The nightmare was unending. A hundred years, it whispered. A hundred years and a hundred years more.
From within the bower of her mind, Zelda trembled, feeling the Calamity pressing in, pushing in, trying to break down the walls she had erected, whispering through the stones that she would fail eventually, that it was only a matter of time.
Time. In the nightmare, Zelda had no greater enemy. Even the brightest sanctuary her mind could conjure would one day fall to dust, blown apart by an enemy that transcended time itself.
Here, in this prison of flesh and spirit, Zelda focused instead on prayer. She was exceptionally good at prayers, she thought bitterly.
But the voice of the Calamity came through all the same, cajoling, threatening, loving and furious, in turn male and female, young and old, sweet and painful, frightening and comforting. How many times, Zelda wondered, had she come close to loving its presence? How many times had she almost succumbed to its sweet promises and deadly poisons?
Link is coming for me. He will awaken. She felt the Calamity pulse around her with amusement, though she knew her confidence enraged it. Mind games. They had played them for years, for a century. She knew the Calamity well now, knew her faith made it furious. And the Calamity knew her, too. Too well. It knew where and how to make her faith waver, how to make her question, how to plunge her into months of despair.
But not now, Zelda vowed. The time of Link's awakening was drawing close. She had thrown all of her devotion into this one truth, this one source of belief, the last remaining bastion of sanity that remained.
He is not coming, the Calamity whispered to her mind. He has rotted away in his little tomb. A hundred years. Zelda almost choked as the image of Link came to her, his skin parchment thin, his bones smiling through a rotten face, his darkened carcass ravaged by time.
Against the welling of her tears, she clung to her only shred of sanity. You are lying.
Wait not upon your fallen hero. Think of what is yet to come.
She blinked rapidly, focusing, turning away from the voice, the physicality of it completely useless. Go away.
But the Calamity ignored that, assailing her with images of glory, a restored throne, a golden crown atop her golden hair, and the adoring prostrations of her beloved people, the gentle touch of the breeze, a continued, unending life to do good in.
That is not what I want, she said, though her heart ached.
The Calamity was unfazed, replying only with the feeling of an infant's hair in the palm of her hand, the soft snuffling noise of a newborn against her breast, the gentle press of a lover's lips against her forehead. If she opened her eyes, she knew, she'd see him, or something close enough: a man, perfect, handsome, gentle, but whose dead eyes would never match Link's. The Calamity never managed to get that part right.
Stop, she said, though she knew it was pointless. You do not understand what I seek.
It could be yours, the Calamity repeated. It was incessant. All of it. You need not choose.
Day after waking day, night after sleepless night, the Calamity had never stopped. It was a constant, unending assault, a barrage of such violence, its arrows sometimes disguised as promises, as gifts… There was no escape, Zelda had realized a few months in. No escape from the voices.
You cannot have me, she said, for what was surely the millionth time, and she opened her eyes to look at Ganon straight on. I am not afraid.
But the Calamity seized upon this again. Now this dark Link was bleeding, faceless, empty of meaning. Sometimes it would laugh at her, its expression twisted into cruelty.
She hated when the Calamity made use of Link's face, and kept her eyes as tightly shut as she could.
When you fail, dark Link promised to her mind, his lips moving to the Calamity's words, there will be nothing to stop me. I will have you, one way or another.
She watched him placidly from within, refusing to reply. The dark Link smiled.
Would it be so terrible?
She looked away, her gut twisting. In truth, she had contemplated it. Had contemplated it so many times that she now refused to answer for fear she might agree to him.
Dark Link approached, his steps inaudible because he wasn't real. He did this a lot, Zelda knew, when he didn't have her full attention, when he wanted her to fear his touch. But he couldn't touch her. Hylia protected her.
She watched him stretch out his hand, and she stared blankly, knowing what would come next ― the blinding light, the hiss of pain, the mad smile. And the slow decline of her reserves.
And then his fingers grazed her cheek.
As though burnt by a brand, Zelda recoiled in the prison of her spirit, her mind revolting against the abomination, the breaking of sanctity, fighting down a surge of desperate need and shameful surrender. Like a broken animal, she shrieked in horror, struggling to get away, but she couldn't.
She was trapped.
Hylia, she cried out, begging, when no light burned away the growing darkness. Hylia, I need you! Where are you?
The Calamity reached out again, its puppet smiling, and slid his warm palm against her skin, the calluses so familiar that her entire spirit shuddered. She was only mortal, she thought, terror flooding her veins. The shiver that ran down her spine was almost too good, too vital, and she knew she would succumb if… If...
Be quiet, Dark Link whispered, gently, lovingly, your beloved goddess rests with your hero now. You need not struggle anymore.
Zelda moaned, weeping, feeling the light leave her, seeping away, and she felt the warmth of the tears on her cheeks, felt the darkness closing in, felt the sweet promise of death beckoning, alluring.
