"Are you sure you don't mind?"
His horse nickered, so Link scratched its neck before turning to Zelda, who was watching him with concern, and said, "I'm sure."
She didn't seem convinced, but she turned forward again, fiddling with her bridle. Under her, her horse was walking placidly… for now. It tended to kick up occasionally. Link suspected it hadn't forgotten the wild descent from Eldin that had nearly killed it last autumn, nor who had been responsible for it.
The princess, though, seemed almost oblivious to her mount's resentment. She had arrived in the stables that morning with a large bag and several tomes, firmly insisting that they had much more research to do. Link had only just put the bit into his mount's mouth and had blinked at her in surprise. He had asked for two days off, handing over her protection to the rest of his Order, and the princess' sudden appearance seemed to imply she had forgotten that he was on personal leave.
And then Link had seen the redness of her eyes, and he'd thought better of asking.
This wasn't the first time he saw her upset. It was an open secret she and King Rhoam tended to have arguments on the best way to prepare for Calamity Ganon. Link was relieved no one had bothered to ask his opinion, because he still felt woefully unequipped for the upcoming battle.
It was the first time, though, that Link noticed tears on her cheeks after such an argument.
"It's just," she said, breaking the silence once more as they trotted on the long southbound road that divided newly plowed fields where farmers were still hard at work, sowing grains and vegetables and turning up rocks, "I feel terrible. I had completely forgotten."
"I don't mind," Link said, once more.
Her voice was still hoarse, but at least her eyes weren't red anymore, and she had finished sniffling. It had taken her a while to calm down, and once she had, she'd nearly worked herself into another fit when she realized she was intruding on his leave. It had caused such alarm within him to see her in that state that he had known he far preferred to have her with him than not at all.
The princess seemed strangely shy about accompanying him on his personal errand, opening and closing her mouth in turn, as though a question that she dared not voice burned her lips.
Finally, after a few hours of riding, she finally broke. "Sir Groose said you always take two days off at this time of year."
Link glanced back, stifling a smile. Silence and patience seemed to be the surest way to get her to speak her mind. "Yes," he said.
She wrung the slack of reins in her hands, clearly uncomfortable with her question. "Why?"
Link looked up at the sky. It was pale blue, with fluffy white clouds. A light breeze that smelled of earth and new growth blew over the fields, and everywhere, amid the mud puddles and cart tracks, he could see signs that spring was in full swing, from the new leaves on the trees to the light, fresh green of the grasses.
Breathing in deeply the pleasant fragrance of the world, he said, "My father died on this day seven years ago."
He heard her inhale sharply.
"Oh," she said, and she halted her horse. She looked mortified. "Oh. I am― I shouldn't have―" She looked about herself, unsure, and said, "I can go back. I am so sorry. I shouldn't have imposed."
Link smiled, paused and turned in his saddle to face her. "It's alright," he said. "It's mostly an opportunity to visit my mother and my village. You will be welcome there."
Her lip wavered, and she seemed once more on the verge of tears. "I didn't know."
"I would have arranged another escort if you hadn't been welcome," Link said. "Besides," he nodded to her saddlebags, which he knew were full of books, "you have no idea what you're really after. You just needed to leave."
A flash of irritation came across her face, but only for a second, "Am I so transparent?"
Link didn't reply, studying her, before giving her a little smile he hoped invited trust. "What happened?"
She exhaled, frustrated, and looked away. "My father―" She took a deep breath that lifted her shoulders, and said, "My father is angry that I remain powerless." She looked down at her gloved hands and the way they worried at the leather of her reins. "As usual."
"But you prayed this morning," Link said, frowning. He knew because he'd been there, watching her. She'd bent her head, her golden hair catching the sunshine that filtered through the high glass windows. "What more does he expect you to do?"
Her eyes were watery again, and she wiped at them angrily. "A…" She paused, focused on regaining her composure. Then, finally, she said, "A pilgrimage."
By force of habit, Link's mind began to race through the necessary requirements. Would she need a detail? "What sort of pilgrimage?" He asked.
