When Link and Zelda arrived in the Blatchery Plains of East Necluda, it was in a haze of rain and mud.
It was difficult to describe what Link felt. Sometimes the emotions were fleeting and sometimes they were crushing. Guilt and grief came and went like the sea ― sometimes as powerful and unstoppable as the tide, sometimes quick and fast and relentless like waves against the shore. The pain rose and fell within him, so that when he didn't feel it the relief was indescribable. But then feeling any relief from his agonizing grief made him feel guilty, and he would begin spiralling all the way back to the sorrow that nested in his core, lodged like a thorn or an arrowhead between his gut and his heart.
At least Link's mind and senses remained mostly focused on trudging forward, one exhausted step after another, scanning vaguely and instinctively for threats. Even still, when they'd stop to rest somewhere safe, it would all come crashing down on him, the immensity of what had happened. It was overwhelming, terrifying. It seemed like he had lost a limb, like he was walking around in a bloodless confusion, amazed that he still drew breath.
After all, what right did he have to still be alive when so many had given their lives for him? For Zelda? What right did he have to be running when the Calamity was behind them?
The right thing to do was to turn back, to embrace death and surrender to the ending of the world. If he'd been alone, that was what he would have done.
But he kept trudging onward, the hope of Zelda's escaping somehow still glowing within him, dying embers in the cold, a choking, gasping hope.
The rain fell hard. Across the plains, it looked like ghostly grey curtains sweeping in the wind. Zelda was in the lead now, her progress greatly slowed but animated by the same deadened determination to stay alive.
Looking at her small form, soaked to the bone, so strong and yet so frail, Link felt a surge of painful love rise within him. What was his love worth now? He'd failed her in every way, had failed his family, his king, his country.
And she hadn't spoken to him since they'd picked themselves off the forest floor to keep moving.
The plains were deserted― and when they reached the Dueling Peaks stables, they saw it had burned down.
In the heavy rain, the blackened ruins of the wooden yurt were drenched. They had stopped smouldering entirely under the battering downpour, but the wood was still warm from the fire.
Pulling his hand away from the burned beam, Link wiped his sooty hand on his tunic without thinking twice. There was no food to find here, he assessed slowly, picking his way through the ruin. Zelda remained outside, observing the destruction without a hint of emotion.
The horses had apparently escaped, if the hoofmarks in the sodden grass were any indication. Their owners and caretakers were nowhere to be found.
Or maybe they were here, Link considered, as he came upon the completely burned husk of an adult Hylian. Perhaps a man, he thought, if what remained of his clothes could be trusted. But who could ever know? Horse nomads men and women dressed alike.
Zelda joined him in the center of the burned ruin and looked down at the body. She spoke for the first time in over a day, her voice hollow of any emotion: "We need to say some words."
Link removed the scabbard of the Master Sword from his back and gently placed it point down on the ground, in the most formal position he could adopt when he could not kneel. Zelda, for her part, clasped her hands in front of herself, in a mudra of humble prayer.
"Stranger," she recited to the blackened husk, "Words cannot convey the sorrow your passing has wrought." She paused, studying the body without feeling, the way its teeth were still somewhat white under the soot. "Here, in company of…" She glanced around, and saw no one else but herself and Link. "In company of strangers and your ancestors, we pray that your spirit finds its way to the golden realm of eld, that your bones nourish the land of Din, that your soul become one with the law of Nayru, that your flesh feed the creatures of Farore."
"Thus it is," Link numbly whispered in the din of the rain.
He lifted the Master Sword once again, ready to move on, but Zelda did not budge.
She was still looking at the body.
Her hands were still clasped together.
"Father," she whispered. "Mipha. Urbosa. Daruk. Revali." Her eyes blinked against the rain. When she looked up at Link, though, he saw that they were dry. "Will anyone say the words over them?"
Mutely, Link put the point of his sword down once again, his heart heavy with sorrow.
"I don't know." Link's own voice was hoarse, scratchy. "We could… we could say something now. For them. And the people from Mabe Village. And my mother." He didn't want to, and the ever-present guilt within him curled sickeningly at that shameful thought. But it was all too new. Too recent. He felt something sour on his tongue, and swallowed hard.
