Dracozu Temple, nestled in the very bosom of Faron, was a damp, dark, miserable jungle, from which sprung a wet, murky, smelly river.
"It could be worse," the princess quietly said, from across the campfire. She was looking up at the great stone dragon's maw, a structure made to look as intimidating as possible before the entrance to the temple ruins. "It could be water flea season."
Link grunted. His boots were soaked through from when he'd accidentally stepped into a knee-high pool of water that had been hidden from view by thick ground foliage. He'd splashed himself up to his waist, and he'd not brought a change of boots. So now the boots sat by the fire, looking damp and miserable, just like everything else.
Following the direction of his thoughts, he turned to the princess and attempted to summon a comforting smile.
"You shouldn't worry about it. I'm sure tomorrow will be better."
She was carefully prying burnt scales off her cooked fish and her voice was faint when she answered. "Yes… I suppose." She was carefully not looking at anything other than her dinner. She kept her face turned away from the dragon, and what lay within. Even still, Link could see her eyes occasionally sliding in the direction of the shadows before she forced them back to her meal.
In the deepening twilight, there was nothing visible beyond the great maw of the dragon. Even though he knew logically that they were safe at the temple, Link checked for the upteenth time to ensure his sword was in arm's reach. He'd made his princess find cover in an angle of fallen stones, leaving as little of her exposed to the dark of night as possible. He'd also planted thick, sputtering torches in a large circle around them, both to cast light and to ward off undesirable visitors.
He had stretched a blanket overhead, creating a bit of a lean-to that would protect her from the fat drops of rain and humidity that came from the thick foliage above, and ensured her pallet would be kept dry.
She had seemed both touched and tiredly amused by his efforts on her behalf, asking him where he would sleep. He'd assured her he would pull out his own blankets eventually, but knew, deep down, that there would be no sleep for him tonight.
The jungle was unfamiliar. It rankled him every time it produced the gargle of wildlife, the hoots and howls and cries of exotic birds, monkeys and other less savoury fauna. None of those sounds were familiar, none so comforting as the warbles, trills and rustles of the vast Hylian plains he knew best.
And there was another darkness in the jungle, too, a darkness that he could not attribute to the place itself, but rather to the grim thoughts that haunted his mind.
A glance at the princess, who had given up on her fish and was looking at the great stone teeth, filled him with frustration. She deserved better than this.
They had arrived at the Spring of Courage earlier that day. In the morning light, under a brightening sun, the jungle had not seemed so unwelcoming. Long rays of sunshine had slanted against the stone structures, the deep green of the jungle's glossy plants bringing relief, richness and musty smells. The Goddess Statue had smiled at them benevolently, as all Goddess Statues did, as though welcoming them to the octagonal spring where she had seemingly waited for aeons.
Zelda had gone off to change into her prayer robe, a white confection completely unfit for travel, and carefully approached the edge of the spring. To keep her from slipping on any moss, Link had dropped into the water, given her his hand and helped her down. The water was cool, but not cold, and he'd been relieved. He would have hated a repeat of that winter's great debacle. And for just a moment, as Link had stood in the spring with her and felt the insubstantial weight of her hand in his, he'd thought he'd felt some tingling sign that today would go well.
She had even smiled at him then, as though her own thoughts had followed in that very direction and found the same source of relief.
Then, to give her the chance to commune in peace, he'd stepped out of the spring and watched her wade carefully towards the tall Goddess Statue on its pedestal.
Farore, he'd implored. Please grant her your blessing.
The princess had prayed for hours, her hands joined in the most beseeching mudras, whispering without cease.
He had watched carefully, despite himself, as though the sign of her boon would be visible eventually, seeking every dapple of light, every breath of wind, waiting for the sign that Farore in her great benevolence had finally acquiesced, had finally granted her gifts.
But nothing came. Whatever sign he'd thought he'd felt, whatever blessing, must have been imagined.
As the day's shadows lengthened, the princess had grown quiet, her lips no longer moving, her hands no longer clutched as firmly as before.
And then, she had lifted her head, looking up at the Goddess, and her hands had come down.
Wordlessly, she had turned to him, eyes searching, full of a question that tore at Link's heart.
But Link had merely forced himself to smile. "Well, you've done enough for now, I think," he'd said, extending his hand. "Come. You can give it another go tomorrow."
She had been uncommonly quiet thereafter, uninterested in studying the rich flora around them. Her eyes had constantly drifted back to the great dragon's maw that guarded the Spring, her thoughts evidently circling a single idea, a single question, a single doubt.