"A visit to the three Goddess Springs," Zelda said, her voice worn. "To be done at once or in three expeditions. He wasn't particular about the how. He says it's best if the visits happen in each of the Goddesses' seasons, but..." She shrugged.
Link observed her quietly. Whatever conversation she'd had with her father, it had clearly exhausted her. There was nothing he could do about it, though. One did not scold a king for the way he treated his only daughter.
Instead, he forced himself to smile comfortingly. "Well, I, for one, welcome it. It'll be good to hit the road for an extended trip." He'd have to exercise to regain the full range of motion in his arm, of course. It still ached when he swung and it stung every time cloth rubbed against it, but Link was sure it was just a matter of time before that stopped. A little lynel scratch wouldn't be the end of him.
She managed a long-suffering look, but Link knew there was gratitude in her smile too. "Thank you." Then, she seemed to remember herself, and she insisted, "But really, I can make my way back. Sir Groose is a poor rider, but he can manage a little outing."
Link shrugged. "You can do as you like," he said, hoping she wouldn't. "I can arrange for someone to accompany you back. But we're almost there anyway."
She frowned, looking around. "Are we?"
He turned, pointing ahead to the south. "Mabe Village. Beyond that hill," he said. "The road winds southward and around."
"Mabe Village," she echoed. "Is that where your father is from?"
Link nudged his horse onward, and was pleased to see the princess follow. "My mother," he replied. "My father was a wandering swordsman when he was younger. One day he crushed a cabbage in my mother's vegetable garden." He tried in vain not to smile fondly. "My mother's father ―my grandfather― owned the land from having served under your grandfather, I believe."
The road before them began a gentle turn southward, and now those farmers close enough to recognize Link would wave at him politely. Zelda observed this curiously, but seemed in no hurry to introduce herself.
"In any case," Link continued, "once my mother caught the culprit who ruined one of her prized cabbages, she wrangled him into staying around a full year to help with the harvest, as a payment of debt."
"For a single cabbage head?" Zelda asked, the amusement in her voice obvious.
"She was, or rather― is a fearsome woman," Link said. "And I suspect her beauty did the rest of the convincing. My father always said she had a fire in her eyes that day, and that he fell in love with her on sight."
"Your father sounds like a romantic," Zelda said. "I didn't remember that about him."
"Did you know him?" Link asked. His father had been in the Royal Guard, but Link had thought he served the king ―and queen, before her death― more than the young princess.
"By face," the princess said, musing. "I must have been seven or eight when I first noticed him. I was quite enamoured."
"Enamoured?" Link echoed, looking her way with a grin.
She rolled her eyes. "He was like a knight out of my storybooks," she ground out, the sudden flush of her cheeks betraying her embarrassment. "His blond hair, his fair eyes―" She looked at Link, flushed deep red, then her lips clamped shut, and she jutted out her chin. "It was harmless."
"I'm sure he would have been flattered," Link said, generously.
"You're laughing at me," she grumbled.
"Not at all," he replied, feeling immensely pleased. "Blond hair and fair eyes, huh?"
"Oh, do be quiet," she mumbled.
He was about to tease her again when her eyes widened and she sat up straighter in her saddle, evidently relieved by a new distraction.
"Is that it?" She asked.
Link turned. Up ahead, the road slid down a gentle slope and widened.
Mabe Village was a small settlement, with little wood, stone and thatch cottages lined up neatly along the road, with a well in the heart of the village and tall, broad trees to create shade. Beyond the houses, livestock bleated, mooed and clucked in neat and well-maintained wooden enclosures, and beyond those still, long tilled fields stretched along the green hills and along a narrow ruddy brook.
The people that lived here were hardy folk, milling about on their errands and stopping to chat with neighbours. Though they were thinner than the people of Hyrule Castle Town, they'd made it through winter well enough.
It was a pretty village. Not rich, certainly, but evidently well managed. Link felt his heart swell with pride at the sight of it.
"This is the heart of your knightly estate, isn't it?" Zelda asked.
