The summit of Lanayru was the least welcoming location for a Spring Link had seen so far. Even at the trailing end of summer, right at the doorstep of autumn, it was impossibly cold up there, with actual snow and ice, and a wind that bit right through their furs like a whip.
So when he saw Zelda wondering how to change into her prayer dress without getting frostbite, he put his foot down.
"You can pray in full winter clothing," he said, trying to keep the indignation out of his voice.
She shot him a little scowl that did not have the full effect she had hoped, because she was far too cute when she scowled. "I must prove my devotion," she said.
"If this is the Spring of Wisdom," Link argued, "then maybe this is a test, because only fools will strip down to a simple dress to pray in this weather."
She pursed her lips with frustration, glancing between him and the evidently frigid waters before them.
"Or," Link continued, "maybe you don't need to be in the water, and Nayru, being a goddess, can hear you even if you're a few feet further away."
She huffed. "Sir Link, I must."
"No," he said, firmly, "because if you do, you will definitely die of cold, and then we will be no better off." And as for himself… He didn't want to think about it.
She was annoyed. "Don't you have firewood to collect?"
"Not if I'm going to find you half naked in an icy spring upon my return, I don't," Link replied.
Her cheeks got redder than strictly because of the cold. "I am capable of handling it. I've bathed in icy springs before."
"I remember," Link said, irritated.
"You―" She turned to him with an indignant glare. "And you interrupted my prayers, if I recall."
"You're welcome." Then, getting back to the matter at hand, he said, "If you put a single toe in that water, I will toss you over my shoulder and we are going back down the way we came. It will be too bad for your prayers." He shot her a pointed glare. "I mean it."
The day's climb would have been all for nothing, but that was just too bad.
Actually, the entire trip would have been all for nothing, and they would have importuned some of Hyrule's most prominent people, but what was a little disturbance if Zelda lived?
"For the record," Zelda said, "I disapprove." There was no denying the relief on her face, though.
Once he was confident she was not going to endanger her health or her life, Link left his belongings next to the overhang where he intended to erect their tent and followed the path back down to the mountain side, where some thin, scraggly trees evidently managed to wrench a few weeks of life from the mountain's perpetual cold.
Sprinkling a few replacement seeds into the frozen ground, Link then began to pull at branches and cut down the smaller trees, and returned once he had tied together three bundles of wood.
He was dismayed, upon his return, to find Zelda had changed into her prayer robes anyway ― and a shiver of horror ran down his spine at the discomfort that must have been ― though she had then covered it up with her coat.
Dropping the wood next to their belongings, he cleared his throat. She shot him a startled look, quickly replaced by a guilty one.
"You could have waited for me to build the fire," he admonished.
"But then you would have been there," she said.
It was his turn to feel strange warmth in his cheeks.
"Right. Well." He grunted and turned to focus on stacking wood into a neat pile, choosing not to think about it. She was a grown woman now, able to make her decisions. And the sooner he built this fire, the sooner she'd be kept warm.
She kneeled at the edge of the water, preparing for the first mudra, and Link chipped at his flint in firm strikes, the silence upon them muffled by the snow and the low clouds.
"Gracious Goddesses, I thank you for the gift of Hyrule's Champions." As she murmured her first, soft prayer, Link let his memory return to that morning. After a relatively dull journey to Kakariko, they'd set out that morning for what had turned out to be a surprisingly eventful day. Link and Zelda had been accompanied by the Champions that morning, which had been more than a blessing. A lynel had surprised them as they'd exited the Lanayru East Gate, and Link had barely had time to shield Zelda from its arrows.
With a roar, Urbosa and Daruk had charged at the beast, which had stunned Link and Zelda both. Revali had rushed over in a swift beat of wings, and Mipha had passed by them with far less urgency, pausing to ensure they were both unharmed before continuing towards the fray. She'd pulled her trident from her back and adopted her fighter's stance, then smiled at them.
"Leave it to us," she'd said.
What a ballet of graceful fury they had been. Link had merely stood in front of Zelda, stunned by the protectiveness the four Champions had demonstrated. Daruk's powerful blows matched the incredible strength of the lynel, and Urbosa's sure strikes had been lightning fast, matched only by Revali's swoops and true aim. Mipha had remained on the outside, so graceful it seemed she was dancing as she moved from one to the next, healing their wounds, her trident only surging forward to strike when the lynel made the mistake of opening its guard.
In minutes only, the lynel had let out its final roar. It crumpled to the ground in a broken heap, and Revali had shot it between the eyes with near medical precision, putting an end to its agony.
As she'd stood behind him, Zelda had asked in a soft voice, "Did you know they could fight that well?"
