Hello, y'all. I'm writing a Zelda fanfic here: Link's Journey, Part I. I've requested feedback on it here, and am putting this thread up partly to host some of that discussion (the ff.net review section may be like a counter for a fic's popularity, but it's not very suited for back-and-forth exchanges, ne?)
The short and sweet of it is that it's a novelization project that will span both OoT and MM, with a focus on realism and smoothing out the worst of the gamish elements. It's still in an early phase, but I'm determined to see it through, and want to make it the best I can. It's pretty long so I'm only posting the link here.
Hey, Gastogh! Welcome to ZU! Unfortunately, you are going to need to post the actual text here. Link (heh) won't cut it. I know it's a pain; believe me. But it makes it easier for all readers here in terms of quoting things and formatting things and other stuff.
I'm going to leave this open for a day. I know that you already have a LOT of text written. So I'm only going to have you post at least one chapter/prologue/whatever to ensure that this thread stays open. Because I'm cool like that. Anyway, sorry if this causes you any trouble. But I'm just going by a policy we've had around here since before I joined the forums.
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There were many kinds of lore circulating among the Kokiri. Some of it was things the children had found out or made up on their own, the Know-It-All brothers being the biggest repository of knowledge of that sort. Certain things, however, were passed down from the Great Deku Tree himself. In particular, almost everything concerning the forest and its borders came from the Deku Tree. The Protector imposed few rules on his children, and A child of the woods shall not leave the woods was one such rule. That rule was not questioned. It was not doubted. While many of them entertained thoughts of seeing the outside world, no one seriously sought to trespass that rule; not out of curiosity, not on a dare, not for any reason.
The string of landmarks that outlined Kokiri territory was well known and everyone had been taken to see them all with their own eyes. In fact, some of Link's earliest memories were dim recollections of Saria holding his hand as she took him on his first tour of them. Those images were unusually clear in his mind; even at four years old, he had sensed the grave air of the affair. Not that Saria was given to gloominess, but it was a serious thing and she had treated it as such, and it had rubbed off on him. Link had later come to think that they all, even Saria, felt that same vague fear of the unknown whenever they came upon those sites. And could it really be otherwise? A child of the woods who leaves the woods shall die. Link had always felt as though he could sense the death beyond them, that the creeping dread in those places would have let him avoid them even without being warned. To the Kokiri those specific trees, ponds, glens and bogs marked the corners of their world.
To the west, where lay the shortest and most direct route to the outside world, the landmarks came more frequently. There was the pond with the fallen bird cherry and elm trees in it, the Oaky Ravine – which was a popular playground for all that it wasn't very far from the off-limits area – and many more. And most importantly, there was the series of hollow logs that sat on the only real path to and from the village. Despite the actual border of dangerous ground being a good way off, that fact had made it a place to be avoided. It was just to be on the safe side. You never knew what you might run into if you went straight west.
What Link needed right now was the most direct route out of the village. He'd stopped to wipe his hands and face on the way, had even tried standing under the village's waterfall in an effort to clean his clothes, but they were still dirtied beyond salvage by all the blood. Over half of the front of his green tunic was now covered in bluish-purple stains. He couldn't help seeing them if he looked anywhere near the ground, so he didn't; he only looked ahead, where he was going. He could have gone and taken out one of his spares from his house, but he hadn't had the presence of mind to do it. What he needed was to stop thinking about anything and just get out. He couldn't stop to think. The Deku Tree had asked him, so he must go. The others had noticed the state he was in, and they had whispered and pointed, and that only spurred him on.
Mido's words rang in his ears. It's all your fault! Had he been saying that to the others while Link was trying to wash away the blood? They couldn't have believed him, they couldn't have, it wasn't fair, Mido lied, everyone knew he lied...
So why the pointing and whispering? No one had come to ask him what had happened. He'd seen Fado and Limme running to the Know-It-All brothers' house, yelling something and waving wildly in the direction of the Great Deku Tree. One of the brothers had come out to meet them but Link couldn't hear what they said. Every face he passed was turned either his way or to the canopy of the Deku Tree, and all wore the same expressions of uncomprehending alarm and horror. Even the fairies were in distress – he could tell from the way they darted to and fro or sat stock still on their wards' shoulders. When he took a look at the Deku Tree himself, he already knew what he would see, but the sight still made his insides twist with fresh nausea.
The curse that had killed the Deku Tree had bleached his leaves of their natural color. The formerly green mound that was the Deku Tree's canopy, visible to the village even above the other trees, now looked like a bare, stony cliff. A mild breeze brought individual leaves drifting from his clearing to the village.
The leaves were gray. Not green, as if they had been torn off. Not red or yellow or orange or a dark, blackish brown like in a real autumn. Gray.
The Great Deku Tree really was dead.
Link had taken to his feet. With his wet clothes he was cold, but he hardly noticed. Nor did he feel the sword in its sheath and his shield bumping rhythmically against his back, or the unfamiliar weight of the brilliant green stone in his pocket. All he knew was that he had to leave. It was the last thing the Great Deku Tree had asked of him before he died, and he now saw the same thing in everyone's eyes.
Mido had been right all along after all. Link didn't belong with them. He had never believed it before, but he could see the truth of it now.
Familiar faces with unfamiliar expressions blurred by as he ran – Huna and Kaza and Milnoo, huddling together and looking scared. Link wanted to go to them, to say it wasn't his fault, to lie that all would be fine to make them feel better...
But then the tunnel west was before him, and around him, and then the village was lost in the mist behind him.
Haunted by the events of that morning, Link ran himself to exhaustion before finally coming to a halt upon reaching the bridge. There was no way to tell time for sure in the perpetually overcast forest, but it felt like he'd been up and running all day and then some. It wouldn't have surprised him to find the forest start growing darker any time now. Even so, he knew the bridge wasn't that far from the village. It just felt like he'd been crawling inside the Deku Tree for two days straight, rooting out the cursed parasite. Looking for it, and then...
Link shook his head. He didn't want to―couldn't think about it. He was too tired to run, so he set off at a walk.
Though she hadn't been hiding, Link didn't notice Saria until her voice startled him out of his stupor.
"Oh, you're leaving..."
Link stopped and turned reluctantly. His best friend looked sad – a rare expression for her. The knowledge that he was the cause made it much, much worse.
"Yes," he said quietly, looking away.
"Why? What happened with the Great Deku Tree?" She was looking him up and down. Before he could say anything, she asked in alarm, "Is that blood? Are you hurt?"
Link shook his head. "No... Not bad." He had been, though. He thought it must have taken the last of the Deku Tree's power to close his wounds after the fight. In its death throes the spider creature had thrashed violently and one of its claws had struck him almost clean through the leg. Just remembering the pain made him shiver. By the time the creature finally fell still and the faint blue light washed over him, his right boot had been overflowing with blood and he had been really dizzy. If not for the light, he didn't think he could have climbed out again.
But Saria didn't need to know that.
"There... There was a curse," Link went on, barely audibly. "The Deku Tree said this sorcerer from the west had cast some spell on this, this... I don't know what it was, it looked kind of spider-like, but it was as big as your house. It-it'd carved huge holes, whole caverns, inside the Deku Tree, and..." Saria's hands flew to her mouth in shock, and Link's own voice shook. "And I, I killed it. But it... it had these, these babies, some hatched, some still inside their eggs, and, and I―those too..."
Saria stood frozen to the spot. Link turned away from her. He wanted to do something, to look at her, to be alone, to run away, but most of all he didn't want Saria to see him cry. That thought suddenly seemed as bad as everything else that had happened to him so far that day. In the end, all he managed was to stare at the ground below the bridge. It was almost fully obscured, yielding only a brief glimpse of dark grass when the mists parted.
He felt Saria's arms wrap around him from behind. Link's knees almost gave way but Saria held him tightly enough to keep him standing. They swayed in place like that for a time, Saria keeping a fragment of his world in place and Link desperately trying to breathe past the tightness in his throat.
When he had recovered a degree of control, Saria let go of him. Link was both thankful and sad that she did. He turned to face her.
"You helped him, then? You fixed his sickness?"
Link didn't wonder about Saria knowing about it. She often knew things no one else did. He shook his head.
"No. It was too late."
"But then... Where are you going?"
Link's throat constricted again. He showed her the beautiful green stone and whispered hoarsely, "He gave me this. He said to take it north to a girl who lives there..." There didn't seem to be anything else to say, so he didn't.
Saria was quiet for a time. Then she took him by his hands. Normally Link would have found it embarrassing, but now he simply couldn't care.
"I knew you would leave the forest someday, Link―"
"―because you're different from me and my friends."
No. No no no. Not you, too. I finally got my fairy, you said it yourself!
A fresh flood of tears burned his eyes. He looked down and let him arms hang limp but Saria didn't let go.
"But that's okay, because we'll be friends forever... won't we?"
He looked up. His vision was blurred, he was confused and pulled in too many ways, but he managed a nod. "Yeah... forever..." I won't cry. Not in front of her. I won't.
Saria reached in her pocket and took out her ocarina. To his surprise, she put it in his hands. "I want you to have this ocarina. Please take good care of it."
Link wanted to run away, but he accepted the farewell gift. Even as his understanding of everything was fraying, he found a new horror in Saria giving him her own instrument – not the one he practiced on, but her own. Just giving it away, when he knew how precious it was to her...
"When you play it, I hope you will think of me. And... and please come back to the forest to visit."
It was too much. He took two shaky steps back before running blindly into the tunnel.
Although he had never been this far before, he recognized some of the things he was seeing by description. Kokiri weren't supposed to come this far, but some of the fairies had supposedly been here. From what he'd been told, Link knew there was one more hollow log after the one right after the bridge. That wouldn't be a mere warning sign, though. The bridge had been the turn-back sign; the next one would mark the border. Link was very aware of how there were fewer and fewer fairies around the further he walked. Now there were none except Navi. The air was still and shrouded in the ever-present foggy gloom that no fire or fairy light could ever fully dispel. The very trees seemed to grow blacker...
The mouth of the last log grew bigger as Link approached it, as if seeking to swallow him. He resolved he wouldn't stop. If he did, he didn't know if he could go on anymore. So he had to keep walking. No matter what was ahead.
He walked into the murk inside without slowing down. A sullen silence had fallen between himself and Navi after they left the Deku Tree's clearing, each of them absorbed in their own grief. She was floating around absentmindedly, at times behind him, sometimes ahead of him. Her swaying movements cast few shadows inside the tunnel, so dark was it on the inside.
Link's boots made dull clunk sounds as he walked. It was an easy fit, he didn't need even to duck his head to enter. The inside of the trunk was hard, almost like snow packed into ice, rather than soft and rotten like may of the previous ones. Link wondered briefly why that was; why did some trees become hard when they died, while others became soft? It couldn't be about moisture, he thought. If he didn't know any better, he might have guessed that it really was because soft wood could be stomped into hardness...
Thou art courageous, the Great Deku Tree had told him. Why? Why had he said such a thing?
Link sure didn't feel very brave.
But he did know why the Deku Tree had said it. It was just too hard to face.
Saria knew too. She would, of course. She was smart like that.
He didn't understand. He didn't really want to, was making an effort not to...
But he knew.
He noticed a light ahead of him. His heart jumped into his throat and he stumbled.
I won't stop. I won't stop. I won't stop.
The light grew. It seemed that only a brief, suspended instant later he reached the end. Looking out at the world on the other side froze his blood. Although he couldn't see anything out of the ordinary, the very familiarity of the outside gave off a sensation of wrongness, of the uncanny. He could not have said which sense of his told him so, but he felt as though he was being watched. The outside world was the predator, and he was the prey headed straight into its mouth...
It took Link a moment to realize he had stopped walking. He was standing right inside the mouth of the tunnel – right at the edge of the world. He took an involuntary, panicked step back and almost fell. He reached for the wall for support but snatched his hand back from the clammy wood.
Link tried to will his feet to move. The moist, cold clothes he wore suddenly seemed stiff, as if they had been left to freeze outside in winter. His body felt the same way. Link could feel his own heartbeat, the way it pounded and burned inside his head – hot enough, it seemed, to cover everything he saw in heat shimmers... After a moment of feverish disorientation he noticed it was just tears. He was shaking.
I have to move. I have to, the Deku Tree asked me to, I can't stay here...
He couldn't move.
Link's knees gave. He was so terrified his whole body tensed up, like a fist squeezed so hard it shook. The stomach-wrenching nausea was back, strong enough to make him sway in place even kneeling on the ground. If his body could possibly have clenched up tighter, he might have thrown up. He wrapped his arms around himself, as if holding a wound closed.
Navi, who had drifted ahead, noticed Link was no longer with her. Flying back to where she saw him kneeling, she was shocked at the state she found him in. She had thought she'd seen the worst at the parting with Saria, but this was even worse. Link was white as a sheet, trembling horribly and staring at nothing.
"What, Link? What is it? What's wrong?" Was it poison, something left over from the parasite's attack?
Link shook his head, rocking back and forth slowly.
"Please, Link, you have to tell me! I can't help if you don't tell me! Is it your leg? Does it hurt?"
Link shook his head again. His eyes sought out her glow, but they didn't seem to focus on her. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but nothing came out. Navi had never seen anyone look so miserable, and it tore at her heart to see him so.
"I..." Link croaked.
"What? What is it?"
Link hunched over slowly, as if guarding his body from breaking. His voice did break. "I, I'm s-sorry, N-Navi. I c-c-can't. I can't go. I can't."
"But why? Please, tell me what's wrong!" said Navi, who was becoming more and more agitated.
"I-I don't want to die, Navi," Link stuttered through his sobs. "I don't. I'm sorry, I know the Great Deku Tree asked me, but I, I..." His voice trailed away.
Navi, stunned to a brief silence by Link's words, interrupted him there. She flew to his shoulder and nudged his head in an attempt to get his attention. "Link. Wait, wait, wait. Please calm down, you're not going to die. It's all right, it really is. It's not dangerous, you just have to keep going."
Her words had no effect. Link only shook his head and hunched deeper to press his forehead against the wood, dislodging Navi from her perch.
"K-Kokiri die when if, if we leave th-the forest. E-Everyone knows it. Everyone says s-so. T-The Deku Tree himself said so. Saria, s-s-she said so t-too..."
Then it finally sank in.
Oh, by Nayru. Small wonder the poor boy was so distraught. He'd thought... That both the Deku Tree and Saria – oh, Goddesses. Her glow flickered at the thought.
"No, Link, no. Link, please, please listen to me. It's not what you think. The Great Deku Tree would not have asked you to leave if it was going to kill you, and Saria wouldn't have, either. They just wouldn't, you have to see that."
"H-H-How do you know?" Link sniffled.
Navi had a hunch explanations wouldn't stick just now. "I just do, okay? Listen, you're not going to die. I know you're not. So just," she floated a short distance away from the log, "Just come to me. It will be fine, I promise."
Link shook his head. He couldn't explain it, but he could feel it. This had to be what dying felt like. There couldn't be anything worse, there just couldn't. Maybe it wasn't a line that you couldn't cross, just that the farther you went, the worse it became. He shook his head again and moaned quietly, "No."
Navi was silent for a moment. She didn't know what to say, what to do. Then, she glided back to where Link was and settled on the back of his neck.
"Link..." she said softly. "The Great Deku Tree assigned me to be your fairy. You've lived in the village for many years, but maybe you don't know quite what that means. I would never tell you to do anything if it would cost you your life. It's not what the Great Deku Tree would have done, either." She reached around his green cap to pat his neck. "If you'll just take a few more steps, you'll see for yourself. I know you're scared, but it's not going to get any worse."
There was no response. Link remained curled up on the ground. She would need to convince him it was all right. Somehow.
Navi lay back on Link's neck and raised her legs on his head. "Well anyway, it'd be really boring to stay here all day. I imagine we'll get hungry at some point, too. But I'm not going to leave if you're not, because the Great Deku Tree told me to stay with you. So stay I will, until you're ready to go on."
They stayed that way for some time. A part of Link – a distant, sensible part, crowded out by the events of that day – knew that Navi was right about not being able to stay in that place forever. However, neither could he imagine turning back. And going onward was just as impossible. He wished it wasn't. He wished he could simply walk on even if it was going to kill him, but he didn't know if he could do it. Merely being here hurt so much...
But Navi was his fairy. And she had said it was okay, even if no one else had. And the Deku Tree had asked him to, as the last thing he did.
He felt the fairy shift in place. "Yes, Link?"
"If I go on... It's not going to hurt?"
"No, it's not. Trust me, it will be fine."
"And," he said, almost too quietly for Navi to hear, "and I won't be alone? You'll stay with me?"
The pitiful hope in his voice smote her. "I will. It's you and me from now on, Link. The Great Deku Tree gave you a mission, and I'll see it through with you. I promise."
Link took a while to rally himself. He then raised his head and looked out from the dank, hollow haven that was the edge of his world. Navi took off from his neck and started flying around him the way he'd seen other fairies always circling their wards. The sight meant all the world for him.
Link sniffed, rubbed his eyes, and slowly stood up. His eyes would be red from crying, he knew, but he was much too worn out to feel embarrassed about Navi witnessing it. And, he reminded himself, she was his fairy, after all.
"Okay then," he whispered in a shaky voice. "If you'll go with me, then... Then I guess... I guess it's all right."
Navi came to sit on his shoulder. "Go on," she said in her kindest voice, slipping a tiny arm around his neck.
The first two steps felt like wading against a current. The feelings of illness mounted again, and Link steeled himself against them. On the third his heart dropped to his stomach, and then he was standing on alien ground. The sense of doom was still there, unchanged. He took another step. And another. He didn't drop dead on any of them.
After fourteen steps, he stopped counting. He raised his eyes from the ground in dull wonder and gazed straight ahead. The land in front of him was still not much different from home.
It didn't even occur to him to look back.
Navi hadn't lied. Nothing bad happened to him as he went on. Even the anxiety of walking on had abated instead of getting worse. And most importantly, he was still alive.
Oddly enough, there was something of a trail to follow, too; not a real footpath, the ground wasn't that worn, but a thin, faint, meandering track where vegetation grew the slightest bit shorter than in the surrounding area. Link had sharp eyes and had little trouble following it, but he knew it would have been hard to spot in the dark or if he hadn't been walking on it since leaving the village.
Only a few minutes after leaving the tunnel, Link had noticed a spider web studded with dew drops. On an impulse, he had taken a closer look. The spider crouching under a leaf nearby looked like nothing special, but the web was of a design he had never seen before. It was the first real novelty the outside world had offered. Navi hadn't been able to tell him anything about it, but he didn't mind. It had distracted him from his worries for a time. What kind of other new things would he see? Would he see a horse? He had heard stories about them, but had never really thought he would see one. He had no real image of one in his mind. Navi hadn't seen one herself either, but she tried to describe one based on what she had heard. It didn't amount to much.
Link's imagination was eventually distracted by a different set of problems. As his fears subsided, they were replaced with an increased awareness of his damp clothes and empty stomach. The question of what he could hope do to stop someone powerful enough to kill the Deku Tree also occurred to him. Even after thinking about it, he had no ideas. Hopefully the issue would straighten itself out once he found the "Princess of Destiny." Maybe she would know. Link only hoped he would recognize her if he saw her. Come to think of it, he had no idea how far it was to the "castle" the Deku Tree had mentioned. He decided to ask Navi.
"Not too far, as a fairy flies," she told him. "It will take longer for you, but no more than a day, I think."
That still sounded like a lot to Link. A whole day of nothing but walking in a single direction? He knew the Lost Woods were bigger than that – no one really knew how big – but it was still a long way. And he had no food with him, so he would need to stop to find some, which would take even longer. He would be lucky to happen upon a pond or stream and had nothing to carry water in anyway, but that wouldn't be too bad. He could always suck on some leaves or grasses for dew if it came to that.
Such idle plans and estimates occupied his mind for a good time, distracting Link from his surroundings. Navi was still floating around, flying on ahead now and then and returning to him after a while. So passed their journey for some hours, which had long since blended into monotony for Link, who no longer had the energy to watch out for novel sights or sounds. He really should stop to take a nap at some point, no way was he going to walk until dusk, not after the morning he had had...
Then something particularly conspicuous up in the trees caught his eye.
The most beautiful blue he had ever seen.
He had no idea what it was. The leaf of some new tree? It couldn't be, the trees were just plain old spruces. A rare flower or vine, perhaps? Probably, since it disappeared after a few more steps. As he continued in the direction he was going, however, he spotted more of the unidentified things, most of them paler than the first. Keeping his eyes aimed up now instead of at the ground, Link stumbled on, his curiosity piqued.
Link picked up speed as new fragments of that wondrous blue kept appearing. As the forest began to thin out, he saw more of them. There were many, many blue slivers and blotches of blue now, and they seemed to be growing, gathering together like steam on a hand held above a pot of boiling water. Link was running by then, hardly seeing the ground at all. It was like following a river and watching it grow on every step. He hardly knew what he was doing. Navi was saying something, but Link heard nothing over the rush of air in his ears and the sticks that he snapped as he crashed along through brittle, low-lying branches. More and more of the blue specks kept appearing, both large ones and small.
There was a steep ridge ahead of him, and he went that way at full speed, all weariness gone. He sprinted up the slope, reached the top, took a handful of stunned steps, and finally came to a stop by a person-sized boulder. He didn't even notice the treeline as he left it behind. The run coupled with the disorienting sight facing him took his breath away and he had to hug the stone to stay up.