"Please," she wept, clinging to this Dark Link, who looked down upon her with such kindness, "please don't hurt them―"
She gasped, the world shifting into focus.
His eyes, she reflected. They're blue.
She was clinging to Link's tunic, the familiar blue fabric crumpled in her fists, and she was trembling, her whole body shaking like a leaf in autumn. Her breath came in quick shuddering gasps, as though suddenly the horror of her mind was finally catching up to her body.
"Are you alright?" Link asked, the concern in his eyes so achingly familiar that she felt her lip tremble, and she began to weep anew.
With a wordless cry, she threw her arms around his neck, burying her face into his shoulder.
"What's wrong?" Paya asked, worry evident in her voice. She was in her nightclothes, standing at the other end of the attic bedroom, wringing her hands with concern.
"A nightmare," Impa said, from where she stood near the stairs. She looked grim.
"It's alright," Link said, softly, and Zelda's heart swelled with speechless gratitude. He ran his hand against her forehead, pushing her hair out of her face, and his thumb rubbed at the tears on her cheeks with such sweet familiarity that she nearly kept crying. And, because she was too distracted to resist, he brought her in closer and tucked her into the curve of his neck.
He smelled like grass and wood and horse and soap. The magic of it was a shock to her senses. Under her cheek and her ear, she felt his steady heartbeat.
He is alive, she thought, numbly. Calamity Ganon lied.
"You're safe," he whispered into her hair, and now she could feel how tense he was. "No one can get you."
It was unlikely that this was his intention, but the shiver that ran down her spine had nothing to do with nightmares. He was warm and firm against her, and she wanted to curl up in his arms, melt into him, if possible. And it occurred to her she was lightly dressed, and that she was sitting his lap, and that this felt entirely too comfortable for her own good.
She stiffened, and he suddenly seemed to come to the same conclusion, the muscles in his arms and shoulders tensing. And Zelda's heart began to race at the thrill of it.
"I'm sorry," Zelda said, suddenly pulling away. Link let her go, his expression reverting to his usual passivity, and Zelda felt her heart squeeze with a mix of embarrassment and longing. She looked at Paya, desperate to recover. "I didn't meant to frighten you."
"You were talking about the Calamity," Paya said, her brows furrowed together in worry, "so I thought Granny ought to know, at least."
"We couldn't wake you," Impa said, studying her. "So I had Paya fetch Link."
"Oh," Zelda said. Guilt seized her. "I'm so sorry," she said, hoarsely. "I didn't mean to wake all of you. Please," she added, collecting herself, "go back to sleep."
"It's alright," Link said, gruffly, pushing himself to his feet. He was barefoot. Had he not bothered to slip on his boots when he left the inn? "I don't mind."
Zelda felt her cheeks flush with heat, so she resolutely looked away, peering instead at Impa. It was still dark outside. "Is it late?"
"Early," the Master Sheikah replied. "But I imagine the Rito delegation will already be up and about."
"Early birds," Paya said, and then she began to giggle softly to herself, hiding her smile behind her hand. When three pairs of eyes turned to her, she flushed a deep red. "I'm sorry," she exclaimed, "that was terribly rude."
Link, whose expression was carefully schooled into neutrality, nevertheless pursed his lips to avoid smiling, and Master Impa revealed a toothy grin before she could help herself.
Zelda rubbed at her eyes, too tired to respond to the joke. "That is a shame. I can't seem to get enough sleep lately." She was exhausted, but she would have to be up soon. A princess' day began with the sunrise.
"Are you sure you should be keeping this busy?" Paya asked. "You seem to have nightmares every night. And you barely eat."
Ignoring the way Link's gaze swerved back to look down at her with concern, Zelda shook her head. "I'll be fine." She had been awake day and night for a hundred years, with nothing but the Goddess to sustain her. This was nothing. And the way Link's eyes narrowed did not distract her in the least.
"In that case," Impa said, giving two little taps of her cane on the wooden floor, "perhaps our dear hero has lingered in this room long enough."
Link tensed, his expression changing. He shot both Zelda and Paya an apologetic glance. Then, he bowed, excusing himself.
Zelda's hand darted out to grab his sleeve, and he froze, glancing back.
"Thank you," she said, meekly.
He studied her silently for a moment, then blinked and nodded. Zelda released him, and he seemed to hesitate, the frown returning to his brow. He seemed about to speak, but decided against it, and finally, after a moment of pause, he pushed past Impa, disappearing into the stairwell.
A moment's silence followed, during which the three women who remained listened to the hero's receding footsteps, and the slide of the door downstairs. Then, he closed the panel behind him, and the house was quiet once more.
In the resulting silence, Paya sighed, "Oh, he is too handsome."