Link nodded. "My grandfather left it to my parents when he died. He was glad my mother had married a knight to continue the tradition."
"How far does it go, exactly?"
Link shifted in his saddle. He motioned to the northeast. "The Mabe Prairie extends over yonder, all the way to the Applean Forest. The forest is the furthest limit of the estate. Otherwise it stretches out west to somewhere before the Passeri Greenbelt, and south until it meets the edge of Whistling Estate."
"It's sizeable," Zelda observed. She frowned, then turned to him. "Don't your duties in Hyrule Castle prevent you from seeing to its management?"
Link shrugged. "It's in my name now, since my father died, but my mother has always been the true mind here. I sign the papers, but otherwise she manages it all."
"It's admirable," Zelda said, looking at the tidy upkeep of the houses and the flower boxes on their windows. "We do not pay you enough," she added, after a moment's thought.
Link snorted, halting to dismount. "Just give me a raise when the Calamity dies."
She shot him a reproachful look. "Don't wish for disasters."
Curious onlookers were beginning to notice the two of them. Overhead, a shutter swung open as Link noticed Pergie, the pumpkin farmer's wife, airing out a dusty carpet. Further down the street, Hanch ― who owned the general store, though it was managed with an iron fist by his wife ― was miserably dragging a bucket of well water, straining with effort. Abe, the pig farmer, had just stopped to wipe his brow, and Sue-Belle, the washer woman, was animatedly chatting with old Rusta, who was feeding the birds.
Link turned, bracing, and was toppled to the ground with a grunt. Pushing against his short assailant, ignoring the lancing pain that pulled at his arm, he lifted the boy and tried to dust himself off.
"Hello, Talo," he greeted, winded.
The boy was a mess, as usual ―his clothes in disarray and his hair a nest of cowlicks― and Link noticed he'd had another growth spurt since he'd last seen him. "You're back!" The boy exclaimed.
Talo always had a knack for speaking the obvious. "I am," Link said, straightening. "And I take it your presence here means you're dodging your duties."
The boy scowled. "Ma wants me to milk the goat."
"Betsy?" Link asked, reaching for the reins in order to lead his horse by foot.
"Bitey, you mean," Talo groused. "I'd rather fight a pack of bokoblins."
Link held Zelda's horse as she dismounted. "Be glad you don't have to."
"I almost did!" Talo exclaimed, his face lighting up. "When they came by last week!"
Zelda thanked him softly, recovering her reins from him, and Link turned to Talo with a frown. "What do you mean?" He asked.
"The bokoblins," Talo said. "Hanch and Fado drove them off with a cattle drive, but everyone says it's just a matter of time before they come back."
Link glanced at the princess. She was frowning. It was then, at last, that Talo noticed her.
"Hey," he blurted, before thinking of acting with composure he didn't have anyway, "you're the princess!"
Princess Zelda smiled, pulling her shoulders back. Around the village, Talo's excitement had drawn people out of their houses, and now Zelda was becoming a royal rather than a scholar, Hylia rather than a girl.
"It's lovely to meet you," she said, in the way she usually greeted commoners, and Talo flushed a red so deep Link was sure he'd explode. Link couldn't blame him.
Turning away from Zelda, Link found his mother walking out from between two houses, wiping her hands on a dusty apron, amidst a few of the village matrons.
She was beautiful even now, some twenty years after catching the eye of a wandering swordsman, her eyes the colour of a deep summer sky, the wrinkles around them more numerous than Link remembered, but crinkling in a smile that had lost none of its charm. Her red hair, which she'd pulled back into a bonnet, was paler than before, the streaks of white beginning to fade its once bright fire.
"Mother," Link said, smiling warmly, and he bent to kiss her soft cheek. She smelled as she always had, of lilac and lavender, and though he noticed a few aging spots on her skin, she still managed to look as regal and fresh-faced as she did in his memories.
She said nothing, her hand reaching up to cup his cheek fondly, and then her sharp gaze turned to Zelda, recognition sparking for less than a second before she took it all in stride. She was very good at that.