The land was open, almost empty but for hills, grass and some solitary trees, but the sky! He could hardly make sense of what he was seeing. The blue was growing on nothing but it filled the sky anyway in a vast dome all the way from his left to his right. There were only a few wisps of mist showing through beyond the blue, and they seemed somehow very far away, although they moved slightly when the kept looking – and whiter than the mellow, yellowish off-white he'd been seeing all his life.
It was completely, so absolutely unlike anything he had ever seen in his life.
Between his awe and his wild dash out the forest and up the hill, Link was ready to faint. His knees had already given up and he hung on to the boulder with both arms.
"N-Navi... wh-whuh, what... wh..."
An agitated Navi was flying in agitated circles around him. "What, Link? Why did you start running? What is it?"
Link could only point with a shaking hand, and almost fell down for his trouble. Navi was trying to follow his finger but she couldn't figure out what he was pointing at, and he couldn't get the words out. "What is it, Link? What did you see?"
Link shook his head, all words sucked into the exquisite blue nothing he was looking at. The sky was gone, and behind it there was blue.
And such a blue! It brought tears to his eyes to see it.
Link could not have said how long he stood there if his life had depended on it. Navi only saw that he seemed to be catching his breath and calming down, and decided to let him be. She was still on the lookout for what the boy had seen.
Then Link noticed something else that took considerable piecing together. The ground immediately next to a nearby pine was darker than elsewhere. It was like a shadow, only that made no sense. It was much too sharp, like... like shadows cast on a wall by a fire, or a fairy, except this was an open space and it was day, not night. And that just made no sense, because for that... That would take...
Link took a few wobbly, aimless steps ahead, looked up and in the opposite direction of the tree's shadow, and saw it. The upheaval of his world fully complete, he fell on his backside and stared dumbly upwards through reflexively narrowed eyes that he desperately wanted to open fully, mouth opening and closing silently. After a moment he looked around for Navi.
"N-Na-Navi...? Wh..." Please make this make sense.
Navi, finally realizing what was going on, had to laugh. Link's face was such a picture that she would have laughed anyway.
"That's the sun, Link," she said.
Link's head felt airy and light, as if his skull had been stretched every which way and all his thoughts were mere puffs of smoke drifting around, darting around in directions they'd never been before. It was the weirdest feeling. Navi's explanations, barely heard and barely understood, dropped in that empty space like dandelion seeds in a strong but directionless wind.
He was out of the forest. When did that happen? He was also alive and well. The sky was gone – though hadn't Navi said something about the blue as if it was the sky? Link was pretty sure she had. The sun's light had turned out to be wonderfully warm, like from a fire, so he'd taken off the tunic and placed it on the stone to dry along with his boots. Between the sunlight and the gentle winds blowing across the hilly plains, maybe they could finally dry properly.
There were a thousand things to think about. So many that a familiar one surfaced eventually.
I can't wait to tell Saria!
The thought lead to others.
He really was alive and well. The Great Deku Tree's task would be possible to do after all. And he had thought... forget what he had thought. It meant that after he was done, he would be free to do what he wanted. Which meant he could... He could...
Why, he could go back, later! It was the first time the thought had seriously occurred to him since leaving the Deku Tree's clearing. And if he went back, he could come back out again.
With that thought came an indescribable thrill of expanding possibilities. Link started to look around again, now with an eagerness fueled by understanding. The world was open, and huge, and there were no more borders. He was free to go anywhere he liked.
The grassy hills stretched farther than he could see.
He wanted to know what was on the other side.
And the castle! And the princess! Whoever she was, she couldn't live alone, so there had to be more people―
"Hey! Have you been listening?" Navi sounded annoyed.
"Yes, Navi. Well, uh, I mean yes, but... Uh. Sorry." Suddenly Link could hardly stand to sit still. He couldn't understand how he could have been tired before.
Navi sighed. Link scratched the back of his neck with an apologetic smile, then blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
"Navi, what's the castle look like?"
"What? Oh." A pause. "Oh! Link, the castle, we were supposed to...!" Navi made what Link thought of as the alarmed fairy noise. "Link, get up and get moving, we're not supposed to sit around here all day! I'll explain on the way, now up!"
Link grabbed his clothes from the rock. He needed no further prodding.
Link walked and Navi talked for hours. She told Link as much as she could, but there was simply no end to the questions. The only thing that allowed Navi to save face as a wise guardian fairy was Link knowing next to nothing.
Link had decided to stop by a copse of spruces, which turned out to be the only sure source of food within sight. In hindsight, he should have thought of it before leaving the forest, of course. Or even better, come prepared. Of all things, who would have thought he would run out of trees? Link shot a miffed glance at the plains. Even now, Link wondered if the responsible thing wouldn't be to just turn back, go home and see to the basics of traveling before setting out on journeys where no Kokiri had gone before. For pity's sake, he hadn't even brought along one single Deku stick―!
The thought killed his own insignificant problems. Many bad things had turned out better than expected that day, but the fate of the Deku Tree hadn't. What would the village do now that there would be no more Deku sticks?
"So, Navi... You know of anything else to eat around here? Other than the ants? I don't wanna hunt bugs just now."
Experience told Link that there were always things to eat even in treeless meadows, and he figured the vast grasslands were no different. However, many of those things would need to be dug up and cleaned or cooked, and Link had brought neither water nor the equipment for starting a fire. Besides which, the idea of using the only sword of the Kokiri people to grub for wild carrots made him blush to have thought it. And so they were down to eating trees. Link had taken his cap off and turned it inside out, and was now filling it with soft, light green shoots.
Navi swayed from side to side in the air. "Sorry, Link. If you don't like the ants, the how about grasshoppers?"
"I'll pass, thanks." The thought wasn't a bad one, though. Link would have given his shield for some leeks with blueberry-grasshopper paste right around then. Still, it wasn't as though he was going to die of hunger in a single day.
Link felt Navi's eyes on him as he ripped off fistfuls of young needles. "Do you seriously mean to eat all of those and nothing else?"
"Yu-up," Link drawled. "Like I said, I'm not in the mood for bugs."
They left the copse not long later. Link's cap was half full of spruce shoots by the time he judged his supplies sufficient.
The food was hardly a problem. Navi's niggling misgivings aside, Link wouldn't have been caught dead whining over one day without the comforts of the village. That would be just embarrassing. It was the absence of mist that Link hadn't seen coming. The air was much drier in the outside world, so it wasn't obvious whether there would be any dew at all... Small wonder there were so few trees around. Still, thirst shouldn't become a problem if Navi's estimate of "no more than a day to the castle" didn't turn out to be off by too much.
After a time of walking and munching on his green meal, Link spoke. "Hey Navi, could you go check again?"
The fairy sighed. "I just flew up not a third of an hour ago, Link. The country is full of hills as far as I can see – I doubt we'll spot the castle now. Besides, it was well past midday when we left the forest, so I doubt we'll get there today anyway."
Link sighed, too. "Yeah, yeah..."
It had turned out to be surprisingly hard to walk all day. Link's sword and shield, little as they weighed, seemed to be growing heavier and chafing his skin, and his shoulders ached from carrying them. It was small enough an inconvenience, but it did wear on his patience as the hours passed. Link entertained himself with thoughts of how much Mido would have whinged at the first little problem. It did its part to keep Link going.
So. We'll get there tomorrow. That's fine. Pretty as the plains were – not to forget the sky! – Link was already itching to gaze on the next wonder of the world.
As it happened, one such did find him before the day was out. He and Navi had decided to settle down for the day as night approached. They chose the shelter of a tall willow for their camp, such as it was. Link used branches and leaves from various trees to make himself a bed just substantial enough to sleep inside.
Weary as Link was, he didn't fall asleep right away. That turned out to be a stroke of luck because soon enough the sky to the west began taking on more colors: brilliant reds and oranges that glowed like a bed of embers, shades of purple that were rare even among fairies, pink wisps of cloud, and the stunning orange disk of the sun, now possible to look at directly... A vast, slow riot of color as if an autumn forest had transformed into fairies and taken to flight. Link stared at the sight from his bed, trying desperately to stay awake and not so much as blink.
"Navi... Why does it do that? The sky?" he asked blearily. The fairy was perched on his head, her white light visible only as a faint silver lining on his bed and the overhanging leaves.
Navi chuckled softly. "I don't know, Link. I don't think anyone does." A brief silence. "But it's pretty, isn't it?"
Link only nodded.
I'm glad we came, he thought.
But as hard as he tried, he couldn't remain awake to the end – Link's day of miracles had finally caught up with him and he fell asleep before the sun sank out of sight.
"And how can it do that? If it went down in the west, shouldn't it rise from there and head back east or something?"
Navi sighed. "The Great Deku Tree once told me the world is round, like a ball. The sun actually stays still while the world spins and circles around it, and that's why the sun seems to go from east to west. I had no idea how he could know such a thing, so I asked, and all he could tell me was that he knew it as surely as I would know down if I stopped being able to fly."
"Like a ball? How does that make any sense?" Link burst out.
Navi gave a soft snort and let it go. Truth be told, she wasn't so sure about it herself. Sometimes common sense and the Great Deku Tree's wisdom could be at sharp odds.
The Great Deku Tree. What Navi wouldn't give for him to prove her wrong about everything once more...
Link had slept through the night and half of the morning like an anthill in winter. Navi ended up having to yell at him to get up and moving, just like yesterday. Which Link had done, to his credit, though he most assuredly had not been happy about it.
The boy heaved a sigh that turned into a yawn. "Naaaviii, how much farther is it?"
Navi flew to a height of several hundred feet, as much to take a breather from Link's unending questions as anything. All that day and the previous one Navi had talked herself hoarse, telling Link about the world and its peoples, and particularly Castle Town and its inhabitants the Hylians. Attentive as Link was, the things he latched on to revealed just how much he had to learn. Why did the sun rise? How dangerous was a tektite? How many people were there in the town, and what did they all do all day? Explaining money alone had to have taken an hour at least. Navi could only hope that Link would remember some of it.
The hills had become steeper as they went on, turning at times into rifts and cliffs, some too dangerous to climb even for a Kokiri who scrambled up and down trees all day. It had been necessary to circle around them, and Navi had had to scout ahead to find the nearest passable paths. How many more detours would they have to take? It was already early afternoon now...
However, this time Navi only needed to rise up far enough to see past the next hill, which was tall enough to have been blocking their sight for a while. Her heart leapt in excitement and she swooped down fast enough to make Link jump.
"Hey! I saw it, Link, I saw it!"
Link ran himself breathless. It was two miles of flat plains to the castle after cresting the hill, but he only slowed down as he got close to the walls, which were bigger than a wall had any right to be. And now he was standing in the doorway to the castle – if you could call something as big as that a doorway.
He wished he had bigger eyes – or maybe a few extra ones – so he could look at everything at once.
Don't stare. For the love of berries, would you try not staring?
The castle had been impressive even from a distance. Really impressive. The tall, grayish-white stone walls alone were incredible. The river was incredible. The moat, as Navi called it, was incredible. And the drawbridge. And the buildings beyond. And the big person standing near the gate.
It was the last item on the list that Link was staring at. He had heard stories, and Navi had warned him in advance, and he stared anyway.
What did Saria tell you about staring? For goodness' sake, say something!
Link gazed upward, his head tilted back and his mouth slightly open. "Uuhhh..."
"What is the matter with you, boy? What're you looking at?" Lembek the guard was becoming unnerved. The addled green-clad child had simply shown up out of nowhere. The boy's face was unfamiliar, too, and much paler than the average townsfolk. The shrimp sure didn't look like nobility if his dress was anything to go by. Had the Sheikah taken to sending their kids out on their own or something? And what was the deal with that sword, puny as it was? And that baker's cap? What were those blotches on the boy's clothes? Not bloodstains, surely?
What was going on?
"I, uh. Hi. I'm Link," the boy said finally. "Who're you?"
Lembek squinted at the boy. "I'm the gatekeeper. You... you got some business in town?"
"Oh, yeah!" The boy seemed to remember something. "Yeah, I'm here to find the Princess of Destiny. D'you know where she is?"
The boy said it with a deadpan expression, eyes wide, the very picture of innocence.
I don't get paid enough for this, Lembek decided.
"Go straight down this street through the town. You'll find her in the castle."
The boy smiled brightly, a little eerily. "All right! Thanks!" He ran off with a wave. Lembek stared after the boy, Link, just long enough to see him thump the side of his head and start talking to himself excitedly.
Lembek sighed heavily before making the sign of the Triforce in the air and muttering a prayer to Farore to watch over the poor child. Maybe he should have directed him to the temple instead. Well, little enough harm done, the kid would be turned away at the gates anyhow. If he made it that far without getting lost. Besides, the guards at the castle gates were arrogant little buggers. Let them deal with the Goddess-touched boy.
"That... could have been done better, Link."
"Well, excuse me! I just froze, all right!"
Link of the flaming face was crouched out of sight in a quiet alley between two huge stone buildings. The way they were built of hundreds of smaller stones was mind-boggling. Kokiri had little use for stone construction more elaborate than a fire pit, and he had imagined the fabled Hylian stone houses to look like Kokiri houses, except carved into cliffs instead of trees. He couldn't imagine the effort it must have taken to carve each individual stone into such regular shapes. And the roofs! And what were the wooden beams for?
Link sighed, his mind returning to what he was doing. Navi was right, of course – he hardly needed to have it rubbed in. The conversation with the gatekeeper had been... awkward, to say the least. Navi had decided to hide in his hat and let Link handle it, citing some misgivings about being seen in town. But the look on the man's face... Link coughed out some mortified laughter.
"Oh, by the De―did you see how he looked at me? I almost ran away!"
"I think you looked at him much the same way, Link."
"I know, I know, but... ugh." Link rubbed his eyes. "And did you see what that guy was wearing? He had clothes made of metal, and a weapon! Is he like, the boss of the castle?"
"The metal clothes are called armor, and weapons of steel are not as rare here as in the woods," Navi said. Her attention was obviously elsewhere. "Listen. We may need to ask more people for directions and food and stuff, so don't freeze again. You probably already stand out, so let's not compound the error, all right?"
"Sure, sure. But what do we need directions for, didn't the guy just say..." He trailed off. Yeah, the gatekeeper had said that the castle was up ahead, hadn't he? Apparently they still weren't in it after all.
A lot left to learn, still.
"All right, gotcha. Let's go."
Not far ahead they came to the market, which Link could have ogled all day. He didn't even bother trying to refrain from staring at first. There were people everywhere, much more than there were Kokiri; a whole lot of big people, a bunch of normal people, and some kids even younger than him. The Hylians didn't look too different from himself, though they did have darker skin. Their clothes ranged from weird to fascinating to funny, and almost every article looked strange in one way or another. There were Hylians gathered into groups small and large, coming and going from buildings and streets, queueing for their turn, passing others by without saying hello or meeting each other's eyes. They were sitting on benches and leaning against walls in shaded spots, playing on the ground and looking from windows, pulling carts and sweeping the streets, talking and shouting, wearing expressions sour and smiling. Some looked glad and cheerful while others glowered at anyone who came near, spitting on the street if a person looked at them too long. One big – "adult" was the word Navi used – boy and girl were totally kissing in the middle of the market square, not caring who saw.
Link remembered Navi mentioning how a building with a plaque on its wall or above its door would be some kind of shop. If that was true, there were lots of shops. There were stalls filled with food, clothing shops, pottery shops, laundry shops, even a weapon shop, and a number of others whose purpose Link couldn't guess at. One had a huge smiling face above its door, another had a cart, a third had a picture of a person. In fact, judging by the signs on their walls it seemed that most of the buildings surrounding the square were shops of some kind. That too was as Navi had said it would be. Hylians sure seemed to like buying and selling stuff. A gigantic white building that had to be the castle stood on a hill in the distance, looking over the town.
He had never encountered such a mix of smells before, either. There was bread fresh from the ovens, fresh greens and old greens, spices whose scents reminded him of home and others that didn't, woodsmoke and singed hair, even meat. Old wood and freshly cut timber, stone and dust and dry straw. Here lay a pile of animal droppings and there a draft of air brought the scent of perfumes redolent of the forest. And the sounds – singing, odd musical instruments, curses and insults that made his jaw drop, clapping hands, sloshing water, creaking leather, clinking glass, clashing metal...
A gaggle of boys ran past them while Link was busy gaping. To his amazement, they were all going bare-headed like girls. He spoke the first thing that came to mind.
"Why don't they have caps, Navi?"
"Oh, I don't know. Why do Kokiri boys have caps?" came the reply from inside his hat.
"Because boys wear caps, Navi. Duh."
"Well, maybe Hylian boys... don't?"
"Eh? That's weird." A moment passed. "So do their girls still wear headbands?"
"I don't know, Link. Why don't you go and see?"
"Right." And so saying, he did, staring candidly at everyone he passed.
There was no telling how long Link's explorations would have taken if not for the scent of food wafting all over the market. Link gawked dreamily at it all and was about to go ask for some, but he also noticed that everyone seemed to be giving something to the owner of the food. That would be the money Navi had told him about...
Father's been gone all day. What could be taking him so long?
Malon was bored and increasingly anxious. She was sitting at the edge of the fountain, kicking her legs and watching people go about their business as the afternoon grew later and later.
I swear, if he's not back by morning, I'm taking the cart and going home alone! she thought to herself, ignoring the queasy feeling in her stomach. What if something had happened? What if Father needed help? What if...
Just then a boy dressed all in green and apparently not wearing pants came around the fountain. The boy was kind of cute, though he did have a pretty intense expression. He seemed to be speaking into his hat.
"...else should I ask, Navi? She's the one with all the food, and those other people get it from her, too!"
To Malon's shock, the hat replied.
"I told you!" a muffled, high-pitched voice chimed in response. "You need money, and you don't have any! That lady won't give you anything for free. Trust me, you're better off asking anyone else."
"You gotta be kidding me..." the boy groaned.
"Excuse me," Malon piped up.
"Huh?" The boy looked up from his hat. Nice eyes.
"Who're you speaking to there?"
"Ahh, no one." He put his hat back on. "Who're you?"
"I'm Malon." She looked him up and down. "You're not from around here, are you? What's your name?"
"Link. Say, do you live here?"
"No, I'm from the ranch." Link looked at her blankly. "You know, Lon Lon Ranch?"
Link stunned her by saying, "Where's that?"
Malon gaped for a second before laughing. "You... really aren't from around here, are you?"
Link made a face at her.
My, aren't you touchy... "Sorry, no offense meant. Where are you from, though?"
"The forest? What forest?"
"The Kokiri Forest."
Wait. Wait wait wait...
"Hold on. If you're from there, then... Do you have a fairy? Is that who you were talking to?"
Link considered what to do next. Personally, he didn't really see what the big deal was with trying to keep Navi's secret, and what was more, Malon was looking at him expectantly. Navi had asked him, though. But then, the way she was hitting him on the head was getting annoying. He yanked his hat off, exposing her to sight.
"Link!" Navi hissed.
"A fairy!" Malon exclaimed in wonder.
"It's fine, Navi. She already guessed you w―"
"Wow! It's true! It's a real fairy! You're a fairy boy from the forest!" Malon clapped her hands and squealed.
Link glared at him. "I'm not a fairy boy. Navi is the fairy, and she's a girl."
"Put that cap on right now, before someone sees!" Navi said urgently, yanking at his hair.
"Ow! Fine! I get it!" Link pulled the hat on none too carefully. Navi let out an undignified squeak.
"So what are you doing outside of the forest, Fai―" Link glared daggers at the girl. "Uh, Link?"
Link swallowed his irritation. "I'm looking for the Princess of Destiny. I hear she lives in there." He waved a hand at the distant castle. Malon blinked at him.
"I don't know about the destiny thing, but there's Princess Zelda. She lives there."
"Zelda? Is that her name?"
"You're going to the castle, then, Fairy Boy?" There was a gleam of interest in Malon's eyes. "Mind helping me with something if that's the case?"
"Only if you stop calling me Fairy Boy," Link glowered. "What kind of help do you need?"
"Oh, just that if you see my dad, could you tell him to get going and get back? He was going there for a delivery but he's way late coming back." Malon gave him a description and Link promised to keep an eye out. Link thought the girl looked quite relieved when he said that. She smiled widely at him.
"Since you promised to help me, I'll treat you to some Lon Lon delicacies! This way!" She grabbed Link's hand and took off. Link suffered her bossiness because the prospect of food told him to.
"Oh, there's one other thing I wanted to ask you," Malon said.
"What's that?" Link said dubiously.
"Why aren't you wearing any pants?"
The road leading to the castle carved its way through the hills, and even through solid rock in places. While the road itself was worn from passage, the walls had obviously been roughly hewn. Neither Navi or Link had been able to imagine why someone would go through such huge effort just to build a road. Navi had hypothesized that it was for reasons of defense, but she had had no reply to Link's observation that it would be child's play to climb up and circle around.
Whatever the true reason, the point was not foremost in Link's thoughts as he stomped his way back from the gates, face flaming with indignation.
It was unbelievable! Outrageous! A scandal!
Well, darn it if he was going to give up just because some rude, overgrown stick-holder told him so! He would show them! He was going to sneak into the hills and find some other way to enter the instant he was out of sight!
To his chagrin, Malon was waiting just around the bend. So she had followed him. Link only pursed his lips with a huff and glared, not in the mood to deal with her just now. He eyed a bunch of vines nearby. The road was no use as a defensive trick, that much was certain. There were few trees up there, but even so hiding shouldn't be much of a problem...
"Didn't let you in, did they?" Malon asked.
Link grumbled something angrily.