There was a moment of voiceless sorrow, and when Link realized she would not speak, he forced his own words out. By the Goddess, he didn't want to do this. But someone must.
"Champions of Hyrule. King of Hyrule. Soldiers of Hyrule. Villagers of Mabe Village," he softly said, "dear mother. Words cannot convey the sorrow your passing has wrought." His vision was growing blurry. "Here, in company of your daughter, son, brother and friends, we pray that your spirits find their ways to the golden realm of eld, that―" He swallowed hard. "That―"
"Please, Link," Zelda interrupted, her voice lifeless. "Stop."
Link stopped. The rain continued to fall for a long moment.
"I hope that one day," Zelda said into the silence that followed, "their spirits forgive me for what I could not do. But I can't… I can't lay them to rest. Not yet. I can't let them go." Her voice changed on that last note, rising, wavering, threatening to break.
"Princess…" Link started.
She turned to look at him. Her eyes were bright, but only rainwater lingered on those cheeks. She looked vulnerable, ever so earthly, all the artifices of her birth and her station stripped away. Her hair was plastered to her neck and shoulders, her golden jewellery seemed dulled in the grey light, her robes were muddied and soaked.
"Don't tell me I shouldn't," she softly said.
"I understand. I feel the same," Link admitted. "But then…" He looked back down at the body. "But then I suppose... What's another sin to add to our many failings? We're going to spend the rest of our lives wishing for their forgiveness either way."
She was silent at this. Her eyes, almost grey in the dull light of the rain, lowered to the ground.
"I'm going to die, aren't I?" she finally asked, in a desperate whisper. "We're both living on borrowed time."
"We could run," Link said. "Make the Calamity chase us to the end of the world. Maybe even find a place out there that it cannot reach."
But Zelda's eyes were on the corpse. "There will never be such a place for me." She turned to him searchingly. To his surprise, her expression softened. "But you…" She hesitated, and then her hand came up to graze his cheek. "If you could find peace, I would wish nothing more for you." She straightened, and her hand fell away. "Perhaps… Perhaps it's time we… parted ways."
That was not what Link had expected. He frowned, and he watched her pick her way back out of the burned ruin. "Parted ways?" He repeated, the confusion rapidly giving way to the angry denial.
She turned back to him as he emerged from the destroyed stables. "Perhaps it would be best."
"Best for whom?" Link asked. "Because I doubt it would do much for me."
"Link," she said, "please. Go. You deserve to live. It's my fault the plan failed, not yours. It's my fault that…" her voice trailed off again, and Link could see the flash of thoughts across her face: her fault they'd had to run. Her fault everyone was dead. Her fault the nation had fallen. But she said none of these things. Instead, she collected herself, swallowed once, and repeated hollowly: "It's my fault."
"It is not your fault," Link argued. "Are you kidding me? You were never granted any godly gifts ― by what means were you supposed to do anything?"
She shook her head once in a mechanical movement, averted her eyes. "I was evidently not deemed worthy."
The anger simmered under his skin, and he took a deep breath. "You are worthy to me."
Did she hear the undertone of his voice? Her eyes flew to his. "Link?"
"It's Sir Link," he corrected her, self-righteously. "And I― I wanted everything to be different. I wanted you to be in your gardens. I wanted to be in my best uniform. But you'll have to forgive me. This will have to do." He fell to one knee and placed his sword on his lap. "Princess Zelda―"
She began to shake her head again, the motions jerking and graceless. "Link, please, don't―"
"Zelda, dammit," he interrupted, and she looked at him with something that might have been horror if she wasn't trying so hard to not feel anything. "I am trying to pledge my life to your service. Please be quiet for one minute."
"But I don't want―"
"To thee, I swear," he said, loudly, so that she would have no choice but to fall silent. "I shall shield thee from evil and despair."
She was looking down at him with an expression he would have killed to understand.