Impa let out a cackle, and Paya looked embarrassed, as though suddenly aware of what she had just said. Even Zelda, though she was still shaken from the nightmare, let out a weak laugh. With a low keening sound, Paya curled up on her bed, pulling the pillow over her head, which only made Impa smirk in amusement.
Then, to Zelda, the Sheikah elder said, "If you need to talk..." And her old red eyes spoke volumes.
"Thank you," Zelda replied, meekly. "And I'm sorry for waking you."
"At my age," Impa said, turning to return downstairs, "I'm just glad I could be woken."
"Grandma," Paya said, peeking out from under her pillow with a scandalized look on her face. "Don't say things like that."
But Impa was already gone, cackling to herself.
Paya glanced at Zelda shyly. "Was she always that way?" She asked, barely above a whisper.
"No," Zelda said, falling back against her bed. "She used to be scary."
"So she hasn't changed," Paya grumbled, hugging her pillow. She scowled in thought. "Everyone fears her in Kakariko. Everyone except Link."
Link. Zelda smiled wistfully, trying to wrap herself into her blankets once more. "He is a child of Farore. Courage was always his greatest strength." Her blankets had been tangled, and a knot formed in her throat. Had she thrashed so much?
"I like him," Paya said, softly, and Zelda saw she was already going back to sleep, her eyes closed and her silver hair splayed around her face. Her heart squeezed once more.
Me too, Paya.
She tried to untangle her blankets, attempting to make sense of the twisting she must have done to get them like this. The blankets, like everything else she had generously been offered, were simple, made of wool and cotton ―no silk or velvet here― but they were comforting. Comforting because she hadn't had blankets for a century.
The memory of her nightmare returned, the calluses of her captor on her skin, the sweet whispers and heart-rending visions as vivid as they had been during her real captivity.
She pulled herself into a little ball of limbs under the covers, curling up upon herself as she had in those early days following her mother's death, and she grabbed a lock of her hair, tugging to check she could feel the pull, feeling the silk of it between her fingers, desperate to know she was safe, that this was all real, that she had truly escaped.
The tears came again, this time soft and silent.
It can't happen again, she vowed. The nightmares were dangerous. They attacked her sanity, made her question everything. And worse, she feared too many would make those around her feel pity for her.
Sometimes, in these hours between dark and dawn, she could almost feel the Calamity howling against the walls of its prison, could almost hear it calling from the great beyond, vowing to hunt her down, swearing to ruin her forever. And she trembled in her little bed, certain there would be no escape next time.
You must not be afraid, she repeated to herself. Link hadn't been. Or, rather, he had kept his calm despite the fear. She could do the same. She had to, even when it felt like she would crumble. Especially then.
Somehow, though she had been sure it would be impossible, she found a fitful sleep, mercifully dreamless, and woke again to the slanting rays of sunshine beginning to creep across the floor.
Paya had woken, apparently, but she had not bothered to make her bed, and Zelda saw she slept with a stuffed frog ―a Sheikah spirit. Its floppy red tongue was pulled out in Zelda's direction, and the sight of it reminded Zelda of her own stuffed toys from a hundred years ago. She had been a girl. Just a girl.
Innocence, Zelda reflected, distantly. Paya was a sweet girl, and innocent, as Zelda had been before her mother's death. Could a girl like that truly be the granddaughter of a fierce Sheikah warrior such as Impa? The idea seemed almost… too good to be true. If the world had truly moved on, and if girls could be girls instead of warriors and ladies and knights― if only for a little while longer, then hadn't all of it been worthwhile?
Look at that, Ganon, Zelda thought, with a grim smile. She imagined the Calamity looking up, its aura filling with hate. She has escaped you. They all have.
Thanks to Link.
Zelda turned, stared at the ceiling. Link. He had escaped too.
But Zelda hadn't. She had only to close her eyes to conjure up her prison once more, had only to sleep to relive hours and days and weeks and months and years and decades of manipulation and torture. In a way, she knew the Calamity better than anyone else. In a way, its absence seemed more wrong, more abnormal, than its constant vows and threats.
She had known it for a hundred years, she reasoned. Her life before, without its voice, was a distant memory, relived only because those seventeen years of childhood had become her sole lifeline, the only bastion of mental safety she had. And retelling them to Link helped to remember them better.
She knew the Calamity was gone, but that didn't keep it from hurting her even today, even in bright sunlight, even after its defeat.
The house was quiet. Outside, Zelda could hear the bustle of Kakariko's market. It had grown apparently organically, drawing the people together in cheerful conversation and trade. The area surrounding the village was bountiful, so many newcomers foraged, fished and hunted for the benefit of all others. In fact, tasks were already organized and delegated. Those best suited to gutting, skinning, cooking, or tanning were ready to prepare game animals, wasting nothing. It was a testament to the strength of her people, Zelda reflected, looking at the dust motes suspended in the sunlight.