"Well, don't let that stop you, Fairy Boy. I've heard―"
"For the last time, I'm not a fairy boy!" Link hissed. "And if that ridiculous metal door and ridiculous metal man're gonna stop me then I'm a Deku Scrub! Just you watch!"
"Well, it's an open field with tall grass," Navi noted. "I took a quick look and there are only a few men keeping watch here and there."
That's promising, Link thought. "How tall? Does it go close enough to the castle that we can creep up on it?"
"Hey, guess what?" Malon interrupted their conversation.
"What?" Link's attempt at patience was doomed to failure.
"I know a way inside!"
That caught his attention. "And what's that?"
"My dad takes our deliveries through this door on that side of the castle." Malon pointed. "I've been there with him a few times. There's a drain hole near the door that lets water out of the castle. You can go inside through that. You'll have to find your own way there, though."
Link was not worried in the least. He grinned up at his fairy. "That's okay. I'm good at hiding and Navi can scout the way no problem, can't you?"
"Sure thing! Leave it to me!"
Malon sighed in relief. Then a thought came to her and she smirked.
"One more thing, Fairy Boy. A return favor for telling you about the secret entrance."
"What now?" Link groaned. One more 'fairy boy' out of her and I swear I'll―
"Gimme a kiss!" Malon closed her eyes and puckered up her lips.
For a moment Link simply stared at her in wide-mouthed disbelief.
"Ha! In your dreams!"
"What?" Malon's eyes flew open. "How dare you, Fa―get back here!" To her shock Link was already scampering up the vines. Malon made a grab for his foot but he was already out of reach. She had to admit, Link was an astonishingly quick climber. He reached the top in no time and turned to smile down at her. Malon blushed. Well, I guess he does wear pants.
"I'll send your dad your way if I see him. See ya!" He gave an infuriating smirk and waved before ducking out of sight.
"You're so rude, Fairy Boy! I hope the guards catch you!" she called after the boy indignantly.
When he was gone, though, Malon smiled. She didn't really hope for him to get caught. She had followed him out of concern for her father; he could still be stuck somewhere and it probably wouldn't be on the main road or he would have been seen and shooed off. She was glad to hear Link would be looking for some other way around.
Still. Such a rude boy!
The last thing Link saw before skipping off was Malon stomping her foot. He couldn't help a self-satisfied grin. Sweet revenge.
Not much later, Link plonked down in the tall grasses and crept up to the crest of a tiny hill with a view of the castle grounds. Navi settled down next to him. Link released a sigh with contented smile.
"Ahh, that was great. Did you see her face? Almost worth the whole trouble, if you ask me."
"I think you're being unfair to her," Navi admonished him. "She wasn't all that bad. And she did treat you to a meal, after all."
Link conceded that with a nod. "I guess."
They lay still on the grass for a time.
"She was still annoying, though."
"I've had worse," Navi said, a dry note in her voice.
"Well, she did it on purpose," Link muttered into his sleeve, narrowing his eyes at her. "Anyway, don't you have something to do?"
"Oh, right. Well then, see you soon. Don't go far."
With that, Navi shot high up in the air and vanished into the blue. Link lay there, gazing out at the sluggish patrols keeping an eye on what they thought were empty fields, wondering if they didn't have anything else to do. They couldn't spend all day doing that, that was for sure. He wondered if they were looking for something.
Link was of two minds about the armored men pacing to and fro all around the castle.
On one hand, he had at first been nonplussed by how easy it was to sneak by them. Not even Bauni had been as hopeless at hide and seek, back in the village. These guys, though? He could have sworn they weren't even looking! Yet surely that had to be it; the armored ones sure didn't seem to be doing anything else whenever Link encountered them. His opinion had evolved into a mix of disbelief and amusement before he was even inside the gardens, and he was now confident he could have actually followed some of them around without them noticing. That was how hopeless they were.
On the other hand, however, he wasn't quite confident enough to actually test the idea. Big people were so unreasonable. Even Malon hadn't sought out that many adults when they'd been going around town asking questions earlier. From speaking with the gatekeeper of the castle grounds he already knew what to expect from their lot. That one had been so brusque Link had given up on the hope of finding someone more reasonable then and there. He didn't know why the man was so rude, but it didn't matter. Best to steer clear of them all, lest they realize that he was serious about gaining entry.
Especially since they all carried weapons.
Link shivered a bit. He didn't know what would happen if he was found. Would they attack him? If they did, would it be to kill? He wished he knew, but since he didn't, he had to assume he was in a place at least as dangerous as the spider-creature's lair.
Because of that Link evaded them to the best of his ability, treading as lightly as if it had been Kaza or Saria he was trying to sneak past. He was carrying his boots in his hands to avoid any noise in case he would have to walk on the stones. He had wrung his clothes dry after crawling through the water duct so it wouldn't fall on the ground and catch the guards' eyes. He had taken his cap off and tied it around the sheath of his sword to muffle the sound it made hitting his shield when he walked. Navi was stashed in his pocket; even in full daylight her glow was bright enough to be a problem. It was a shame he couldn't make use of her eyes, but he was doing fine on his own so far.
...Or he had been doing fine, until this latest stretch. He had been crouching in place for long minutes already, but there were no openings. The area in question was a long, rectangular path with a wall of bushes dividing it down the middle, and patrolled by two guards. Those things alone were no big problem, but it was more than that. There were two well-trimmed hedges he could hide behind, but whichever one he chose, he couldn't see to other side of the hedge wall. He could hear the guards walking, but some trick of sound made it hard to judge exactly where they were. Peeking around his cover would risk being exposed, if one of the men should happen to be coming around the hedge wall just then... or looking over their shoulder, if they were on the left side of the hedge. And to top things off, the path took a turn at the other end. There was no way to tell if there were more guards behind the corner or not.
Link waited some more, learning little of anything usable about the walking patterns of the two guards. They never stopped to talk, either, unlike some of the previous ones. They didn't walk in a single direction all the time, nor stand in place for very long. It was maddening. Any moment someone could just stroll in from the other direction to say hi and see him crouching there.
Link decided it was no use to wait any more. They would simply have to risk it.
"Navi?" He tapped the bump in his pocket softly.
The fairy stuck her head out, keeping her glow as dim as she could. "Yes?"
"I can't get any farther," Link whispered. "Fly up and go see what's around that corner."
Navi bobbed once in the air and backtracked out of sight, low enough to disturb the grass. Link could barely hear the shiiing sound of her zooming off a moment later.
While he waited, Link rubbed the skin of his forearm, which had gone red and flaky. Navi had told him not to scratch it because that would make his skin heal slower, but it was itchy and stung less when he scratched. He was a bit worried about Navi's explanation of what caused it – the idea that his whole body might get like that wasn't a nice one. Was that why many of the Hylians had long sleeves on their shirts or trousers fit for winter? Probably not, as many still left their arms bare. The ranch girl Malon had of course had to poke fun at his problem. Nice sunburn, Fairy Boy.
It didn't take long for Navi to return. Her voice was tense with excitement.
"The path ends after that corner – there's a round garden in there and no doors, but no more guards either."
Link made a face. Looks like he would need to crawl through some more tight, wet spaces...
"Wait," Navi interrupted his thoughts. "There's also a girl there. I think it might be the Princess; she fits the descriptions we heard earlier."
That was another way Malon had been helpful. She had mentioned seeing Zelda once, on a delivery trip with her father. She had even warned them that being allowed inside might be hard. Link hadn't paid much attention to that; he'd been counting on the Great Deku Tree's name being enough to make sure he could get in to see the Princess, but then he'd been turned down at the gates. It was preposterous was what it was.
Link thought for a moment before making the decision. "All right, we're risking it. I'll need you to distract these guys for a bit. Go up and wait till they're both off the left side of the path and then fly slowly over that hedge on the right. Once I'm past them, go up and circle around back to that enclosure. All right?"
Navi gave another of her whole-body nods and took off. Link could see her fly into position, but her azure light blended well with the sky. Only a hint of fairy sparkle was visible from up on the wall where she was perched. There was no way around that since she needed to keep an eye on the path, but if these two were anything like all the other metal men, it was no risk at all.
Link sincerely hoped it was the Princess he would find behind that corner. If he were thrown out now, he might not get a second chance; if what the stupid guard at the gate said was true, Zelda didn't receive many visitors.
They didn't have to wait long. A few more minutes later there was the sound of one set of footsteps, and then both were still, at which point Navi drifted down from her perch. Link sprang to his feet, as quickly and quietly as he could.
When the ball of light hovered into their view over the wall, the two guards spoke their first words to each other.
"Sir. See that?" one of them hissed to his partner. "That glowing ball, near the statue?"
"I see it," the other murmured back. "That... That's a fairy, isn't it?"
"I think so, sir. What's it doing here?"
"Well gosh, man, let me consult my personal lib'ry on mythical creatures and I'll tell you all about it," the one called Sir replied. "It seems to be interested in the statue, doesn't it?"
Neither man noticed the fleet-footed young child who stole past them a mere handful of feet away.
Zelda was sitting cross-legged at the foot of the short flight of steps, a book spread open on the first step. She became aware of one foot twitching under her skirt and stilled it.
There's nothing here, she thought with disappointment, correcting herself immediately after. That is, nothing I can use or didn't already know.
The leather of the book creaked quietly as she closed it. She trailed a finger over the raised silver lettering on the cover absentmindedly. The lettering read,
The Rudiments of Oneiromancy by Kasuto of Khahutaan, AW:
A Treatise on Symbols Rare and Common,
And Analysis Thereof by Historical Precedent
It had been a while since she had first read it. Interpreting visions was always difficult, but practice and study had made her confident in her skill. Now, however, it was different. Now...
It was all too vague, much too vague. No, not quite, she thought. Things were no less clear than before – the opposite, if anything. It was only that reaching the right answer was so much more important now. She required precision. She required certainty.
...Of dream divinations.
The fairy could be many things: a messenger, particularly but not necessarily one from the Goddesses, or any being of Light or a servant thereof, which Kasuto of Khahutaan deemed "unlikely", or it could mean that an actual fairy might manifest, in and of itself an omen laden with unknown consequences. For the green, shining stone there was not one single recorded occurrence, duly analyzed or otherwise. The forest could be either symbolic or literal, but given the rest of the vision, Zelda was inclined to think it was literal. The only clear signs were the ray of light that dispelled the clouds, and that it took the form of a person. Someone, probably of divine backing, would come from the forest – and which wooded part of Hyrule was that? – to defeat whatever the black clouds symbolized...
...Which was her unresolvable problem. The clouds themselves could mean almost anything, their black color adding almost nothing to the whole. The single most important thing, the nature of the threat, could be anything. Even the role of Hyrule in the dream was left in doubt because the question of the stormclouds could not be resolved; was the threat to the kingdom, or to the land itself? Its people? Both? Her family? There, at least, there was cause to believe that another sign would have been more appropriate. If it was the Royal Family and no one else, she would have expected to see a phoenix.
Clouds, black: Danger or threat. 102/112. Observe carefully their interplay with other elements in the vision.
Clouds, storm: War, deception, both, or neither. 40/69, 34/69, 22/69, 17/69.
So had written the Archwizard of Hyrule one hundred and fourteen years ago.
But knowing neither the threat nor the threatened exactly, how do I interpret their interplay?
Lady Halla Fitzhyrule, Poet Laureate during the later stages of Kasuto's long life and after his death, had written an elegy to the Archwizard in which she called him "the one closest to Nayru." Almost one hundred years after his death "trying to prove Kasuto wrong" remained a euphemism for "change your approach, you fool" in the field of magical research. It did not fill Zelda with confidence, yet none of the man's writings could give her the one crucial bit of information she was missing. Kasuto had written about rudiments because not even he could aspire to reliable, detailed interpretations of dream visions. What did the clouds mean? Would she have to resort to ignoring the Archwizard and trusting some specific intuition of her own? The Archwizard had not had firsthand knowledge of visions; could she aspire to do better after all?
But even without the central piece of knowledge that was the nature of the threat, the rest of the situation was bad enough. Kasuto of Khahutaan had also written about various properties of dreams themselves:
Clarity correlates mediocrely with severity, and weakly with inevitability and personal involvement. Conclusions unreliable due to self-reported impressions of a subjective experience.
Incapacity of agency correlates strongly with inevitability, mediocrely with lack of personal involvement, and weakly with imminence.
Unmutability correlates strongly with inevitability.
Recurrence (thrice or more) correlates strongly with imminence, mediocrely with severity, and weakly with inevitability.
Zelda's dreams were clear, recurrent, and unchanging. She placed The Rudiments of Oneiromancy on top of the other masterpiece of Kasuto's she had brought with her for reading, Advanced Techniques of the Mind with Applications to Memory, Spellcasting and Divination. She had been studying it for days, trying everything she could, and nothing had worked. Either she lacked the skill or nothing could be done. Her brows creased in a slight, frustrated frown. There had to be something that could be done, some sign she had overlooked, some catalyst to apply that would elicit a change in the vision. And yet, having seen the dream seven times already, she could not affect its course.
The final note at the end of Archwizard Kasuto's catalogue of portents and vision qualities was very foreboding. The book was filled with possibilities and potentials and suspicions and correlations, with very few true certainties mentioned anywhere. It was largely taken for granted with dream divinations. And yet Archwizard Kasuto had given one precise frequency count for a particular set of traits. Only one. It had been set apart from others, and it sent chills down her spine.
Recurring (thrice or more) clarity of unmutable visions is a reliable indicator of inevitability, above and beyond the results produced by any and all other means, including other divinations. 31/31.
Zelda shivered. Something bad was coming. Something dangerous. That much she did not need Kasuto to tell her. And like as not it was coming soon. It had to be averted, but how? And what was it? Out of thirty-one recorded true prophecies, not one had been provably obviated.
But I must avert this one. I must!
She had told Father, of course. He had listened to her, or appeared to, but in the end the High King of Hyrule had shrugged and said, "Nothing can be done until the source of the danger reveals itself. If none does, perhaps the dream is only that."
But she knew it wasn't. She knew. She didn't have the words to convince him, but she knew.
"Goddesses, if there is something you would have me do, send me a sign," Zelda whispered.
Unsurprisingly, there was nothing. Prayer had been among the first things she tried.
She sighed. She really should take the books back inside. She knew that leather, paper and ink were all more subject to wear if exposed to sunlight, and the outside air wouldn't help, either. A glance at the sky reminded that it wouldn't be long until dark, anyway. She gathered the books in her arms, clutched them to her chest, turned to go―
And almost dropped the priceless volumes flat on the grass. An alarmed gasp escaped her. A bare-footed stranger dressed in green and holding a boot in each hand was leaning over the flower bed in the middle of the courtyard, peering curiously at it. The intruder – a boy – had a sword with him.
"Wow," the boy said quietly. "That's really nice."
"What?" Zelda breathed, shaking. Where's Impa?
The boy seemed to hear her and glanced at her absently before turning back to the flowers, grinning. "I've never seen half these flowers before, or a third! Where did you get them? Did you plant all these?" He sank down to one knee and sniffed one. "What's this one called?"
"Who are you? How did you get past the guards?" Zelda clutched the books to her chest with trembling arms.
The boy looked up at her. His smile faded. He stood up but grimaced anxiously when Zelda took a step back.
"Uh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you, honest. I just needed to talk to you, that's all."
"Did the guards let you in?" Zelda asked, eyeing the top of the wall uncertainly. Impa had to be around somewhere...
The boy hesitated. "Well... No, not really. I just kind of... snuck in." The boy seemed to notice the boot he was carrying for the first time. He dropped it on the ground and reached behind his head, towards his sword.
Zelda fell back with a whimper, stumbling over a marble step. The intruder froze for an instant and said, "No, wait, you don't―"
And then Impa was there. Zelda couldn't have said how she got there, sneaking up on the boy or by Sheikah arts, but she grabbed a fistful of the boy's hair from behind, yanked his head back and held a dagger to his throat.
"Do not move," she hissed.
"Wha―!" Link cried out, dropping his other shoe, somehow not jumping a foot in the air, and very nearly peeing his pants. Where did she come from?
The metal was cold on his throat. The voice in his ear was colder. "Who are you?"
It took Link a few moments to piece his nerves back together. In the meantime the girl in the white dress sat back up and stared at him. Not daring to turn his head, Link returned the gaze with eyes as wide as the girl's.
The woman holding him tightened her grip on his hair. "Answer the question! Who are―"
"Get away from him!" a shrill voice cried in outrage. Navi zinged in out of the blue like a bolt of lightning, flying right past the woman's eyes and flashing brightly enough to make it look like lightning really had struck inside the courtyard.
"Din!" The woman recoiled instinctively but her grip did not loosen. If anything, it tightened, and Link felt a sharp pain in his neck. He didn't dare attempt an escape.
"No! Navi, wait! It's okay!"
The girl was looking from him to Navi in astonishment. From behind him there came the sound of clanking metal and raised voices. Link heard two pairs of feet.
"Princess! Are you unharmed? What's happening?"
"You and your squire are late, sir knight," the woman holding him growled. "Take this boy to a cell and when you're done―"
"That will not be necessary," the girl cut in almost calmly. "There's no need for concern, sir Harava. My guardian has things in hand here. You may resume your post."
There was a brief silence, during which the only thing Link could see was the girl looking evenly at someone behind him. He could almost hear "Sir Harava" thinking.
"Lady Impa?" the man asked hesitantly.
There goes my last chance, Link thought with a tremor. Navi quivered in the air.
Amazingly, his last chance survived the woman's next words. "As her highness says. Resume your post, sir."
"...Very well. We will not be far."
The sound of receding footsteps didn't quite cover the squire's whisper. "It was that fairy again..."
It took a while for the clanking to fade. Navi was circling Link and his captor in agitation, her movement jerky and darting. The girl in white approached them cautiously, eyes wide.
Impa loosened her grip on his hair slightly, and the blade left his throat – though it didn't go far. Link let out a shuddering breath he hadn't realized he was holding and swallowed.
"I'll ask you again, boy. Who are you? And where did you come from?"
"I'm Link," he said hoarsely. "I... I came from the forest. The Kokiri Forest."
There was a moment of stunned silence. The girl looked from Link to Navi to Impa.
"And what are you doing in the castle, Link of Kokiri Forest?"
"Impa, for goodness's sake, let him go! Can't you see he's―"
"No, princess," the other answered. Her flat tone was a sharp contrast to Zelda's distress. "I let him get this far because I recognized him from your description, but enough is enough." Link felt the woman's attention shift from Zelda to him. "Child or no, one does not draw a sword on the Crown Princess of Hyrule. I ask you again: why have you come?"
Link ignored the question in his panic. "But I wasn't going to draw my sword! I wasn't! I was just going to scratch my neck!"
"No, really! I only came here to talk to Zelda, honest!"
"It's true!" Navi said.
The princess approached him, still holding her books but no longer hugging them like a shield. "I believe you, Link and... Navi, was it? Please, Impa, let him go. It's all right."
"You are too trusting, princess," Impa sighed. Link could actually feel her misgivings in the way she moved, but she did release him. Before she did that, though, she divested him of his sword and patted him down thoroughly enough to make him yelp and blush. Once Impa was done emptying his pockets Link was finally free to collapse on the ground and touch his neck. His hand came away with a little smear of blood. He shivered. She could have killed me. I almost died.
Zelda looked very uncomfortable. "Please accept my apology on behalf of my guardian, Link. She was only performing her duties. Does it hurt? I could bind that wound..." She kneeled in front of him, worry writ large on her face. Link couldn't help his heart warming up to her just a bit, still on its way back from his throat though it was.
"The cut is but a small one. He'll be fine." Impa's voice was gruff. Link didn't catch the trace of awkwardness in it. "Your highness, have a look at this."
Zelda accepted the green-and-gold jewel Impa handed to her with great relief. "I knew it," she whispered.
"Knew what?" Navi asked.
"That you were coming. I had a dream that someone would come from the forest, bearing a green, shining stone and accompanied by a fairy. This stone... It's the Kokiri's Emerald, isn't it? I recognize this symbol." She touched the golden coil that wound around the gem. Nearby, Impa was inspecting his boots.
"Yeah. Yeah, that's it, that's what the Deku Tree called it, too. He gave it to me and told me to find you."
"The Deku Tree? He is the guardian spirit of the forest, is he not?"
"Yeah, that's right." Impa tossed his shoes back to him. "Or he was, but... He was killed."
Zelda was about to speak when Impa cut in. "Your highness, the boy cannot stay here. He has to leave the castle, the sooner the better."
Zelda all but jumped to her feet in protest. "But we've barely spoken! Impa, he is the one from my dream! There's so much more we need to talk about!"
Impa nodded. "I agree. Still, for now, he must go." Zelda's guardian no longer had the air of any-sudden-move-will-mean-your-life, but the look she turned on Link still made him gulp. She was one scary lady.
"Coming here the way you did was foolish and extremely dangerous, for more reasons than you know. From now on you―that is, we all will have to take more caution. As for what took place here today, I will have the guards sworn to silence." Impa's lip curled at some unvoiced thought. Link swallowed. "Do not let yourself be seen near the castle from now on. I will guide you to the town and bring you back later, once the king had been informed. Discreetly." Zelda smiled and nodded eagerly at that.
"This is what I will tell the guards," Impa went on. "Should anyone ask, this is the story you must stick to – and needless to say, you are not to go crowing this out in the Market Square unasked. You are a child from the forest who snuck in because you wanted to see the princess. I caught you and was about to have you thrown in a cell, but the princess decided to be lenient. You and she talked briefly about why you were here, after which I had you removed from the grounds. And that is all that happened. Got it?"