And she'd barely eaten.
"Carrot?" Link asked, and her gaze snapped back to him.
Link held up the roasted vegetable. She nodded, extending her wooden bowl to him.
"Thank you," she said. As she halfheartedly nibbled, the small crinkle between her eyebrows deepened. Link hated the sight of that crinkle. It only appeared when she was upset and trying to hide it.
"It will work," Link said gently, though he knew she didn't believe him. "You're the Goddess' chosen one. She wouldn't let you down in our hour of need."
Zelda did not reply. She was staring down at her carrot mutely.
"And Farore loves all living creatures," he added. "She won't withhold her blessing now."
Perhaps she knew he was trying to convince himself. Zelda picked up the carrot and forced herself to take a small bite, chewing slowly. Link hated seeing her like this. When she didn't reply to his overt attempts at conversation, she seemed deadened, so unlike herself, so like that cold, distant girl he'd once tried to hate, that it filled him with desperation.
"Besides," he continued, "if nothing happens tomorrow, maybe I can―"
He blinked. She wasn't looking at him. Her eyes were somewhere between her bowl and the fire, the orange light playing against her skin, her hair, her clothes, casting her in dancing warmth. She looked vulnerable, painfully small, unfairly young. "Princess?"
"Please don't," she said, gently. "I know you mean well, but…" She shook her head. "It is my own doubts that I must overcome now." She exhaled shakily, and suddenly she was trembling. "Perhaps it is because I lack courage. There is nothing more you can do."
He fell silent. She was pressing her lips together.
Then, after a moment, she placed her bowl before the fire gently, and said, "It's getting late. I should try to sleep."
"Of course," he said, pushing to his feet and fighting the feeling that he was useless to her here.
He helped her up, walked her to her pallet, and made sure there was a waterskin by her head, and that she was comfortable. She removed her boots, her gloves, her mud-stained overclothes, and slipped between the blankets. The ground was soft, at least, Link thought to himself. He never failed to be impressed at the fact that she never complained.
"Will you be close by?" She asked, softly. She'd unbraided her hair for her prayers, and was now running her fingers through the golden locks in that way she always did that made Link want to do it for her. Tucked in her blankets, her shoulders slumped, she looked both very young, and far older than her sixteen years.
"Of course," he smiled, as cheerfully as he could. "I would be a poor knight indeed if I left you all alone."
Her green eyes were dark, veiled by a long day and disappointment in her efforts. "I broke your oath for you," she quietly said. "You owe me nothing."
That was true. But he could never leave her. Even without oaths, he felt utterly bound to her. Somehow, somewhere along the line, her safety and happiness had become more important than his own.
Even if the Calamity hadn't been bearing down on them, it would still be more important.
She was still watching him with those solemn eyes, and Link resisted the urge to take her hand. Instead, he smiled as softly as he was able. "I would protect you anyway, as I would any friend," he said, hoping she didn't notice the tremor in his voice on that last word.
She did smile a little then, though the expression did not reach her eyes. "Thank you."
When he was satisfied she was as comfortable as she would get, and that she was making an honest effort to sleep, he carefully moved back to the fire, which crackled merrily a few feet away.
He stared at the darkness beyond the fire for a long time, observing the way the scattered moonlight crawled across the jungle floor, his thoughts a jumble. He heard the princess sigh and shift in her blankets, her breathing deep and even. She was asleep.
He looked back at the dark maw of Dracozu temple. Now that she was asleep, now that she couldn't see his face, it was safe for him to doubt. Not her, never her. But he had the unsettling feeling that someone had missed something, that some important step had been forgotten. He felt, viscerally, that something had gone wrong.
Zelda was the incarnation of the Goddess, chosen to harbour the very essence of divinity. All the prophecies, all the soothsayers, all the scriptures and all the priests said so. So why were those gifts being withheld?
She ought not to be begging at altars all her life, he thought furiously. Would the Calamity come soon? Would it be years, decades? Would she be spending all of her days praying in vain, and all her nights stifling fear, shame and guilt? Would she be facing this injustice forever?
Would she ever succeed?
Even in the darkness of his thoughts, that treacherous idea made him sick. He stamped it down as one puts out a fire, fiercely and angrily. Of course she would. She had to. The alternative was… unthinkable. Unspeakable.
And yet as the night wore on, he was haunted by unceasing, horrible what-ifs.