She had promised the Rito delegation an audience this morning.
The Rito had arrived two days ago. The chief's envoy, Teba, had come with his wife and son, and the musician Kass had also joined them, accompanied by his wife and daughters. They had selected a lodging ground high above the village, upon one of the steep hills that surrounded it, and had already begun to mingle with the Hylians, Sheikah, Gorons and Zora that now filled Kakariko to the brim.
Teba was a warrior. That much had been obvious at first glance, from his straight spine to the curtness of his words. And he never seemed to smile. In many ways, he reminded her so much of Revali, and yet... Revali had been more deferential. Teba was decidedly not. But Link had seemed to like him, and Zelda had decided not to form an opinion too soon.
Of the two Rito representatives, Zelda felt a much greater appreciation for Kass the colourful musician than for the serious white-feathered warrior, but Teba was being groomed to become the next Chieftain, and there was no way to avoid him.
Outside, a cuccoo crowed, and Zelda buried her face into her pillow once more. She felt wretched, tired, as though she hadn't slept at all, and remembering the nightmare feel of the Calamity's touch disguised as Link's made her feel like the bed swayed under her. She was nauseous.
In truth, she wanted to hide away.
I am a coward, she thought, even as her usual mantra echoed in her mind: you mustn't be afraid.
If she were perfectly honest, she wanted to run. She wanted to have a cozy cottage, a little lab, to be free to come and go as she pleased, to explore the world, to never return to that wretched ruin of a Castle that had been her prison for a century. Maybe in a secluded home, in her own warm hideaway, she would finally be free of the Calamity.
Her father came to mind, and Zelda squeezed her pillow. She wanted to leave the Castle to crumble, but she owed him a coronation, a triumph. She owed everyone a queen. She owed the Rito a meeting.
Wait. What time was it?
Blinking, Zelda sat up, squinted at the sunlight, the calculations dusting off her hazy mind.
It was late.
She was late.
Her blood ran cold, and she vaulted off her bed in a panic. She had overslept, had allowed her nightmares to ruin her good impression with the Rito. Why had no one been sent to wake her?
She shrugged off her nightgown and splashed water from the washbasin on her face, slipped on her hose and a simple dress, and did her best to brush out the knots from her hair.
Zelda turned. Paya had returned and she was looking at her quizzically.
"Paya," Zelda breathed, "oh, good. Please, will you help me button up this dress? I'm late."
"Late?" Paya asked, reaching nonetheless to begin buttoning up the princess' back.
"To the meeting," Zelda said, "with the Rito." Sometimes it seemed Paya wasn't paying attention. "I promised them a council." She groaned. "Oh, what will they think of me?"
Paya had reached the middle of Zelda's back. "Oh, no, that's all been taken care of," she said, confused.
Zelda froze, her brush still stuck in her hair. "What do you mean?"
Paya blinked, confused. "Well, everyone has been told that you're sick. Master Link has taken over as your representative. I came up here to check on you."
Zelda did feel nauseous, but she swallowed it in and said, "Sick? Me?"
"So everyone thinks," Paya said, peering at her as she finished buttoning Zelda's dress. "The Rito send their best wishes for recovery, and Prince Sidon has asked me if you would welcome a visit from a few select emissaries later today." She wrung her hands. "Downstairs, that is, not in public. He says you wouldn't need to put on any finery."
Zelda knew she was gaping a little, and she shut her mouth, collecting her thoughts. "Link has taken over as my representative?" She finally said.
Paya nodded, and the smile returned to her lips. "Yes. He's negotiating a trade agreement with the Rito right now, I think."
Zelda's stomach curled over. What did he know about trading? She tried to recall whether Link had ever been trained in politics and trade. Perhaps a hundred years ago, as part of his knightly training? But he had never mentioned it, and he had since forgotten everything. She would know, because she was still telling him his story.
"I will be fine," Zelda insisted, nervously, as her insides seemed to twist upon themselves. Link was out there, negotiating on her behalf. She had no doubt he was a cunning puzzle-solver, but she feared the ruthless Teba would make mincemeat of him. Bartering was an art, and though Zelda was rusty after a hundred years, she at least remembered the basics. "I should go."
Paya frowned, wringing her hands. "Princess, Sir Link knows you're not really sick, but he thinks, and I agree, that you haven't been taking care of yourself."
"That is none of his business," Zelda said, raising her skirts to make her way downstairs. "I know he means well, but he cannot simply―"
She braced herself against the wall, swaying. Her vision blurred, narrowed, and for a moment she saw as in a tunnel.
"Princess?" Paya asked, through a haze.
"I'm fine," Zelda forced herself to say once more, as though to convince herself. "I… I was vigilant for a hundred years. This is nothing."
