Zelda found him just after dawn, in the Castle stables, as he was brushing down his horse.
"You never told me what you named him," she said.
Link looked at his horse, a mild-tempered, white-stockinged bay stallion that he'd tamed sometime during his squirehood. It stared placidly back, chewing on some of the fresh hay that Link had put in front of him while he worked.
Then, he looked back at Zelda, who was observing him from the wide open stable doors. She motioned to one of the Sheikah shadows at her side that they were dismissed, her cheeks pink, her expression an intriguing mix of nervousness and determination.
And then they were alone. All the stablehands were at breakfast. That caused a thrill to run down Link's spine. She hadn't been alone with him in a little over two weeks. There were multiple reasons for that ― some of them perfectly valid. For one, the upheaval among the Sheikah and the subsequent tensions had increased the number of guards Link had assigned to her, even and especially within the Castle. For two, the insanity that had followed the arrest of Master Kohga, whose ongoing trial was as perfunctory as the law allowed, had caused a massive influx of curious courtiers and visitors all eager to get their eyes on a real traitor, the first Hyrule had known by face and name in many, many years, which kept Zelda rather busy with polite conversations everywhere she went.
And for three, she had avoided talking to him directly since that morning.
He wasn't frustrated, though. The flush on her cheekbones told him that she didn't hate him, and the furtive glances they often exchanged seemed enough to make his heart run quicker than usual.
He thought he knew why she was nervous about him. It felt like some bizarre victory, coursing through his blood like dizzying wine.
Turning back to his horse and ignoring the pounding of his heart, he said, "Horse."
"Horse?" she echoed, flatly, and now he could imagine the blush turning to an irritated flush. "You named him Horse. Really?"
"I can tame them," he said. "Not name them."
"Evidently," she said, approaching. She was in her traveling clothes, her hair braided back and away from her face. Her hand came up to caress Horse with affection. "Well, look at you," she cooed at the great big placid dope that Link knew his horse was, "I think your master doesn't love you the way he should."
"Please. I feed him and brush him," Link said.
"Courage," Zelda said to the horse, ignoring Link, as she often did. "I think your name is Courage."
Courage the horse looked down at Zelda, then huffed, his tail shooing away some flies.
"Courage?" Link repeated, frowning.
"Why not?" She asked, lightly.
"Courage," Link said again, deadpan.
She smiled, and Link felt his resolve begin to melt. Turning away, he began to brush Courage's coat vigorously.
"You've had him a long time," she said, from the beast's other side. Her tone was leading, though, and Link wondered where she was going with that line of inquiry.
"Yes," he said, hoping Courage wouldn't feel this was the appropriate moment to drop any manure.
"And he's always been well-behaved."
She peered around Courage's head, scratching the sweet dimwit's nose. This seemed to please Courage immensely, because he snorted softly, pushing against her fingers for more. "And I seem to be stuck with a horse that will never love me again."
She was talking about her pale-cream gelding, the same horse she had greatly upset last autumn on her mad descent from Eldin. The trust had never truly returned afterwards, and Zelda's mount had been easily spooked and temperamental since.
"He's just afraid," Link said.
"Well, you're the expert," she said, smiling.
Link paused in his brushing, glancing at her. She was… She was smiling at him. Charmingly.
Very charmingly. Too charmingly, given how assiduously she'd avoided openly smiling at him until now.
"Yes?" He asked, trying to infuse his voice with suspicion even as his pulse kicked up.
She approached, and Link tried not to let his hopes get away with his reason. They were alone. Alone in a stall, sure, next to a simple-minded horse, but she was closing the space between them― was she really― would she―
"Please help me," she pleaded, clasping her hands together in front of her in imploration. "Please? Wisdom won't even have any of my apples anymore."
The plain request jarred him back to reality, bringing his racing mind to a screeching halt.
"Wisdom?" Link echoed, raising a brow, desperate to hide the direction his thoughts had been going.
"My horse," she said.
"Yes, I gathered as much," Link said, recovering. "I'm sensing a theme." He leaned out of the stall, looking left and right. "Any giant red horses in here? I think I can guess what you would name it."
She rolled her eyes. "Link, please."
The nearness of her was making him dizzy. He wanted to tease her some more, just to watch her blush. But she had a look in her green eyes that spelled doom. It was a sweet vulnerable expression, earnest and helpless, and damn it, but he couldn't resist a damsel in distress.