Link nodded. It was easy enough to remember – it was mostly true, after all. Frankly, he didn't even see why Impa had spelled all that out for him, but he wasn't about to ask.
"Very well. I will talk to sir Harava. Stay put."
Link watched the woman go, feeling his neck again nervously. Impa had been right, the wound had barely bled two drops. But still...
One scary lady.
He sighed and reached behind his back to tug loose the simple knot he had made of his cap. Zelda cleared her throat softly. "I really am sorry, Link. Impa's not a bad person, you just gave us both a fright there, that's all."
Link turned around, abashed. "No, it's... It's fine. I didn't mean to scare you. I'm really sorry about that."
"No harm was done, I promise." Zelda gave him a reassuring smile before turning to the globe of light now circling them both. "You're Link's guardian fairy, are you not? Your name was Navi, wasn't it?"
Navi bobbed once. "Yes, your highness. It's an honor to meet you." She, too, sounded relieved.
"I have never met a fairy before, and Kokiri are even rarer. I do believe the honor is mine." Zelda smiled radiantly and Link found himself smiling back.
Zelda noticed the green piece of cloth he was holding. "What's that?"
"Oh, this? It's just my hat." He slipped it on, eyeing Zelda's headgear. "I haven't seen a hat like that before. What's it called?"
Zelda touched the fabric of her headdress absently. "This is just a fancy snood. My attendants get fussy if I go out in the sun without one."
"What's a snood? And what's an attendant?"
Zelda tilted her head slightly before laughing. "A snood is a covering for the hair for when it needs to be kept out of the way or protected. And an attendant is someone who helps you with... well, just about anything, really. I have more than I can get away from, so there's always someone around to 'help' me by making me wear funny hats."
Link's chuckling was cut short by Impa's return. He yelped when her hand landed on his shoulder – she'd managed to sneak up on him again. How does she do that? He'd always thought his hearing was pretty good. No Kokiri's was better, he knew.
"Sir Harava will see you to your chambers, your highness. He's waiting for you just around the corner. I will show the boy out once the guards have left with you." Zelda nodded. Impa glanced at Navi. "It would be best if you were not seen, honored spirit."
"Sure thing. Just 'Navi' will do fine, though," the fairy said before vanishing in Link's hat.
"We'll meet again soon, Link." Zelda squeezed his hand as she gave the Emerald back to him. Then she was off.
She was pretty nice, Link thought as he watched the princess walk away.
The sun had set by the time Impa dropped Link off in a dark alley. The wonder that was a starry sky was almost lost on him because of the pace they'd kept. With neither fires nor fairies around, the streets were dark and quiet. There wasn't even the soft swishing of branches in a breeze. It was somewhat unnerving even though Link wasn't expecting any danger. He had to say one thing for Zelda's bodyguard, though: she knew how to move silently. As big and metal-wearing as she was, she never seemed to make a sound. Except when speaking, which she hadn't done since the castle.
Impa pointed to a door. "You can stay here overnight. The lady who lives here won't ask uncomfortable questions. You don't need to hide yourself from her, miss Navi. I'll meet you here sometime after noon tomorrow. All right?"
"My apologies about the strong-arming earlier." Impa didn't sound like she was used to apologies.
"It's okay. I know why you thought I was... you know."
Impa curtly, and that was that.
She entered the house without knocking, Link following at her heels. Right inside there was another door – which Impa did knock on – with firelight flickering in a ragged line under it. Why two doors, though? Link thought to himself.
Impa entered without waiting for a response. Inside, the house was fairly nonremarkable even to a Kokiri's eye; it was bigger and had more furniture, true, but it wasn't amazing. It was a bit odd that there was so much more stuff than one person alone could use, though. Maybe the lady who lived there housed visitors regularly? Or maybe she was just weird like that and liked to have things she didn't need. After all, her home did have two doors.
"Hello again, Impa. What brings you here?" The lady was big with a quivering mass of hair on top of her head to match. Link tried not to stare.
"Good evening, Mrs Yan," Impa was saying. She grabbed Link's shoulder and steered him inside. "The boy here needs a place to stay for the night. Would you mind looking after him? I'll be back for him tomorrow."
"Oh, leave it to me, dearie, leave it to me." Mrs Yan raised her arms in expansive acceptance. Impa gave a curt nod in thanks and ducked out.
Link had gone to bed on a full stomach, he'd been allowed to sleep late, and he'd eaten a solid breakfast, too. For all that Mrs Yan thought that nothing alive could compare to her little Richard, she had gained immense esteem in Link's eyes. The woman could cook a mean meal, something she called ratatouille and gravy. The remainder of Link's morning was spent exploring the town, visiting every possible store to gawk shamelessly, and talking to people. Talking to Mrs Yan had convinced him that some of the big people could also act like real people. That and his earlier encounter with Impa had made Link more confident – what was a weird look or two compared to having a knife held to your throat?
In spite of all the strangeness wherever his gaze fell, Link was of the opinion that he could get used to the town and the outside world. The blue sky and snow-white clouds alone could still make him shake his head in wonder, and Castle Town was so lively. There were forty-nine Kokiri living in his home village, and many of them often camped out in the woods. There had to be hundreds of people in Castle Town, or thousands even. Link wondered how long it would take to get to know them all. Certainly one measly afternoon and morning amounted to barely more than a huge tease.
Impa came for him all too soon.
They took the same route back as last night, except they didn't quite go the whole way. They were still in the hills to the west of the castle when Impa stopped and told him to wait there. The place she had chosen was a glade in a small wood, well out of sight and hearing of the castle itself. Link decided to pass the time by playing a song one of the Skull Kids always liked to play. Navi lay back on the grass and dozed.
Around half an hour later Zelda came running into the glade, followed closely by Impa.
"Link!" Zelda greeted him breathlessly and came to sit next to him. Impa took a cross-legged position opposite the two. She didn't bother taking Link's sword this time, he noticed. Navi rose yawning from the ground and chose to perch on top of Link's head.
Link put away his instrument and smiled. "Hi there, Zelda. Weren't we supposed to meet up in the castle?"
"There are so many people in the castle we decided it's just easier this way. I was going to introduce you to Father, but he couldn't make time today. You can still meet him later."
Link wondered why it was so important that he meet her father, but he only nodded.
"Now then," Impa said, "why don't you tell us both how you came to leave the forest. I'm sure you have much to tell us."
And so Link told them about the Deku Tree, the curse, and the Deku Tree's command to seek out the princess.
Impa frowned at the end of his tale. "Was that all he said? Did he mean for you to aid the princess somehow, or the other way around?"
"I'm not really sure. He said... He said that I mustn't let 'the desert man in black armor' get his hands on the Triforce." He looked up to Navi for confirmation and she hummed agreement.
Zelda shot a concerned look at her guardian, and Impa's eyes narrowed.
"Are you... are you sure that's what he said?" Zelda asked him. "You're certain he said 'the desert man?' "
"Yeah, I'm sure. Why?"
A brief silence followed his words.
"You haven't heard of the Gerudo?" Zelda said.
"I know the name, but not much else." News from the outside trickled slowly and sparingly into the forest. What tales there were might as well have been outright fabrications for all the bearing they had on Kokiri life.
"The Gerudo," Impa began, "are an almost all-female warrior people from the desert to the west. Only one man is born to them every hundred years or so, and he is made their king. If what you say is true, and assuming no one is posing as the Gerudo king in an attempt to deceive us, we know exactly who you're talking about. His name is Ganondorf Dragmire."
Link clenched his fists in his lap. "So that's who killed the Deku Tree? You know who he is?"
Zelda touched his arm. Her touch was pleasantly cool on his sunburnt skin. "If it was him, Link. We don't know yet, not for certain. Anyone powerful enough to cast a lethal curse on the Deku Tree after piercing the protective barriers of the forest should certainly be able to manage an illusion strong enough to trick him."
Link released a dejected sigh. It did little about his impotent anger. "So what can we do?" It was all back to what he'd realized at the outset; how could he possibly stop someone like the desert man from doing whatever he liked? He had no idea how to cast the simplest curse or illusion...
Well, he'd just have to try something else then, wouldn't he?
Zelda withdrew her hand. Link wished she hadn't, even if he'd never have said so. "The reason the Deku Tree was killed was because of the Kokiri's Emerald, wasn't it?" she said thoughtfully. "You said he thought Ganondorf – if it was him – was after the Triforce. Do you know why the Emerald is so important?"
Link shook his head. Impa answered him.
"The Kokiri's Emeral is one of three so-called Spiritual Stones. They form part of a threefold seal that keeps the Triforce out of the hands of those who would use it for ill."
"So there are three of them? Where are the other two? How many would you need to get the Triforce?"
"The other two are held by the Gorons and the Zora. One would need all three to make use of them." Impa frowned. "They may be in danger. The Gorons and Zora should be warned."
Zelda was nodding eagerly. "Father will believe us now, he'll have to! We'll send messengers to Death Mountain and Zora's Domain and―"
"Can they actually stop him, though?" Link interrupted her, missing Impa's cool glance. "Are these Gorons and Zora stronger than the Deku Tree? 'Cause if not..." He shook his head.
"They have their ways of defending themselves," Impa said slowly. "But none of us know exactly what the enemy can do. Assuming merely hiding the Spiritual Stones won't work, and that the other races have no greater force for protection than your Deku Tree, our best bet is to bring the Stones to Hyrule Castle. It will be easier to guard them if they're in one place. But that requires our allies to relinquish their Stones to us, and the Ruby and Sapphire are no trifles." When Zelda was about to speak, Impa added, "Do not forget, Highness, that the only reason we are having this conversation in the first place is because of your dream. Gorons and Zora aren't known to receive prophecies the way we are."
"What dream? What prophecy?" Link said. He was getting an ugly suspicion...
"Hylians are, in our ways, favored by the Godesses," Zelda told him. "Sometimes, in times of great need, they send visions to those they've chosen to hear them."
Zelda seemed uncomfortable. Eventually she said, "I believe I've had such a vision. Over the last month, I have had a dream that's repeated itself seven times so far – the last time just before your arrival, Link. In the dream, black clouds were billowing over Hyrule. Then, a ray of light shot out of the forest, dispersing the clouds before turning into the shape of a person. The person brought two things with him – a green, shining stone... and a fairy."
Link could think of nothing to say to that.
"I told Impa of my dream," Zelda continued. "When you came to the castle yesterday, she guessed you were the one from my dream. And she was right." She gave a short-lived smile. "But the Gorons and Zora probably won't have had signs like these. The Spiritual Stones are sacred treasures to both peoples. If we can't get them to believe any of this..." Zelda fell silent.
"I had a dream, too," Link blurted out. Zelda's eyebrows rose, Impa's remained as they were. Navi's ping-sound made Link grin.
"You had a vision? But if you're Kokiri..." Zelda trailed off. Impa shrugged.
"We know very little about the Kokiri, Highness. Besides, there have been recorded visions among races other than the Hylians. They are merely not as common."
"Still... How many times have you had this dream?" Zelda said.
"Twice. Does it matter?"
"Perhaps not... But did you have the same dream as I did?"
Link scratched his forehead. "It wasn't like yours... In it, I was standing outside the castle – I mean the town, outside the walls. There's thunder and lightning, and then the drawbridge comes down. Then..." He struggled to remember it. The rest of it had happened quickly, in flashes. "Both of you are there. You're on this white animal thing running out, and then next there's the guy in black armor. He's got dark green skin, red hair and round ears." Link drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. "I got a bad feeling about him. Really bad. Not just―not afraid, but bad. Like..." He trailed off. "Like... I can't explain it."
"Well, that was certainly Ganondorf you described," Impa said darkly. "Dreams can be forced into another's mind, but a connection such as yours and the princess's isn't easily forged. For me, this is sufficient evidence that it is him."
"But he's coming here!" Zelda exclaimed. "His visit is in less than a month! If he's the threat, we can't let him come!"
"It's not that simple, your highness. You know it."
"Why isn't it simple?" Link asked. "If he's dangerous, why should he be let in anywhere?"
"There was a long and bloody civil war in the kingdom recently," Impa told him. "Although it ended ten years ago, much remains to be mended between the nations of Hyrule. Tensions still run high. While the Gerudo did sign the peace treaty ten years ago, there have only been occasional sightings of their people since, and they have refused to grant envoys entry into their lands. The upcoming state visit by their king will be the first of its kind, and Zelda's father has been eager to build some bridges. Refusing the King of the Gerudo entry into the realm would not only mean going back on his word, but the Gerudo would almost certainly take it as an insult."
Link pursed his lips and shook his head. "I didn't really get most of that. What's any of this have to do with building bridges? What's an, uh, an 'aanvoy?' "
Impa sighed. "Suffice to say that simply telling Ganondorf to go away would be a risky thing to do. In any case, none of us will be making that decision. That will be up to the king."
They sat quietly for a time, each absorbing what they had heard.
"Well, anyway," Link said at length, "if that Ganondorf guy needs all three of these Stones to get the Triforce, couldn't we just destroy this one? Then the other two wouldn't do him any good."
Zelda looked thoughtful. "That's not a bad idea, Link, but... I'm not sure if that would work. I don't know how the seals work, exactly. Destroying the Spiritual Stones might make it impossible to break the seal, or it might be enough to break the seal itself. I shall look into it."
"Indeed." Impa rose to her feet suddenly. Link and Zelda followed suit. "And that is task enough for now, your highness. Make no mistake, this whole issue is not something I – or, I expect, your father – will be leaving to children, however brave." She inclined her head at them, then addressed Link. "The princess and I will inform the king of what you have told us. I will see that the messengers are sent within the hour. It's my hope that you will not have to endanger yourself further, young Link."
Link thought she was finished and was groping for something to say when Impa went on. "And yet, I know the hand of the Goddesses at work when I see it. The king will still want to meet you once we can arrange it, and you may receive other visions that may prove important. For these reasons, although you may already desire to return to your home, I ask that you not leave Castle Town just yet. You may stay with Mrs Yan for the duration of your stay. What do you say?"
For a moment Link only gaped in amazement, completely missing Zelda's anxious look.
Then he grinned so widely he thought his face would burst. She'd thought she actually needed to ask!
"That's a deal!" He stuck out his hand, which Impa took with a less severe expression than her usual.
Three days later Link was being led through an underground tunnel, Navi curled up under his hat. The floor was of smooth stone and the air was pretty stale. The blindfolded Link was being steered around by Impa's hand on his shoulder, but from the way he never seemed to touch a wall he got the impression the passage was pretty big. Impa had seemed to think it would be dangerous to them all if he knew where it was. Link took it in stride. As far as he was concerned, it was just another Big People thing. He withheld his opinion on the issue; there were plenty of rumors going around in Castle Town that he'd learned to be true: Zelda's prophetic visions, the "secret" route to the gardens, all kinds of stuff. Chances were someone would know about these tunnels, too.
After a great deal of walking and climbing stairs they came to a halt. Impa did something and there was the sound of stone grinding against stone followed by a gust of fresh air. She led him a short way inside before letting go of his shoulder.
"Hello, Link," A familiar voice said right next to him.
"Hi, Zelda." She lifted the blindfold from his eyes while Impa closed the hidden passage behind him. When he could see again after the sudden brightness, he couldn't see the door through which they'd entered.
Link found himself in a huge rectangular room. There were large windows looking east and south, and an open door that led to a balcony overlooking the fields south of the castle. He could make out Castle Town in the distance. There was a bed almost as big as his treehouse in one corner, and almost half of the walls were taken up by bookshelves reaching all the way up to the ceiling. Standing by the window was a big and old but friendly-looking man with a bushy white beard and a red coat.
"Greetings, young man," the man said to him.
For an awkward moment no one said anything. It seemed to Link that the others were waiting for something.
"It is customary to bow when greeting royalty," Impa explained.
"Oh. Sorry." Link jerked into a hasty homage that made the king laugh. Zelda hid a smile behind her hand.
"It's fine, lad," the king said, eyes twinkling. "I suppose you don't have that many kings in the forest, eh?"
"Ah, no. Not really, no."
"Mm. From what I've heard you seem to have done just fine without one, excepting this late unpleasantness. Which brings us to the reason I asked you to come. My apologies if I seem brisk, but I can only lock myself up in my rooms for so long before people start to become suspicious. So, young lad, why don't you and Zelda tell me once more about these dreams of yours?"
Link and Zelda took turns recounting their dreams and their previous meetings. Impa and Navi made the occasional comment or added a detail, and the king nodded in thought now and then. Once the recap was over, Zelda went on to tell them what she and Impa had managed to find out about the Spiritual Stones in the past three days.
The Stones had turned out to be the least well known of all the protections built around the Sacred Realm – due to the fact that they were not in Hylian keeping, or so Zelda supposed. They had been unable to answer Link's question of whether destroying a Spiritual Stone would be good or bad, and so they had to assume the worst. Ganondorf must not be allowed to get his hands on even one of the three Stones.
Of the Sacred Realm's other safeguards the Song of Time and the Ocarina of Time were considered secure, and the Master Sword was its own protection. And yet Ganondorf had gone to great lengths to procure the Kokiri's Emerald. If he thought to use it for something, surely he had to have found ways around the other safeguards.
Which, as Zelda said and Link agreed, was very disturbing.
"Can't we do something more, though?" Link asked. "Ganondorf killed the Deku Tree. Who's to say he won't kill more people, especially since he didn't get what he wanted?"
Link's eyes widened in horror when he realized exactly what that meant. The sorcerer would check in on the Deku Tree eventually – probably soon, if he hadn't already. When he found the Stone gone, he'd turn to the nearby village for the Emerald.
He might kill all the Kokiri for it.
The king saw his expression change and picked up on his thoughts.
"You're concerned for your friends, aren't you?" He nodded to himself. "I wish there were some assurance I could give you, but there isn't. For now, all we can do is try to keep a step ahead of the Gerudo king. We must secure the defenses of the Sacred Realm before pursuing justice for your Guardian."
"I don't get it," Link said with a stubborn frown. "He's dangerous. Not just to the Kokiri, but to everyone. Why can't you just..." He waved his arms in frustration.
Impa's face was neutral. Zelda was tense, as if expecting her father to rebuke Link. The king himself looked much like Link did at that moment. He gazed out the window towards Castle Town.
"You have been staying in the town recently, yes? You may have noticed that much of it is newly built, did you not?" the king asked.
"Well, uh... No, not really." What does that have to do with anything?
"I see. Well, no matter. What matters is that much of the town is new. Peace in this realm is no older than my daughter, and the bitterness of the last war lies fresh in the hearts of many. There are dangers afoot, vendettas and jealousies. That's the reason why Impa was correct to insist on discretion and why things must move slowly. The mere suggestion that Dragmire and I might be working against each other behind the other's back might be enough to spark another war. I am loathe to encourage such rumors by giving them genuine cause, however cautiously, never mind acting openly."
The king did not look happy, but his voice didn't waver. "Even if Ganondorf is a murderer, we cannot make him answer for it. Possibly not ever, but certainly not right now."
There wasn't much to say to that. The war had obivously been very important to all these people but the Kokiri had hardly noticed.
Well, they might notice now. Even if it wasn't their war.
The meeting didn't last long after that. Link brooded behind his blindfold as he was being led out the same way he came. He only now realized that Navi had been pretty quiet throughout the whole encounter. Link had the impression that she was feeling much the same way as he was. He'd have to ask her about it later.
Even though Link was pleased that the king and the others had taken him seriously, he was bitterly disappointed because it was looking like Ganondorf would be getting away with murder.
Link wouldn't stand for that.
He saw now the point behind Impa's question the last time they met. Did he mean for you to help Zelda, or the other way around?
Now he knew. The Deku Tree had somehow known too. The Hylians wouldn't help. Zelda looked like she wanted to, but her word was like a Kokiri's against the Deku Tree's.
But the Deku Tree's command hadn't been meant for them, it had been meant for Link. Thou must never allow the desert man in black armor to lay his hands on the sacred Triforce. It was clear enough when he thought about it like that. So, he would have to do something.
Link had quickly settled into a comfortable routine while in Castle Town. Mrs Yan's house was the base of operations from which he would launch all-day expeditions into the town. He got to know many of the people living there by name and learned their own schedules – who would open their shop at what time, who would come to buy what and when...
One day he had been passing time by playing his ocarina near the market square. A number of passers-by had looked at him in interest and some had even stopped to listen. One who introduced himself as Heen had told him he played well and invited him to join forces with his troupe of minstrels who Link had seen around before, playing all kinds of cool-looking instruments. It turned out that was how they made their money, and even Link got a share of what they made. It wasn't much but it was something, and there were so many games to play and foods to taste that he rarely had anything left ten minutes after the rupees hit his palm.
He got to know many of the local kids. He was invited to play with them and visit their homes when they weren't at school or busy with chores, and Link was more than happy to oblige them. The sword he carried and his talent with the ocarina made him all the more popular. It surprised him that none of the other kids could play anything. In the Kokiri village almost everyone could play something and Link's skills had been nothing special.
When he had come to the defense of a boy named Calin as he was being hassled by a bunch of bigger kids, he'd become a hero to Calin and a number of other people suffering from the attentions of the same group of bullies. Calin himself was bigger than Link, but the long-faced boy was skinny and terminally timid and didn't have a sword to draw on his tormentors.
It may have been a reason why the blade had been kept out of sight back in the village, Link mused. If so, it had been a waste of a perfectly good anti-bully tool.