"If you were vigilant for a hundred years," Paya asked, softly, "then don't you deserve a rest?" She was nervous, Zelda knew. It was in her posture, in the furrow of her brows. "No one is expecting you outside today. Master Link made sure of that."
"Link has no idea what he is doing," Zelda said, swallowing hard. "These days of meetings and councils are the very foundation of a new Hyrule. I cannot sleep through them."
"You'll be no use to anyone if you pass out," Paya said, trying to sound firm, and Zelda was surprised to see a pretty scowl on her face. "Sir Link has asked me to come check on you. Prince Sidon and Master Yunobo and even Master Teba will want to speak with you later, and you should get all the rest you can until then."
Zelda studied the young Sheikah girl. "Paya."
She flushed, her bravado deflated. "Yes, your highness?"
"Thank you for your concern," Zelda said. She inhaled deeply. "I promise I won't overexert myself. Please… help me?"
After a moment's hesitation, Paya nodded. Zelda sympathized. Paya's loyalties were clearly with Link, attached to Zelda by obligation and propriety rather than genuine feeling. But Zelda hadn't given up on winning her over.
She hadn't given up on anyone, tunnel vision and nightmares be damned.
Slowly, they made their way down the stairs, Paya pausing occasionally to lend Zelda her arm.
"Is your grandmother keeping an eye on him, at least?" Zelda asked, when she reached the landing with only mild dizziness.
"Of course," Paya said. Then, shyly, she added, "They only wish to serve, your highness."
"I know, Paya," Zelda sighed, leaning against the front door frame. She rubbed at the bridge of her nose, trying to make the dizzy spell vanish. "I have put my life in their hands time after time and would not hesitate to do so again. But ruling…" She ran her fingers over her eyes, the memories distant. "Ruling is a burden that was entrusted to me."
"Grandmother says you hated those lessons," Paya said, reaching for the door and sliding it open.
Zelda smiled bitterly. "But I am the only one still alive who has had them." She put her arm through Paya's and felt her expression shift to a pleasant smile as the sunlight hit it. Paya observed the change, concern in her red eyes.
"You are very much like him," Paya said, gently. She did not need to speak Link's name for her meaning to be clear. "He has a mask, too."
"I know," Zelda said, as they began to descend the steps. The sun was high, the air hot and humid. "But the sooner we reestablish peace, the sooner he can go back to…" She waved vaguely, trying not to sound sad, trying not to trip. "... to his home, I suppose. It is the very least I can give him."
Paya did not reply.
When at last they reached the bottom of the stairs, Zelda inhaled deeply. She smelled cookfires and people, felt the heat on her skin, and felt her insides churn with fatigue and weakness.
I should not have come out, she concluded, forging ahead.
"Who else is there?" She asked, as Paya led her down a road towards an area of Kakariko that overlooked Telta Lake and Rikoka Hills. It was a peaceful location, where the Sheikah often buried their own, but it also featured a large tree and blissful shade, and a certain distance from the bustle of the village.
Paya looked up, thinking. "Well, Masters Teba and Kass, Sir Link, Grandmother Impa. And then, Master Yunobo, Prince Sidon and M-Master Granté as observers. Others were invited, but I believe they preferred to wait for a general assembly. Tabantha trading doesn't interest them."
Zelda nodded, and they arrived within sight of the long council table. It was in the shade of the tree, but an additional canvas had been spread overhead and someone had collected stones to hold papers down if necessary.
Motioning for Paya to slow down, Zelda came to a stop.
Prince Sidon and Kass were outright laughing, Yunobo was giggling nervously, and the Warrior Teba seemed mildly exasperated, rubbing the edge of his beak with a firm wingtip. Young Granté was reclining in his chair, balanced on the two back legs, though he had clearly been asked to take all the necessary notes, judging by the abandoned inkwell in front of him. He seemed more absorbed by the conversation, chewing on a shiny red apple.
Master Impa said something Zelda couldn't make out, and Link replied dryly, which only caused more chuckling from his audience.
A knot formed in Zelda's stomach.
Did they even need her? Was she even necessary for her provinces to get along?
Was it right to feel such a horrible mix of hope and sadness at the idea?
All eyes were on Link, and Zelda's returned to him. He hadn't seen her, facing as he was towards the Rito delegates. But Kass the bard had noticed her approach. Mercifully, he did not make any case of it, though his eyes softened in what she assumed was welcome.
Whether they needed her or not, she was here now, and she was going to do her best. Zelda took a step forward, letting Paya support her, and they approached to be within hearing.
"... It's absurd," Teba was saying. "No one sane would accept a deal like that."
"You're welcome to take your offer somewhere else," Link said, smiling in amusement, and Teba snorted. "I think it's more than fair."
"My Chieftain would peck my eyes out," Teba said, leaning back.
