Link wiped his brow and turned to look back at Hyrule field, far below. In the month and a half since Farore's Day, the snows had almost completely melted, and a few areas he could see through the atmospheric haze were already turning green. In the great Hyrule Forest, some of the largest trees were already blossoming, their canopies pink and white.
Some steps ahead of him, the princess was barely looking at where she was walking, her eyes turned upwards at the craggy and steep rock formations of the Eldin volcano.
Link didn't bother to ask whether this was a necessary trek, and he didn't stop to tell her to look at the beauty on the horizon. Zelda was absorbed by her search, her hand perpetually on the Sheikah Slate at her hip, and would accept no distraction.
They'd ascended from the road beyond the Woodland Stables, the climb arduous and too difficult for their horses, which they'd left at the foot of the trail.
Between breaths, Link tried not to smile. If he were perfectly honest with himself, he felt good, despite the strain and fatigue. This was their first official excursion outside of Hyrule Castle's dominion since their return from Gerudo Desert, and it felt good to be out.
A large part of the reason for that was his temporary escape from the duties of a Knight Commander. Leaving them all to Groose, who hated the responsibilities even more, was a welcome respite. Certainly, commanding the Order of the Guard was an honour, especially at so young an age, in no small part thanks to the privilege of working with men and women he respected a great deal, but it also came with its lot of daily annoyances, petty squabbles and silly time-wasters.
Princess Zelda had been a delight in that regard, at least. Once her initial resistance had worn off, she had shown godlike patience with the new recruits, the trainees and the arguments that still sometimes came up between Hylian knights and Sheikah shadows, occasionally stepping in to bring order. There was no doubt, Link knew, that she found the Guard's presence supremely irritating in her day-to-day pursuits, tripping over them at every turn, having to check in every time she wanted to go anywhere, from the library to the market, but she had never been anything less than gracious to its individual members.
Instead, she now aired out her frustrations in Link's new study, pacing back and forth and explaining that if the Yiga had truly infiltrated Hyrule Castle and meant to kill her, they'd have done so already, and perhaps he was being overzealous. But neither Impa nor Link were ready to slacken the watch. Her power might arise any day, Impa would argue, and that would be reason enough for the enemy to strike.
Link's reasons were less focused on the princess' continued powerlessness and more on how well he slept knowing she was safe.
He didn't like to dwell on that overmuch.
In any case, when the princess had insisted that spring's arrival signified they could finally resume proper surveying missions, their fledgling truce had reached its first real test. She tolerated the Guard's presence in the Castle, but she had insisted on traveling with the smallest possible number when visiting other provinces.
Link smiled at the memory of her barging in, ready for a prolonged fight. She had evidently considered every argument and was ready to defend her position, and Link's rapid acquiescence to her demands had left her off-kilter, flushed pink with vindication. He had anticipated her request, had prepared for it, and had braced for her arrival.
'I want one Guard only,' she had finally said, as haughtily as possible, though his agreement with her request apparently deflated her fighting spirit completely.
So here he was, happy and free, if only for a time.
All the same, two Sheikah shadows were following along an hour or so behind them, unseen; two knights had remained in the Woodland Stable to ensure they were not being followed by the Yiga or anyone else; and he'd sent word ahead to Daruk and the other Goron elders that they would be in Eldin for a time, just in case.
She didn't have to know about those precautions.
"I think this will be perfect," Zelda called out, over her shoulder. "It will help to confirm my theory."
Link didn't reply, merely following along behind her. She hadn't expected a reply, because she returned to pressing at the Sheikah Slate, speaking to herself once more.
She had deciphered texts describing 'towers', Sheikah in origin, that supposedly dotted much of Hyrule's landscape. No modern knowledge of such towers existed, and she had speculated her translation might have been faulty, that perhaps 'towers' referred instead to notable landmarks that would be visible from up high.
So here they were, scaling the Castle-facing slope of Eldin.