It almost seemed as though the night whispered to him, from beyond the dark― the doubt forming, coalescing into its own form of evil, whispering that failure was inevitable, promising him untold miseries. He closed his eyes tight against the thoughts, banishing the ideas for moments at a time, then would reopen his eyes to feel them growing inside him again, like a relentless assault on his spirit.
Morning came upon them agonizingly slowly, lightening the jungle in such infinitesimal increments that Link found himself drowsy until at last the very first speck of sunlight reached his eyelids. He hadn't slept, but had managed to sit in a kind of half-alert doze. Even then, the dawn was painfully early.
When he opened his eyes, he found that the fire was weakening, so he put more wood on it. He would make scrambled eggs for her this morning, he thought with a yawn. Not now. Perhaps not for another hour still. He glanced back at her. She was a lump of blankets, her golden hair the only part of her still peeking out, and he was glad she had at least managed to find sleep.
He wiped at his eyes tiredly. The great maw of Dracozu still loomed nearby, but it was growing less worrisome by the moment, brightened as it was by morning. Beyond the great teeth, he could just make out the silhouette of the Goddess Statue.
And he tried not to glare at it.
Enough of that, Link told himself. Zelda would wake up soon, and when she did, he wanted none of his doubts to show on his face. She needed encouragement and friendship.
Shooting one last unhappy glance at the Goddess Statue, Link turned his back on the spring and grabbed his sword. Exercise. That was what he needed.
Princess Zelda stirred on her own about an hour later, turning around to blink at him blearily in the morning light.
"Good morning," he said cheerfully as he cracked two eggs over the traveler's pan he was heating over the fire. He'd heard the telltale lightening of breath that signaled she was waking up, noticed her twitching limbs in the blankets, and had taken it as his cue to put his sword away and start breakfast. She usually woke up hungry, and in his experience she rapidly became grumpy if she wasn't fed quickly.
If he was unusually attuned to her in the mornings, well, it came from a place of loyal friendship… and, prior to that, self-preservation. It had nothing to do with the fact that seeing her blinking at him like an adorable, sleepy kitten caused his heart to soften in his chest.
She grunted, rubbing at her face as she sat up. "Sir Link." She yawned, then frowned at him. Link suppressed a smile at the way her hair stuck out in every direction. "Did you sleep at all?"
"Some," he lied. "But the jungle makes me uneasy."
She observed him for a long moment, still frowning, and eventually decided not to pursue the matter. She sat up. "Anything to report?" She asked.
"Nothing. Coast is clear if you need to step away." He motioned to thick foliage behind the stones. "I checked not ten minutes ago."
She nodded, excusing herself, and Link busied himself with cooking. She returned looking slightly more awake, and she went to the riverside to plunge her hands in and wash her face quickly.
"I have more vegetables," he said. His delight at her morning bleariness was fading into a quieter concern. The longer she was awake, the more worried she looked, and Link desperately wanted to remove the crinkle from between her eyebrows. "And eggs. And a few slices of toasted bread."
"Thank you," she said, returning to sit cross legged near him. "Bit of everything, please."
They ate in relative silence. As they had during their meal the night before, her eyes kept flitting back to the dragon's maw and the Spring beyond.
"I wish I knew more prayers," she finally said, green eyes unmoving from the object of her thoughts.
Link eyed her as he chewed. "I thought you knew them all."
"Evidently not," she said, thoughtfully, her eyes filling with sorrow. "But," and here she perked up, giving him a smile that was only slightly forced, "Surely the Goddess must know, right? When she's needed?"
"Of course," Link said, though he was beginning to doubt, just as she obviously did. "I'm sure your power doesn't actually need specific words to be spoken. I should think it transcends time."
"Right," she agreed, though her smile was still somewhat hollow. "Nothing to worry about."
But there was plenty to worry about, Link concluded after she'd changed into her prayer dress and splashed into the water. That morning, once again, none of her prayers bore fruit. The sun reached its zenith and she was still bent in prayer, her dress still soaked from the day before, her fatigue beginning to show by early afternoon. Whenever he checked on her, she looked uncomfortable in the middle of the spring, and small, and incredibly lonely.
Link, for his part, was growing antsy. He kept his back to her, guarding her from any who would cause her harm. But this was clearly hurting her, and it was nothing Link could protect her from. As the thought flitted across his mind, not for the first time that day, his hands tightened on the pommel of the Master Sword, which rested tip-down against the ground.