"Princess," she said, curtsying. She had perfected the curtsy in those days where his father had spent more time at court, and still managed it with grace and control.
"Madam," Zelda said, curtsying in return. "I'm afraid I invited myself rather rudely."
"She did not," Link said. "Princess, may I introduce my mother, Marin? Mother, this is Princess Zelda."
"You are welcome here," Link's mother assured her. "Though I fear we will have simpler fare than you are used to."
Zelda smiled, shooting Link a look he could have imagined was amusement. "I assure you, Madam, I am used to much worse than my station might suggest. Already this village brings me great comfort."
His mother smiled politely, inclining her head, though Link was sure he'd get an earful later about not having given sufficient warning.
"We will be staying overnight," Link said, in a poor attempt to salvage his earlobes before they got pinched, "and we won't impose any more than strictly necessary."
But now his mother shot him a look that spoke volumes. "I see you rarely enough," she said. "I will hear no such nonsense about you leaving a minute earlier than absolutely necessary." She smiled warmly at Zelda and said, "Link will stay in his old bed, and you shall have our best guest room."
By now, a group of villagers had gathered round, half to welcome Link home with glad claps to the shoulder and half to openly gawp at the princess. She didn't seem to mind, Link noticed, answering their questions with her usual patience and grace, so he relaxed a little. This welcome seemed to have taken her mind off the morning's emotions, for which Link was glad.
The warm voice pulled his attention away from Zelda, and Link found himself smiling at his childhood friend.
"Ilia," he said, pleased, and they embraced. "It's been a while."
"It has," Ilia said, her green eyes crinkling warmly as she pulled away. Her pale hair was cropped short, but did not take away from her feminine charm. "Welcome home."
Link smiled, choosing not to respond to that. If he were honest with himself, Mabe Village was home in nostalgia only. His focus lay in Hyrule Castle now, where his friends and peers resided and conducted their business. "Not for long," he warned.
Ilia took this with a graceful smile. "Of course," she said. She smiled at the princess, who now stood politely off to Link's side, observing their exchange in silence. "Your mother did mention you had important duties to discharge before you could be free to return permanently."
Link glanced at Zelda, whose dark gold brow had lifted, but whose pleasant smile had otherwise not changed, fixed on her face as lightly as ever. "Er, yes, well… We'll see."
Ilia's expression wilted ever so slightly. "Well, we were all hoping you would return in the next few years. You are the acreage holder, after all." She perked up. "Though your mother has been teaching me the ins and outs of managing the estate's affairs." She turned to Marin, beaming. "I had no idea balancing finances was so taxing." She giggled. "Pun not intended."
Link smiled, but he could feel something curdle inside his stomach. A glance at his mother revealed a carefully serene expression, the lines of her face as relaxed as she could make it, and he knew she was scheming. Of his two parents, she had always been the strategist, the one to look further ahead.
When it came to prospective matches for her son, Ilia had always been a favourite of his mother's, the sort of good country girl a knight of his standing could and should be satisfied with, the sort of sensible woman who'd manage his business with hardiness and economy. The sort of girl his own mother had been, and the sort of girl she was unabashedly pushing his way. And Ilia was a good prospect, if he were honest with himself: she was pretty, charming, and had a good head on her shoulders.
And she liked him, Link knew. Ilia had never been very good at disguising her emotions, let alone dissembling. It was in the blush on her cheeks and the careful meticulousness of her interactions with him, prim yet warm, mixed in with a dash of great kindness towards his mother.
Link had always thought himself a reasonable person. He was not a rebellious son, and even if he hadn't known Ilia to be a sensible match ―she was― he would have trusted his mother's judgement. The idea had formed in those summer days after becoming a squire. He had been sure that someday, after all those other exciting things like combat, glory and the king's recognition had come and gone, he would return home and... be happy with someone like Ilia.
But that was before he'd drawn the sword that seals the darkness and changed in a way that the people of Mabe Village couldn't ― would never ― understand.
In another life, perhaps… But now?