Not that Link minded, really, as his eyes casually returned to the lovely bottom that swayed a few paces in front of him. Exercise was good, and getting away was good, and spending time with her was a lot more pleasant these days than it had been at the onset of winter.
She had taken to traveling with him much better this time around. She still babbled her thoughts out loud, expecting little from him, and Link found he could get away with looking at her when she did so, when she was scribbling at her personal notebook or research journal, when she was busy studying plants and bugs and animals. Occasionally, she would still have him fetch hard-to-reach items, but even then, Link didn't mind. Traveling with her had become enjoyable. Fun, even, for the part of him that wasn't constantly seeing Yiga warriors in every shadow. It was best not to think too hard on the dead he'd buried, but they were always there, in the back of his mind.
But for now, part of him, a part of him that he didn't dare to name, revelled in the escape, savoured these moments where she looked so free. The open air and the wind in her hair transformed her, made her smiles broader and her eyes brighter, and the clothes she picked to travel evidently had the same effect on him as her finest dresses, except they made her seem… approachable.
That last bit wasn't ideal, but no one had to know. He didn't have to say a word, and if he never touched her, she'd never be the wiser.
She paused for breath, leaning against a rock and watched him catch up slowly. Her green eyes lit on him lightly, and Link could tell she was about to say something she meant as a joke. "Beat you to it."
He responded with a roll of his eyes, and she pressed her lips together to keep from giggling. He reached her side and leaned against the rock next to her, eyes dragging along the path ahead, and the path behind them reflexively before relaxing. She studied him quietly, before turning away and looking out at the horizon.
"For all that you have a sharp tongue," she said, "you don't use it as often as one would think."
Link shrugged, removing the cork from his waterskin. "Speaking out of turn has put me in enough trouble in the past." She snorted at that. "Now, it is an exercise in conciseness."
She grimaced, watching him take a long swill of water. "Conciseness," she echoed, with clear irritation. "I have enough of that in my research. Come on, Sir Link," she said, absently wiping her brow with her sleeve, "a friend pointed out that I know essentially nothing about you."
"A friend?" Link asked, after he was done swallowing. He extended his waterskin in silent offering, but Zelda looked at it, grew somewhat pink, and shook her head.
She placed the Sheikah Slate back on the holster at her hip and crossed her arms. "Misko." She smiled in recollection, and Link ignored the feeling in his gut at the sight of it. "Of course, when he said it, it sounded more like 'Why waste your time?', but I think the sentiment was valid."
"How comforting," Link said, placidly.
"Yes, yes," she said, waving absently. "You and Misko do not get along." An understatement, Link reflected, before she continued, "But in any case, I think he is right. I do not know you, and you know me too well." She leaned in, smiled. "I would very much like to even the scales."
Link rubbed at his nape. "Well, I can try." She seemed in no hurry to continue the climb, and in this heat, a shock to the system after the cold of winter, Link wasn't either.
"Excellent," she said, perking up. Her hand had snaked into her bag and retrieved her journal. Research journal, Link noted with some amusement, and not diary. She flipped it open, thumbing at a few pages, before stopping on a heavily annotated page. "Let's see. I have a list of questions."
"A list?" Link asked, trying not to sound too amused. She did not take kindly to amusement where her research was concerned.
She shot him a warning look. When she was satisfied he would not mock her endeavour, she returned her attention to the page. "Name one hidden skill of yours."
Link blinked. "A hidden skill?" Then, he narrowed his eyes. "That's not fair. I don't know any of yours."
"Astrography," she said, dismissively. "I can draw a near perfect map of the night sky by hand."
He tried not to reveal his surprise, but it came out anyway. "Really?"
She shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. "There is only so much prayer I can do before I just begin to stare out the window."
That was a little sad. Wincing in sympathy, Link gave the question an honest effort. "Well," he said, thinking, "I suppose… I can tame any wild horse there is."
She studied him, as though trying to decide whether he was lying. "Any horse?"