Link smiled. He was painfully handsome when he smiled. It transformed his face utterly, and for a moment, looking as he did in the late morning dappled sunlight, his best tunic on and his hair well-groomed, he looked almost… princely. "But your Chieftain is not here, and it's your opinion I'm interested in."
Teba scowled. He glanced at Kass, who was leaning his head casually on his propped up elbow. The colourful Rito smiled lazily. Then, Teba let out a groan. "Well, I think you're robbing me, and you think I'm robbing you, and I'm told that means the deal is as good as it's going to get."
"So I recall," Link said, pleasantly.
Teba harrumphed. "Well, that settles the matter of the wheat, then," he said, and the onlookers cheered mildly. Granté leaned forward, annotating something on his parchment, finishing with a well-punctuated flourish.
But Teba wasn't done. "You know, that still doesn't answer my other request." He leaned towards Link, and for the first time since meeting him Zelda saw a playful glint in his eye. "Will you join the Rito's standing guard?"
Prince Sidon scoffed, and Teba turned to glare at him. "If our dear Link joins any army branch," Sidon said, confidently, "it will be the Zora's."
"Actually," Yunobo said, "I don't think that will sit well with the Boss." He shot Link his most winsome smile. "The Gorons would love to have you."
"A fire mountain is no place for a hero of his caliber."
"Nor a freezing peak," Sidon pointed out.
"I'm sure that if he had gills," Teba said, dryly, "the question would not even need to be asked, but he doesn't."
Link raised a hand, and to Zelda's surprise, the three of them quieted down. "I appreciate your proposals," Link said, and there was a sad edge to his smile now. "But I have neither gills, nor wings nor a rocky skin. I am a Hylian, and my place lies with the Hylians." When Prince Sidon looked positively crestfallen, he added, "I know from experience that brave and capable warriors exist in all your tribes. I have no fear you will be putting the Hylian branch to the test at every tourney."
"A standing army," Teba said, thoughtfully. He shook his head. "It seems absurd that we did not have one to begin with. It will be good to unify all our existing guards into one force."
"Perhaps we ought to hold off on discussing its particularities until the Gerudo delegation arrives," Impa said. She had obviously been quieter than usual until then, observing the conversation in thoughtful silence. "They will have valuable input on the matter."
"Indeed," Granté said, and his eyes found Zelda and Paya. He smiled. Zelda felt Paya stiffen at her side. "And in any case," he added, seemingly aware of his effect on the Sheikah girl, to judge by his smile, "I'm sure we should wait for her Grace to join us before we design an army for her."
Link frowned and turned, his eyes finding Zelda's instantly. He seemed a little startled. Zelda merely forced herself to swallow her pride.
"I see I am entirely superfluous," she said, smiling as pleasantly as she could, through the heat and the dizziness.
Link rose and immediately pulled out a chair for her. The chair next to his. Paya, for her part, accepted a seat offered by Granté, but Zelda hesitated, and Link frowned at her hesitation.
"Please your highness," Teba said, clearly tired. "You have arrived just in time. Your knight has robbed the Rito. I think I would rather deal with you than with him."
Kass sighed, and Link scowled.
"No backing down," he warned, glancing back at the Rito, and the others chuckled. "We as good as shook on our terms."
Teba shrugged. "Well, I can't be blamed for trying."
Zelda felt a little nudge of warmth for the Rito warrior. Perhaps the serious look was a mask too, a way for him to hide his good humour, to seem like a leader. "I will have to look over the terms," she said, finally accepting Link's help into her chair, though she ignored the strange trickle of heat from the way his sleeve brushed hers. "But I doubt I will have any reason to undermine Sir Link's efforts if they are advantageous to the Crown."
"I can vouch for the fact that the deal is sweet for both sides," Prince Sidon said, grinning. "They hate it." Then, his expression shifted, and became a familiar look of concern. "How are you, your highness?"
Zelda blinked, taken aback by the sudden shift in conversation. All around the table, looks of obvious worry and genuine interest gazed back at her, and she swallowed hard.
"I'm fine," she said, as Link regained his seat next to her. His proximity did something to her, made her feel both strong and weak, and she pretended not to notice. "Thank you. It appears I simply needed more sleep."
"Maybe it's a Calamity fever," Yunobo said, and he seemed embarrassed by the quizzical looks that turned his way. "Maybe?"
"Maybe it's having spent a hundred years fighting a monster," Impa said, gravely.
Zelda stiffened under the sympathetic gazes. She wanted to be strong, wanted them to look at her the way they looked at Link ― with respect, as an equal.
She desperately wanted to belong, she realized with shame, and being treated like a glass doll did little to achieve it.
"I'm fine, really. All these councils have just been a little more exhausting than I thought."
"If there is anything we can do," Kass said, "please let us know." His gaze was kind, but Zelda would have preferred humour. She forced herself to remain impassive.