Link's eyes slid inexorably in Zelda's direction, away from Ilia's sweet prettiness. The princess was still looking on with a patient and warm smile, but Link could tell she was antsy, and the more these three women who occupied so much space in his life stood in such close proximity, the more Link felt an uncomfortable wave of nausea.
"Er," he said, to his mother, "shall we?"
"Of course," she said, with a perceptive look at her son. She had apparently decided he'd languished enough. "Come on. I've had fresh hay brought in for the horses, and the rooms are all aired out."
Link's childhood home was among the largest in the village, as befit the estate of a lesser knight of Hyrule. Its thick thatch had been recently freshened. The wide doorstep had been scrubbed clean. The clotheslines were laden with white sheets blowing in the wind, billowing the scent of soap and freshness, and as they entered the garden from the narrow stable, young Cremia, one of his mother's maids, welcomed him with a quick bobbing curtsy, busy as she was fumbling with clothespins.
The house had not changed much, though it now betrayed many more feminine touches than in the days of his father, in the form of flowers, vases and other fabric confections like quilts and embroideries, doilies and laces. His mother lived with her two maids Cremia and Romani and hosted Ilia at least once a week. With Link gone most of the time, this house was very much a woman's domain.
Still, it comforted Link to be in it. The rushes were clean, a fire crackled merrily in a hearth clear of soot, and the smell of familiar cooking instantly made him feel like he was a boy again.
"This is your home, then," Zelda said, as she followed him in. She was looking around curiously. "It's lovely."
"I hope the scales are a little more even now," Link said.
She snorted. "But of course. You've seen my home and now I've seen yours. I shall have to take extensive notes."
Link's mother eyed them, her look indecipherable, but when Link shot her a quizzical look, she shook her head.
"Will you please show our honoured guest to her room?" She asked.
"I cannot thank you enough," Zelda said earnestly to Marin as Link hefted her bag onto his shoulder. "Your hospitality is very kind."
His mother smiled warmly, but now Link was sure he saw what it was he had trouble pinpointing: she seemed sad for some reason, her eyes softened into some sort of sorrow Link couldn't explain.
He would have time to ask later. For now, he led the princess to a small but cozy bedroom. It had been a repository for his father's armour and weapons during the man's life, but now those weapons served little purpose, and Link had agreed to have them moved to a smaller storeroom until he could find some use for them. In the vacant room, his mother had instead set up a sturdy bed covered in thick quilts and blankets, and vases filled with fresh flowers decorated the windowsill and bedside table.
"Here," Link said, placing the princess' bag on the bed. "There are more candles in the bedside drawer, and a clean chamberpot in that cupboard." He moved to the window and pushed it open. "I know the air smells a little of cattle, but you'll get used to it in no time."
But the princess was looking at the picture frames on the wall. Those hadn't been there last year, when Link had last visited. He approached and found a small painted likeness of Ilia, smiling, amidst other rustic portraits of his mother and Cremia.
"Romani, one of the maids," Link explained, to answer her unspoken question. "She likes to paint, when I can supply her with the materials."
But that had not been Zelda's question. She was still looking at Ilia's likeness with an infinitesimal puckering of her brow. "This girl… is your friend, correct?"
"Childhood friend," Link said, now embarrassed. He cleared his throat. "Though I think my mother is rooting for more." He thought it wise not to share his own musings on the matter, though he wasn't sure why Zelda would care. It wasn't, he thought with some irritation at himself, as though his personal life and marriage prospects were going to cause the princess any particular anguish.
"She's pretty," Princess Zelda said, finally turning to him with a smile. "I'm sure you'd have beautiful children."
He snorted, unable to stifle the spike of panic in his gut at the very thought. "Well," he said, clearing his throat and hoping she didn't notice the croak in his voice, "not anytime soon." When she didn't reply, he said, "I'll, uh, leave you to get settled in, if you'd like."
When she nodded quietly, he excused himself, returning to the main room.
His mother was stirring the soup in the pot over the hearth, humming to herself. It was a tune he vaguely recognized from his early childhood, a song for new beginnings and infancy. Spring and his yearly visits always seemed to put her in that particular reminiscing mood.