"So far," he confirmed, and wondered belatedly if it sounded like bragging. "But anyone can do it," he added. "It's all in the soothing." He gave her a smile that probably did not help his credibility.
After a moment of suspicious reflection, Zelda finally conceded: "I'll allow it." She studied her notes. "Next question. Your favourite food."
"Er…" He rubbed at his jaw in thought. "I don't know. I like food. Any food. Spicy, sweet, sour," he started to enumerate on his fingers, "savoury, hot, cold, raw, cooked―"
"No, don't be ridiculous. You must have a favourite food," Zelda insisted.
"I like apples," Link finally said.
"Apples," she echoed in disbelief.
"Apples are great. They keep a long time and horses love them. Why? What's your favourite food?"
She looked a little stunned. "Well, fruit cake, obviously. It is, after all, the best dessert in the world."
"Oh, excuse me," Link said, teasingly, "I had no idea I would have to defend my choice against such an attack."
She groaned in mock exasperation. "No, please, keep your apples, Sir Link. Such a delicacy." She lifted her journal up to hide her face from his grin. "Next question," she said, her voice muffled by the pages.
Link shifted his weight. Something was off. He studied her, though he couldn't see her face, and tried to decide what it could be.
"If you had a choice, would you have still chosen to become a knight?"
"Uh," he frowned, the sense of unease growing. "Well…" He couldn't shake the feeling that now bothered him, and he looked about them, pushing away from the rock. "I guess. It was a choice." He frowned.
She seemed to notice his change in tone and attitude, and she lowered her journal to observe him, a brow furrowed. "What is it?"
"I don't know," Link replied, his hand instinctively going for the hilt of the Master Sword over his shoulder.
She crossed her arms. "You can't escape the questions that easily, you know."
Link turned to her, about to retort, when his whole body tensed. "Get down!"
And, before she could react, before he could think, he had already moved, reaching for her waist and pulling her away from the stone in one forceful movement, pushing her behind him. She yelped, and an arrow struck the place where she had been standing.
Staggering, she managed to stay upright only because he held onto her arm firmly, preventing her from going careening downhill.
"Duck," he hissed, and she bent obediently. "Stay behind me."
Higher on the trail, the bokoblin looked irritated, its ears and snout twitching, and it reached for its rudimentary quiver to draw a new arrow.
Link grimaced. "Right, get back behind the bend and stay close to the rock face. I'll dispatch this one."
She did not argue, and Link scrambled up the slope before the bokoblin could draw his bow once more. With a single slash, the bokoblin met its end.
Standing over the red corpse, Link could now feel the spread of his bloodlust, the adrenaline running through his veins. In death, the bokoblin's tongue lolled out, its yellow eyes unseeing.
He'd killed plenty of this one's fellows before during summer skirmishes alongside his fellow knights, and did not fear them. Bokoblins could be a nuisance, but they had little in the way of smarts and even less skill in weapons crafting.
A horn rang low and clear, its discordant notes disturbing Eldin's warm air, and Link's eyes darted up, suddenly startled out of his contemplation.
The hornblower ― another bokoblin ― had witnessed Link's arrival, and had alerted the occupants of a nearby cave.
Link's stomach dropped.
Lynels. The three warrior centaurs had spotted him, and their white manes bristled with hostility. Around them, more red and blue-skinned bokoblins were emerging, hefting clubs and spears.
He ought to have seen this coming, he thought, frustrated. Skirmishes here and in every other province seemed to have begun with renewed numbers as soon as the snows had begun to melt. Moblins, bokoblins, lynels, and other nasty creatures had begun to plague the people of Hyrule in greater numbers than ever before, and the reports that were pouring into the Castle seemed to indicate no end to the encroaching tide of monsters.
As though the Yiga hadn't been enough to handle.
Link's instinct was to turn tail and run. Every fiber of his being warned this would be the wise thing to do.
But he couldn't outrun an angry lynel on a charge, let alone three. They were smart, they would corner him on their home territory.