"I appreciate that," she said. Then, forcing a smile, she said, "But I am here now. Let us continue."
"There isn't much left to discuss," Granté said, looking over his notes. Next to him, Paya leaned in to look over his shoulder. "When Lurelin and Gerudo arrive, we will have a busy docket, though. Remaining items include the creation of a standing army, the restoration of Hyrule Castle, the delegation of formal representatives to your court, and the assignment of new Champions to each Divine Beast."
Unbidden, Zelda recalled the Champions, lifeless, killed within the very weapons they had hoped to use. Assigning new Champions― the idea made her feel ever more nauseous. How could she, in good conscience, do that to anyone and still call them friend? In Zelda's mind, the echo of the Calamity laughed. It wasn't real, she knew. It wasn't. But she heard it laugh raucously, heard it triumphant, victorious. Nightmares always meant she carried the Calamity with her for a few days. She hated it.
She inhaled deeply, but the heat, the humidity and the churning in her body came together, and she struggled to remain in the moment.
We are returning to the status quo, she knew, as her memory of the Calamity ceaselessly mocked that reality. Be quiet, she commanded, but pointlessly. Memories couldn't be silenced.
"New Champions," she repeated, weakly.
She felt a nudge against her leg. Link hadn't moved, but she could feel the touch of his foot against hers, like a warning, or a show of support. Did he know what she was thinking? Did he remember the ache of mourning them? Did he recall the deep friendship that had bound them all?
"Provided we can get the Divine Beasts to work again," Prince Sidon said. Yunobo and Teba nodded gravely.
"Why don't they work?" Paya asked.
Because the ghosts of the previous Champions are gone, Zelda thought, inhaling slowly, shakily. Next to her, Link shifted, and now she felt him graze her leg with his own, flooding her body with warmth. He knew, she decided. He knew the grief in her heart, and he was trying to make her strong.
What could she possibly say to these people now, the descendants and family of those illustrious heroes? Could she tell them that the ghosts of their ancestors had been so close, and that they had missed their chance to see them one last time? Was it right to cause them grief? Or was it better to lie, just for once, if it meant not reopening long-gone wounds?
How could she then ask them to offer up one of their best for a cause that had cost the previous Champions so dearly?
In her mind, the Calamity still laughed. It will never end. I will return. You are trapped. A hundred years and a hundred years more.
She had no choice, really. "I'm sure the selection of a new Champion for each Beast will help," she said dully, defeated.
Link's hand reached for hers under the table, squeezing. Startled, she glanced at him, but he wasn't looking at her. No one would have noticed, she knew, unless they spotted the racing of her pulse.
Shamefully, she realized that it helped a little.
"I would like to see these Divine Beasts," Granté said thoughtfully. "Especially if they are made of Sheikah technology as my father says."
"You're welcome to return with us when we leave," Teba said, with a shrug. "But I doubt there's much to be done."
Zelda wanted to reply, but she was drifting, awash in a sea of memories and threats, promises and sorrows. Link was squeezing her hand, tightly, and Zelda was sure her fingers were going white, but she let him, desperate to stay present.
She blinked, returning to the moment. "I'm sorry, I was thinking," she managed, but the heat was overwhelming, and her stomach still churned.
Suddenly, it grumbled, loudly, and Zelda clapped a hand to her stomach in mortification as the moment was broken. The eyes of the others shot to her and she went pink.
"Hungry, your Grace?" Kass asked, but he reached for a wicker basket at his side and rolled an apple across the table. Around them, the chuckles of the others were good natured, honest.
"Thank you," she managed, untangling her fingers from Link's to seize the apple.
How had she forgotten what hunger felt like? Being deprived of basic needs for so long had been both a blessing and a curse, and regaining the habits of every normal living thing was more difficult than she had expected.
Link frowned. "Have you eaten anything at all since lunch yesterday? It's almost noon."
She bit into the apple, crunching away, and glanced at him. "No," she admitted, between bites, trying to smile pleasantly. "I suppose I forgot."
Link did not believe her smile for one second, his eyes narrowing a little more.
"You forgot?" Yunobo exclaimed, horrified. His pudgy cheeks confirmed he had never forgotten a meal in his life.
Link was still frowning at her. It made Zelda uncomfortable. He had often looked at her like that before, ages ago, when he rightly felt she was being absent-minded, and it always had a way of making her feel… safe. Cared for. Dangerously warm.
"Perhaps our princess has been so long sustained by the Goddess Hylia that she no longer remembers that food, sleep and care are necessary to her health," Impa said, sternly.
Zelda flushed. "I… That's just…"
"Unacceptable!" Prince Sidon exclaimed, standing with such suddenness that Paya yelped, jumping and clinging to Granté's shirt. Not that the young Sheikah man seemed to mind. Even Yunobo and Teba seemed surprised by the outburst. "I, Prince Sidon of the Zora, will not let our lovely princess forget to take care of herself!"