Malon came by again two days after Link's meeting with the king. There were daily deliveries of milk and other foodstuffs from the ranch, but Malon was apparently only allowed to come along once a week. They'd started getting along better once Link had finally managed to grind it into her head that she couldn't go around calling him Fairy Boy because Navi wanted to keep her presence a secret.
Malon was still somewhat miffed at his rudeness from before, but that was soon forgotten when he told her what he could about Zelda and the castle. He'd had to leave out more than he had anticipated, including both of the follow-up meetings, and it bothered Link more than he would have thought. Malon was a friend – or getting there, at least – and not sharing stories wasn't what friends did. Malon had also invited Link to come to the ranch to visit, an offer he was eager to accept.
All told, Link was having the time of his life. He had settled into town life with ease and it had quickly become apparent to him that he could spend years there if it were up to him.
Only it wasn't.
The Deku Tree's command and Link's meeting with the king were never far from his thoughts. He could push those thoughts aside temporarily, but not for long. And it wasn't as though he'd decided to abandon the effort. Far from it. Castle Town was wondrous and the people there had stories enough to last several lifetimes, and Impa's request not to leave helped with his procrastination, but he still found himself feeling guilty at times. He knew he should be doing more, advancing his purpose somehow. In addition, he couldn't help but be aware that Navi wasn't able to enjoy it as much as he was.
When he'd finally gotten around to asking her why she thought it was so very important that she stay hidden, she had cited several reasons, chief among which had been that Link would instantly become marked in a way that went beyond even deliberately trying to attract attention by performing in the middle of the market. She reminded him of his mission and that being inconspicuous might turn out vital for his success.
Link hadn't agreed with all of her reasons, but he'd still accepted most of them. And, of course, whether she wanted to show her glow was her decision in the end.
Even so, Link could still feel guilty. He had suggested to her that she spend her time out of town while he was in it and check back in the evenings and mornings, but she hadn't liked the idea; something or other about being separated from her charge. Navi never went as far to say outright that he should get going or do something other than what he was doing, but somehow he sensed her anxiousness and discomfort. However, he also thought she was glad he was happy. Saria had mentioned that Kokiri and their fairies sometimes shared feelings. Maybe that was what was going on?
...Maybe. Link couldn't say for sure. The sense he got from Navi was nowhere near as concrete as actually thinking something or touching something. He wished Saria were there to make sense of it all.
And that was just one more thing to consider. Saria, and the other Kokiri. Link tied himself up in all manner of knots thinking of his home. Even aside from the mission – which was the dying request of the Deku Tree and thus not something he was actually going to leave aside – Link was split between wanting to see his old friends again and making even more new ones among the Hylians. How he wished now that Kokiri Forest was just a park in the outskirts of Castle Town! He knew they would all love it. Kridi and Find in particular – they were always going on about wanting to see the outside world and were into collecting every little scrap of legend and hearsay about what it was like...
Link also missed his treehouse and his things. Mrs Yan was nice enough, but her endless dog talk was getting boring and the smell wasn't right in her home. Not to mention all the stuff of Link's that he'd left behind. If he did end up staying away from the woods for any longer period of time, he'd have to go back for some of it. His pouch was maybe the single most important thing he was missing – lugging things around in his hat wasn't cutting it. He was currently making do with two sets of clothes – the other provided for him by Mrs Yan, who, Link had learned by chance, was apparently being paid in return for Link's upkeep. She'd refused to say how much. The clothing shop hadn't had anything his size in the proper color, so now Link was going around in blue whenever his green clothes were at the laundry shop.
It would be blue, naturally. It seemed only fitting.
He must have looked ridiculous. If the other Kokiri had been there to see him, he would never have lived it down.
But that was all spice in the soup. The most important question was harder and Link didn't like thinking about it, for all that not a day went by without him doing so. The hundred Deku stick question was, what did the rest of the Kokiri think of him these days? The question was an uncomfortable one and enough to spoil even the best of his moods. Did they still think he'd killed the Deku Tree? Who knew what Mido had gotten up to when Link wasn't around to defend himself... Had Saria managed to explain everything to the others? Would he even be welcome there again? Maybe all of his stuff was already gone.
He would be taking his pouch, though, no matter who thought themselves entitled to it in his absence. And if Mido had uprooted his Deku sticks, he would be recouping his losses from Mido's own garden, with extras. It was one more thing he was dying to show to his town friends. They'd refused to believe it when he'd told them what the sticks were for. I'll believe it when I see it, Kuen had said, brushing back her hair imperiously – the silly girl didn't even wear a headband with hair that long...
Except... The Kokiri might need all the sticks they had left, wouldn't they? There wouldn't be any new ones with the Deku Tree dead. Shouldn't he just leave them his own?
How would the Kokiri fare now? What would they do? It gave him a foolish sense of guilt that he'd made it out of the forest just as everything went wrong. But he was a Kokiri, too. He should go help them.
If they even wanted him there, that is.
The whole mess made his head spin every time he tried to think about it. The Deku Tree and Ganondorf, Zelda and the king – somehow Link still didn't know his actual name – his home and Castle Town, the forest and the outside... His visions and the king's words. Navi had little advice to offer; only that they should wait to hear back from those messengers that had been sent to the Gorons and Zora. In the last meeting Link had been promised that he would be told once the messengers returned.
It was now seven days since the meeting in the glade, and Link was starting to think he'd been cut out of the loop. From what he'd heard, neither Zora's Domain nor Death Mountain were significantly farther away than his home forest. There was no way running messages – or riding them, he'd seen some horses by then – could take that long.
He didn't know what to do. He could head off to Zora's Domain or Death Mountain on his own. When he mentioned his plans of maybe going up the river to some of his new friends, they had been all excited about the riches and whatnot that supposedly awaited fetching in there.
When he mentioned similar plans pertaining to Death Mountain, they'd looked at him like he'd grown a bunch of extra heads. They'd also told him in no uncertain terms that going up Death Mountain was beyond stupid. The name alone should be a clear hint, Calin said. The Gorons ate people, Joll said before being shouted down by Kuen and Dzheim. Well the tektites did, Joll insisted without being shouted down by Kuen and Dzheim. And then they all took turns telling Link about eruptions, lava, boulders flying through the air, flocks of keese, sheer cliffs where there used to be a road yesterday, and so on.
In the privacy of his own mind, Link thought it all sounded quite awesome really, but even he had to admit it sounded way too dangerous to go up Death Mountain before first having seen everything else the world had to offer.
He would visit the forest, though, even if it wasn't to stay. At some point. It was just... hard, when he had no idea what kind of welcome was awaiting him, and when he didn't really need to, and when the trip would mean a day and a half of jogging both ways, during which time Castle Town would keep on living behind his back.
Right now the afternoon was getting late and Link was strolling back from the eastern end of the town. That one didn't live a whole lot, behind one's back or otherwise. He'd gone to see the Temple of Time, which was pretty much the only thing to see over there. The eastern parts of Castle Town were more quiet than the others; there were no street vendors or shops there and many houses were empty and dilapidated. Kuen and Joll had said it was because of the war. So many people had been killed or left the kingdom that even after Castle Town had become the refugee camp for any Hylians who'd previously lived south of it, there were still homes left empty.
Link had wondered why so many new houses had been built when there were so many simply waiting for someone to claim them. He also wondered just how many people the city would've held if all the houses had been filled. It was enough to boggle the mind.
The Temple of Time had been an interesting place. It was a huge building with nothing in it except fancy stonework, but it had the oddest feel to it. It felt still. It put Link in mind of a drink of cool water and an inviting bed of moss after running and climbing all morning in high summer. Link wasn't one for standing around doing nothing, but the Temple felt soothing. Navi had remarked on it, too. In her words, it "felt like the Great Deku Tree's glade, except without the Great Deku Tree."
When he came to the market square, Link couldn't avoid hearing Mrs Yan's high-pitched exclamation, "No, you mangy mutt! Shoo! Shoo!" She was flailing about on the other side of the square, near the Bazaar, gesticulating sharply at a dog that wasn't her little Richard.
Link was about to leave Mrs Yan to her own games and go seek his own at the Split Rupee when she caught his eye. Although she hardly needed to, she raised her voice and called to him. Everyone in the market must have heard her.
"Link! A word, my boy!"
So much for lying low. He trudged over.
"Yes, Mrs Yan?"
Thankfully the big woman lowered her voice. "One of your little friends came by – no, you frazzled flea bag, get! – and decided to wait for you. Why don't you go see her right now, you don't want to keep a guest waiting, do you?" She winked at him.
Link nodded and jogged off to the tune of Mrs Yan's shrill deprecations. He wondered who the visitor was. Mrs Yan hadn't housed any others in the time Link had stayed with her, and none of Link's own friends liked to spend much time at her house. Yet, the only other alternative was Impa, and she was hardly his "little friend." No one else in the city knew him.
When he came to Mrs Yan's house he noticed a man loitering nearby. That was nothing special in Castle Town, nor even on that particular street, but there was something uneasy about him that Link couldn't place. He could feel the man's eyes on him as he took the turn into the alley and entered the house.
Wonder what his deal is...
But when he opened the inner door – Mrs Yan had said it was for insulation in wintertime, which made a lot of sense, actually – the visitor in the room turned out to be the Princess. And she was alone – no Impa.
"Hi, Zelda," he said, a bit uncertainly. Navi fluttered out from his hat and offered her own greeting.
"Hello, Link. Hello, Navi." Zelda was wearing clothes Link had come to think of as normal instead of her usual royal garb. She was wearing a simple red dress without any of the jewellery from before. She appeared to have been hiding a surprising volume of hair inside that snood. The way it was hanging past her shoulders made her look oddly unfamiliar in a way her clothes didn't. Her hair had a number of small plaits and, Link couldn't help noticing, a red headband. I knew she was sensible for a Hylian, he thought and grinned.
"So what brings you out of the castle? What's with those clothes? Where's Impa? I thought she was always with you."
Zelda steepled her fingers in front of her stomach in the shape of an upside-down triangle. She did that sometimes. Link wondered what the gesture meant, and if it was even meant for him to understand. "I... came out because I wanted to speak with you. Impa is keeping watch outside the house."
So she was doing the same thing she was doing the time Link snuck inside the castle. Figures. He found himself feeling a bit sorry for Zelda. "Does she ever leave you alone?" At her look, he hastily added, "I mean, I'm not saying she's horrible, just that... Don't you want to be alone sometimes?"
"Link..." Navi mumbled on her circuit behind his head.
Zelda didn't seem to have heard her. "I don't mind her presence. She is very wise, and can be good company when she wants to." She hesitated. "I only wish I could leave the castle more often."
"Why can't you? It can't be that dangerous, and isn't that what you have Impa for, anyway? Who'd want to hurt you?"
"I fear such people do exist," she said quietly. "I don't think there are that many, there's been peace for a while now after all, but..."
Link frowned. "That sucks. Everyone's always talking about that stupid war. Didn't that end like years ago? And it's not like you even did anything, right?"
She shook her head. "I agree with you, but many of the ones who remember it don't. Many of my family were lost in the war, too, even if I don't remember it."
Zelda hadn't been the first one to tell him that. Link felt a pang of sympathy for her, but another thing occurred to him just then.
"You know, there was this suspicious-looking guy in the street who was keeping an eye on this alley. He was giving me some mean looks on my way here. He had a sword, too." A lot of people went out with a knife at their belt, but swords weren't so common. Link could hazard a guess why; hauling one around all day was more trouble than you'd think.
Zelda smiled faintly. "That was Sir Cuocca. He's one of the knights in my guard. He's supposed to keep an eye out, though it sounds he's being perhaps a bit too obvious about it."
"Anyway, you were asking about these clothes. They're so as to attract less attention. What do you think?" She patted off nonexistent dust and smoothed out nonexistent wrinkles from the dress before doing a little twirl.
Link blinked and scratched his head. "Umm. Clothes are clothes, I suppose. I don't think you'd stand out much more than me in the street."
Zelda tilted her head at him curiously. "No more? Aren't your own garments a bit... unusual, though?"
Link folded his arms with a huff. "Well, no one else in the town wants to wear a lot green for some reason, and I was the only non-adult with a sword, so..."
The Princess held up her hands in a placating gesture. "I meant no offense, Link. I apologize. I merely wondered that you thought my attire stands out just as much. Can you tell me what it is that gives it away?"
After a moment's thought Link spread his hands helplessly. "Well, maybe not the clothes, but the way you... stand. There's something about that. And I haven't seen anyone else do that triangle thing you do with your hands." He waved a hand at her. When she'd let her hands fall they seemed to be unconsciously drawn towards the same posture.
Zelda blushed and instantly brought her hands apart. "I-I'm sorry. I shouldn't be doing that." The weirdest thing was that all of a sudden her posture was stiff and somehow out of balance. Link tried to stifle his mirth but a small chuckle escaped his lips.
"It's all right, Zelda, I don't mind. You can do it if you like. Does it mean something, that finger thing?"
"No, no, it's... It's nothing." Her attempts to regain her composure were making it seriously hard for Link not to laugh. "Anyway, that's not what I came here for. I came to... it's not that funny!"
Her piqued expression was too much. Link bent over clutching his sides, shaking uncontrollably and gasping, only his last-ditch attempt at politeness preventing him from howling out loud. Zelda folded her arms but when Navi's tinkling laughter joined in, eventually Zelda's indignation lost out as well. They were all in tears by the time they were done.
"So," Link said, picking himself off the floor a while later. "What was it you wanted to talk about?"
"Ahh..." Zelda wiped her eyes, sobering quickly. "It's about those messengers we sent a week ago."
The change of topic seemed to bring Navi to life. She flew up to Zelda fast enough to make a sound. "They've returned? What did the Gorons and Zora say?"
"That's just the problem," Zelda said with a worried look. "They haven't returned yet."
Link grew more serious, as well. "What do you think the hold-up is?"
Zelda bit the inside of her lip. "It can't be anything good. It's only half a day's ride to Kakariko, and a day's walk up Death Mountain from there. Father gave Glavoda – that's the name of the man he sent – three days to negotiate, as well as orders to come back if the Gorons hadn't agreed by then. And it's the same with Zora's Domain. Neither emissary has come back."
"Do you think Ganondorf got to them?" Link asked. Speaking the Gerudo's name made his mood darken.
"It's possible." Zelda thought for a moment, then amended her words. "It's likely. The route to Zora's Domain isn't even supposed to be dangerous these days. What's more, Glavoda and Frorul were both experienced travelers. We've even had time to confirm that Glavoda was seen in Kakariko before going missing. I could, perhaps, accept that he met with an accident on Death Mountain, but... Not both of them. They had to have been ambushed, either by Ganondorf or his followers."
Nothing was said for a time.
So. Ganondorf had almost certainly killed the messengers.
That meant that he'd probably been to either Death Mountain or Zora's Domain already, and possibly both. And he could prevent travel between those two places and Castle Town at will. That was just all kinds of bad.
So now what?
It's like a stone wall, Link thought grimly. He can defeat the Deku Tree and catch any messengers, and he can do it so quietly no one can prove it's him. What do we have left?
He noticed he was pacing the room and stopped. Zelda was looking at him with a hopeful look he hated to disappoint.
"Navi? Any ideas?" he asked.
The fairy answered in the negative by swinging from left to right. "I'm sorry."
Zelda looked at the ground.
"Damn it!" Link punched a fist into his palm. "There has to be something! What if we smash the Ocarina of Time? Would that be any different from doing it with the Spiritual Stones?"
"I tried looking into that, too," Zelda said. "There was nothing on the subject in any of the most promising-looking books in the castle library. I don't think the old ones who forged these seals bothered to write down anything about it. They must have thought it obvious that no one would try to do that, for whatever reason―"
"Obvious!" Link scoffed. "What the rot is obvious about any of this?"
"Link," Navi said gently.
"Sorry," Link mumbled halfheartedly. "Anyway, was there something else you were going to say, Zelda?"
She made an uncertain gesture. "In everything I've read I've seen very little about the workings of any specific seals. Just yesterday I read through a short book by Rauru – he was a very famous mage in his time. The book was about seals in general, and how they work."
"So was there anything in it?" Link asked.
"Plenty, but..." Zelda trailed off. She placed her hands on the table and leaned against it. Suddenly she seemed tired, discouraged, disappointed and frustrated. Looking at her, Link realized that she'd been trying to do something useful all the time he'd been mucking around in Castle Town. And Ganondorf wouldn't have spent the time playing tag with his Gerudo thieves, either. It made Link feel ashamed. But it wasn't as though he'd had anything he could do, right? He'd promised to sit around and wait for the word...
But Zelda was trying.
He wished there was something he could do.
In a flash of insight, he did think of something. It was something Saria had done for him a few times.
Link forced himself to swallow his pride and walk over to Zelda. He took one of her hands in his and squeezed. It was little more than a cloying gesture most of the time, but it worked when things were bad. Navi, bless her wise little head, came to his aid and perched on top of Zelda's head.
Zelda, who had at first appeared surprised or shocked, soon squeezed back and tried to look up to see Navi. Link thought she looked a bit more at ease now.
He smiled to himself. Mission successful.
"So," he said and withdrew his hand. "What was in the book?"
"Uhm..." Zelda cleared her throat. "The main point was that... that usually, when a seal with many parts is broken, nothing happens right away. Manipulating the larger whole – in this case the Door of Time – may become either harder or easier. It all depends on what the seal is for – what it actually does, and how many parts it has, and how strong the underlying spells are, and so on. The power of one seal can vanish, or move into the other parts, or any number of other things."
"So, it's likely that neither we nor Ganondorf will want to start breaking the keys to the Door of Time." She bit her lip. "Unless he knows something we don't."
"So the plan is still to secure all the Stones and the Ocarina?" Navi said.
Link sighed. "Then what do we do?"
"We could ask Impa, couldn't we? She's been on top of things so far, hasn't she?" Navi suggested.
"Actually, about that..." Zelda said. "It's... it's why I came myself. Impa wanted to just send you a messenger. She doesn't know the other reason I wanted to come myself."
"And what's that?" Link asked.
"Father and Impa have been discussing the situation, and they won't let this go." She was looking at the table rather than Link. "They've been trying to put together a team but they can't really spare anyone, not on such a short notice and when the castle itself is at risk."
Link's mind jumped to the least promising conclusion imaginable. He was getting good at that, lately.
"You want me to go." Somewhere in the room, Navi chi-chi-chinged.
"I saw you in my dream," Zelda said, a note of desperation creeping into her voice. "It was prophetic, I'm sure of it! You are the one who breaks the clouds over Hyrule, and you don't die. That's how the dream goes. Our messengers haven't made it so far, but... I believe you will."
As flattered as he was, Link couldn't help staring speechless at her.
Zelda looked miserable. "Link... I... I haven't seen the outcome, it's not that clear. I-I know it's dangerous. But I wouldn't ask you if I thought you were going to fail."
Link glanced at Navi. It was the exact same thing she had told him back in the forest. Wouldn't have asked you to leave if it was going to kill you.
He'd never gotten around to asking why that was, he just now realized. But right now the question was, did he trust Zelda as much as he did Navi?
Yeah, I suppose I do. When did that happen?
"Alright," he said with a shrug. "I'll do it."
Zelda clasped her hands and radiated relief, but Navi had different ideas.
"Link! You can't mean to―"
"It's like you yourself said, Navi," Link said. "Back in that last tunnel? Remember?"
Navi zipped around sharply. "I also said I wouldn't lead you into danger knowingly."
"You won't be leading, Navi. I'm going anyway. This is too important to just drop, and Ganondorf won't be looking out for me."
Navi had folded her arms. Link couldn't see it, but he could hear it in her voice. "You can't know that. Death Mountain is notoriously hard to traverse. The passable paths are so few he could easily have all of them watched."
"Then we'll start with Zora's Domain," Link said firmly. "It's closer to the forest, right? I've stuff I need to grab from the village anyway, and we can find our own way from there."
"Link," Navi began.
He frowned. "It's what it is, Navi, all right? We're going."
A brief but tense standoff later, Navi caved. "All right."
"There's something I can do to help, I think," Zelda said into the silence. "For when you need to visit the Gorons, that is. I can request a Sheikah guide for you so you can stay off the main road."
Although they spent some time working out the details, that established the general shape of their plan. Kokiri Forest first, Zora's Domain second, Death Mountain last. The guide would be keeping an eye out for Link. Unobtrusiveness was key, and Zelda and he wouldn't be able to speak again for quite some time.
"I wish I were going with you," Zelda said. She was kneeling by the fireplace and watching Link start a fire. "I wish we didn't need to go behind Father and Impa's backs about this. They'd never approve, though."
"For good reasons, perhaps?" Navi commented.
Link ignored the fairy. She was still grouchy about his decision. He should maybe apologize to her for having been so snappy about it. But that would have to wait until they were alone, that was for sure.
Why couldn't she see that it was the only thing they really could do, though? It wasn't as though there was anything else, was it?
He blew gently on a bunch of embers amid the tinder. Mrs Yan's fire kit was another of those Hylian feats of genius they didn't have in the woods. It made the whole process so simple no one had to keep smoldering coals stashed anywhere.
"Do you think you'll be free to do what you want once we deal with Ganondorf?" he asked.
"I hope so," Zelda said.
"But you don't think so."
Zelda sighed. "I don't think it's that simple."
Link humphed his agreement. Not simple sounded right. They had spend quite some time in their plan-crafting; outside the house night had fallen, and inside their conversation had begun to wander.