Link's grip on the Master Sword tightened. Deep within, a beast growled in warning. Zelda was his to guard. She had to live.
So instead of backing down, Link ducked behind a nearby rock. He had a few seconds, he knew, before the lynels found their bows and began to shoot overhead. But at least he could get his bearings and draw a few of the more foolish Bokoblins to his hiding spot, and cut them one by one before they could swarm him.
He gutted two of them before the tell-tale creaking of bows being drawn told him he had to run. Sprinting, he scrambled to another rock, kicking up a cloud of dust. Several more Bokoblins followed, and Link dimly acknowledged the thudding of arrows landing in the dirt as he sliced at his close assailants.
He had to take the lynels down, he knew, but how? Their intelligence rivaled any Hylian's and they were tough, their swings powerful enough to cut a grown man in half without breaking a sweat.
But they were proud, too, and quick to anger.
Inhaling deeply, Link briefly shot a look skyward, voicelessly sending a prayer to his patron goddess.
He could really use a bit of luck right now.
Then, pushing to his feet, he hefted his sword and charged with a long, wordless cry.
The lynels hadn't expected that, their bows growing useless with every yard Link covered, and Link used their surprise to his advantage, ducking behind the closest lynel to slash at its hind legs.
The creature howled, stomping, but Link was already moving on. By now, a second lynel had switched from a bow to its massive obsidian-coloured cleaver and was growling menacingly, so Link went for it directly. The lynel raised its weapon overhead, and Link slid out of the slice's path at the very last second.
In that moment, it seemed that time itself slowed, and Link could almost feel the air displaced by the blade as it brushed past his shoulder. His own focus, however, was on the beast's chest, which had been left wide open by its attack. With a cry, Link thrust the Master Sword forward, plunging it deep into the monster's breast. It howled in pain, and Link pulled, then stabbed again, and again, and again, almost hypnotized by the repeated shudders of his quarry.
Then, time seemed to rush back to him, and Link staggered away. The stabbed lynel was kneeling, its forelegs having crumbled under his weight, and it struggled to breathe. Punctured lung, perhaps. The blood that gushed out of its multiple wounds was flowing red and hot, and Link determined it wasn't going to get up again in a while.
Turning to the other two lynels, he was pleased to note a certain anger in their eyes. Anger was good, Link decided. It led to more mistakes.
He returned to the lynel he'd wounded first, slashing at the back of its hind legs once more, and it finally crumpled with a groan. So Link vaulted onto its back.
Suddenly aware that it was being mounted, the beast began to buck, slightly weakened by its wounded legs, so Link grabbed its mane firmly and held on for dear life.
The third lynel raised its sword and hesitated, unsure how to attack without wounding its comrade. Link made the decision, raising the tip of the Master Sword to his furious mount's neck, stabbing through. A spurt of hot blood followed, and the beast froze in shock. Link wasn't sure he'd struck its spine, but he had definitely hit its windpipe from behind, and now the creature would drown in its own blood, or faint then die of blood loss. Whichever came first.
Before Link could slide off, however, the final lynel grabbed him by his shirt, and Link began to flail.
With its other powerful arm, the lynel raised its cleaver high, triumphant.
Link struggled to breathe. The world shrunk, dimming at the edges, and he croaked against the pull of his collar. Above him, the cleaver glinted in the Eldin sun.
At least the Sheikah Shadows would retrieve Zelda, he thought. He thought of his mother, and felt a brief flash of sorrow that she would soon mourn her only son.
Cringing, Link prepared for the killing blow, hoping it would be quick.
And then the lynel was struck in the head by a small rock.
"Drop him at once!"
Link wanted to groan. There was no mistaking that voice.
Stupid girl. Brave girl.
He had intended to buy time for her escape, not to attract her to more danger. He ought to have mentioned that first... Perhaps he had assumed it was self-explanatory.