Link had suspected, but never seen the Champions in proper action against a real foe. He shook his head. "I could only assume, or they would not have been selected."
She'd smiled softly, and Link's traitorous heart had fluttered at the sight. "I'm pleased." But then her eyes had drifted up to the mountain, and the smile had faded, leaving Link cold. "I only wish I were worthy of such Champions."
The four of them had returned with evident concern, ensuring both Link and Zelda were fine, and Link had ignored Revali smugly pointing out his central role in protecting the princess. Someone had to be the shield, Link figured, and glory was Revali's greatest desire. He could have it.
"You are worthy," Link muttered now, striking his flint with unnecessary force, and a splinter of stone landed on his unlit pile of wood.
Though Link had tried to keep his voice low, she apparently heard his brief outburst, because she paused in her prayer.
"I don't feel it," Zelda mumbled. Her eyes went to the Goddess Statue. "Hylia doesn't seem inclined to bestow her blessing upon me."
It must have been on her mind all the way up the mountain, Link thought. Either that, or their friendship had drawn them so close that they were beginning to follow the same patterns, their friendship bringing them close together in mind and spirit. Something within twinged at the thought.
A spark ignited the straw before him, so Link began to blow at the tongue of flame gently. Then, looking up, he said, "You haven't asked for her blessing here yet." Quoting her own words, he added, "The next moment could change everything, right?"
She nodded, but did not seem satisfied by his answer. Link couldn't blame her. The concern in her eyes was obvious. She was afraid. Afraid of new rejection.
And he couldn't blame her. This was an austere place, unwelcoming in every way. One did not feel like there were any gods here, let alone benevolent ones. The cold bit through their clothes, whipped at their hoods, nipped their exposed skin ― her nose, his ears.
But at least Link was going to keep them both warm, he thought with some satisfaction. The fire was beginning to catch, slowly licking at the wood and blackening it. He placed his pack in the way of the wind to shield his sputtering, growing fire, then began to unpack the tent. It would do little to keep the heat, but it would shield them from the worst of the wind and it would protect them from falling snow, which was better than nothing.
Behind him, he began to hear Zelda mumbling her familiar mantras, and he noted with a glance that she had finally brought herself to praying in earnest. She was kneeling in the snow, and had anointed herself with a single triangular smear of spring water, which was better than actually bathing in the icy pool.
He looked up at the statue of the Goddess, still smiling blandly at nothing in particular, and made his own quiet imploration: Grant her your blessing, damn it. He had grown more and more irreverent with every passing Spring and was working hard on showing none of it, so rather than string additional curses, he turned back to his stakes and began laying out the tent's foundation for anchoring.
It took him a little under an hour ― it was always faster with additional hands, and he had none of those. When at last the tent was up, shielded by his chosen overhang and slightly warmed by his merry fire, he stood back and observed his work with satisfaction.
There was something godly in the simple things. That had always been his mother's opinion, at least. A well-executed task, done with meticulous care, could bring anyone closer to the gods. She had found her religion in every studiously laid stitch, every carefully prepared meal. His father, for his part, had converted to this idea after meeting her, and would find his inner peace from repeated drills, precise jabs and swipes of the sword. They had not practiced at altars, except on the holiest days, and yet they were, and had been, faithful and happy in their own way.
Turning to look at Zelda, Link's heart squeezed.
She had not budged from her position, though she moved her arms and hands into the ever-repeating cycle of mudras. Her ears were red, bitten by cold, and her breath came out with every whispered word like a thin cloud. Her dress, where it was visible under her coat, was stiff from the snowmelt freezing into the fabric.
And still there were no signs from the gods.
His mother would not have stood for this, Link considered, returning his attention to the food they'd packed for the evening. It was neatly tied up in a Sheikah cloth wrap: a gift from Impa, who had welcomed them the night before in Kakariko. It had been the first time Link had visited the village, and he'd been surprised by how normal it was: there had been elders and children, and vegetable patches and animal pens… He'd only ever known Sheikah in the prime of their fighting age, tutors and martial artists all. He'd never given much thought to their childhoods or their old days.
Somehow, Master Impa had managed to locate Master Kohga's son, although she'd had to imprison the boy's mother for dissidence. Unsurprisingly, young Kohga ― a surly, quiet infant if ever Link had seen one, and one whose inherited name would bring him no respite for the rest of his days ― did not take being separated from his mother with much joy. Zelda had asked whether it was wise to divide the family, her heart evidently concerned for the boy's well being, but Master Impa had been intractable.
Treason, she'd argued, is treason.