Those plans were now about as ready as they would ever be. Zelda had figured out most of it beforehand and Link's share of the strategizing had consisted largely of guesswork and rough estimates regarding travel times to places he'd never been before. Zelda had rattled off potential hazards and the names of allies for Link until much of it went in one ear and out the other. Navi had had to carry that conversation for Link, who would rather have simply been on his way.
He was used to that, he realized. Being on his way. Doing things his way.
On some level he did realize that wouldn't be possible now. He hardly needed reminding that the world was a big place and very different from what he'd known. He wasn't about to let that stop him, but...
But it was still hard, forcing himself into the outside-world mindset where everything had to be planned or thought out and the smallest things could be dangerous. There was a lot about it that didn't seem right or fair, never mind fun.
The fire was lit. Link stretched his legs out and stared into it.
"When this is over, I'll make sure you can go wherever you want," he said. "And in return, you can tell me all about the Sheikah and everything. All right?"
Zelda smiled. "I would like nothing better."
"Shake on it?" He stuck out his left hand.
Zelda raised an eyebrow. "They say it's bad luck to seal promises with the left hand."
Link made a face. But of course the Hylians would have rules about which hand it's okay to shake hands with. "Never did me any harm."
Zelda grinned in response and took his hand. "I thought not."
"Your Highness," Navi interjected, "you've been here for a long time. Won't Impa become suspicious?"
"Leave her to me," Zelda replied. "I've already thought of what I'm going to say. Still... It is getting late. I should go."
She rose from the floor reluctantly and dusted off her dress. Link glared daggers at Navi, whose expression was hidden by her steady glow.
"You'll be okay, then?" he said.
"I'll be fine," she said confidently before turning a concerned look on him. "You are the one I've foisted all this trouble on. I know it's unfair of me to ask it, but―"
Link interrupted her, flapping his hands in exasperation. "Look, you can let it go already, all right? I want to do it too, and it's not like you're forcing me, is it?"
Zelda wasn't entirely happy with that, but she accepted his protests with a formal-looking bow.
"Nayru guide your way, Link. And please... be careful."
"Yeah, sure... You take care, too."
It was pretty stiff as goodbyes went, but he didn't have time to think of anything better, for the door was already closing on his friend's departure.
The corridor was dark, still and quiet. Comforting and knowable. She had never counted the steps, but she knew them all even without seeing. The shadows revitalized her much like sleep did; all her senses were at rest, and her mind grew sharper for the solitude.
She didn't fear the dark. She knew it intimately. It held no threats for her. Indeed, she was that which others feared when they thought of the dangers of lightless places. The knowledge was faintly amusing. Paranoid minds would merge their terrors with their reality until it hardly mattered what the shadows held, or that the things in them worked in their own interest.
Such was her way, though, and this was her territory. The paths that wound their way through the castle like the finest veins in a body, bearing things of vital importance where they were needed. There were the arteries used by the common folk, and the servants' passages, and then there were the secret paths. Sheikah roads.
One like her knew just how vulnerable a place like Hyrule Castle was. Ironically enough, the corridors that most would feel so oppressed by were probably the safest places on the grounds. She knew it – she could feel it. All her senses affirmed it at every beat of her heart: she was alone.
She wondered if her face looked any different here, where no one could see. When you wore a calm expression like a mask for decades in public, it settled in place. It was a basic fact of self-control: that which is not there is easier to hide. She could see her own mask in a mirror even when she knew there was no one else in the room.
It's not being alone if you remain with yourself, her mentor had told her. Khubur of the Sheikah had had many obscure ideas.
Impa wondered if she was becoming wiser or more fanciful for starting to see merit in them.
The roads bore her on as if of their own accord, until she came to a halt.
At a touch from her, the hidden door slid open with a dull scraping sound. The king was sitting at his desk, working late into the night as was his wont. Of course, he had been waiting for her. Her errand had merely taken longer than expected.
Harkinian's eyes flicked her way and he lifted his quill from the document he'd been composing, tapping it against the rim of his inkwell.
"That took quite a while. Were there complications?"
"No. The children merely took their time talking." As the door slid back in place, she couldn't help noticing the thicker layer of dust on the ground just next to it. She frowned. They were becoming careless. When you wanted to keep a hidden passage hidden, you had to maintain not just the route itself but its surroundings. The paths saw more traffic these days, too...
"And?" Harkinian prompted her.
"No surprises. Your daughter is diligent and thorough, if not as circumspect as the occasion warrants. She's in her chambers now, sleeping."
"Hmm. And the boy?"
"The boy is fine, at least for now. He and his fairy were having a lively discussion when I left, but he did seem determined."
The king nodded. "Good. That's good to hear."
"Is it, really?" She allowed a note of challenge into her voice.
The king didn't rise to it. "We've been over this."
Impa fought down her frustration. It should have been easy by now, but it wasn't. Surely there was nothing in the world quite so incomprehensible as two people of similar minds and motivations drawing different conclusions from the same facts.
"Do you not think the boy suspects anything? If he does, he may arouse even more suspicion – and Nayru knows he's not the subtlest agent in your service as it is. Farore, one careless word out of him and he will become marked as surely as if he wore the Sheikah eye on his breast. He's a liability, your Majesty, and worse, an unnecessary one."
"Certainty is good, but often a wishful fantasy, and the game we play is rather more intricate than a toss of the dice. I have faith in what I've seen of him, and his fairy guardian will temper his... indiscretions. Like it or not, he already is marked."
"Not like this, he wasn't," Impa muttered. "In all honesty, Harkinian, what good can come of this?"
"He deserved to know. Tool of destiny or not, I believe Nayru gave us wisdom for a reason. The knowledge may yet help him on his way. It may have helped him come to his decision."
"Noble sentiments, to be sure."
"A sharper criticism has surely never escaped your lips," the king said dryly.
Impa smiled faintly, briefly. "I suppose I did know your reasons before I asked. However, I still disagree. It's an unnecessary risk for the boy to have been taken this deep into our confidence. Should even a hint of this get out, Ganondorf will not kill him."
Harkinian barked out a harsh laugh. "Farore, I swear those words would sound reassuring from anyone else's lips."
"Dodging a point is not of your many skills, Majesty."
"You flatter me." Harkinian narrowed his eyes at her. "You don't flatter anyone. What is it that has you so concerned? This is hardly the first risk you have advised me not to take."
Impa sighed and folded her arms. Nothing she could say would sway the king. She was probably wasting both of their times. "What else?"
"The boy understands rules, even if he doesn't grasp the meaning behind them. I believe he will have the sense to keep quiet. He was marked for this task by the Goddesses, you can't deny that."
"You are not so naive," Impa said flatly. "He is a child, for Grace's sake – a ten-year-old boy! If Ganondorf is the threat and Link his downfall, his role in your daughter's dream is likely to be nothing more than metaphor. Arming him with dangerous knowledge will only be dangerous to him."
"We've been over this," the king said again, an edge to his voice this time. "And we won't be sitting on our thumbs through this, mark my words. See this?" The king held up a scroll. "It came in while you were out. It's Jocada's report."
Jocada was the tracker assigned to watch over the trail up Death Mountain. A Sheikah. Impa had worked with him before. "And?"
Harkinian looked grim. "As expected, nothing caught his eye. He had expected as much, however, and took a bloodhound with him. The dog led him into a narrow defile along the route Glavoda would have taken."
He tapped the rolled-up paper against the table. "The hound went into an absolute frenzy, Jocada writes. It thrashed and howled and fled the place, and refused to return. He writes, and I quote, 'even the slaughterhouse doesn't elicit such responses from a hound in training,' unquote. And yet there were no signs of struggle and no bloodstains, nor any signs of such having been covered or removed. The place was pristine."
Impa quashed an urge to hiss or rub the bridge of her nose. "So, Ganondorf... destroyed Glavoda in that place, and then removed the visible traces afterwards with sorcery. We may assume that Frorul has met with a similar fate. And we may have sent the boy to that same end." Din help him.
"Certainly not. I should think that guide of yours can do better than the beaten path. What was her name, Brythie?"
"Brythie was the one your daughter approached. The one to actually meet the boy will be Muraka."
"Ah. Good, good. I know him. Good man."
Impa nodded. "He is. And he won't thank either of us for the assignment."
The king smiled. "Then it's a good thing neither of us chose our jobs for the gratitude of our underlings."
Impa had to laugh. "Well said, your majesty." She grew serious again. "Regardless, this is exactly the kind of reason why I don't―"
"Let it go, Impa," the king said sharply. "I don't want to hear it. Whether or not the boy leaves the town, he already knows what he knows. There's no taking that back, not anymore."
It was much the same thing Link had told his fairy. It seems we both must jump at the whims of our hasty masters. For all that Impa didn't much feel like a fairy, the comparison was amusing. Yes, she could see herself buzzing in Harkinian's ear like a mosquito, and he'd wave his hand to swat her away every time she had something to say...
"And that letter you were writing?" She gestured at the desk. "New instructions to Kakariko?"
The king nodded.
Impa shook her head. "I wish I had your confidence in choices already made. I only tend to see the flaws and weaknesses."
"No, you don't really wish that," the king said affably. "You like poking holes in my plans far too much. And I have far fewer competent hole-pokers than I have yes-men."
There were gray leaves everywhere. Piles and piles of them. The forest floor was awash with them and the Kokiri hadn't had the time or the energy to clear them all away yet; and what was more, there were still some drifting in the breeze. Only the spaces immediately around the houses – where most people kept their sticks – were kept clean. The Great Deku Tree was little more than a bare skeleton by now, his stripped branches cresting the horizon like deadly thorns. Link and Navi had returned around nightfall, and the black silhouette looming in the gray mist was simply ghastly.
The smell was pretty unique, too. It wasn't the pleasant autumn smell of rotting leaves. No, the leaves were too lifeless for that. It was more like the scent of the ashes of an old fire at the fall of the first drops of rain. It wasn't repulsive, strictly speaking, but it was eerie and unnerving. And when you disturbed the leaves by, say, walking on them, the scent got slightly stronger. Link was effectively wading through the remains of their father. It was like desecrating a burial ground, only worse.
It was a harrowing experience for them both. Navi wouldn't say a word for hours no matter who came asking.
Just about everyone did, of course. For their part, Kridi and Find all but frothed at the mouth, the first trying to ask everything at once and the latter bugging Link for answers at the same time. Link had hardly opened his mouth about Castle Town before someone wanted to know about his sunburn...
But that was fine. They were all alive, and that was what mattered. Ganondorf hadn't come to check back yet. Link didn't much relish the idea of having to tell his friends what might be coming their way. Still, he had to do it.
The initial chaos was over in the village, or so he was told when he managed to get a word in, but Link still couldn't remember ever seeing everyone working so hard. Not even on the days just prior to a festival, and most everyone always put their work off until the last second with those. Now, on the other hand, everyone was showing the strain and worry, and things were only just winding down when Link and Navi got there.
The village was all uncertainty, frenzied activity and stress now. The sticks hadn't withered on the spot like the Deku Tree, but everyone knew they wouldn't last forever and no one knew just how long it would take for them to start dying. Would the Deku Tree's death have an effect on their lifespan? No one knew.
Even so, everyone present in the village took the time to gawk when Link and Navi came back. Their being alive – or Link's, at any rate – was enough of a shock to distract them from their own problems. Link answered questions for what felt like hours before he could start posing some of his own. The only thing they knew was what Saria had been able to tell them; namely, that the Deku Tree had given Link a mission. That was hardly the topmost thing on anyone's mind. What they all wanted to know about was the world outside the village. Link did his best to satisfy all inquiries, but there were just too many people asking about too many things. He told the story in bits and pieces, not at all like he wanted to. Nevertheless, the others were duly impressed, so it wasn't a complete waste.
Somewhere along the way the mob of children had moved to the center of the village, where gray leaves were being fed into a bonfire. Wet and lifeless as they were, they made a lot of smoke and little heat.
What Link himself most wanted to know was whether anyone had taken Mido's accusations seriously. He realized belatedly that walking straight into the village had probably not been the best idea...
His concerns turned out to be unfounded, however. No one had bought into Mido's words. The relief all but drove the air from Link's chest.
Apparently Mido had been running his mouth and jumping to conclusions in his panic until Saria had finally stepped in and taken him aside. No one knew exactly what she'd told Mido, but he'd seemed subdued for a while after that. He was now almost back to his former self. He was away at the moment, looking for new sources of food.
...And looking for Dini. No one had seen him since the morning the Deku Tree died.
It wasn't that uncommon for someone to be away from the village for several days, but Dini wasn't one of those people. Sure, he often played by himself, but he didn't go very far and was never gone more than a single night, and that only seldom. Now no one knew what had become of him. It was unexpected, but by itself not alarming. By their faces Link could tell that a few, at least, feared the worst, but no one had yet said it out loud. They'd looked for him without finding any sign, but they were holding out hopes.
Link's insides had turned to ice when they told him. Was Dini taken by Ganondorf? The Gerudo may have known how soon his curse on the Deku Tree was going to take effect. Maybe he'd come back that very day, caught Dini, found out – Link refused to consider how – that Link had been to see the Deku Tree that day and had been seen running away. And he'd have looked for the Emerald, and failed to find it...
It had to be so. How else would Ganondorf have known to guard the routes to Death Mountain and Zora's Domain? Nohow, that's how. Link could hear Impa and Zelda's voices just then, the way they would say, He wouldn't have needed to. All it would have done is arouse suspicion.
But then, did it mean Ganondorf been thrown off the trail? He might have guessed that someone would be coming for the other Spiritual Stones. Maybe he was concentrating on those and wouldn't be coming for the village after all.
Maybe. It was a hope, at least. It was something, where before they had nothing. He'd need to talk it over with Navi later.
However, it put Link in mind of what Zelda had told him about the messengers her father had sent. Not heard from, probably dead. He'd had chills then.
Now it was Dini, someone Link had known well, and it was even worse than with the Deku Tree. When they told him, his chest felt like it was full of cold, dusty rocks and his heart constricted into a knot as if it didn't want to beat anymore.
The others noticed, of course. Someone asked, and Link told them about the evil sorcerer in a hoarse whisper, curtly and matter-of-factly, something he hadn't gotten to talk much about earlier. He warned them that Ganondorf might still be coming. He told them what had likely happened to Dini. There were scattered gasps and whimpers from the crowd, someone crying...
When he was done talking about the Gerudo murderer, he held up the Kokiri's Emerald for them all to see.
"This is what he wanted," he said grimly. "This is what the Deku Tree wouldn't give him, and what he killed the Deku Tree to get. So obviously we're not giving it to him."
There were some nods and affirmative mutters in the crowd. It made Link's heart swell with a fierce pride.
Soon, though, a sea of silence settled on the gathering like a blanket of the thickest mist. Embers from the fire and fairies in forty different beautiful colors floated silently in the night air as the immortal children mourned the loss of one of their number.
Saria wasn't in the crowd that night. That was the next worst thing after learning about Dini. Link hadn't realized how badly he wanted to talk to her until he was there and she wasn't. Especially now, with things the way they were.
Apparently she had spent much of the first few days helping keep the Kokiri together. Not even the fairies had been able to tell them what was going on, and many had wanted to flee into the Lost Woods from the unknown threat. After the first wave of panic had ebbed, she had taken it upon herself to plan ahead for the next winter and beyond that. Mido could badger people into action when necessary, but it was Saria everyone came to for direction. No one had known what to do at first, but she seemed to, so they'd all come to her.
She'd called together their best gardeners and set them to caring for the Deku sticks and planting other things. Others were making containers from wood or clay: casks, pots, jars, jugs. The coordination behind the foraging and gathering efforts was mostly her doing. A couple of houses were even being converted from dwellings into other uses; one was to be a new drying house for fruit – even meat, some were saying – and the other a warehouse. Saria had talked to everyone and their fairies about any likely sources of food; what they had would be good for another year at least, but not forever. Some grumbled, but she had managed to convince the majority that the question needed answering now.
Nothing Saria asked of the others was beyond their abilities, but even after two weeks many of them were still so shocked and demoralized that they needed someone to tell them what to do.
Link saw some of himself in that.
And that was suddenly embarrassing – shameful, even. Wasn't that exactly what he always did? Run into a problem you don't know what to do about, bring it to Saria...
Link decided then and there that he wouldn't do that anymore. He wouldn't put his problems on Saria or anyone else. Like Zelda, she was already trying hard enough.
Saria had headed off into the Lost Woods earlier on the day of Link's return, meaning to find Dini. Link wanted very much to wait, but he knew their reprieve for what it was. Ganondorf wouldn't hum and haw forever. Sooner or later, he would come looking for Link in his home. The Kokiri weren't in the habit of counting time, but now it all could come down to the difference of one day too much spent loitering about.
He was packed and ready to go early the following day. He had his pouch – finally! – some basic tools and survival gear. No one had taken his sticks for their own, strictly speaking; they were still there, but by general agreement all the sticks were now a shared resource. Link didn't mind it that much, but he needed at least one for the road. After talking it over with Ludo and Kaza, who were responsible for managing the sticks, he received permission to take one that produced birch sap and hazelnuts. Though a pretty boring mix, it was good for the road.
Even after packing the load was blessedly light. He couldn't quite feed his shield into the pouch since its mouth couldn't be stretched that far, but he stuck his sword inside. Since he'd be keeping the pouch at his waist, he could reach the blade easily and not need to worry about it getting in the way.
When he was about to leave, Link was surprised to find Mido hanging around in sight of his house, apparently waiting for him to appear. He hadn't quite stooped to actually waiting at the foot of the ladder or calling out, of course.
Wouldn't want to be seen wanting to talk to me.
Link groaned and took a moment to wish there was another way out of his house. He didn't really want to talk to Mido. As long as he was on good terms with the others, he was fine. Mido and his opinions could go headbutt an anthill for all he cared. But there was only the one way out of the house, and Mido had already seen him anyway.
Fine. Let's see what he's got to say. Link climbed down the ladder, narrowing his eyes when Mido actually approached him. Then he realized the reason – fewer people would see if they met in the small depression Link's house grew in.
He looks serious. Mido had chosen to wear his frown to his meeting with Link. The only other expression Link ever got from the other boy was a superior, mocking smile.
"What is it, Mido?"
Mido's mouth twisted into a severe pout and his nose crinkled up. "Wanted to talk to you," he grumbled.
"I can tell. I'm heading out, so make it quick."
Mido narrowed his eyes. "What for? Didn't you just get back?"
"Ask one of the others to fill you in. I don't really have the time." So saying, he moved to push past the redhead.
Mido grabbed his arm. "Why do you have to be so difficult?" he demanded. "I'm trying to apologize!"
That stopped him. Link's head snapped around in astonishment. "You're what?"
"You heard me. Saria said..." Mido trailed off.
...And said no more than that. Link scoffed. I guess that was it. Some apology.
"So you're not telling people that I killed the Deku Tree anymore, is that it?"
"Obviously not." Mido made a face. "What could you have done to him, anyway, sword or no sword? Scratch his bark?"
Link's voice could have made grass wither. "That's fantastic, Mido. You really have been thinking, haven't you? You should do more of it. Now let go."
He didn't. "Saria was worried sick when you left. I don't care what―"
Link was already out of patience. "Get out of my way, Mido," he said, yanking his hand free with a snarl.
Wonder of wonders, Mido actually did let him go. The self-proclaimed boss of the Kokiri looked like he wanted to say something, but he looked like he wanted to see Link's back just a bit more. Link glared at him until he was several steps away before turning to stare straight ahead. Damned if he was going to ask Mido anything.
Dealing with Mido always made him so angry. Mido with his snide words and lies and pranks and rotten attitude. They rarely went so far as to fight these days, even though Link still owed the other boy for all the bullying from when he was too little to defend himself. But Saria disliked fighting so Link tried his best not to. Link didn't like fighting either, but it still took effort not to when he had to look at Mido's stupid face...
Link wondered why he should feel in any way squeamish about punching the redhead square in the nose. Mido had it coming ten times over, and Link bet he'd never felt bad about anything he'd ever done.
So why should Link?
Why did he?
It was stupid. It wasn't right, it wasn't fair. Compared to Saria – compared to anyone, really – Mido was just a huge waste of space. Why did everyone put up with him? That was one thing Saria had never had a good answer for. If he ever got a chance, he'd have to ask "the Big Boss's" fairy, Fyuin, how he could stand the smug little scrub...
Link would have brooded for a good while more if other Kokiri hadn't approached him. It made him glad that everyone else had come to see him off. He left their questions unanswered for the most part and made a lot of promises to be careful and come back soon. Even though they now knew that Link could travel safely, there was still an undertone of fear to the parting. Nothing was as safe as they had thought. Some of the girls hugged him. Link received them rather awkwardly, but afterwards he had to admit it wasn't as bad when no one mocked him for it.
The fairies wished him and Navi luck on their way, too. That meant a lot to Link; while hardly mute, the fairies didn't talk much with anyone except each other and their own wards. They even got some polite words out of Navi.
Most of the village watched them leave. For the other Kokiri it was still a nigh incomprehensible thing that someone could really leave the forest, but Link hardly felt tense at all. He knew he would be fine, so he could smile and wave as he and Navi vanished over the hill and into the Lost Woods. Link knew a few good paths that led north; they should reach Zora's Domain a day or two faster by going that way...
Navi had become quiescent again after the sendoff in the village. They had left half an hour ago and that was the last time she'd said anything. She just hovered around in subdued silence, absently dodging the Deku stick Link was currently using as a walking stick. It could have fit inside his pouch but the sticks lasted longer if exposed to fresh air and daylight – such as daylight was in the forest, anyway.