"And," he continued― gentling his tone, hoping she heard an emotion in his voice that he would never have dared to name aloud, "should thou come to harm..."
That awful emotionlessness was finally melting, cracking, thawing into something real. Grief twisted over her features. Her eyes began to fill with tears, and she shook her head again. She opened her mouth as though to protest, but all that came out was a wordless, choked noise.
He didn't want this to hurt her. He didn't want her to hurt. But there was nothing he could do to release her from her pain. So instead, he forged onward with his promise: "Neither time, distance or darkness shall weaken my arm."
Slowly, Zelda kneeled in front of him, right there in the mud, green eyes bloodshot. She did not interrupt him, but laid her hands over his on the sword. There was dirt and dried gore under her fingernails.
"And my soul," he added softly, "shall not rest."
"My blood shall not cool," she whispered in a cracking voice, and Link realized she was speaking the oath with him, her hands on his.
"My heart shall not soar," he said, voice equally low, "until I find thee."
"To make this land whole again," she finished, her voice wavering as silent tears rolled down her cheeks.
They kneeled in the mud for a long time, looking at one another in confused silence. Finally, Zelda sat back on her heels, and wiped at her streaming eyes with a forearm. The motion left a streak of dirt across her cheek.
"Are you sure this is what you want?" She'd stopped crying, and was now regarding him with something like resignation. She looked tired. "To be under my service again?"
His lips stretched into a lopsided not-smile. "I don't think I ever really stopped."
Now her hand went from the Master Sword on his knee to his chin. Her thumb brushed over the stubble that was growing there. Link saw the exhaustion he felt mirrored in her eyes. "And you'll obey me? After all I've put you through?"
"I've sworn the oath," Link said, with finality.
Her hand retreated. Evidently having come to a decision, she nodded once. "No matter how unfair my commands may seem?"
He remembered the last time she'd given him a so-called 'unfair' command. He'd kissed her soundly at her request, fondled the curves of her hips. Nothing had seemed unfair at the time. At the time everything had seemed perfectly right with the world.
It had all gone horribly downhill from there. Literally. Figuratively.
"I will," he swore, shaking the thoughts off.
"Good. Then I command you to leave me, and save yourself."
If it hadn't been raining already, he'd have felt the order like a bucket of ice water. He pushed himself to his knees, and she followed suit. "What?" He asked, dumbly.
"Go" she immediately said. "The Master Sword chose you. The gods clearly favour you. Saving yourself is the right thing to do for now. And… and I may be able to buy you some time."
"Respectfully," Link said, "That literally contradicts what I just pledged."
She scowled at him, the frustration on her face so familiar that Link felt his broken heart crack a little further. "Link―"
"No," he insisted. "I'm not going to indulge that idea. It's… it's ridiculous. Skies, you're just saying these things because you're― you're hungry." He shook himself. "We need to find something you can eat. It's been over… over two days since your last meal―"
And since his last meal too. He could feel the hunger in his gut like an illness. It slowed his thoughts, weakened his steps. Not that he would show it. He wanted to be reliable. He needed her to trust him. But if he was this hungry, there was no doubt she was feeling the same pain and hollowness.
"Once we've both eaten," he continued, as firmly as he could, "we can have a proper conversation again."
"Link," she said, but he wasn't having any of it.
"Come on," he said, taking her hand. "Let's see if Kakariko has been spared― Impa will surely get us something for the road."
"Link―" Her voice was rising now, as though in protest.
"And then we can get to the business of coming up with a new plan."
But Zelda tugged firmly back on his hand, and grabbed his arm in a panic. "Link," she hissed, "listen!"
It was belatedly that Link heard an all-too familiar whirring of machinery.
He ought to have expected it, really, he thought as he unsheathed the Master Sword. He could feel the familiar rush of battle imbue him, though not as strongly as it was meant to. Now that he had brought up the hunger, it seemed far more present, sapping him of his strength.
The Guardians that had destroyed the stables surged back over a small hill, startling horses that had only just narrowly escaped them. The three autonomous fighters spidered their way to them in haste, as the horses scattered with terrified whinnies, and Link felt himself grow tense.