This is wrong, he told himself once again, the voice coming from that part of him that seemed to guide far too many of his thoughts lately, that instinctual lupine barbarian inside, the part of him that he kept trying to suppress, the part of him that wanted to have her, to make her run away with him, that wanted to leave Hyrule to the demons.
Damn you, Farore, he prayed ― or cursed. She needs you.
He looked around: no enemies. Nothing in the woods. So he glanced over his shoulder. The princess was bowing for what felt like the hundredth time, and still no flicker of anything, no surge of power, seemed to manifest.
"Please," she whispered to the thick jungle air. Her voice broke and Link's heart broke with it. "Please, please, please."
But nothing happened.
Suddenly, her hands fell away from the prayer, and she turned to look at him from the water. Her eyes were angry, red, as though the exhaustion and disappointment were threatening to make her cry.
But she didn't cry. She just looked at him. "What did it feel like?"
He blinked and turned, relaxing from his guard stance. "Princess?"
She strode towards him, wading through the water. "When the sword chose you. What did it feel like? Did you hear Farore's voice in your head? Or Nayru's, or Din's, or even Lady Hylia's?"
She'd never asked about that day before. Link remembered it in fleeting images: kneeling on the ground, his fingers closing around the blade, the way he'd pulled, not really expecting the sword to give. The memories swirled through his head as he watched her approach, confused. "I― I don't―"
"I don't have a patron goddess," she said, her voice wavering, though to her credit she tried very hard to keep it loud and steady. She paused in the water, beautiful, vulnerable, afraid. "But you― you're a child of Farore. You pray to her, don't you?"
"I do," Link replied, feeling the sinking of his stomach as it dawned on him what it was she was asking.
"So what did it feel like?" She seemed to be grasping at words, frustrated with her inability to formulate a clear question. "When she― when she blessed you? When they all blessed you with the sword?"
Link swallowed. "I―"
"Please," she implored, and her hands balled into fists. "Please don't say― Don't say―"
"I felt nothing," Link answered, the shame and sorrow warring within. "Just a sword coming free of stone."
She punched helplessly at the water's surface, and the splash wrinkled the fallen leaves and moss, distorted the stones under her feet. "Damn it," she cursed, eyes filling with tears. Before Link could react, she turned away, stared at the Goddess Statue behind her, as though she refused to let him see her cry. "You said― you said Farore was the kindest. You said―" She took a deep breath, and he could hear the quaver in her voice. "You said she loved all living creatures…" She shivered.
"I'm sorry," Link said, softly.
"What more must I do?" She asked, but Link could tell, from the anger in her voice, that she was speaking to the Goddess Statue. She waded back, angrily. "What more can I do?"
"You made me your incarnation," she accused the Statue. "You told all of those people I was the one. Help me," she begged, her voice failing. "Please." She knelt in the water, bracing herself against the statue's pedestal. "I will do anything. Anything. Just give me a sign."
But no sign came. She didn't even seem to expect it anymore. She stood, soaked to the bone, and paced through the water thence, then back, and forward again.
"What will my father say?" She asked, softly. "What will all those courtiers think?" She was trembling now, shivering in that soaked, insubstantial dress. "As though anyone could possibly hope for better. I have never wanted anything more than this. I― Am I not brave?" Her voice hitched. "This is the Spring of Courage. Could I be lacking in― could that be the reason?"
No, Link thought, groping for words. She was the bravest person he knew. But he couldn't form the words, didn't think she'd hear them even if he could. He didn't know how to reach her.
"Zelda, you've done enough. Come out of the water," he tried.
"I will not! I cannot leave without Farore's blessing."
Link removed his still humid boots, left them on the bank, and dropped into the water, wading towards her. She paid him no heed, verbally running through scenarios, hypotheses, possibilities. She had a mind for it, Link knew, and that mind could and would run itself into circles if he let it.
Anger, dark and rich, surged through him. Enough of this, he thought. The possessive side of him, the ancient, howling side, wanted her to stop, wanted her to seek shelter in his arms, wanted her never to think of the gods again. That urge felt more like divine inspiration than any mantra, mudra or incantation.
He reached her in four slogging strides. "Zelda." He reached out, placed a hand on her bare arm.
She froze, turned to him, green eyes wide, and her breath caught. He, too, was surprised by the jolt that traveled through his fingers. He released her, as though singed.
"You―" He cleared his throat, focused. "You've done all you could." Then, more firmly: "It will have to be enough for now." He shot the Goddess Statue a glare he hoped the divinity would see. "No one could have done better."