"I'll be happy to remind you of your meals," Yunobo said, smiling earnestly.
"And one should not forget sleep," Teba said, gravely. "You need your focus as much as any warrior."
A hundred years ago, these outbursts would have been unseemly, patronizing, and Zelda would have been offended, certain that their words betrayed mockery.
But those days were gone. In a flash of clarity, it occurred to Zelda that they weren't being rude. They were being bluntly kind. The care on their faces and in their words made Zelda forget to chew. In fact, for a moment she struggled to keep her lip from trembling.
She had forgotten what the kindness of strangers felt like.
"An apple won't be enough," Link said, decisively, before Zelda could say anything. She wasn't sure she could speak, frankly. If anything, she felt absolutely certain her voice would be a tearful little warble, at best.
His declaration was met with a chorus of agreement, and Yunobo got to his feet, nearly tilting the table over in his excitement. Conversations erupted, laced with excitement. Apparently, Link wasn't the only one who loved to eat. Paya and Granté stood, discussing the best way to eat silent shrooms, as Kass and Teba began to argue with Prince Sidon about the proper way to prepare salmon.
After ushering Zelda out of her chair, they found their meals in the market, where Zelda finally satisfied her grumbling stomach and began to feel better, enough to begin laughing at some of Teba and Sidon's arguments. Link sat by her the entire time, watching her eat with the focus of a hawk, until he was satisfied, with Yunobo's agreement, that Zelda had eaten sufficiently for now.
There would be more meals, Prince Sidon vowed, bragging that he would make her the best grilled fish in the world, a declaration that instantly provoked Teba to take offense.
And for the first moment in ages, Zelda remembered with a warm heart what it had been like to be in good company, among friends.
She didn't hear the Calamity again that afternoon.
When Link found her under the apple tree that evening, he had changed out of his best tunic, opting once more for his knight's tunic in blue. The sun set over Kakariko as countless volutes of campfires rose up straight into the pink sky.
"I had forgotten," Zelda said, as he put his scabbard down at his side and sat next to her. "I forgot what hunger and exhaustion felt like."
Link eyed her silently for a long moment. "I know."
"It hurts," she said, and her eyes watered.
"I know," he said, because he seemed to understand she wasn't talking about hunger anymore.
"It hurts to remember them. Urbosa, Revali, Mipha, Daruk. It hurts to remember the Calamity. It hurts to recall the century I was trapped, and the horrible things I once said to you." She couldn't look at him. "I spent so much of my time in that prison that I made our past out to be a wonderful, idyllic time. It was the only thing that kept me going. But it wasn't perfect. And now I am sharing those pains with you, too."
Link observed her silently, an undecipherable look in his blue eyes. Then, he reached out and took her hand in his, squeezing it ever so slightly, and Zelda felt the same familiar jolt travel up her arm.
"I'm sorry," he said. "That I am hurting you."
"I doubted you," Zelda said, shakily. "Today, I mean. I seem to do that a lot. But you negotiated that treaty with Tabantha and the Rito without a hitch."
"As far as you know," Link said, carefully schooling his expression into neutrality.
He was joking, trying to make her smile. So she let her lips twitch upwards.
"Without a hitch," she repeated, squeezing his fingers. Then, shaking her head, "It seems like I constantly need to apologize to you."
Link shrugged and released her hand. "You are repaying me many times over already."
"How?" Zelda frowned.
Link looked at her once more, this time with a heat in his eyes that made his gaze feel electric, and Zelda's pulse began to race. "You were about to tell me about the last spring."
How did he do that? How did he manage to make every word out of his mouth thrum along her sensitive nerves? No wonder Paya had gone weak at the knees for him. She was like a puddle before him. "The last spring?"
He nodded, and she took a deep breath.
"I owe you that much," she conceded, smiling weakly. "Since we'll be getting a good price on wheat thanks to you." She nudged him gently, the camaraderie acceptable when it was just the two of them.
He smiled. "I live to serve," he replied, but without irony, his blue gaze earnest. It was such a simple thing, really, without pretension or ambition. And it echoed through her memory like a gong.
"What?" She breathed.
"What?" He asked, blinking.
"How did you―" She shook herself to reality. "I'm sorry. Nevermind." He couldn't mean anything by it, she reasoned. She hadn't… She hadn't gotten to that part of the story yet. And though he kept thanking her for her narration, nothing ever seemed to stick out, to come to his mind unprompted.
No. He didn't mean anything more by it, she repeated to herself. He simply couldn't.
"Right," she said, as she inhaled shakily, "the last spring." She rubbed her lower lip, trying to remember where to begin. "I suppose I ought to start with midwinter and our return to Hyrule Castle..."