Looking at his princess praying now, Link wondered whether such stubborn refusal to bend on rules wasn't the most dangerous thing for everyone. It was unhealthy for Kohga, son of Kohga, and it was painful for Zelda Bosphoramus, and it cast King Rhoam in an unpleasant light― and it seemed no one enjoyed it, least of all those around them who had to look on helplessly.
Once again, he found himself struggling against the inner calling to pull Zelda away from the Spring, to embrace her, to hold her close―
No. That voice, he argued, was no better than the wolf's. Sure, the wolf was animated by baser instincts, and this urge seemed to come from someplace higher, someplace better, but it was still a bad idea. He had a knightly duty to serve the king, to guard Zelda, to protect the kingdom, to ensure its princess awakened her powers. Anything that detracted from that, no matter how divinely inspired the idea seemed, was bad.
Still. If he looked at the fire just so, he could almost see two lovers embracing, mad for one another, and he wasn't going to deny he felt absurd longing at the thought.
Rubbing at his eyes, he forced himself to return his full attention to the food he was mindlessly unpacking. Over there, Zelda had just finished her sixth devotional, and had begun a seventh, though he could tell from the strain in her posture and the frustrated way she muttered her final mantra that it was not imbuing her with anything other than impatience.
Eggs, Link discovered, pleased with the choice that had been packed for them. They would be filling. He pulled out a travel pan and let it sit in the fire to begin heating it up. And vegetables ― those, he knew, would be nice with a tiny drizzle of oil to help grill them to delicious, crispy perfection. Some thoughtful Sheikah had already chopped them up into convenient slices. He'd have to thank whoever had done the work on their way back to Hyrule Castle.
He spent the next hour or so focused on food preparation and cooking, ignoring the growing tension from Zelda and his own helplessness at her plight. He couldn't linger on that. He could help by being helpful ― she'd be hungry and cold when she inevitably stopped for the night, and he would make sure her pallet and plate were ready.
By the time Zelda finished her twenty-first imploration, the sun had set. Or Link was fairly sure it had set. The thick cloud cover and the ever dimming daylight told him what little they could. Keeping an eye on the food, he had begun to plant more torches around the camp to ward off the cold and the night.
He had crunched his way through the snow with his final torch, intent on planting it near Zelda, when her pale hand darted out and caught the hem of his coat.
Blinking down at her, he saw an expression he was becoming all too familiar with.
She was trying to look carefully vacant, ferociously neutral, but there was no disguising the anguish in her eyes. In this fading light, with all the grey and white around them, they were the colour of dull moss, save for the tiny hint of unshed tears.
"I…" She paused to collect herself, then mustered the words to continue. "I can't."
Her fingers were trembling, though Link couldn't guess whether it was due to emotion or the cold. Reflexively, he planted the torch firmly, as hard as he could into the frozen ground, then plucked her fingers from his coat and held them in his own. They were like icicles, and he wondered whether she'd continued to anoint herself with springwater.
Squeezing them, as though to will some heat back into her, he kneeled at her side. "It's getting late, and you shouldn't be praying on an empty stomach. Come on."
She didn't fight him as he gently pulled her up, though she came stiffly, both from having kneeled motionlessly so long and from having been exposed to the biting cold. Once again, Link struggled not to glare at the Goddess Statue.
"I've made eggs," he said, as cheerfully as he could. "And nice seared veggies, just the way you like them. They should warm you right up."
She came to the camp silently, but he was pleased to see her curling up over the fire, inhaling deeply of the smell of food, and her hands went out against the heat, turning this way and that, as though to thaw the blood in her veins.
She began to shiver gratefully. "Oh," she said, her voice tense as she smiled through chattering teeth, "I had almost forgotten what heat felt like."
He didn't miss her weak attempt at humour, and seized upon it like a lifeline. "Wait until you remember how great a full belly can be."
She smiled at him softly over the flames, and though it only partly reached her eyes, Link was pleased she hadn't fully given up.
Gingerly, he motioned to the trunk of a fallen tree by the fire where she could sit. Around the campfire, the snow had melted and the ground was soggy. The tanned leather hides in the tent would shield them from the worst of the meltwater, but for now they had to avoid sitting on the ground. "I hope you don't mind burnwater as a drink," he said. "Or I could melt some snow if you'd like."
"Oh, no," she said, the shivers abating, though her voice was still tremulous. She had grabbed a blanket and wrapped it about her shoulders, forming a small lump of cloth and golden hair. "I need the burnwater."
"Atta girl," Link flatly joked. "There are some lumberjacks in Hebra tonight who are proud and don't know why."
"You flatter me," she replied in kind, her hand poking out of her blanket to accept the flask he was handing her. "But I need something bracing right now. After… after failing. Again."