Link thought of how his fairylessness used to occupy him all the time, and now that he had one, he hardly noticed. He knew that fairies tried not to order their wards around, but he couldn't shake the feeling that there was more behind Navi's silence. More than the obvious regarding the Deku Tree, that is. He'd seen plenty of the other fairies just huddling together and whispering, but not Navi. She wasn't still upset about the argument about taking the mission on, was she?
Once the possibility had occurred to him, the silence quickly grew oppressive. He had to ask.
"Navi, you're... You're not mad at me, are you?"
"Eh? What? No! No, Link, I'm not angry at you. I just... I haven't been in the mood for talking. The Great Deku Tree..." She trailed off.
"I hear you." Link didn't want to impose so he let it go at that. It was obviously much more sore a topic for her than it was for him. He wished he could ask how well Navi had known the Deku Tree, but that would have to wait for some other time. Nor could he think of anything else he could do for her just then. His thoughts gradually turned to other things.
The Lost Woods was much the same as ever. Fairies drifted among the trees alone, in pairs and in small groups. Most of them had few dealings with the Kokiri; guardian fairies were exceptional in that way. You could go and talk to the forest fairies, and occasionally one would stay to chat, but more often than not they would simply ignore the children and go about their fairy business, whatever that was. Birds sang and squirrels ran in the branches, unconcerned with the deaths of guardian deities, Kokiri and Hylians.
Link looked up at the sky―no, not the sky, just up. The ever-present blanket of mist of his home now felt stifling. It wasn't that it was all bad; there were so many fairies around that the fog had a kind of soft golden glow. Sometimes a long string of fairies would pass by just out of sight and it'd look like a glowing, many-colored serpent slithering through the trees.
Still, Link would much rather have had the open sky.
He had to strike up some kind of conversation with Navi. He'd go crazy if he didn't.
Link cleared his throat. "So where do you think―"
And just then there was a sound. He stopped in his tracks.
"Did you hear that?"
Navi shook from side to side in the negative. Both of them listened for a moment. And another.
Then the sound came again – a voice, slightly raised in appeal.
He knew that voice.
Link tore off in the direction it was coming from, Navi trailing behind him. Mere moments later he came to a natural arch formed by three large moss-covered tree trunks leaning against each other. It was just the kind of place fairies liked, and sure enough, there were at least three dozen of them perched on it. It didn't matter. There might as well have been three hundred, because Link had spotted a head of green hair.
Saria had been busy talking to a crimson-colored fairy when she heard him. She barely turned around in time to catch him in a hug before he slammed into her. A few of the fairies cried out protests at the commotion, while equally many laughed in delight at the scene.
Link hardly noticed. It was so good seeing Saria again he lifted her off the ground and spun her around on impulse. She was no shorter than Link was, but he managed it. She smelled like home.
"Excuse me," the crimson fairy said in a peeved voice. "Don't let me interrupt, but are we done here? If so, would you mind taking this somewhere else?"
"Oh, I'm sorry!" Saria hastily disentangled herself from Link's hug. "It's just that, well, as I said, even if you don't know yourself, you could ask around. It'll be enough if only the word gets around, you wouldn't need to talk to anyone, just send them to me―"
"And as I said, such things are of no interest to us. No fairy can help you with that problem, I can promise you that. You will have to find your solutions elsewhere."
"I see." Saria didn't sound very happy. Link frowned at the fairy. "Well, thank you anyway. We'll be going." Saria grabbed Link's sleeve and pulled him along. There were no parting words from the fairy and the arch and its denizens soon faded into the mist.
Link spoke once they were safely out of earshot.
"He wasn't very nice. Was it my timing?"
"No, it wasn't you, Link. Carnol just isn't much of a people person. He was probably right about no one else knowing about it, too."
"So what was that about, anyhow? And what's 'it' exactly?"
Saria sighed. "Just an idea I had. A way of maybe making the sticks last longer." She shook her head. "Didn't work out. No one can tell me anything about it."
"Right... Sorry to hear that."
"Yeah," she said quietly. Then she cheered up, grabbing his hands with a smile. "But I'm so glad you made it back safe, Link! How was it? Did you find the princess?"
Link had meant to be on his way, but he couldn't resist the temptation. Saria led them to the edge of a cozy little clearing where they sat down and Link recounted the events again, this time in better order and without the interruptions.
It was so totally worth it. He had Saria wide-eyed and on the edge of her tree stump as he told her about the sky, the town, the people. She went glassy-eyed at his descriptions of Hyrule Castle, gasped in fright and covered her mouth when he mimed the moment when Impa almost killed him, and laughed at his imitation of Zelda doing her hand triangle thing. Living the events again made Link doubly glad that he had been there and seen it all.
They were still sitting there when Link had talked his throat hoarse.
"I wish I could see it," Saria said wistfully. "It all sounds so wonderful. But whatever the Great Deku Tree did to make it possible for you to leave, I don't think he did it for anyone else."
"I guess." Link still had no idea how that worked exactly. He looked at Navi, who, he now realized, never had said how she'd known Link could leave the forest safely.
Navi caught the look. "I don't fully understand it either," she admitted. She was sitting on Link's knee, while Saria's fairy Gint was nestled in her hair. "Other than trusting the Great Deku Tree, I just felt it wasn't harmful to you."
"You 'felt' it?" Link said doubtfully. "That's not saying a whole lot."
"It is as good a word as any," Gint commented. "All fairies can sense it when our wards draw close to the borders of the Great Deku Tree's domain."
"And you feel that the ward should turn back, right?"
"...It does come to mind."
Link and Saria exchanged a look, and the green-haired girl shrugged. She made it a point never to go closer to the border than necessary, so Link supposed Gint had to be talking about other fairies' experiences. Navi said nothing, but Link had the impression that her face was aimed Gint's way.
"Well, anyway," he eventually said, "things aren't looking that bad here. I've heard you got things up and running really well."
Saria looked at her toes. "I don't think the others like it much. A lot of them don't see the need, only the work."
Link shrugged. "They're doing it, aren't they? I bet they just don't like the way Mido bullies them into doing stuff."
She looked up. "Did you get to meet him, by the way? He wanted to apologize, you know."
"Only because you asked him to," Link muttered, kicking his heels against his stump. "Yeah, I met him. Got to hear the worst apology ever, so I guess that's something."
"He really was upset, you know," Saria said in a small voice, trying to meet his eyes. "He really was. He thought you were going to die and that it was his fault."
"Afraid of the blame, most like." Mido giving a damn about what happened to him was a thought that didn't really fit in anywhere.
Saria shook her head. "No. He really was worried. So when you come back after... after this latest mission, won't you please try to make peace with him?"
"Yeah, all right, fine, promise," Link mumbled. What he needed was a prompt switch in topic. "So how do you think we're doing, on the whole? Can we really replace all the sticks with something else?"
It was as much as Saria was going to get, so she sat back and let it go. "Well, we'll think of something. Huna, Mana and Quiri are making traps and slingshots. We'll be needing the meat pretty soon, I think."
"Yeah, I heard about that. I took a look at what they were doing and it they seemed to know their stuff. But if we start hunting now, won't the game run out pretty fast? Isn't it too early for that now?"
"Not really," Saria said, rolling a blade of grass between thumb and forefinger. "We can dry and smoke the meat, the two huts will be ready well in time. And we have to look ahead. We can't just start preparing once the sticks are gone. We need to have lots in store by that time."
Link hummed agreement. "So what was that idea you had about making the sticks last longer?"
Saria picked up an ant creeping along on her leg and popped it in her mouth. "I remember the Great Deku Tree told me about farming and such once... Or maybe more than once. I don't know. I never really liked gardening or planting, and it didn't seem that interesting or important then." She sighed. "I wish I'd listened, now."
"What kind of things did he tell you?" Navi spoke up. Link had noticed that Navi seemed to come to life when the talk was about the Deku Tree. Maybe that was something he could use to cheer her up later.
"All kinds of things about different plants," Saria was saying. "What they're called, what they're like, where they grow, what they need to grow, how quickly they ripen... How to make a tree grow together with another one to make it hardier or to get it to live longer or heal after it's been damaged. That's what I wanted to try with the sticks but I can't remember how it's done. I was asking the fairies, but..."
"But they knew even less," Link finished. Fairies didn't give a hoot about gardening.
Saria nodded. "And I've forgotten what little I knew."
They lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Eventually Saria broke it.
"The Great Deku Tree had such a good memory. Even if I'd only mentioned something once many years ago, he'd remember. He always remembered." She sniffled. "I miss him, Link. He was so wise. He was older than anything else alive and he knew everything. And now..."
"I know," Link said quietly. And he did know.
He'd never spoken with the Deku Tree as much as Saria, but Link remembered that morning he'd spent hunting for the spider creature inside the Deku Tree. The parasite had bored straight through to the tree's core before digging its way down into the roots. The mouth of its entry tunnel had been a gaping hole in the tree deity, a festering wound that smelled of rot and disease. Link had inched forward along the wall, nothing but his heartbeat sounding in his ears and seeing little more. The violently rent wood had seemed to swallow all sound and most of Navi's meager light, but the ground under his feet had been slightly smoother.
The growth rings were thin, fine as hairs almost, but they were there. And they'd gone on for what seemed like forever. There had to have been a hundred little lines for each of Link's hesitant, tremulous steps.
And then he'd come to the cavern, the yawning pit in the tree's heart...
Link shivered. He didn't want to remember.
"I know," he said again. As bad as it'd been for him, it must have been worse for Saria. The Deku Tree had been guardian, teacher and father to all the Kokiri, but to Saria he had also been a friend. Why didn't I ever talk to him like she did? All the wisdom of the world sitting a couple of minutes' walk from his home and he never thought to just go and have a chat. He was an idiot.
Saria was staring at a little clay instrument in her hands and slowly turning it around. It was one of her spare ocarinas, a replacement for the one she'd given to him.
"He taught me how to make ocarinas." There were tears in her eyes.
Link was intensely uncomfortable. Saria never sulked. She was never down like this.
"I'll get him," he found himself saying. "Ganondorf. He won't get away with what he did. I promise you he won't."
Saria looked up in alarm, hastily wiping her eyes. "What are you saying? Link, no, you mustn't―"
"I do." He could feel the necessity settling in again, like it had after talking to the king. "Yes, I do. I won't let him take anyone else. He shouldn't have been allowed to take Dini. It's because I waited too long―just sitting around..."
Like right now.
He stood up.
Saria was on her feet just as quickly. She didn't have Mido's strength but she could hold him in place all the same. "Link, no. It's just going to―you'll get..."
"No, I won't," Link said firmly. "I'll be careful. But I am going."
Saria's eyes were fixed on the hand she was holding. She could barely speak past the tightness in her throat. "I've heard that before, Link. There've... there've been Kokiri before Dini who... who had accidents. Who died. I don't want to add you to the list. The Great Deku Tree is gone now, and there won't be any more Kokiri. Please, just... if you must go, just find the Stones and take them to the castle. Don't try to fight the desert man. Please don't."
People hardly ever mentioned the Kokiri who'd lived before Link. It was the first time he'd heard Saria say anything at all about them.
He knew the idea of challenging the Gerudo king would be folly. There were no two ways about that.
A stormy night. Thunder enough to shake the earth. A beast and a rider with eyes full of murder and not a soul between them.
"I'm coming back. I don't really know how long this'll take but I'll come back." It was the only promise he could force himself to make.
It was late afternoon when Link and Saria finally parted ways.
Saria watched him go. The last Kokiri, the youngest, heading out of the forest to risk his life.
She was afraid for him. Deathly afraid. So afraid she could barely keep standing.
He will leave one day. Thou must let him.
"But why so soon?" she whispered.
Gint said something. She didn't really hear.
She had feared he was leaving for good last time, and she feared the same thing now. And if he did come back this time, too, then how long until he'd leave again? How long until he didn't come back? Until she'd lose him permanently, if not to the desert man, then to something else?
She couldn't take the thought of losing anyone else. She just couldn't.
Galada, Suriyaa, Meneke. Even the younger ones – Juda, Khuko, Fara, many others.
She couldn't even remember all their names anymore. Nor how long it had been since she could, or how many she'd forgotten.
Gint bumped into the side of her head.
"Don't think I can't feel that, moss-head," the fairy admonished her ward gently. "Come on, let's go back. There's still a lot left to do in the village, isn't there?"
"Yeah..." She wiped her face clean on a sleeve. "Yeah, there is."
Look not too far ahead, the Great Deku Tree had told her. Naught of worth doth there be beyond thy friends. Naught but mist.
Naught but mist... and a friend, alone in that mist.
The Kokiri and his fairy had reached Zora's River. The fog-blanket of the forest had thinned out and faded away gradually, the same as last time, but they had happened upon the river itself quite abruptly. Link had been expecting the trees to thin out, too, but apparently the river wasn't surrounded by grassy plains all throughout its length.
This part of Zora's River lay at the bottom of a ravine whose sides were sheer rock walls. A few stubborn trees and shrubs clung tenaciously to whatever cracks and crevices their roots could reach, but they weren't much use for climbing down. Not for any except the foolhardy, at least; the ancient riverbed may have been smooth once, but repeated winter frosts had ripped much of it into sharp, jagged edges. What footholds there were looked treacherous, the overhangs were too high up to drop down from, and Link wouldn't have bet one rupee on his ability to climb down one of those cliff faces, never mind his life.
The river itself was beautiful. There were foaming rapids and waterfalls small and large. There were narrow, fast-flowing channels and broader, pool-like parts where the water was almost still. There were huge boulders, trees, vines, rushes and banks of yellowish-white sand. From all the small wildlife he had seen, it was obvious that this was a place not frequented by Hylians or Kokiri.
At one wide bend in the river the water was no more than half a foot deep and so clear as to be almost invisible. Link had lain down for a rest on an overhang almost directly above it and gazed down at the riverbed dozens of feet below him. It consisted of small reddish-brown pebbles partly covered in dark green algae. A school of fish were eating or warming themselves down there, a distant collection of black, darting forms that occasionally flashed in the sun. The noon sun was warm against his back and turned the water into brilliant ripples of sparkling color, blue and red and brown and green and white and little black fish, plus one squealing fairy zipping here and there across the surface.
Sunlight in the shallows.
Under other circumstances the sight might have been stunning. And to be fair, it was – enough to keep Link lying there until the glint of light on the water started to give him a headache – but in Link's circumstances, the topmost things on his mind were not the majesty of the canyon and the raw force of the rapids, but the problems they posed. The Zora lived underwater, somewhere upstream. If he wanted to talk to them, he'd need to descend to the valley floor at some point.
There was no obvious way of getting there, though, and the terrain down there looked ridiculously hard to traverse, so right now they were simply following the river and listening to the roar of its rapids echo off the cliffs.
It was now afternoon on the day after he'd left the village. His shortcut north had turned out to lead even closer to the edge of the forest than he'd believed; it was practically a door from the Lost Woods to the ravine. If he hadn't stopped to speak with Saria for so long, he could have spent the night listening to the river and not the forest.
His guess about the Deku Tree being the trick getting Navi out of her shell had worked marvelously, and the fairy had taken to the topic with gusto. Link had started that conversation as soon as they had parted with Saria. He wished the parting had finished on a happier note, but the facts begged facing: there wasn't a whole lot to be cheery about. Talking about the Deku Tree had been intended as a pastime, a distraction, but it had turned out to be a learning experience and a fascinating topic. It had gotten Navi into a very good mood, and it had rubbed off on Link.
She told him how the Great Deku Tree used fairies as his eyes and ears outside the forest. He encouraged them to fly as far as they liked and come back to share what they saw. They acted as messengers between him and other powerful creatures, such as the Great Fairies and some fish god called Jabu-Jabu, who was said to dwell in the heart of Zora's Domain. And the Deku Tree really did remember everything, or so Navi adamantly claimed.
Link had had his choice of topics to ask about, and so Navi had been telling him about the Zora, the fishlike people who inhabited Zora's Domain and Lake Hylia. They were a reclusive people who seldom visited or were visited themselves, typically staying in their rivers and lakes even though they could breathe air just fine. Navi had attempted to describe one for him, but, again, it was no use. Link couldn't wait to see one with his own eyes.
He was getting used to the routine of walking for hours and hours a day. And with Navi to talk to, it wasn't so bad. Every now and then it crossed Link's mind that the Hylian messenger had come this way and had probably been killed, and when he remembered that he would lower his voice and he and Navi would talk a bit more quietly until the next outlandish-sounding thing Navi told him, at which point he would raise his voice in incredulity and the caution was forgotten once more.
What would he do if he ran into a Gerudo, though? He had no problem with the idea of keeping his head down and sneaking past some unknown thug, but what if Ganondorf was there? What if he chanced upon the one responsible for all these deaths?
...We'll see about that when it comes to it. If it comes to it.
The ground showed no signs of leveling out. If anything, he was steadily walking away from the direction where the leveling-out was taking place. A few hours before sundown Link came to a very curious and awe-inspiring natural formation. Actually, he wasn't even sure if it was natural, though it certainly didn't look like someone had built it. A bunch of stone archs bridged the ravine in front of a gigantic waterfall; some of them looked very thin – by the looks of them hardly enough to support their own weight. The formation (construction?) loomed in the spray like a bodiless spider crouched in its web, all dark legs clutching on to the walls of the canyon.
Link considered his options. So far no Zora. He remembered the waterfall from Zelda's description: according to her, it marked the border between the River territory and their Domain. He hadn't expected to make it this far without seeing one. Maybe Zelda had meant some other waterfall, farther up the river beyond this one?
...Maybe. And maybe not.
The ground rose more steeply here. From what he could tell, the land on the other side seemed no more passable, so he wasn't about to risk his neck with the ridiculous Wet Spider Rock Bridge of Death. The waterfall's sound was a steady but distant roar below him; neither loud enough to be painful on the ears nor quiet enough to fade into the background. He couldn't see the bottom from all the water vapor in the air.
Well, nothing for it but slog up the hill and see what's there.
"Navi, do you remember if Zelda said anything about how to find the Zora?" he asked between huffs.
"Nothing specific," the fairy said. "But given what she told us about the waterfall, it's likely we've been seen."
"You think so?" Link looked around. No Zora. "Why haven't they come to say anything?"
"Perhaps they want to stay hidden. Remember, they don't have a lot to do with others. They're most often seen at Lake Hylia. I don't think many people come this way."
"Yeah, I guess not." He hadn't really paid it any mind until then, but there hadn't been so much as a footpath to follow. And no other tracks, old or recent. The Hylian messenger – Glava... something... either hadn't taken the same route, or he'd been waylaid before he even made it to the waterfall.
Link would have to go some other way when they left. Going north through the woods was probably the best bet; there was no way the open plains of Hyrule would be the safer choice.
He was a few dozen feet from reaching the crest of the hill when something rose up out of the skyline. It was a very pale blue in color and held a spear in its hand. For a moment Link thought the creature was taking aim at him, and fumbled at his pouch for his sword, before he thought he'd better get his shield first―
But no spear came flying his way. He and the Zora – for it had to be one – spent a moment eyeing each other. He couldn't tell whether the Zora was a man or woman. It wasn't wearing any clothes and he didn't know what to make of its features.
Link let his arms drop to his sides. Stupid pouch. He'd succeeded in working the mouth loose but it had taken far too long. He'd have to hang the scabbard over his shoulder from now on after all. He picked up his Deku stick from the ground where it had fallen.
"Who are you, child?" The Zora's voice was queer. Although it was an adult, it didn't sound like a Hylian man or woman. Link thought it sounded a bit more girly than boyish, so he internally labeled the Zora as a woman.
"Ahh, I'm Link. And this is Navi." The fairy hadn't had the time to hide. Though wouldn't she have done that already if she wanted, since they'd expected there to be Zora here? "What's your name?"
A pause. "I am Graldu. What is your purpose here?"
Link only barely discerned the sounds that made up the name. He'd heard a Deku Scrub speak their own language once; it had sounded seriously weird, and the Zora's name didn't really lose out.
"We've, uh... We've come to speak to your king. It's really important."
Graldu tilted her head in a gesture that was oddly recognizable. "We do not receive visitors, child. You should return home."
Not this again. "But it's important! We..." He realized then that he probably shouldn't be telling this person about his meeting with the king. "I don't want to shout about it here, but I promise I can explain it! Just take me to him, please?"
"We do not receive visitors," the Zora repeated more forcefully.
"But I just need to talk to him!"
He then thought back to his first encounter with Impa. "Look, you can have the sword!" Link pulled it out of the pouch, missing Graldu's owlish blink at a weapon appearing seemingly out of nowhere. "Well, for the meeting anyway! I'd want it back, obviously, but you can hold on to it when I go talk to him. All right?"
The Zora looked at him impassively. "Go home, child. The king will not receive you. Waiting will not change that." She turned around and leaned forward as though to dive into some invisible pool.
"Wait!" Link cried.
Graldu turned back but said nothing.
"Will you at least take him a message!"
"...Fine." The Zora shrugged impatiently. "I will take your message, and then you will leave."
Link filled his lungs for another shout when Navi darted in and said into his ear, "Don't mention the Gerudo king!"
"Uh, okay. Ahh..." He turned his face upwards again. "Tell him that someone is going to try and take the Spiri― the Zora's Sapphire! And they'll kill to get it! And that the king of Hyrule has offered to help guard it in the Castle! Tell him that!" So much for not mentioning any kings.
"I have heard your message. Now go." She jumped down and out of sight without waiting for a reply.
Link stood in place for a short moment, sharing a glance with Navi.
"So... That's it, huh?"