How the tables turned.
Exhaling, he said, "Of course I'll help."
She perked up instantly, clapping her hands together with excitement. "Oh, thank you!"
"But," he said, raising a finger in warning, "you have to do as I say."
She flushed and bit her lip, an inkling of uncertain distress transforming her face into an expression of vulnerability. It was a pretty look ―one that flattered his ego― but he had to dispel her fears.
"No matter how silly it sounds," he explained.
"Oh," she said, and her blush deepened, gratifyingly. "Right." She shook herself, cheering up. "I defer to your greater experience."
Oh, this was trouble, Link told himself as she left to retrieve Wisdom. He was in trouble.
Looking up at Courage, he said, "Behave yourself, now. Understood?"
But Courage merely eyed him with mild disgust. Link couldn't blame him.
As Zelda brought Wisdom out of its stall, the horse seemed reluctant to follow. It huffed, dragged its hooves every other step, and occasionally pulled at the lead. Zelda shot it a little glare, then avoided a hard push from its nose.
Before Wisdom could bowl her over, Link clucked his tongue, reaching out gently, grabbing the lead and pulling to bring Wisdom's eyes level with his. Scratching at the pale cream coat on his nose, he studied the silly beast, running his hand along its mouth, feeling, reaching, examining. Its ears were clean, its eyes were clear and limpid, and its mouth had no sores. Its mane was meticulously braided― he shot Zelda a look at this, and she smiled brightly.
Turning back to Wisdom, he positioned himself alongside, checking its hooves for any stuck rocks the stable hands may have missed, and found none. Its coat was shiny and healthy, well-brushed and clean.
So Link came back to look the horse in the eye, and sternly said, "Look at you, in perfect health. You have no reason to be so ill-tempered."
The horse nickered in disagreement. Link rolled his eyes.
"So you had one bad day, months ago."
Wisdom tried to look away, huffing, but Link held him fast.
"Don't look away from me," he said, chiding. "You think you can get away with being mean this long?" He shook his head when Wisdom stomped a hoof. "Well, you don't." He ensured the royal bridle was correctly fastened and the bit properly positioned. "You've been getting bribed with apples and oats all winter and spring, and most of summer, too. I think you've become spoiled."
Wisdom took great offense at this, snorting derisively, but Link held him steady.
"You heard me," he said, "spoiled. And by Hyrule's own princess, too." Did the horse even know what Link would have done to say the same?
Next to him, Zelda was watching the one-sided conversation with bemusement.
Link came back to look into the beast's inky eyes and his expression softened. "Well, you have no reason to be afraid anymore." He motioned for Zelda to approach, which she did, cautiously.
Seeing her getting closer, Wisdom whinnied softly, trying to step away, and Zelda hesitated. But Link reached up, scratched Wisdom's nose, and began to hum his usual song for horses, that he'd learned during his childhood in Mabe Village. Once the gelding was motionless again, Zelda came closer, standing at Link's elbow.
Still humming, Link nodded for Zelda to retrieve an apple from one of the feed bags hanging between stalls. Then, reaching for her hand as he held Wisdom with the other, he made her hold her palm open and out.
If she felt the same jolt run up her arm as he did, she did not show it. Instead, her ears grew pink and her green eyes met Wisdom's with fearful anticipation.
And Wisdom, good boy that he was, plucked the apple out of her hand and crunched merrily, nickering softly with gratitude.
Link went to the horse's neck, rubbing it comfortingly. "See? She's not too bad once you get to know her, right?"
Zelda shot him an irritated glance, but Link didn't care. Before Wisdom could finish its bite, he grabbed Zelda by the waist ― she yelped― and he put her up in her royal saddle. And for once, Wisdom didn't balk.
"How did you do it?" She asked, with wonder, as Wisdom huffed once and began to sniff at Link to find more apples.
Casually pushing the big searching nose away, Link shrugged. "When a horse is skittish, you soothe it." He turned back to Wisdom, who was still snorting at him, and ran a hand on its neck. "That's the only way it will know how you truly feel."
"I've tried that," she reminded him with a smile that was both amazed and annoyed.