He'd hoped she wouldn't go back to the subject, and yet he couldn't blame her. It was all they could possibly talk about on the peak of this godforsaken mountain. They wouldn't have even come otherwise.
"I won't insult you by saying it will be better in the morning," Link said, settling at her side to keep an eye on his cooking. "I think we both know by now this Spring business is for show."
"I still had hope," she gently said, the firelight casting dancing shadows on her face. She had softened now and her smile was melancholy. "I know it was foolish, but I kept hoping that this third Spring would do the trick. I had hope that I would come down the mountain triumphant, that at last I could look my father in the eye."
Link couldn't reply. His throat had closed in mute sympathy, the bittersweet admission pulling at his heart. He watched her take a long swig of burnwater, then pull away with a disgusted scowl. She didn't spit it out, though.
"Sometimes," she continued, her voice raw, "I wonder if the gods even listen to my prayers, or if they listened to my heart and found me wanting."
Now Link did frown, the pain dispelled by indignation. "They wouldn't dare," he growled.
She shot him a surprised glance, startled by the intensity of his words. "Link?"
It was on the tip of his tongue to say everything, to admit his every single thought, every single emotion that had grown within him over the past few months. When she looked at him with such wide limpid eyes, he felt as strong as an ox and as disarmed as a newborn. It made his heart race in ways it had no business doing.
So he forced himself to turn to the food, to divide it into two equal plates. "Do not speak of yourself as though you are unworthy. It's unfair to your efforts, it gives too much credit to the gods, and it simply isn't true."
She clearly hadn't expected him to voice that opinion, because she watched him with a strangely amazed expression that made him feel she wasn't royal at that moment, but instead a woman that was entirely too real and approachable.
And, suddenly aware she was staring at him in the most unprincesslike fashion, she turned back to the fire and took another hard swig of alcohol.
"Here," he said, as she began to cough. Her eyes watered, but she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and accepted the plate he was handing out.
"Thank you," she croaked. Soon, she was digging in, as primly as a princess could with a spoon and a plate on her knees. She'd placed the flask of burnwater between them. She didn't even wait to stop chewing to look at him and say, "Thish ish really good."
"Hunger is the best spice," Link said, smirking. She didn't dignify that with a reply, too busy eating to bother with niceties.
She was right, of course; despite his joke, he'd managed to pack some quality spices in his bags, and he was glad of it. The meal he'd prepared was almost as good as something he'd have cooked at home, so it didn't last long on his plate. Or hers.
When the food was down and the flask was back in her hand, Zelda sighed, looking at the flames in front of them with her usual hint of melancholy.
"It's always easier to be sad with a full belly," she said.
"Glad I could help," Link said, taking her plate and his and rubbing them in the snow to wash them.
She watched him wash the dishes thoughtfully, her hands cradling the burnwater on her lap. "You've been more than helpful," she finally said, after a contemplative silence.
He glanced up at her, and was too embarrassed to hold her gaze. Focusing back on his scrubbing, he managed an ineffective, "Oh?"
"Hm." She took another mouthful of burnwater. This one didn't seem to hurt as much as the previous ones, and she gulped it down with only a slight grimace. "I fear I haven't expressed my gratitude properly before."
"You don't need to," Link said, embarrassed.
"I still should," she said. "I have forced you to go all over Hyrule with me on pointless errands. You have been uncommonly― unfairly obliging."
I live to serve, Link thought to himself. A small smile pulled at his lips, and a sad, helpless feeling pulled at his heart.
"What's more," she said, shuffling closer, nearer to where he was working, "you have been incredibly supportive of me, even though I've done very little to earn your kindness."
"It's what friends do," Link said, stacking the clean plates back into his bag. "I want to think that, if the roles were reversed, you'd have done the same."
"You mean, if you were a prince?" She asked, her brow furrowed.
He glanced up at her, surprised by her proximity. The neck of the flask rested on her lower lip, and she was looking at him speculatively now, like he was some interesting roadside lizard.
"If I were a prince," he started, the words hot on his tongue, "I―"
The words choked on his tongue, forced back down into silence as he realized how close he was getting to making some uncomfortable, highly inappropriate confessions.
"You… what?" Her expression had changed now, the flask falling away from her lips, and though she eyed him with the same curiosity as before, her tone seemed… different.
"I'd―" No, he couldn't do it. It was inappropriate. He was her knight, her servant, her shield, and he needed to remember it, damn it all. He took the flask from between her hands to take a long, painful mouthful of burnwater. It blazed a trail of liquid fire from his throat to his stomach, but Link found he'd not renewed his courage. Instead, he managed to croak, lamely, "I'd need a friend, too."