Instead of berating her, Link took the chance of the lynel's momentary distraction to give its arm a firm slice. With his awkward position and non-existent leverage, the cut was glancing at best, but it forced the lynel to drop him, so Link scrambled away, breathing hard.
Glancing in Zelda's direction, he saw the many remaining bokoblins heading her way and began to run. Behind him, the furious lynel roared and inhaled deeply.
Oh no, Link thought, speeding up. Before he could think any further, a burst of fire raced past him, missing him by a hair and singing the ground where it passed. A second fireball caught a bokoblin, and it shrieked, dancing to put out the flames.
Link collided with Zelda in a body slam that winded both of them and sent them tumbling to the ground and to the edge of a very steep drop-off. He rolled over her, protecting her with his back as the third fireball whooshed next to them, dodging it but just barely.
"What are you doing here?!" He shouted, pushing himself up on his hands to glare in her face. She was dusty, breathless, beautiful, and evidently angry at his tone.
"Saving you!" She replied indignantly, glaring right back.
Link pushed himself up, cutting down two bokoblins, then grabbed her by the waist and pushed her behind one of the rocks he'd first used for shelter. "Stay down!" he commanded, as one would to a particularly recalcitrant puppy. "I can handle this!"
"Oh, can you?" She asked, sarcastically, as the lynel let out a roar that made the earth tremble. A hot burst of air whipped at him, and Link turned just in time to see it mustering its primal elemental energy.
"You should have run away," he said, ducking behind the rock too, covering her with his body a second time and bracing for the forthcoming wall of flames. With a short stab under his arm, he cut down another bokoblin. It fell to the ground with a gargle. "I was handling it."
"Were," she insisted, flinching as a burst of flames exploded against the other side of the rock, blowing a scalding wind against their faces. "And then I saved you."
"Thank you," Link agreed angrily. Scowling furiously into her face, he said, "I owe you my life!"
"You're welcome!" She snapped, green eyes wide, tone just as furious. "Behind you!"
Wheeling around, Link brought down another bokoblin that was raising its club. Over yonder, the lynel had raised his bow and was aiming right at them.
Zelda, the primal voice warned again. Link had to draw the monster's attention away, or she'd die―
"Stay here," he ordered over his shoulder, before rushing back to the remaining lynel, who stood among its dead and dying comrades with all the righteous rage one would expect of a demonic centaur. Mercifully, the arrow thudded in the dust, and Link sped up.
Look at me, he prayed, staring the lynel down in defiance as he approached. Do not look at her. She is mine.
He dodged one of its attacks, striking its flank, but the lynel turned its weapon around, striking with a circular swipe, a feint the likes of which Link had never seen before.
It was too quick, and Link was flung to the side.
Stunned, he tried to regain his bearings. How had he survived that? He felt like he had been struck by a loaded minecart. As he pushed himself to his feet, he realized the lynel's swipe had hit him with the flat of its blade. An accident of chance, simply due to a twist of the wrist.
His forehead was wet and he was still dizzy. A glancing blow to the head, he observed, as in a haze. Possibly from being thrown to the ground. That was unfortunate. He'd be sluggish now.
The lynel raised its weapon high, and Link forced himself to focus. Good, it was exposing its chest, and lynels did not wear armour.
With a cry, Link pushed with his legs, throwing himself forward, and his blade found its target.
The lynel roared, but the Master Sword was now lodged in its heart. It thrashed, dropping its sword, and its clawed hands sought desperately to seize Link. And because Link was slow now, three of its long claws raked against Link's forearm, cutting through his sleeve to the skin, hard enough to make Link release the Master Sword.
It remained impaled in the lynel's heart, and Link was thrown away. Catching his breath, he watched the great beast in its death throes, the rage in its eyes slowly dwindling, fading to a dull glint before vanishing entirely.
When Link was sure the lynel would not move again, he reached in to grab the Master Sword once more, flinching at the pain that traveled up his arm.
Of all the wounds, he thought to himself with irritation, it had to be a strike against his sword arm, and by the flailing of a dying enemy.
