembling. Her voice regained a semblance of calm, though she was shaking enough ― from the cold, or the contained fury.
"I should have learned my lesson," she said. "I really should have. But then, I asked for wisdom, and you sent me that… that…" She shook her head, trembling. "There was n-nothing about that dream," she insisted, "that was wise. It was useless and… and… and ruinous."
Ruinous? Link felt his eyebrows go up. Was his presence that upsetting?
She was flustered, or cold, or both. Either way, Link thought the tips of her ears were growing pink in the moonlight. The sight did something to him, and he ignored that particular stir. He had to focus. He had to remember she hated him. She'd said so, and that was ruinous enough, if the ache in his chest could be trusted.
"Anyway, he would never," she mumbled. Link had to strain to hear the rest. "Chosen by the Master Sword. Son of a Royal Guardsman. Champion of the realm. It's preposterous. He'd never k― I don't have a single inkling of power. Makes me wonder why anyone bothers with me." She jabbed a finger up at the Statue, accusingly. "If you're busy training another incarnation of the Goddess in my place, I would be rather grateful if you could tell everyone about her very soon. We'll make her the princess instead. Then I could just go back to studying― I don't know― cool safflina. It's supposed to have refreshing properties when brewed into a tea."
Link stifled a smile. That was more like the princess he knew. It managed to shine within him despite his injured pride.
"And the next time I pray for wisdom," she said, firmly, though her voice was growing tremulous, "I would th-thank you to not send me a dream like that one. Here, I'll pray for it n-now. Get it right, this time."
She bowed before the statue, and Link shivered in sympathy. Now her sleeves were soaking through, and even the end of her hair.
Oh. Not good. Instinctively, he stepped forward, the blanket trailing off his shoulders.
She didn't hear him. She grabbed a silver pitcher and filled it in the water before her knees. "Goddess Hylia, Goddesses Din, Farore, Nayru, I now beseech you for wisdom. Show me the path. Help me awaken the p-power that is my birthright. Show me the way."
She raised the silver pitcher overhead. Link's heart lurched. He stepped forward as she began to pour the water over her own head, with a gasp of shock at the cold.
She didn't have to do it, Link knew. It was winter. She didn't have to. This was a summer ritual, a ritual of sunlight and hope. If she continued, she would catch her death―
"Sh-Show me how to unlock my p-power," she prayed, shivering violently, raising the empty pitcher with trembling hands.
Then, she went very still. The moonlight reflected off the silver, polished to the shine of a mirror, and the whole Shrine seemed distorted within. Link decided that was enough. But she must have seen him in the reflection, and she turned to him. The pitcher came down, and splashed into the water.
She seemed surprised, but that lasted only a moment. Then, she was well and truly furious.
"Wh-What are you doing h-here? How long h-have you been s-standing there?"
She was pale, and he was sure her lips were turning blue. Not that he was looking at her lips. Especially when she was this angry. Angry! He was there to rescue her! He stepped to the edge of the shallow pool and stretched out his hand.
"You're going to catch your death of cold. Please get out."
"Answer m-my question," she said, inching away.
"Gods. There is nothing you told the Goddess that I didn't already know," Link said, exasperated.
She still wasn't coming out of the water. Fine. He chucked the blanket aside fully. The night air slammed against his bare skin, which was when he remembered he wasn't wearing a shirt. He winced, tensing against the chill.
At least he had pants. And boots.
"How in all of Hylia," he asked, stepping into the pool and hating every moment of it, "can you tolerate even one second of this? Give me your hand."
"I can m-make my w-way back on my o-own," she insisted, stubbornly, even as her teeth chattered. She was wide-eyed, inching away still, as though she feared him.
For a moment he paused, hesitated. Did he look scary? He hadn't taken the sword out. He was almost embarrassingly unclothed and shivering. He hadn't even used his scary voice. He'd actually gone out of his way to be kind and gentle― mostly.
No. He wasn't the strange one. She was being silly. Besides, he had more important things on his mind.
"If you get sick," Link said, wading through the water to reach her, "they will blame me. I am not looking forward to five more hours of Thousand Knives pose. Am I going to have to grab you?"
"N-No!" Her eyes were wide, green, her cheeks flushed, and for a moment Link could swear the moonlight cast shadows for each one of her lashes, which almost made him lose track of what was going on. "You sh-shouldn't," she said, but her back was against the altar now, and there was nowhere to run. "I f-forbid it." Her gaze darted down to his chest, then she shut her eyes. "G-gods, why are you here?"
Gods. Link wanted to groan with annoyance. Girls. "Take my hand."
"I m-most certainly w-will n-not," she said, flushing all the way up to her ears. Cute.
Well. She asked for it. "Right," Link said, rolling his eyes. "That's enough."
Before she could move away or react, he'd bent over and grabbed her by the waist and hips, pulling her over his shoulder like a sack of flour. Unceremonious ― that was the way.
She yelped, ineffectually, and began to squirm, just as ineffectually.