"No, you've been afraid of it," Link said, meeting her eyes. "Stepping backwards and hesitating. He's learned you're afraid, and he's picked up on that. Horses are smart. They know what's in your heart. So don't be afraid of him. You have to stay calm to stay in control. If you feel like you can't find that calmness, soothe him," he suggested. "And through him, find that peace within yourself, too."
Her lips parted, but for a moment she seemed without words.
Then, softly, she asked, "Is that the key? To being the best horse tamer there is?"
Her eyes were so green. Link wasn't sure he should keep looking at them. So he turned away and mumbled, "No, the key to that is to not fear broken bones."
She burst out laughing, unexpectedly, her laughter filling the stables and making horses peek out of their stalls, ears raised curiously.
It also made Wisdom irritable again, and he sidestepped in discomfort. Link clucked at him once more, pulling him back to attention.
"Oh," Zelda said, her voice dropping in guilt, "I've scared him, haven't I?"
"No," Link said. "He's just being difficult." Glancing up at his princess, he said, "Are you up for some riding?"
She perked up, the smile on her face genuine, the hope and relief surprising him. "Oh, yes! Please tell me you can afford to take the day. If I spend another moment in this castle, I will scream."
He'd guessed as much. She was a bookworm, a recluse at heart. The influx of visitors had been grating on his nerves too. The princess running away for a day would come as no surprise to the Order, and given how little she and the King spoke now, King Rhoam likely wouldn't care, as long as she performed her daily prayers.
"I'll send a quick note to Groose so that we don't trigger some castle-wide manhunt," he said. "And then we'll go."
As soon as the nearest shadow had taken his message ― with a smirk Link had forbiddingly scowled at ― he retrieved Courage, saddled him up, and they exited the great stables. Together, they began to amble their way down the road out of the Castle. To ensure Wisdom didn't dart, Link remained close, ready to reach out and grab his lead if needed.
As they passed by the entrance to the deep Sheikah Sanctuary, Link spotted a group of Sheikah chatting amongst themselves.
And Misko among them.
Zelda waved at the bard, who stood immediately and bowed.
So he hadn't been thrown out with the Yiga, Link contemplated, sourly. That was a shame.
As though aware of Link's thoughts, the Sheikah bard shot him an irritated glare. Jealousy, no doubt, Link considered. One did not go riding alone with the princess every day. But he didn't respond, keeping his face as blank as he could.
When they were further down the road, out of earshot, Zelda's shoulders slumped. "This Yiga business has been difficult for the Sheikah." Screwing her lips, she added, "Most of Misko's songs lately have been mournful."
Clucking at Wisdom to prevent the horse from veering off the path, as it clearly wanted to, Link said, "The Yiga wanted to kill you."
"I know," Zelda sighed. "But it really has divided Misko's people. I can't blame him for the sorrow he feels." She was silent for a moment, then said, "Sometimes I have nightmares about that night."
Link shot her a worried glance, but she was staring at the pommel of her saddle.
"Only instead of the Yiga's neck snapping, it's mine he's breaking." She straightened, shuddering, and her green eyes came up to gaze at him. "I owe you my life, once again."
"It was Impa," Link said, "really…"
"Of course," she said, flushing. "Only… I was happy to have you shielding me."
He hoped she didn't see him swallow the lump in his throat. She had no idea, clearly. No idea that standing weaponless in the path of a blade was the only way he could have possibly prevented his own set of nightmares.
Turning to focus on the road and the gate into the town, he said, as lightly as he could, "Well, I can be useful sometimes."
She snorted, waving to the guards at the gate, who were saluting. "Yes, clearly I owed you the benefit of the doubt much sooner than I gave it." She sighed, her shoulders slumping, though she was smiling. "If I get a chance to start over, I will do better next time."
He smiled too. "Good, because that lesson applies to your horse, as well. Don't go running down steep mountain paths again. It's terribly dangerous for your horse, and for you, and for my peace of mind."
She groaned, leaning forward in the saddle, and Wisdom flicked his ears with irritation. "Oh, I know. I keep going over it in my mind. I was so upset― only now I can't quite remember why I acted so rashly."
They reached the gates into the fields. Around them, the market was lively, the early morning already beginning to fill with chatter and freshly-baked bread smells. But out in the fields, summer was ripening the crops, and the grasses were mature, and the trees were their usual deep green.
Link inhaled deeply, and even their horses perked up.
"You really do fare better in the wild," Zelda observed, and Link thought he heard a note of fondness in her voice.