Almost mindlessly, he killed the Bokoblins that remained and hadn't fled, before turning back to Zelda.
She was looking at him, still hiding behind the rock, her eyes full of worry.
"Is it… Are you…?"
"I'm fine," he grunted, still trembling with adrenaline. He wiped the flat of his blade with a cloth he kept in the scabbard. "I should have scouted ahead."
He turned to look at the carnage, and felt a strange pang within. Corpses of monsters lay strewn all over the red rock, their weapons planted where they had fallen.
Did I do that?
"You're bleeding," Zelda said.
Before Link could react, she had reached up, brushing his hair out of his face, her fingers feather light, and her green eyes were narrowed as she studied him.
Link's heart began to race again, and he froze.
"I can't tell if it's just a little cut― Heads wounds always bleed so profusely." She reached into her pocket and retrieved a linen cloth, the sort she used to wrap and protect delicate plant samples, and she began to wipe at his wound meticulously.
It itched a little, but Link found himself completely unable to move. His chest was too narrow for the pounding of his heart now, and the sound of blood rushing in his ears seemed to block out every other noise. He felt like prey at the base of a cliff, trapped, unwilling to fight, unable to flee. Her touch was gentle and firm at once, and when she worked on him she was so close he could see the way she bit at her lip with her white teeth, and how her green eyes were narrowed in focus, and how her lashes were a darker colour than her hair― And how she was close enough that he could kiss her if he wanted to.
He blinked, tried to force his eyes to look away. It was the adrenaline. It was the head wound. He didn't want to kiss her, anyway. It was just an observation. He tried to look at the sky, tried to look at the ground, but his eyes kept coming back to her.
"Well," she said, and from this close her voice sounded almost breathy, coming from deep within her chest, not that he was looking, not that he cared, "it appears I won't have to carry you home on my back."
She took a step back to better study the cut on his head, before nodding to herself in satisfaction, and released him.
Link almost heaved a sigh of relief, his hand coming up to feel at the crudely cleaned cut.
And then she gasped.
"What is that? Your arm!"
He blinked, looked down. His undershirt's sleeve had been torn, and now the gashes on his arm were soaking through his clothes. Strange, he hadn't even felt that when she was looking at him. "Oh," he said. "It's nothing."
She scowled prettily. "Don't be a fool. Sit down."
"I'm not a fool," Link insisted, but her bossy tone did something to him, and he found himself obeying, sitting down on the rocky ground so she could kneel by him. He even let her fumble at the clasps on his bracers and unravel the cloth that covered his forearm, peeling the blood-soaked fabric from his skin. Then, he let her roll up the sleeve of his undershirt, and she began to press her cleaning cloth against the wound.
He flinched, the stab of pain traveling up his arm.
She clucked her tongue. "Those will leave scars," she said, and she reached for her waterskin and another clean cloth. "The gashes are rather deep." She looked up, and for a moment he saw only the green of her eyes. "You're lucky you had your bracer to protect the rest of your arm."
He nodded, his mouth too dry to speak.
She peered at him for a moment. Before Link could ask her why, she returned her attention to the ministrations on his arm. "I can put a salve on them, to soothe the pain somewhat and prevent infection." She didn't wait for his approval, reaching into one of her pouches and retrieving a little pot of what looked like opaque jelly.
"Thank you," he finally managed, when she was almost done cleaning his wound.
"You're welcome," she said, her eyes still lowered to focus on her task. "I owe you that much. I did drag you up here." She added that with a shy smile that made her look…
Made her look achingly...
Gods, Link thought, turning away, forcing himself to look at one of the dead lynels, knowing it was only a matter of time before he succumbed to the temptation of looking at her again. What is wrong with me? He felt turned around, dizzy, elated by survival and victory. And he feared the sensation would never leave, especially as her focus returned to his forehead.
What sort of trouble was he in now?
"That cut doesn't look too bad, actually. You're fine for now. But you know, there's a fine line between courage and recklessness…"