"Hide," he hissed.
As Zelda backed up towards the remains of the stables, Link rushed forward with a fierce cry, hoping to prevent the Guardians from pursuing her.
How long did he fight? There was no telling. Through the fields he ran, dodging beams of fire, desperately running from one Guardian to the next in an effort to cut off their legs. He had no shield to fend them off, and his strength was waning.
The Guardians had more than one skill to attack him with ― their legs snaked out frequently, stabbing him when they could, drawing blood, as their eyes burned and recharged their attacks.
He felled the first Guardian by attracting it through a patch of deep mud. Under its own weight, the machine became mired, and soon it was bogged down so that Link made short work of its legs. As the other two Guardians circled around in an effort to get a proper fix on him, Link lifted a blood-soaked arm and pushed into the Guardian's eye with a yell.
The beam of fire surprised him. Coming from one of his other foes, it seared his back and he fell off the dead Guardian and into the mud.
For a moment, looking up into the rain, he saw stars.
He couldn't linger ― another spindly leg was darting up, ready to strike, and he forced himself into a roll, dodging the jab, but barely.
Pushing himself to his feet, he swayed. The horizon swam. He was weak. Weaker than he ought to have been. It must be the hunger, he realized woozily ― it was sapping him of natural strength.
He felled another Guardian by running it around in circles, ducking constantly to avoid more firing attacks. Hiding among ruins, he managed to lure it into a place where he could clamber up onto its head, then stab it repeatedly in the eye while the other Guardian shot at them both.
As the second Guardian collapsed, jittering, its eye brokenly flashing pink, then blue, Link turned to avoid an attack from the last Guardian.
This one he destroyed through sheer luck: as he ducked under one of its legs, it tangled itself up in a large root, and Link was able to cut down all of its legs before disabling its targeting eye.
As the machine let out a mechanical whine that comforted him greatly, the pain caught up with him.
He let himself sag down to the muddy ground with a grunt.
Gasping to catch his breath, he raised a hand to his side. It had been grazed by a burning beam, staining his tunic. His back, he knew, was the worst hit. He could feel the pain radiating through his shoulders and his legs, throbbing.
The countless cuts on his limbs were also quite nasty. Guardians claws were sharp as razors, and wielded with exacting precision. Had he been less quick on his feet, no doubt the damage would have been worse.
Skies, he was hungry. It seemed the emptiness in his stomach compounded the pain. He'd exerted himself running like this, and through the mud no less. Slogging on unstable ground was far more difficult and exhausting than running on hard, packed soil.
But Zelda was safe.
He blinked through the rain to see her running towards him, a vision in white. Or maybe that was just the bloom of rainy weather. Maybe he'd hit his head.
"Link," she breathed, the relief at seeing him alive rather comforting. She'd started crying again. "Oh, by the gods, are you alright?"
"I'm fine," he said, straightening. His back was killing him, and the motion sent a wave of agony spiking through his body.
"You're a mess," she said, her voice wavering. "We need to get you a place to rest―"
"I'll be fine," he said, refusing to indulge the possibility. Her words continued to echo in his mind. She wanted to part ways. She wanted to leave him.
By the gods, he wasn't going to let her slip away while he was unconscious or recovering. She might go and get herself killed.
"You're bleeding." There was terror in her green eyes, the strongest feeling he'd seen from her since their disastrous trip into the castle. "I'm sure we can find someone to help." Having a task drove the tears from her face, though her cheeks were still splotched with muddy tear-tracks. She turned eastward, squinting through the rain with purpose. "I think if we walk another hour or so, we can get you to Fort Hateno― Maybe it hasn't been attacked yet."
And then what? When some healer saw the extent of his wounds ― and he knew they were rather extensive, judging by the lancing pain in his every limb ― he'd be forced into bedrest. But she couldn't stay in one place for too long. It was too dangerous. And the second he was indisposed, she'd run. He knew it.
The thought of being parted from her for such absurd, unfair reasons bothered him. Did she truly think so highly of him, and so little of her own life?