She glanced his way, and the humming stopped, and now Link knew he was in trouble.
"Mother," Link said, preemptively. "I'm sorry I didn't give you any warning."
He didn't have to explain what warning. His mother's blue eyes, looking so much like his own, narrowed.
"It was too late to change the plans," he added, lamely, knowing she would see right through him. His mother, shrewd and perceptive as she was, always did.
"You wouldn't have changed them anyway," she said, her voice low, the reproach soft but undeniable. "You're in love with her."
"What?" Link asked, dumbly.
His heart thudded, and he opened his mouth to protest ―he wasn't― but the look on his mother's face prohibited it. She had a way of looking at him in a way that made him feel like a chastened child all over again. He shut his mouth, trying to organize his thoughts for a coherent defence.
"Link," she said, in soft, gentle warning. And Link felt a surge of irritation for the tiny hint of disappointment in her voice.
"Don't be ridiculous," he said, firmly. Then, to change the subject, he mustered up his own indignation. "And really, mother, Ilia?"
They were both speaking softly, unwilling to be overheard by their guest, or the maids, or anyone who passed under their windows, but in his home, Link knew, the argument was no less fierce.
"Someone has to take over when I'm gone," his mother said, decidedly, sniffing as she turned back to her soup. She was being deliberately obtuse.
"I don't doubt she's capable," Link said. "But that is not what I meant, and you know it."
She glanced back at him. "You could do much worse. She is a beautiful girl, a good one."
"Yes, but I told you." He motioned vaguely with his hand, but the words failed him and it fell back to his side helplessly. "I am bound to fight the Calamity. I could fail―"
"You will not fail."
"I could," Link said. "You shouldn't encourage her. She could find herself a good husband. She shouldn't wait for me. It might be decades before the Calamity comes."
His mother studied him coolly. "You will not fail," she said, calmly. "And Ilia knows it as well as I do. She has assured me she is willing to wait a few more years before assuming her cause is lost." She narrowed her eyes at him. "And really, Link, why wouldn't she? You're a catch, the best husband she could hope for."
"Well," Link said, failing to disguise his little surge of irritation, "thanks. But she isn't―"
"I know who she isn't," his mother said, softly, with what seemed like a mix of sadness and disappointment at his perceived delusions. Link wanted to fight back, to argue, to remind her of the stakes, but she was not grasping them. She never had. "But at least you are not so far above her station that her hope is misplaced."
Something uncomfortable festered in his gut. Something that felt disquietingly like helplessness. "I'm going to see him."
She did not try to stop him, her sad eyes following him out the door until he knew she could no longer see him. He stomped through the back garden, trying not to kick up any dirt, and made his way around tiny vegetable shoots towards the tall, gnarled oak tree where he'd played countless times as a child.
If Link managed to defeat the Calamity, which was far from certain, and if he managed to return to this estate alive and unburdened, and if Ilia was still unmarried, and if Zelda―
He tried not to give the thought a voice, but it still wriggled into the back of his mind: if Zelda chose another…
Not that he expected her to choose him. He smiled bitterly at the notion. They were barely making headway as friends, and the chasm that divided their stations was still impassable, and she was a princess, by all the gods, and anyway he didn't love her, no matter what his mother, or the Gerudo, or anyone else, thought.
Sure, he thought Zelda was beautiful, but plenty of girls were beautiful. It would be wiser to want a girl that did not come with the irritating responsibilities of courtly life, a girl who wouldn't ascend to a throne. Link wanted to snort. He was barely competent as a Chosen One, and only slightly above average as knights went. He would make a terrible king.
So what if the only thing that haunted him was the unspeakable desire to kiss his princess and physically fend off the men who tried to win her for themselves? Just because the very sight of Misko's smug lips anywhere near her hand caused a nearly blinding wave of possessive fury to rise within him didn't mean he was necessarily in love with her.
He was a young. It was probably something stupid, like lust. Nothing to write home about.