"They will say I failed," Zelda said, angrily.
"And you will tell them your pilgrimage only just started," Link replied. "What do they even know? If any of those damn courtiers, if anyone in the world, really knows what to do, then they are bastards for not guiding you." He leaned in, tried to stifle the primal urge to lift her over his shoulder and disappear, take her away from everything. "You did all you could here. Trust me. There are two more Springs, and countless other efforts to contribute to. This isn't a failure. Only a setback.."
She peered up at him speechlessly, and Link wondered if he hadn't perhaps been a bit too insistent. Then, she managed a weak smile.
"You're right," she finally said, her voice raw. "Of course." She turned, looked up at the Goddess Statue. "There are three Springs. And much work to be done."
"Exactly," Link said, seizing on a lifeline. "And anything else in between might yet trigger your power. And we can come back next year, if necessary."
She didn't reply to that, though, her eyes still focused on the serene smile of the Goddess. It seemed to taunt them both, Link thought unhappily.
After a moment, she gazed back at him. "Will you come with me again?"
Her eyes were greener than the jungle, and so earnest it hurt him like a physical ache. Link swallowed hard. When she looked at him that way, he felt… Weak. Strong. Dizzy. Powerful. And angry for how much hurt he could see on her face.
She was just a girl. Just a sixteen-year-old girl, in a wet dress, with wet hair, a girl who slept out of doors, a girl who struggled to be respected, a girl with a keen mind, a sharp wit. A girl who struggled with a destiny that refused to cooperate… and yet even though she had no power, he felt utterly captivated by her.
How was it possible? How could he ever feel so drawn, so fiercely protective, so hotly bothered by her? Did she have the slightest inkling what she made him feel? He would follow her anywhere.
"Of course," he managed, proud that his voice came out steady and level. "If you need me there, I will follow you."
She smiled, but there was sadness to her expression. "Thank you." She reached out and smoothed her fingers against the hem of his sleeve, a friendly motion, and still the sad smile remained. "I'm… I'm sorry."
"Why?" He asked, genuinely confused, as she began to wade out of the pool. He followed closely, watching both their steps.
"You deserve a capable partner," she said, paying acute attention to her own movements. He could tell from the set of her shoulders that she didn't want to meet his eyes anymore. "A priestess with actual power. My failure will also be yours, if the Calamity rises."
He reached for her hand, and she paused, glancing back, hesitating, refusing to meet his gaze.
"Zelda." She still wouldn't look at him. The wolf inside growled. Link brushed it off, and focused on her. He stepped forward so that he was directly in front of her. "We won't fail. I won't let it happen. We'll figure this out."
She frowned. Despite herself, she was looking up at him again. He reached for her waist, and she inhaled sharply. With a single movement, he lifted and deposited her on the bank, then released her. Then, he pulled himself up, too, dripping water all across the stones of the shrine.
As she watched him, speechless for once ―and Link ignored the way his fingers tingled from the memory of her narrow waist ― he collected his belongings, his boots, and then looked back at her.
"We will not fail," he repeated firmly. The words seemed to rise out of the most primal part of him. "No matter what it takes. And…" he paused, searching for a way to give words to the fierce emotion swirling in him. "We're going to overcome this. Together. I'll keep you safe," he added. "No matter what."
He hoped she saw the determination in his eyes, but instead she frowned. She looked perplexed, like when one of her experiments gave her an unexpected result.
"You owe me no such thing. I broke your vow. If the worst should happen, save yourself and find the next incarnation of the Goddess."
Link smiled, unable to help the wave of exasperation and fondness that washed over him, mellowing the intensity he felt swirling under the surface of his skin. Sweet, naïve, silly, beautiful girl.
"There will be no other," he promised, as serious as any vow he'd ever made. "It's you. I live to serve you."
She flushed. The primal voice within him, still lurking close to the surface, liked that. It was good to know he could have that effect on her, even when he was soaked up to the waist like some back alley cat in the rain.
Which she was too, only that just meant her white dress clung to her legs.
And he was looking at them.
"Now come on," he said, gruffly, tearing his eyes away. They both needed a distraction."Those Guardians' control schemes won't get mapped out all on their own."
There was a smile in her voice when she spoke next, and some of the grief had faded from her eyes. Link was sure of it. "You're right. Sir Link. Thank you for reminding me."
And if she was smiling again, that was good enough for now.