"We can't stay here anyway." She was still talking. She was right. Night seemed to be falling. Or perhaps the cloud cover was growing thicker still. Neither possibility comforted him. "We have to keep going, only―" She turned back to him, the worry evident on her face.
"I'm fine," he grunted once again.
But it was getting harder to focus. Looking down at his legs, he was surprised to see the mud under his feet was growing red. He'd been jabbed, sure, and he'd taken a few tumbles that had scraped at his knees, but that seemed like a lot of blood.
Zelda noticed the same thing. "Link," she said, her voice a terrified whisper.
"No," Link slurred. "It's fine." He was still standing. He was still alive. And Zelda needed him. He wasn't going to die. "We'll do what you said."
She took his arm and looped it around her shoulders. "Lean against me if you must."
She touched his back, and he hissed, jerking away reflexively.
"Oh, Link, your back is completely―"
"I know," Link said, taking deep breaths. "I know. We can― We can think about that later."
When she spoke from under his arm, her voice was full of pain. "Link― I'm so sorry."
"Not your fault," he said, before the next words could even pass her lips. "It's not your fault." He weakly kicked the Guardian closest to him. "Stupid buggers shoot fire."
"It is my fault," she insisted, for the second time that day. "My fault you're alone fighting them. And you know it. Please, Link, you must―"
"Nope," Link said, shaking his head drunkenly. "Not listening." He let her tow him along, though he wondered how long he would be able to remain on his feet. Her hand came up to the arm that braced over her shoulder. Her fingers tangled in his, and she squeezed.
"You're going to live, no matter what," Zelda whispered, her voice so low and full of conviction that Link half-thought she was speaking to herself, rather than to him. "You'll see."
He worried what she might do to try to save him.
Overhead, the sky grew darker. The rain began falling harder. Around them, the fires that the three Guardians had ignited in the grass were beginning to smoulder, but they burned so hot that Link wondered whether the rain would be enough to put them out.
His blood was beginning to pound in his ears. He took step after stumbling step, squinting through the grey curtain in hopes of seeing the long, straight wall of Fort Hateno in the distance.
He was so focused on this task that he was surprised when Zelda froze beside him.
Blinking at her in the downpour, he tried to use all his senses. She had twisted under his arm to look behind them, and through the throbbing pain, he tried to understand what had made her stop.
When he saw it, his gut turned to lead.
Her eyes were raised to the crest of the Mable Ridge, to the west, where a veritable army of Guardians had begun to appear in the rain, their red eyes piercing the gloom like so many nightmarish fireflies.
It was perhaps strange that in that moment all Link could feel was calm resignation.
"Link," Zelda whispered, "we need to hurry."
It would have been comical. But Link's vision was growing blurry at the edges. His strength was waning.
How many more Guardians could he reasonably take on? Would that be enough for Zelda to escape?
He straightened. The Master Sword in his hand was damaged ― its edge was chipped, muddied. How many more hits could it take? Once it broke, he'd be weaponless and shieldless. Meat to the slaughter.
He'd never thought he'd see the Master Sword break one day. He hadn't thought it could break. How fitting.
"Zelda," he said, between deep, controlled breaths, "You need to run."
The Guardians began to descend into Necluda like a swarm of locusts. The longer she lingered, the less of a headstart she would have on her way to Hateno.
"I'm not going anywhere," she said.
"You know," Link slowly slurred, "you change your mind a lot." Now his words began to stumble out of his mouth in a frustrated mumble. "Hating me, then not hating me. Kissing me, then not kissing me. Leaving me, then not leaving me. You're very contrary."
"Keep moving," she said.
"When you get to Fort Hateno," Link said, "make sure you warn them that the Guardians are coming."
"When we get to Fort Hateno," Zelda snapped, "you can tell them yourself."
It was sweet of her to say so. Link could feel a sad smile pull at his lips. But the Fort was too far now, and the mud was too slick under his feet.
Zelda had wished they would never come down from Mount Lanayru. Now Link wished the same. It had been cold up there, seeping into his fingers just like now. And there were almost no trees, just like now.