She accepted the flask when he returned it, but she did not drink from it. Instead, she looked at him with a strange sadness. "Right," she said, faintly.
She turned back to the fire, and for a long moment silence stretched between them.
The clouds did not go away. The snow kept falling around them, muffling every sound, so that it seemed they were nestled into a world entirely their own, quiet and isolated, filled to the brim with words unsaid. Link could almost feel palpable sadness, confusion and halted hopes in the air. Not for the first time, he hated himself for loving her.
Now that she was closer to him, he could feel her nearness like a second fire. It burned against his sleeve and his side, and as she sat restless, her leg kept brushing against his, and her foot laid so close to his own...
She was invading his thoughts, of course. But now even his physical space was taken up by her proximity, by the smell of her hair, the sight of her condensated breath, the pink that suffused her cheeks, that coloured the tip of her nose, the tip of her ears. He could scarcely breathe without feeling her own breathing. He could hardly look anywhere without catching some sight of her.
He tried desperately to focus on the fire, but it did little to help. The flames were still dancing, twirling together, intertwined like lovers in the throes of bliss. And next to him, he was acutely aware of her every single movement, every sighing breath, every blink.
"I don't want to leave this mountain," she finally said, and he was forced to focus.
"Why not?" He managed. "It's freezing up here."
She wasn't looking at him. She was looking down at the flask in her hands, and the fixedness of her gaze told him she was holding back tears. "Because if we leave, then I have to tell them."
"Tell them?" Link echoed, though he knew what she meant the moment the words were out of his mouth.
Her lip quivered. "That I'm a failure."
Maybe it was the gulp of burnwater sitting in his stomach like lead. Maybe it was the muffled silence around them. Maybe it was that she looked so small and helpless that it called to something instinctive within him.
Either way, he reached out and pulled her hands so she had to turn and look at him. Now she was crying, the warm tears rolling down her cheeks. He couldn't help it― his thumb went up to wipe at her cheek, and he looked into her eyes, hoping she saw the concern he felt. "Zelda."
She was trembling. She let go of the flask, and it rolled to the ground. Her hands were cold in his. Her eyes were full of heartbreak, searching, and he hoped he could say what she needed to hear.
"Zelda," he repeated, his voice raw, desperate as he was to be earnest. "You aren't a failure." He frowned, tried to find the right words of comfort, and managed something that he hoped was close enough: "You're strong. Everyone who truly knows you has expressed nothing but amazement. You persevere where anyone else would have given up. You have given your time, your energy and your health for a purpose that would have made lesser Hylians run for their lives."
Again, a fat tear rolled down her cheek, so he wiped at it firmly, gently. She was staring at him, transfixed, desperately eager for comfort. It broke his heart.
"I don't know what you need to do to awaken your power," he said. "But I know that there is no worthier person in Hylia's sight. You mustn't despair. Just say the word, and I will ensure my Order of the Guard never allows another naysayer near you. You don't have to hear them or see them ever again. I can protect you, if you'll allow it."
Her hands squeezed his on their knees, between them, but Link could only continue to watch her face, to hope against hope that she would allow him to shield her from the worst.
"You're kind," she whispered. She was looking down at their hands. "I'm sorry it took me so long to see it." Her eyes lifted, and she looked at him searchingly. "Link…"
To his surprise, her hand dropped his and came up to his cheek. He leaned into her touch before he could even think to stop himself, and her expression softened, her lip trembling.
Suddenly, she leaned in even closer. Suddenly, both her hands reached for his face, cupping it. Suddenly, she was all around him. Suddenly, Link found himself looking closely into those eyes he'd spent so many months studying, and he felt a pulse of madness threaten to take over.
Vulnerable, he reminded himself, desperately. She is vulnerable. But she climbed into his lap, straddling him, and his eyes kept straying to her pink lips, because they matched the flush of her cheeks. And they were so close he could feel her breath mingle with his own.
His heart was racing, and judging by the feverish flush of her cheeks, so was hers.
Oh, it was hard to be good when she looked at him that way. There was a darkness in her eyes, a desperate need that he could feel echoing down into his bones. How could he fight it when she was right there, so close, so pliant, so like the hundreds of dreams he'd had for months now?
His name came out as a soft breath, hot mist in the cold air, with a tremor of longing he'd never heard from anyone before, a gentle prayer that unmade him completely.
But Link did not act on this. He did not reach up to bring her face down to his. Princess Zelda, like a proper princess, pulled away and went to sleep. And he guarded her as a proper knight should. And they did not speak of it again.
Cross my heart, Sir Link, nothing untoward happened that night.