And, judging by his mother's plans, nothing he would ever write home about, even if it had been the only thing to occupy his days and nights, or he'd get an earful of admonishment.
Ilia, he insisted, to himself. It will have to be Ilia.
It wouldn't be so bad, he tried to convince himself. She didn't make his heart pound, and the sight of her entering a room didn't make everything else vanish from his mind, but it didn't matter. He was fond of her, and she loved him, and he knew he could make himself take good care of her.
And Zelda― Zelda didn't signify. Not beyond the Calamity, anyway.
Link tried to stifle the terrible thought that he almost wanted the Calamity to kill them both instead. It was a fleeting thought, horrifying if he stopped to examine it, so he buried it deep within himself and tried to reason that he was just being melodramatic. Maybe Zelda was rubbing off on him. Ha.
His father's grave had been dug under the big oak, on a little hillock. The headstone was elegant and had been recently cleaned. Link did not doubt it was dusted off at least every other day. The little prayer bowl at the base was empty, so Link reached into his pocket and retrieved his offering ― a slice of thick spice bread he'd carefully wrapped in a dull green cloth. He placed it in the offering bowl, bowing his head, and allowed his mind to empty of noxious thoughts. It was easier now, with the Sheikah training, than it had been in previous years. He still had to thank Impa for that.
"Father," he said, finally raising his eyes to look at the Hylian inscription on the stone. "I got your favourite. Hope you enjoy it." He knelt down before the monument.
He was silent for a long moment, collecting his thoughts. Being here always made him uncomfortable, reminded him of dark days and mourning, of sudden loneliness and tears. His father had been his hero, in many ways, and the model of man he had wanted to become. His death in battle ought to have been expected, but it had come as a surprise all the same, casting a younger Link's life into sudden and inescapable sorrow.
After all, if his giant warrior of a father could be cast down, what hope did Link, then a newly-made squire, ever have of earning himself honour and glory?
"I wish I had the courage to come more often," he finally said, echoing the sentiment that had kept him living in fear for several years after. Mourning had been as difficult as learning from his father had been rewarding. He'd gone from the light of aspiration to the darkness of pessimism, and come out more cynical, more focused. Valour was meaningless, after all, if you were dead.
The headstone didn't reply. Link removed the Master Sword from his back and laid it next to him in the grass.
"You know Mother is up to her matchmaking again, don't you?" He ran a hand through his hair with a sigh. "I can't blame her, but I wish she listened to me." He smiled bitterly. "I suppose she's always been more stubborn than you or I."
Still no reply, but Link wasn't expecting one. He sat there in silence for a long moment, thinking.
"Did you ever feel it inside you?" He asked, pensively. The question had come from deep within, unplanned. "Some sort of great beast that cries out to be let loose?" He rearranged himself to sit cross-legged before the headstone. "Like a wolf that rebels against every sensible idea you've ever had?"
Probably not. His father, all things considered, had led a very ordinary, predictable life, as knight's lives went. Perhaps if he had died later, if he had died this year, for instance, while Link was grown enough to see him more clearly, with more honesty, perhaps he would not still seem like a giant in Link's memory. Perhaps he would have become what he had been in truth: a man of the sword, flawed, loving, imperfect and good.
He wouldn't have lusted after his charge, for instance. In that, already, Link was lesser.
And he might have revealed himself to be utterly incapable of managing this estate. Link, for his part, was fairly certain he'd figure it out just fine, given the chance.
If Link managed to defeat the Calamity.
He took in a ragged breath.
"Am I intruding?"
Zelda's voice was small, unsure. She wasn't the princess right now, Link realized. She was the girl, the scholar, the secret friend. And Link ignored the way his heart swelled with relief that she was there.
"Not at all," he said, turning to glance her way, and he scooted over to make some space in the grass for her. Near the house, his mother stood, observing them, and Link guessed she had sent Zelda to him. It was kind. It was counterproductive to her hopes.
"You never really speak of him," Zelda said, sitting down near Link.
"I carry him with me," Link said. "I didn't think it would matter to anyone else."