She bobbed diagonally upwards and to the side before drifting back – a fairy shrug. "I guess. Do you suppose she will really talk to the king?"
Link looked askance at Navi. "What do you mean? She said she would."
"Strictly speaking, she did not. And she might have just wanted to make you go away, you know."
Link's eyes widened and he looked back with a sour expression. No Zora woman in sight.
"Well, she did say she would 'take your message,' for what that's worth," Navi offered.
Link snorted a sigh. "Yeah, for herself, most like. Why is everyone being so difficult? We're just trying to help them. We could barely get into the castle, and there's no sneaking into some underwater place!" He paused. "Is there?"
"I doubt it. No fairy has ever been inside Zora's Domain that I know of, so the entrance is probably inaccessible, or at least very well hidden. The only entrance I know of is from the Zora's Spring, which is where the river begins. You can get there by flying but not by walking." Navi ignored Link's groan. "And perhaps they have good reasons to be distrustful. They don't know us, after all. Maybe it's th―"
"Don't even say it," Link grimaced. "But we were trying to help – we told that Zora about a threat! She's not just going to ignore it, is she?"
"Well... Let's hope not."
Link shook his head and muttered something inaudible and uncomplimentary about big people and big fish. Maybe if he had better luck there would have been a younger Zora around to talk to...
He started walking back the way they'd come, Navi sitting on his right shoulder. Evening was already upon them and the sun wouldn't be up for much longer. They'd need some shelter for the night, preferably some distance from the waterfall in case any Zora showed up to enforce Graldu's suggestion.
He also needed to decide where they would go tomorrow morning. There wasn't much point to checking in at Castle Town, that was for sure.
"I guess it's Death Mountain next, eh, Navi?"
"I suppose so," Navi said.
Hope stirred in Link's chest – hope that this whole business might be over quickly and easily. Perhaps giving the Gorons a similar heads-up as with the Zora would be the only thing they'd need to do. Then he'd be done, Hyrule would be safe, and he could go back to the forest to help Saria pull them all through in the Deku Tree's absence. And once things calmed down, there was still a big world waiting out there – that, at least, wasn't going anywhere.
There was no doubt that things were in motion. The figure of speech was almost true on a literal level – powers were shifting so quickly they might as well have been physical tides following the ineluctable pull of some rogue moon.
And he had a hunch as to the nature of that rogue moon.
The Deku Tree's death had been felt all the way in his domain. The recent acts of necromancy in the Land of the Goddesses had not gone unnoted, either. Such things left their marks on the Sacred Realm. The answer to the question of what had been resurrected could be one of life and death, and the questions of who and why were scarcely less important.
Important questions to which he needed answers. But the problem was, there was no one else to send. He needed to go out and see for himself.
It was dangerous. Even now the prospect of making himself vulnerable in that way was abhorrent. He hadn't lived as long as he had by taking such risks.
At the end of the day, though, he had sworn, and his word still meant something, even if there wasn't anyone else to hold him to it.
And I'm not dead yet. Let's play it safe, do what needs to be done, and return.
The decision to cross from one Realm to another was not undertaken on a whim, but he had seen to the extensive preparations long ago. The ritual was already performed, already waiting for him in the Chamber, woven into the very essence of the place. All was ready. He had prepared for many things, and this was one.
It was time.
Somewhere in the depths of the Lost Woods, an owl stretched its wings, beat them once, twice, and took to the sky.
Link and Navi headed some ways down the river before striking northwest. They had agreed that steering clear of the plains was the best thing to do. Trekking through the forest made Link feel a lot safer than the idea of risking Hyrule Field, and Navi had flown up above the canopy every once in a while to check their bearings. Death Mountain with its ring-shaped clouds was a landmark that was hard to miss even from a distance, but the terrain was still a problem. Greenery hid the shape of the land and there were gorges and cliffs which had to be circled around.
Having to backtrack was always a pain and walking had long since passed to thoughtless monotony, but Link was in good spirits nonetheless. The Deku stick meant no need to stop to gather food and the good weather of the past three weeks still held. The lack of distractions left him with time to appreciate the way the land was slowly changing. His forest home had hills, but no mountains. No cliffs this big, no streams larger than little brooks, and none of the rocks that Navi had identified as volcanic – boulders in the middle of the woods, supposedly blasted all that way from the distant mountain. The Kokiri Forest was much the same wherever you went, and only by taking some of the more obscure Lost Doors could you end up anyplace notably different. And then the change would be quite abrupt. Walking and seeing the land change as he went was new for Link.
He wondered what Zelda would have made of his meeting with Graldu. Would she have been as surprised by their flat refusal to talk to him? Should he have stuck around for a while after all, in case... what? In case the Zora had chosen a guard who didn't know who to keep out and had made a mistake? Or should he have been more bullheaded about things, if only to drive it home to Graldu that he was serious?
...Maybe. Or maybe it would have simply annoyed the Zora and made it all the more certain that his message never made it past the waterfall.
Meh. It could've gone worse.
"Are we there yet?" he asked Navi.
"No, we're not," Navi replied absently.
"How much farther do you think it is?"
"Assuming no more backtracking, several miles yet," Navi said in the tone of a person who answers such questions so routinely that it has stopped being an annoyance and become an immutable background fact about the world itself.
"Right." Step over the root. Walkity walk. Brush the branch away. Step step step step. Duck. Step step step. Keep on slogging uphill.
"So Navi, what do you think about Zelda?"
Navi made what Link thought of as the "fairy waking up" chime. "Huh? The princess? What about her?"
"Just wondering. What do think?"
"Yes. Of her."
The fairy tilted to the side in such a way as to suggest scratching her head. "I'm not sure what you mean. What do you think about her?"
"Well, I mean, like... uh..." She's pretty. "She's like the only one on this mission who hasn't given us any grief, you know? Why are none of the adults like that?"
"I don't think Impa and the king have been that difficult. If anything, they tried to get you to let this mission go – for your own safety, I might add."
"And I don't think letting Ganondorf run free is all that safe. Do you?" She said nothing. "And anyway, we're being plenty cautious, right? We don't need to go any closer to Kakariko than needed to find that guide, and after that we check back at the castle and then we go help the others back home. Easy as peas."
"Hello," a voice from his left called out.
Link jumped half a foot in the air and had his hand on his sword in an instant. The person looking back at him was an adult but on the short side – a bit shorter than Calin – and wearing unadorned clothes mostly in various shades of brown. He wasn't wearing armor like a soldier, but neither did he look like the people of Castle Town, or Zelda or the king, or the ranch workers from Lon Lon. No, this guy had a different look about him. A different feel, too. Zelda had said that his guide would be Sheikah, but this one reminded him more of his fellow Kokiri than Impa. It was a weird impression and he couldn't place the reasons behind it.
But the man had obviously known to expect him. He wasn't giving Link the what's-with-those-clothes look that most Hylians did and his eyes didn't linger on the sword hilt peeking up from behind his shoulder. Link would have guessed he was the guide Zelda had arranged for him, except that guide was to have been a woman.
His grip on his sword tightened. "You're not Brythie."
It was late afternoon. Muraka's hideyhole for the day was a juniper thicket nestled against the southern slope of a steep hill. Dappled sunlight played on his skin as the branches sighed in a breeze. The scent of trees and warm, dry earth surrounded him. It was a good place. It also afforded him a view of the most likely route to watch out for as well as a few of the less obvious ones, all the while keeping him securely out of sight. For the task at hand, those were the most important features of the location.
He was still trying to fire up some enthusiasm for that task. Intrigue and layers of deception. And, as usual, there were lives at stake. There would have to be. The king did know which levers to pull. Muraka would have turned the assignment down if not for the fact that a young child would need help to live through it. The cynic in him idly wondered if the whole mission was even remotely on the up-and-up. His orders had come in two parts; what he was allowed to reveal to the boy, and what he was to keep to himself. No doubt there had been a third part that he himself hadn't been let in on. But it was not easy, taking seriously what the king had told him with apparent seriousness. While the High King had been known to play his little games before, they did not usually look like this.
The big question was the one of motive, Muraka mused, chewing on a stalk of grass. Though the second part of his orders had been surprisingly candid, he knew he wasn't being told everything. No surprises there. He could think of more than one reason to explain the letter he had been sent; there was plenty of room for imagination in any gap large enough to justify this mummer's farce of having a child run their errands. Some of the alternatives were more likely than others, and some were less complimentary of the king than others, but in the end it came down to his personal knowledge of the players.
He didn't believe the letter a forgery; there had to be a hundred better uses for testing or utilizing that ability, should one of their enemies possess it. Treason seemed highly unlikely to say the least. Someone else, perhaps. But not Impa. No, she had written that letter, and it had the High King's backing. And, as often as not, the High King's backing meant the High King's orders.
The affair could be a test to see how well-informed their hidden enemy was and if they would snag a bait when one was presented, but whatever else he was, Harkinian wasn't wont to choose innocents to run such experiments on. That, and it required the enemy to take the child emissary seriously. It could also be a diversion or backup for another group, but again, he wouldn't use a child. The king had no noteworthy enemies hesitant enough to balk at slaying children, especially on the remote and notoriously dangerous slopes of Death Mountain.
And so, ruling out bait, feint, forgery and treason, it left one option: that the mission was genuine, that the king seriously thought there was something so special about the boy that it just had to be him who went up the mountain to talk to the Gorons. Muraka couldn't imagine what that could be. What could the child conceivably say that another might not say in his stead? What could he do that no other could accomplish? What could be so urgent that Harkinian, the High King of Hyrule, could find no time to substitute someone competent for a boy who was not even his subject? Such as his loyal subject Muraka, who, as the guide, was apparently going up Death Mountain anyway?
Unless he was wrong, and the whole thing was a ruse to to root out some spider spinning its webs somewhere in the command chain. Mayhap the king was simply growing more liberal with his choice of agents, and he and the Kokiri boy were just flies to be dropped in the web to see what manner of creature came calling.
And if Muraka ever found that to be the case, that would be where they would find his vows stretched to the breaking point. And then he would have his name carved on the walls of the Shadow Temple, probably not long after they hanged him for an oathbreaker.
Muraka sighed. I am hopeless. I profess to hate intrigue even as I obsess over it, even when simply carrying out the orders would be possible. So what if he was being lied to? It would be far easier to let it go and mind his own damn business...
There was a voice from somewhere below him. He sat up and inched closer to his verdant curtains, peering downslope for a hint of movement.
There. A light was moving in the cover of the trees
No firelight, that. Time to get going.
He left the juniper thicket and moved to his other ambuscade closer to the rise, a cluster of three pines where he would have the perfect vantage point for observing anyone passing by.
It didn't take too long for the boy and fairy to find their way there. Their voices carried well – better than they thought, most like.
Once they had reached Muraka's position and he had confirmed that it was, indeed, a boy and a fairy, it was time to make his presence known. He stepped out from his shelter and greeted them. "Hello."
The boy whirled around, his hand flying to the hilt of his sword in the same movement. He moved quickly enough that it had to have been pure reflex, or possibly an action practiced until it became reflex. The unthinking response did not extend far enough for the sword to clear its sheath, however. Now that's interesting. The child was balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to spring at him or away from him, still clutching his walking stick.
Muraka spent several long moments eyeing the boy out of habit. Not because he thought the child a threat or even hostile, but because the survival instinct of halting to observe the surprising and unfamiliar before approaching was so deeply ingrained in him that he didn't even stop to consciously make the decision. Sudden situations made everyone creatures of habit, no matter what those habits were.
Everything about the boy stuck out like ten sore thumbs. The sword and shield were only slightly odd; out of place but not so much as to warrant more than a passing glance. There were plenty of people who went armed these days, and not a few who armed their children as well. Fine, so the wooden shield was hardly standard issue, but at least the boy wasn't wearing any armor. The clothing, too, was merely uncommon in these parts. Easy enough to convince a casual observer that the child was from another part of Hyrule, one with different customs and fashions. That justification would also serve to explain the never-before-seen design upon the boy's shield.
However, then there was the odd-looking stick, the end of which was bristling with nuts like a morningstar. "They grow by Lake Hylia, didn't you know?" wouldn't cut it with that one. Either the nuts, the stick itself, or all contact with civilization would have to go. That last option was looking the safest one by far, because there was not a flippant dismissal in the world that would account for the boy's fairy companion.
But in the end, all those things were simply that – things. Unusual things, but no more than that. Things any person could find if they only knew where to look. With the exception of the fairy, they were also things that could be cast away should the need arise.
What a person couldn't simply pick up was the look in the boy's eyes, tense and uneasy yet unafraid even when facing an armed adult. The child had a fierceness to him like he was expecting combat, but his eyes didn't hold the oft-accompanying murderous glint that said a person was thinking of how to best carve you up. Thank you, Farore, that we have not yet fallen so far that I should see that look from one so young.
"You're not Brythie," the boy said, gripping the hilt of his sword tighter but still not drawing it. Muraka kept his own hand well away from his weapon.
"No, I'm not."
"Then who are you?"
"My name is Muraka. And I believe yours is Link, and yours is Navi." He nodded at the fairy. The two exchanged a look that confirmed it. Not that there had been much doubt. "I'm honored to meet you."
"Where's Brythie?" Link demanded.
"At home. She has taken ill and asked me to cover up for her in case you arrived before she got better." The lie came with practiced ease. The boy was obviously thinking it over. Well, at least he's still suspicious. That's something. I wonder if it'll last.
"How did you find me?" the child asked.
Muraka shrugged. "I've been keeping an eye on these parts for the past couple of days. We expected you to come from the southeast, and you've been following the likeliest route."
Link wasn't pleased. "What do you mean? We didn't go anywhere near the plains, the road or any other path."
The boy's indignation might have been funny, but Muraka was not in a joking mood. Even now they were both playing with their lives, and the boy didn't seem to get it.
"I expected you to keep off the paths. If you do that when coming from the southeast and seeing the land for the first time, the terrain leads you to this ridge. It's the first place that looks passable after a series of dangerous bluffs that can't be climbed without exposing yourself. You could have kept going, but that wouldn't have been the most direct route to Death Mountain and it would've taken you closer to the plains. And since it's trackless woods all the way up the hill, the ascent seems safe from prying eyes. That's why you took it. Close enough?"
The boy's miffed glare was answer enough. Here was someone who wasn't used to being outwitted in woodcraft.
"Well... Okay, fine." Link let go of the sword and settled back on his heels. "So you're the guide."
Link shrugged. "Okay then, are you ready to go right now?"
Muraka raised an eyebrow. "Yes, we can leave straight away."
"Then let's leave." And the boy was off, heading up the hill just like that. So much for healthy paranoia.
Muraka caught up to him in a few strides. "Kakariko isn't far from here. I'll take you to a shelter for the night, return to the village for provisions and come back for you in the morning." His eyes sought out the fairy, Navi. "Until that time, miss Navi, are you able to suppress your glow? It's visible from quite a ways away in less than full daylight."
"I can hide it," she said and slipped inside Link's cap.
Link grinned. "Oh, and you don't need to bring food for us. We brought our own." He jerked his chin at the tip of the nut-stick.
Muraka took it in with a dubious glance. "So I see."
True to his word, Muraka came for him in the morning. Though he'd heard in Castle Town that it was open to outsiders these days, Link didn't get to see Kakariko village itself. Too risky, according to Muraka. Well, whatever – he'd go there later when he was done with everything else.
Muraka had chosen a less often used path for scaling the mountain, which allowed Navi to leave the sanctuary of Link's hat. The main approach was the only "road" that received any form of maintenance, as it was supposedly safer and level enough for a horse to travel. However, for Muraka and Link the main concern was prying eyes rather than natural hazards, and they didn't bring pack animals along. That left the rest of the mountain, which Muraka knew very well. When Link had asked about it, Muraka had told him that no, the routes did not, in fact, change twice a week thanks to eruptions and flying boulders.
Well, that was only half a loss. Curious though he would have been to see a several-ton rocks flying like pebbles, Link was also fond of living.
In spite of missing that particular spectacle, Link's eyes received their fill. They crested the treeline sometime after noon, and short of an all-out paean the view was best described as absolutely amazing. In the forest, in any place other than the village you could only see for some few dozen paces at most. In the plains and hills of Hyrule you could see for leagues, until things in the horizon took on a bluish tinge.
On Death Mountain, though...
Once above the treeline Link could see for what had to be dozens of leagues, or hundreds for all he knew. Closer to the foothills the treetops rolled into the distant east like grass until the green of the forest merged with the plains and the only difference between the two was a slight difference in hue. Objects became bluish, and then they became blue, and then they faded into the azure haze of the skyline as though the sky itself was like a very thin mist...
He stumbled and fell on his backside with a yelp.
"You really should walk facing forward, you know," Muraka said. "Keep that up and eventually you'll have a worse fall, and I don't have the healer's skill to mend a broken skull."
Navi sighed. "So I keep telling him. He's not very good at listening."
Link felt too lightheaded to argue. Instead he stayed on the ground and called a pause. "Just for a while. We're out of sight here so it's okay, right?"
"Should be," Muraka said. He walked over and sat down next to Link. Navi settled down on Link's head and the three spent a while in silence. They'd been walking for a good while and Link was feeling hungry, so he twisted a handful of nuts off his stick. He felt Muraka's eyes on him.
"Those won't last you more than a day or two, you know."
Link smirked. "They grow back, you know. I could have them all now and still have as many left tomorrow."
Muraka quirked an eyebrow. "Is that so?" He rummaged around in his backpack, pulling out a pair of paper-wrapped sandwiches and holding one out at him. "Trade?"
"Sure!" Link grinned, passing the nuts on before unwrapping the paper and giving the contents a sniff. It had some funny-smelling brown paste as filling. "What is it?"
"Soy sauce. Fermented but not spoilt. Probably better than it sounds. Give it a try."
"Oh, we've got stuff like this, too. Haven't heard of 'soy,' though." Link did as requested, nodding his approval. The taste was weird but not bad at all. Navi floated down for her share as well but offered no comment. Not your thing, eh?
Muraka was too busy cracking the nuts with the pommel of his dagger to notice. He picked one up and peered at it closely. "Are these real hazelnuts, or do they only look like it?"
"Oh, 'ey're real," Link mumbled with a full mouth. "Eat up."
The man did. He chewed and swallowed thoughtfully. "...Hmph. And they'll grow back within a day, you say?"
"Fascinating. Here." He held out a waterskin.
"Got that covered, too," the Kokiri said with evident satisfaction. He drew his sword and struck it into the bark of his stick. Almost immediately a clear fluid started trickling down the blade.
"Hmm. That's not water, is it?"
"Nope! Try it." He held out the blade eagerly – a bit too eagerly, as Muraka recoiled from the sword suddenly being thrust in his face. Link mumbled an apology before the frowning Sheikah dipped a finger in the fluid and brought it to his mouth. And he pulled a hilarious expression, widening his eyes and scrunching up the rest of his face.
"Birch sap and hazelnuts, yup. Pretty neat, huh?" He grinned wickedly. He knew no one outside the forest had anything like it.
"...Just what tree is this, exactly?" Muraka had his face all smoothed out again. Adults could be so fussy about not wanting to show any emotion. It was such a bore.
It was not a problem Link himself suffered from. He was just getting it on, beginning to gesture expansively as he explained how the sticks could grow any kind of edible plant, and how the Deku Tree would sometimes surprise them by making a stick that grew something none of them had seen before.
Link fancied that was envy or something like it in Muraka's eyes. "Any chance of getting our hands on some of these things?"
"Sorry, it wouldn't work. The Deku Tree is the only one who can make them grow, and... Well... He died recently." He was suddenly more aware of Navi hanging quietly in the air. It was strange how silence itself could take on different qualities. You'd think quiet was quiet, but it could be awkward or not. As always when it came to the Deku Tree, this was a case of the former.
"First time this high up?" Muraka asked after a moment. Link nodded, glad for the change of topic. "Hm. The view's really something, isn't it?"
"Yeah," Link said absently. "Where we're from, there're no mountains. And even if there were, you couldn't see very far."
Muraka looked at him sideways. "And why's that?"
"It's always misty."
"It's true," Navi said. "It's been that way for as long as anyone can remember. It's part of the protections of the forest."
Their guide was intrigued. "We have legends that speak of a similar age. A time when all the world was covered by clouds and the sun wasn't seen for uncounted years. It was such a long time ago that the people who believe it happened find themselves ridiculed these days. To think that a part of the world remains like that to this day..."
"Who's 'we?' " Link asked.
"You said, 'we have legends...' "
"Hylian and Sheikah historians."
Link grunted in response. "Do you know how long ago it was that the clouds went away?" He included Navi in the question with a look.
"I can't say. It was before my time, I know that much," the fairy said.
"And certainly before mine," Muraka concurred. "There are no surviving texts from that time that I know of, not even copies. For what it's worth, it's been at least seven centuries."
"How do you know, if I may ask?" Navi inquired.
"That's how far reasonably reliable records go. There's plenty of folk tales around for anyone with an ear to listen, but there's nothing there that hasn't come to us through a dozen generations of yarn spinners."
"What kind of records are those?"
Navi was obviously in her element. Link zoned out as the two went on at some length after that. If they'd actually touched on some of the stories themselves he might have been interested, but all the talk was of musty tomes and how reliable such and such sources were. For his part he let the mountain breeze tug at his clothes and watched the wind ripple the forest below him.
Link perked up when there was a change in the tone of the conversation. Muraka was saying, "And is it true the Kokiri never age?"
"Yep," he chipped in.
The Sheikah shook his head slightly. "Then are the Kokiri truly immortal? Not just to age but disease as well? