"It seems I'm the only one with a mind of my own. I, the person in question, am fine, regardless of the king's orders. Return to the castle, and tell that to my father, please."
"And stop following me!"
Link couldn't claim to be a genuine expert on princesses, but he had a feeling Princess Zelda was upset. He blinked. He hadn't realized the order of guards he was preparing would be such a problem for her.
"Honestly," she was mumbling ― he'd almost missed the mumbling― as she strode over to her horse and began to work at her saddlebag, her frustration so great that her fingers fumbled with the clasps, "acting like I'm a child…"
Link cleared his throat, slowly catching up, though he was in no hurry to appear eager about it, "I would have preferred if you had warned me before leaving. Your highness."
There. That was as kind and undemanding as he could make it. His teeth weren't even that clenched.
She glanced at him sideways, and her hands stilled. "Oh. Would you have preferred that?" She asked, quietly.
Not good. That was not good. But what else could he say? "I wanted to brief you on the order of the guards myself," he said instead. "I'm sorry if their formation has upset you, but I had reason to think―"
"For the last time," Zelda said, her eyes narrowing and her cheeks flushing with anger, "I do not care what you think." She took in a deep breath, evidently scrambling for some sort of mental foothold. "Anyway," she continued, not really at him, but instead to her steed's flank, "it's not like you make any great effort to show it."
"Show what?" Link asked, confused.
"What you think," she snapped, but when her gaze met his she flushed and her pink lips pressed together. "It doesn't matter," she continued, as if reassuring herself. She pushed herself up into the saddle. "You don't matter. Your appointment to me is as idiotic a decision as they come. I do not need you."
Link sighed. "Look, I understand that you're upset―"
"I am not upset!" She insisted, petulantly, glaring down at him from horseback. She drew herself up as straight as she could. "I am capable of taking care of myself. Or did you not read my note?" She rolled her eyes. "With my luck, you saw it before my father did."
"He isn't happy," Link said, to avoid confirming her suspicions. "And rightly so. Impa says―"
"Oh, Impa says?" Princess Zelda asked. "So she isn't Master Impa to you anymore, is she?"
"The Yiga are everywhere," Link insisted, curtly, ignoring that. "Traveling alone is not safe."
"I won't be traveling alone," the princess said. She steered her horse to the southern slope of the highlands, looking out towards the Gerudo Highlands' cliffs. They were well and truly covered in fresh snows. "A contingent of Gerudo warriors rides out to meet me here."
Link strode over to look in the same direction. This part of Hyrule rarely saw travelers of any description, let alone winter riders. "Why would the Gerudo meet you here instead of―"
"Never mind that," the princess said hastily. Link peered up at her.
"It's the Yiga," he guessed, trying to keep himself from sounding completely smug, "isn't it?"
"Go. Home," she said, stubbornly looking at the horizon.
"I swore an oath," Link said, lightly, clicking his tongue at his horse. The proud creature stopped sniffing the autumn grasses and trotted over to him. With a practiced movement, Link pulled himself into the saddle, finding his seat with the ease of experience. "And until I see you in a safe place and under guard―"
"I intend to spend all winter in Gerudo," the princess said, haughtily. "What will you do there?"
Link shrugged. "Be bored, I imagine." He knew there was no way to cancel her plans, but perhaps he could have the few guards he'd already selected come over―
"The Gerudo will not suffer you," Zelda said, her brow rising up in an arrogant challenge.
Link snorted, but said nothing. He frankly didn't care. He was the Hylian Champion and wielder of the Master Sword. The Gerudo would have no choice but to suffer him.
"Oh, there they are!" The princess said, clearly excited by the prospect of being rid of him. She was looking down at the stretch of land that bridged the Tanagar Canyon, linking the Rayne Highlands to the north and Hemaar's Descent, in the Gerudo Highlands, to the south. Clearly, the stretch was windblown and warm too, as only some snow drifts had managed to cling to the land, the rest blown to water. The grasses there were yellowed, though.
As he looked down, he saw the source of the princess' excitement. A small cloud of dust rose up, stirred by the progress of four large horses and their riders.
Link knew the Gerudo by look and reputation, but he'd never had any substantial interaction with them. As they approached the slopes of the Rayne Highlands, Link finally got his first genuine and uninterrupted look at ordinary desert people.
Tall and broad, yet undeniably female, the Gerudo were a tribe of warrior women, their skin tanned and rippling with muscle where it was visible. Their hair generally came in every shade of red there was, though Link imagined they likely did go white with age. He wasn't sure. And they favoured colourful fabrics and armours, sometimes with garish combinations.
These riders, Link saw, his hand resting on his lap and ready to reach for his sword at a moment's notice, should the Gerudo reveal themselves to be false, were not dressed in the usual garb of their people. They were wrapped in fur-lined, colourful cloaks, with thick scarves to cover their nose and mouth.
Their scimitars, Link observed at they came within shouting range, were gilded and visibly sharp, but they had not unsheathed them. Nevertheless, he pushed his horse forward a step to stand between the princess and the newcomers, pretending not to notice her irritation when she could not ride ahead in her enthusiasm.
"Good afternoon," he called out, impassively.
The riders, when they were finally within conversational range, were clearly much larger than Link had estimated. They would tower over him, and their horses were massive, as dark and wild as they seemed to be themselves.
Their leader, by the looks of it, pulled back her hood and nodded to both of them. "Sav'aaq, your highness." She bowed her head. "I am Vatorsa, patrol captain of the Gerudo Highlands. Chieftain Urbosa has sent me." She motioned to her fellow riders, and the women pulled back their own hoods to greet them with varying degrees of warmth. "These are my warriors, Sapphia, Ruvara and Toruma."
"Sav'aaq," the one called Sapphia called out, cheerfully. She seemed to be the youngest of them, but the most outgoing.
"We have come to escort you through the Gerudo Highlands," Vatorsa continued, ignoring the interruption. "The main road into Gerudo is not safe for travel, as you know."
The Yiga. Link turned to look at the princess smugly, but she was very stubbornly not looking at him.
"Thank you, Captain Vatorsa," Zelda said instead, riding around Link's horse as well as she could, "I welcome your company and your assistance."
The captain nodded, and her eyes flickered towards Link. "Is this your guard?"
"Her knight," Link politely replied, his serene smile and rigid posture clearly familiar to Captain Vatorsa.
The Gerudo warrior's eyes narrowed. Her own posture was as peaceable as it could be, but it still had an edge to it that Link knew warriors could never truly shed, and in that moment she mirrored him somewhat.
"We will not harm the princess," she assured him, clearly reading his body language as fluently as one would expect from a skilled warrior. "Chieftain Urbosa has made me swear to see her safely to Gerudo Town."
"Wonderful," Link said, his affable tone unchanging. "I've never seen Gerudo Town. It would be a shame to miss such an opportunity."
Sapphia buried a sudden giggle into her hand. Link didn't miss the quizzical looks Ruvara and Toruma exchanged, either.
"Captain Vatorsa," Zelda said, regaining control of the conversation and dismissing any thought of Link utterly, "I would hate to lose precious daylight."
The captain nodded. "Then let us be off."
The princess nodded in return. Then, she turned to Link and said, "I hope you are satisfied that I will be safe."
Link shook his head. "I have sworn an oath."
A flush of anger rose up to her cheeks, and she looked eminently teasable. Still, the presence of the Gerudo women seemed to make her uncomfortable expressing her anger with her usual vehemence. "Sir Link," she said, enunciating clearly as she did when she was trying very hard to keep her temper in check, "I do not need your presence at my side for this part of the journey."
Link shrugged, then turned to the Gerudo captain. "Shall we be off?" And then he spurred his horse on towards the southern slope, effectively preventing any further argument.
In truth, he was simmering with a mix of anger and confusion, and he knew that any prolonged argument would only end in a shouting match. He was not eager to give her that opportunity. She was an emotional creature, certainly, but she was also sharp-witted and much brighter than he could be, and he would lose any debate he allowed her to spark.
Besides, he was still debating whether he was angry because she had run off without warning or because when he'd found her he had been so relieved that it had left him speechless in the face of her fury. Maybe he was angry that she was angry. Maybe she was naïve to think he'd be foolish enough to leave her to fend for herself after what he'd seen in that village. Maybe he was angry that he hadn't told her about it, warned her of the danger.
Maybe it was all of those things.
Either way, the flush of his anger kept him warm as they crossed the Tanagar Canyon and started climbing the slopes of the Gerudo Highlands, leaving the relative warmth of the Canyon and re-entering winter.
They were climbing single file on a path that had been cleared by previous patrols when young Sapphia rode up next to him, her eyes glittering with excitement.
"Will this be your first time in Gerudo?" She asked. She was young, Link knew, because her features were still somewhat soft, and though she was much taller than him, Link imagined she was a little younger than princess Zelda herself. Fourteen, maybe fifteen.
"It will be," Link replied, politely. He did not miss the glance backwards that the princess shot him, but she sniffed and turned back to focus on the road, so Link took this to mean she would not, at least for now, demand that he keep quiet. Or quieter than usual.
Well, then, it was time to make full use of it.
Sapphia sighed contentedly. "I hope you like it," she said, eagerly. "We so rarely get any voe in Gerudo, especially during the winter."
Link nodded, though he wasn't sure what a voe was. "Have you ever left Gerudo before?" He asked, leaning her way in his saddle with a smile. He never would have dared to attempt this with Zelda, but he knew he could be charming if he tried, and he very much wanted the Princess to rethink her opinion of him.
Sapphia shook her head, smiling with pleasure at his show of interest. "This is my first time outside of town. I have to complete my training under Captain Vatorsa before I am considered fit for the Chieftain's guard."
Did the Gerudo never leave Gerudo Town before adulthood? "I hope you enjoy the big open world," he said, to avoid asking any rude questions, cracking his most charming grin. A nasty little imp within him hoped the princess was listening.
"I already am," Sapphia said, looking out from below her lashes, in a tone so universal that even Link, whose extreme denseness had on more than one occasion made him the butt of his fellow squires' jokes, could not have mistaken her flirtation.
This made him uncomfortable. He'd gone too far. Women in Hyrule Castle Town were never this straightforward. "Uh―"
"Don't mind her," the warrior Ruvara advised him over her shoulder, earning herself Sapphia's sharp glare. "Vai her age do not meet voe very often, and she has not yet learned the subtleties of charming them."
Link laughed nervously, then turned to Sapphia and said, "Well, I shall take it as a compliment all the same."
The Gerudo girl flushed with delight, but mercifully was now too embarrassed to push for more conversation. Beyond Ruvara, Captain Vatorsa and Princess Zelda had both glanced back, but Link's eyes only met the princess'.
Her eyes were sharp as two cut emeralds, the tips of her ears and nose pink in the winter cold, though he could have supposed it was irritation, too. Link felt his gut clench with an emotion he could not articulate. She often had that effect on him, which caused him no end of unease.
Luckily, she looked away suddenly, nose high, in what she meant to be disgust.
They climbed the slopes until they reached a pass that was too high for the horses to climb. Captain Vatorsa led them instead to a wooden ramp, explaining that it had been built during the searches for the Divine Beasts, creating paths up and down the cliffs of Gerudo, which had greatly eased their navigation.
Link had some experience with precarious structures and fared generally well on the climb up, but he was relieved when he finally reached solid ground, even in spite of the whipping winds and biting cold. Ahead of him, the princess looked a little pale, but he was still too sore with her to ask if she needed a moment's rest.
She was a princess. She could damned well ask for herself.
The rest of the journey was slowed down greatly by the snows. They were deep here and the horses trudged through painstakingly. Link was glad that he'd packed extra blankets to keep his horse warm, and even some feed.
As the sun began to fall, Captain Vatorsa signaled for them to veer off the narrow trail in the snow and led them to a deep overhang. A dingy wooden wall had been built to fend off the snows from the mouth of the overhang, and, within, traces of campfires past had burnt a charcoal center that had darkened the rocky ceiling.
It had few charms and fewer comforts, but it was a haven away from the wind and the snow, so Link thought it was the most wonderful place to rest he'd ever seen.
"We shall rest here for the night," the captain said. "Toruma, please start the fire. Sapphia, with me."
"If you're going hunting," Link said, as he finished tethering his horse with the others, "I'd love to help."
He wasn't particularly eager to be back out in the cold, but the frosty looks the princess was shooting him were just as unpleasant. Hunting could be meditative, and he desperately needed a moment of peace.
"Very well," the captain relented. "Sapphia, don't let him get lost."
The young Gerudo seemed delighted, and Link shot her a polite smile.
"Actually," the princess suddenly said, speaking up for the first time in several hours, "I would very much like to have Sapphia at my side. I have so many questions about Gerudo Town, and we are almost of an age."
Captain Vatorsa turned to the princess curiously, but to her credit, she had the wisdom not to question this request. Instead, she motioned to Ruvara, and the Gerudo warrior seized her bow and knives, motioning for Link to follow. Link caught Sapphia's disappointed look, but did not have time to say anything.
"What was that about?" Link asked, when they were back out in the dimming daylight.
Warrior Ruvara smirked, looking down at him. She seemed about to reply, then shook her head, and strode off.
They hunted for three hours, tracking a herd of wolves, before they accidentally crossed paths with a snowcoat fox. Link downed it with a single arrow, and, several minutes later, Ruvara shot down three white pigeons.
They returned past dusk to an overhang that had considerably warmed up, the fire casting a bright glow to the little cave. On their return, Sapphia leapt up excitedly and congratulated them on their catches, and Toruma began to skin the fox carefully, each cut aimed at protecting the fur and leather.
Sapphia and Link, for their part, began to pluck the feathers from the pigeons. On the fire, a cookpot was already simmering some sort of vegetable broth, and Link realized, as his stomach grumbled, that he'd eaten almost nothing all day.
The princess, Link noticed, seemed less animated than she had earlier, and she was scratching away at her journal, curled up in a thick Gerudo blanket.
Well, that was fine by him. He had worried she'd be outspoken about her disdain for him.
Then again, her lack of animosity was just as unsettling. Was she planning something?
As though sensing his gaze, she glanced up. Just as Link was about to look away, she scowled.
Oh. Good. Still angry.
They ate in relative silence, with Sapphia supplying most of the conversation. Occasionally, the princess would interject with a question, but otherwise, the meal was quiet.
When they settled down on their respective mats and pallets, Link even let the young Gerudo settle next to him. She was better company than the princess, who had evidently no interest in chatting with him that night, and Link wasn't sure it would be a good idea to poke at the princess' patience by moving closer.
"Sav'orr," Sapphia whispered as she curled up under her thick wool blanket. "It means good night."
"Sav'orr," Link repeated, which clearly delighted the girl.
Across the fire, the princess' green eyes observed, but before Link could ask, she curled over, and turned her back to him.
Link was too tired to wonder, and he fell into a blessedly dreamless sleep.
Morning found him in the form of breakfast, the smell of porridge drawing him to groggy wakefulness.
"Sav'otta," Captain Vatorsa greeted curtly.
They were alone. Link sat up.
"Don't worry about your little princess," the captain said as Link instinctively reached for the Master Sword. "Morning ablutions. They'll be right back."