It was almost too easy. He'd have to teach her how to fight back, or anyone would be able to kidnap her, which would be a huge pain in the arse. And also a terrifying ordeal. For her. He might enjoy the break.
It hadn't seemed so obvious at first glance, but she was absolutely freezing. Her thin nightgown clung to her skin ―not that he noticed, he reminded himself, keeping his gaze as level as possible ― and she was shivering violently. He returned to the edge of the pool and stepped out. He moved her off his shoulder and brought her against his chest, wincing at the feeling of her cold, clammy clothes, and she instinctively curled up against him. Sure, he was mostly dry, but the wet cloth made Link shiver too. He clumsily grabbed his dry blanket ― it was still warm from his body heat― and wrapped her in it as well as he could.
"You sh-should have left me alone," she said, to his neck, where her breath brushed at the hair on his nape.
That sent a strange feeling coursing through his blood, but he ignored it. "Appointed knight. I made an oath."
"W-We're in the c-castle," she said, angrily. "I am n-not in danger here."
"And yet here you are," Link grumbled, "on the brink of hypothermia." The rumble of his voice against her cheek apparently upset her, because she jerked and tried to get away, but Link tightened his grip on her legs and adjusted his hold on her back and the blanket. "Would you stop squirming? You are making this very difficult."
She scowled, clearly indignant. "Th-this is no w-way to treat a p-princess."
That was true, Link considered as he left the shrine, carrying her as he went. At any other time of day, his behaviour would have been outrageous. Scandalous.
Especially since he'd interrupted the princess' devotionals.
"If my father knew you interrupted one of my prayers," she said, evidently following the same thought pattern, "you would be in big trouble."
He began to ascend the staircase, ignoring her. Too late now, anyway. Besides, he wasn't sure why, but he felt good about stopping her. It felt right to rescue her from that frigid, unresponsive world, and it felt like divine inspiration to take her away from the Goddesses' gentle, unfeeling smiles.
She squirmed a little in his arms, apparently trying to get comfortable, and it felt… Well. It just felt.
He was definitely a heretic.
"Wh-where is your shirt an-anyway?" She asked, petulantly, and he felt her finger jab into his bare chest.
"I don't wear a shirt to bed, which is where I would be if it hadn't been for your sudden and urgent piousness."
She groaned. "Great. I needed to hear that."
"What does it matter?" Link asked, as he reached the landing to the floor where he resided, next to the doors to all the royal and noble quarters. He was tired. She wasn't that heavy, but he was cold, and she was squirming, and he was actively ignoring an entire host of other physical sensations right now. "You don't care. I'm just a servant."
"You're not acting like one," she said.
That was true. He was acting like a barbarian rather than a knight, and it took a lot of concentration to quash the niggling feeling of manly victory deep within. That was not knightly. It was not proper. And it definitely shouldn't feel so damned good.
He pushed her door open with a foot, then stomped over to her four poster bed, and dumped her on the blankets as unceremoniously as he could. She squeaked, bouncing, and he ignored any and all tantalizing jiggling by immediately turning away to drop several more logs into the hearth.
Focus on the fire. You love poking at fires. Fires are great. Fires don't throw things.
"I c-could have you stripped of your titles," she said, indignantly.
No. Do not think about stripping. The fire is a beautiful thing. Hm, fire. Hot. Good.
It only took a few moments for the flames to regain some semblance of strength, so he put the poker back next to the hearth and tried to find the Mind of the Crane. It was difficult, given that he was sharply aware of every whisper of cloth and adorably petulant grumble behind him. The Crane was squawking, sending feathers flying everywhere, but Link mentally seized it and held on for dear life.
"Now get changed into some dry clothes," he commanded, stalking to the door. Then, to drive home how completely unattracted―no, unruffled he was, he growled out, "And if I catch you wandering into the cold again, you'll be in trouble."
"Trouble?" She echoed, voice hitching up an octave in sudden anger, and he fought the urge to look back at her.
He wasn't going to, though. He could see her in his mind's eye anyway, wet, warming up, cheeks flushed with fury, green eyes sparkling with animation and perky―
Crane! "Uh-huh. Big trouble. The biggest trouble," he insisted, pushing aside the red curtain that covered her door.
He dodged a stuffed horse as it bounced harmlessly off the wall. Now he did turn, glaring at her mutinously. "Out of inkwells, are you?"
She stuck out her tongue at him, which had the exact opposite effect she meant it to have. Instead of angering him, it only made her look― Gah. Fighting to hold on to his fury, he ducked out, and closed the door behind him.
Once he was back in his room, less than a minute later, he shut himself in, leaned against the wooden panel of his own door, and let out a nervous chuckle.
His composure crumbled. The Mind of the Crane was gone in a wild storm of feathers, and all he had left was the Mind of the Man, flawed, distracted, violently eager. His whole body seemed to hum with tension. His heart was racing, his blood was burning, and his only thoughts kept turning back to the same dangerous direction.
Ruinous, she'd said. She had no idea. It was safer to imagine the fire coursing through his veins was anger. Because if it wasn't, he was in trouble.