He merely smiled. "How do you feel about a good gallop?"
She seemed to contemplate the idea. "Will it help me make Wisdom happy?"
Wisdom, Link thought, looked antsy: the appeal of the road was too tempting to ignore, even with his least favourite person on his back. "I think if you keep soothing him when he feels the urge to stray…"
It was all the incentive Zelda needed. She pressed her legs into Wisdom's flanks, and she was off among merchant carts and other startled travelers. Surprised, Link followed closely, intent on keeping Wisdom's temper under control.
They alternated trot and gallop for hours, reaching the Regencia river and pausing to let their horses drink deeply. Then, of a single mind, they got back into the saddle and continued south along the river, exclaiming at jumping fish that raced alongside, releasing the reins when they felt bold.
With her hair in the wind and her cheeks flushed with heat and excitement, Zelda had never looked so carefree.
Even Wisdom, for all that he'd begun the day on the wrong hoof, eventually warmed up enough to enjoy obeying Zelda's gentle commands.
Together, they followed the river for several more hours, leaving deep hoof marks in the river's sandy gravel shore. By mid-afternoon, they reached the Gleeok Bridge after stopping into the Coliseum town for a quick meal. When they got back into the saddle, they settled for a slower pace, the better to enjoy the summer's heat.
"I don't think we've ever covered this much ground in one day," Zelda said as they followed the road west towards Manhala Bridge.
Link was inclined to agree. "We'll be back at the Castle very late," he said, an inkling of guilt beginning to grow. "I hope you don't get in trouble."
Zelda exhaled. "Later is better, really." A cloud of irritation passed over her face for a brief moment, but it was so sincere that it comforted him. She seemed to have forgotten to be shy, and it warmed his heart. "I truly think if I had spent a single more day cooped up within those walls, I would have gone mad."
Link readjusted his seat in the saddle, saying nothing, pleased to have her speak so openly. As expected, she took this as an invitation to continue.
"It's all the little things, really," she explained, as he listened. "It's how I can't seem to take three steps out of my quarters without being hounded. It's how the entire trial seems to have taken over the Castle and everyone has an opinion to share about the outcome it should have― especially Chancellor Cole, who has been utterly insufferable for weeks now, telling my father lies about my lack of devotion being the reason for Kohga's attack, which is frankly rich, coming from that unpleasant little..."
She stopped herself, inhaling deeply to regain her calm. Link didn't say anything. He was just glad that Chancellor Cole wasn't part of his daily life, and that Kohga was under Royal Guard jurisdiction. If either of them had been under Link's control, or the Order of the Guard's, it was likely blood would have been spilled.
"And that's all without mentioning the absolute madness that is tearing the Sheikah apart." She inhaled. "I heard they want to force Kohga's wife and child into exile. I don't agree, but I can't suggest anything better, and anyway it's not like my opinion matters much." She sighed, deeply, then said, "And soon, it won't matter at all. Kohga's sentence will be announced tomorrow, and then he'll fade into oblivion."
Link frowned. "They're announcing his sentence on your birthday?"
She looked at Wisdom's mane absently, her mind evidently elsewhere. "No, Sir Link," she finally said, softly. "They are announcing his fate on Summertide." Her green eyes rose to his face, inscrutable. "And your princess' birthday is after tomorrow, on Nayru's Day, remember?"
"You know what I mean," Link said, insistently. "And even then, it's a gloomy thing to do right before a major feast."
She didn't reply, falling into silence. They were following the road towards Safula Hill now, the sun low on the horizon. The trees to the south were deep green, and the rocky hillside was casting a long shadow. There was peace here, with not a single sign of danger. For that, at least, Link was grateful.
"Isn't it strange?" She suddenly asked, over the deafening song of cicadas. "It's been a year."
Link blinked at her. "What?"
She smiled, glancing at his blue tunic. "Since you became Hyrule's Champion."
Link peered at her for a long moment, a strange mix of emotions churning within. She looked as beautiful today as she had seemed particularly awful last year. And she had grown, too, not only physically ― if one or two inches could be deemed significant ― but emotionally. Every day that passed, it seemed she was less and less a girl, and more and more a woman. And it seemed, too, that she was becoming more of a queen with time, commanding more respect, or at least attracting more deference.