Link flushed, though he couldn't tell if it was from relief or embarrassment. "Sorry," he said, rubbing his hand over his eyes. "Habit."
The captain nodded. "Your devotion is commendable."
"And stupid," Link added. "She wants no part of it."
The captain snorted, and Link saw the shadow of a smile pull at her lips, and a flicker of mirth in her eyes. "Sands," she said, shaking her head. "Voe."
Before Link could ask her to explain what she meant, young Sapphia returned, with the princess close behind. They were chatting animatedly, night having clearly wiped away all traces of the princess' melancholy and anger.
"And they say Molduga guts are the only cure," Sapphia said, the gruesome fact making her giggle with enthusiasm.
"I've never seen a Molduga," Zelda said, with clinical interest.
"And sands willing," Captain Vatorsa said, "you never will. Nasty creatures."
"Deadly," Sapphia insisted, obviously overjoyed by this fact. "My vaba says she once saw a Molduga rip someone's limbs off."
Rather than being taken aback by this declaration, the princess kept asking more questions. Ruvara shot Link a smirk, and Link rolled his eyes. He knew his princess well enough by now. She loved discovering all fauna and flora, especially if it could either heal or kill.
And, as he'd suspected, Sapphia and Zelda continued chatting animatedly for the entire rest of the ride down from the highlands and into the dunes of the lowlands, discussing the countless ways the desert could kill a person. Falling palm fruit, being crushed by a sand seal, getting lost in a sandstorm, being speared by a lizalfos, being electrocuted by a lizalfos, being burnt by a lizalfos, falling into a sandpit, snake bites, coyote attacks, eating the wrong sort of cacti, dehydration, exposure, sunstroke―
By the time their group entered Kara Kara Bazaar, Link's nerves were frayed beyond belief. When he finally dismounted, he accepted Toruma's offer: a skin of thick voltfruit wine that buzzed down the throat and numbed the extremities. It took the edge off of his worries.
There was no way, not by all the gods, that he was letting his princess stay alone in the desert for the next two months or more.
He said as much to Ruvara, and the Gerudo warrior snorted with amusement. "Do voe typically have much of a say in the doings of their princess, out there in Hylia?"
"They do not," Zelda said, overhearing. She was removing her saddlebags from the saddle of her horse, and her pointed look in Link's direction did not go unnoticed.
"I've made it this far," Link replied. "I don't see why I shouldn't keep going."
"Actually, this is as far as you go," Captain Vatorsa said, returning to their group after a brief conversation with the local innkeep. "Voe are not allowed in the sacred city of Nabooru."
Link was about to argue when he saw the princess' growing smile, and the rise of her brow.
"Come again?" He politely asked.
Captain Vatorsa shifted her weight, clearly tired. "Gerudo Town is not open to voe. I have arranged accommodations for you here, in Kara Kara."
Link squinted. "I am the princess' knight."
"And she will be safe among an entire tribe of warriors," the captain slowly said, her red brow rising like a gentle warning that she would soon be insulted.
The princess pulled him aside, drawing him out of earshot of the four Gerudo women. "I warned you."
Link gave her his most deadpan look.
"Well," she laughed nervously, clearly beginning to feel the stirrings of what could have been guilt, "I told you I didn't need you here."
"I am going," Link said, calmly, "into Gerudo Town. Chieftain Urbosa will make an exception."
Zelda snorted, more a girl than a princess, and as annoying as any girl her age could be. "Will she?"
Link didn't have time to reply. Zelda turned on her heel and rejoined the other women, making preparations to continue on their way to Gerudo Town, whose outline he could just vaguely make out beyond the distant dunes.
A palm fruit landed next to his feet with a thunk, startling him. It splattered on the sandy ground, its juices seeping into the dirt.
"Heh," an old Gerudo merchant lady called out, "one of my sisters died that way. Watch your head."
Link stepped out from under the palm trees, scowling.
Was he right? Would the Chieftain make an exception? There was only one way to find out.