She nodded thoughtfully, then sighed, pushing a lock of blonde hair behind her ear. She studied the gravestone, her green eyes dull with distant sorrow. "I know what you mean. I miss my mother. She was a good mother."
Link smiled. "My father was all a son could ask for. He could do no wrong in my eyes."
"Mother was gentle," Zelda observed, thoughtfully. "And funny, in her own way. We had our secrets, our little conspiracies. My father used to pretend it greatly frustrated him."
"My mother would roll her eyes when my father and I came home covered in mud," Link snorted.
"She was the light in my father's life," Zelda said. "I think…" She gathered her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, tucking her chin low. "I think it hurts him, how much I look like her."
Link said nothing, his throat constricting. She looked small next to him, vulnerable, and his heart lanced at the sight of it. The layers of pain mixed until he wasn't sure why he was sad: sad for the loss of his father, sad for the loss of her mother, sad for them both. He ached for her loss, and yet… he felt selfish for being glad that he wasn't alone right now.
"Sometimes," he confessed, "I can still feel the grief, as sharp and true as a dagger, as painful as the day we lost him."
Her eyes watered, but she smiled at him all the same. "Me too," she whispered. "The pain comes more rarely now, and doesn't last as long… but I still..." She pressed her lips together, running out of words.
They lapsed into silence, the understanding running deeper, as the roots of the tree before them, and for the first time Link felt a true kinship with Zelda the girl rather than the princess. It settled into him like a low ember, glowing warm, the moment painful from reminiscence and longing.
He wanted to put an arm around her, but... He glanced over his shoulder. His mother had disappeared back into the house, but she could have looked out the window at any moment. Or anyone else could pass by.
Instead, he moved his foot sideways, until it rested next to hers, their boots touching.
She gave his foot a little nudge with the toe of her boot, and smiled at him a little sadly, and something passed between them, something that finally felt like the comforting blanket of actual friendship.
Link tore his eyes away, unable to speak when she looked at him like that. "He died only a few years after your mother, I think."
Zelda hummed in agreement, studying the dates on the gravestone. "He fell in battle, right?"
"Defending a village from moblins," Link confirmed. "They say he died heroically. I know it's meant to be comforting, but I wish he had been a coward that day. It's selfish, I know," he added.
"It's understandable," Zelda said, thoughtfully. She was studying the boughs overhead. "I know if anything different could have saved my mother, I'd have wished for it too. She died shortly after…" She lowered her voice. "... After my birthday."
By her tone, she was referring to her real birthday, on Summertide, and not Nayru's Day that followed. Her use of the truth was a sign of trust, and Link clung to it. "A little like me," he said. "Father died a week before my birthday."
Zelda said nothing for a moment, then she frowned. She turned to him and squinted. "Wait. Does that mean your birthday is next week?"
Link blinked at her. "Yes…?"
She straightened with a jolt, and Link startled.
"Well?" She asked, suddenly.
"Why didn't you tell me?" She exclaimed, indignantly. Her hand went up to her mouth, a sudden dread coming over her face. "You didn't want me to know."
Link snorted. "Is that what you think?"
The dread vanished as her eyes crinkled in light humour. She tried not to smile, settling down again, and once more the grief began to fade to the background of his thoughts. "Will you be coming back here, to celebrate with your family?"
Link shook his head. "Usually I go drinking with the squires." He frowned. "Well, knights, now." He blinked. "Don't tell anyone, please. We used to lie about our age."
"As future Queen, I would only be the High Judge of Hyrule," Zelda said, in her most reasonable tone. "Source of all the laws and their enforcement. Of course I won't make a single reprimand."
Link groaned, and she giggled. Then, she nudged him once more with her foot, gently.
"Don't worry," she said, curling up again. "Your secret is safe with me."
They exchanged a brief smile, and Link ignored the tightening in his chest, and the gladness that she had come along after all. Sitting next to her here, in a place that had once encompassed all his grief, somehow made the burden lighter… bearable.
And he realized his mother might be onto something after all.