But it had been safer, happier there. The world wasn't ending then.
And her lips had been so soft.
He stopped walking, and let his arm ― the uninjured one ― slide off of her shoulder. "Zelda."
"Link," she said, urgently, tugging at his hand. "Come on, they're gaining on us. They might spot us any minute."
He disengaged from her grip, even though the loss of her touch hurt like another wound. "I'm going to hold them back."
She was afraid. It was in her green eyes, in her trembling frame. "You can't. I order you not to."
"I swore an oath to protect you," he said, serenely. Even if he hadn't, it wouldn't have mattered. He knew, in the same way that the Order had known, that this was his time. And now that it was here, he felt himself filling with strength and resolve.
His life for hers. It was a fair price to pay for the woman he loved.
"Oh, by the gods, I release you," she said. "Do you hear me? I release you from that oath."
He would have laughed bitterly if it didn't hurt so damn much. "Not this again." He turned her so she faced east, and gave her a gentle push. "Go on, now." He tried to keep the impatience out of his voice. "I better not see you where I'm going."
She stumbled away, but she did not run. She looked terrified, and mulish, and Link wished that they'd had more time together. A lifetime. But it wasn't meant to be.
"Come with me!"
"Goodbye, Zelda," Link firmly called after her. Then, to himself, swallowing hard, "It has been an honor to serve you." Thunder cracked overhead. Link turned away from his princess, and came eye-to-eye with the burning stare of a Guardian.
There were two of them, he noticed with the calm detachment that could only have come from blood loss. They were the advance party. And there was no real place for Link to hide.
As the beam of fire burst out of the Guardian's eye, Link scurried forward, ducked under the other Guardian, then clambered over its shell. It took all his strength to stay on it. His muscles screamed. His grip was weak, his focus fading.
But when the first Guardian fired again, it got his current mount right in the eye, and the mechanical thing buckled under Link, so that he tumbled to the ground. Pushing himself up from the muck, he cut off the limbs of his remaining attacker. It sat, angry and animated, in the mud, until Link stabbed the Master Sword into its targeting eye and put an end to its misery.
It was the quickest he'd ever dispatched any Guardian pair, but there was no one to appreciate it.
The swarm of Guardians continued to pour into the plains. Weakened, Link felt his legs give out under him.
Putting his weight on the Master Sword, he wondered how many more he could expect to take out before he lost consciousness. He saw the blood seeping through his clothes now. The strain was unbelievable. There was no question in his mind that he was about to die ― but if only he could buy Zelda enough time to get to safety…
Thinking about her, about his wish for her survival, gave him strength. He felt the ghost of her hand brush against his nape, felt her touch filling him with resolve.
"Get up." The wind sounded remarkably like her, Link thought woozily. Then he realized that this wasn't a vision, some dying dream. She was there. Her hand was cold, but it felt good against his feverish skin. "You need to get up."
He could feel the consciousness fading, could hear the panic edging into her voice. He wanted to say something to her, but he didn't know if he wanted to rebuke her for not running, or thank her for coming back to him.
But if she was here, he needed to stand. To fight. To save her.
"Link," she said, in a tone that wanted to be firm, but ended up sounding tremulous, "you need to get up and run. You are the wielder of the Master Sword. I― The people need you."
The Guardians were coming closer.
"I don't have any power," she said. "I'm of no consequence."
Link had no breath left to reply. Which was unfortunate, because there were words he felt desperately needed to be said before he passed out. I love you, for a start. And maybe, I wanted to kiss you, you silly girl.
The mechanical whirring of machines was growing louder, the stomping of their snaking legs evident under his knees. And the rain kept falling.
I swore an oath, he reminded himself, gathering his tattered strength. He'd sworn to protect the incarnation of the Goddess. And if he had the wrong girl, then that was just too bad. He liked this one more. Kindness. Courage. Patience. Love.
He was going to fight.
And to do that, he'd begin by getting up.
"Link, save yourself. Go. I'll be fine. Don't worry about me. Run!" A moment. Doom. "… NO!"