Zelda had obviously changed, but Link wondered if he was different, too. If he really wracked his memory, he was sure he could recall the insecurity, the fear, the resentment. He could recall his squire's gear, and his fellows' jests, the panic of feeling the Master Sword ― now such a natural extension of his own body ― come loose.
He had grown within, too, maybe not so obviously as she had. He still felt the road ahead would be long, and that he had too many shortcomings to list, and he feared he would remain as he was forever. But he was stronger, no doubt about it, and quieter, more subdued, for all that he'd been a very outgoing child.
"A year," he said, in wonder.
Had he done enough? He wondered. Surely his efforts to learn, his desperate need to catch up on an education that he now felt was sorely lacking, his constant urge to read, to observe, to practice― surely those would one day lead to proficiency. Surely his journey to adulthood was not yet at an end.
Surely he still had time, he thought, quelling a fear that he was doing too little. And, meeting Zelda's eyes, he forced himself to feel sure of it. Yes, they both had time. They would have time to become better. He would grow stronger, and she would awaken her powers ― she might even have time to hone them, if the gods were good ― and together they would one day be a formidable team, able to vanquish any foe.
But looking upon Zelda now, at her peculiar, sad smile, and the way she was looking at their surroundings so wistfully, he felt a strange panic within. Why? Why did he suddenly feel that time was running short? Was it her growing up? He knew he wasn't the only one to notice she was growing more beautiful by the day… Was that it? Was he afraid she'd slip away?
Before he could say anything, she turned back to him.
"You know," she said, "I didn't want you to become my knight."
Link tried not to snort. "That was no secret," he said flatly, gratified to see her smile.
"Well, I was wrong," she said. "And I think it's time I admitted it."
"You already did," Link reminded her. "In Gerudo."
She had pushed him away, and removed him from her service, and then told him he could pledge his fealty later, on his terms, when he deemed she was worthy once again.
Perhaps, Link thought, it was soon time to pledge himself again. He certainly thought of nothing else but her safety, and lived for the moments where she would glance his way, or smiled those secret grins that were seemingly just for him. And sometimes, in the late evenings, after her prayers, when he got to sit in her company, he tried very hard not to speak the many truths that crowded his mind or his heart. Maybe pledging himself again was only right.
"It feels like a lifetime ago," she was saying, looking up at the sky, and Link came back to the moment. "I was truly arrogant. I could have lost a true friend and never known it."
"You mean me?" Link asked, strangely touched.
She turned to him in amused surprise.
"Of course," she exclaimed. "Who else?" And then she tilted her head, eyes wide and playful, her pink lips pouting the way they did when she was trying to wrap some courtier around her finger. "Or are we not friends, Sir Link?"
His mouth went dry.
Trickster, he wanted to accuse in between heartbeats.
Had she learned this from the Gerudo? Was that imperceptible flutter of lashes rehearsed?
Was he ever going to find his voice again?
It was unfair. He had seen her flirt before, but he'd never been on the receiving end of the full force of her efforts. Now that he was, he could no longer mock those courtiers she had bamboozled.
He forced himself to focus. Of course they were friends. Just friends. Friends who innocently rode together, who exchanged secret grins only when no one was looking. Friends of circumstance, who were mindful of their respective stations and respected the boundaries of society.
"We're friends," he croaked.
The playful pout vanished, replaced with a triumphant smile, and Link knew with certainty that all the time she spent in devotionals was a complete waste of her natural talents.
Elated and frustrated all at once, he fell silent, wrestling with himself, trying to calm the madness in his blood.
She began to hum to herself, and Link recognized the song for horses he'd taught her, and suddenly the heat inside him began to fade, replaced with warmth, a fullness of the heart that made him want to hold her close.
He was going to pledge himself again, he swore to himself. He'd say the words once more. Just to her, with no witnesses. Not today, though. He wanted to wash off the dust and dirt from the road. He wanted to be in full knight's attire, and to kneel before her properly.
And he wouldn't get a moment of her time tomorrow, on account of the trial. Nor the next day, when they departed with the other Champions towards Lanayru on the final leg of the pilgrimage.
But maybe after their return, he thought, he could plan it out properly. And when all the madness had quieted down, he could take her aside, and say the words to her again.
He stifled a private smile. Yes, that felt like a proper plan.
They still had time, after all.
"Tomorrow... is my seventeenth birthday. So then I shall go, and make my way up the mountain."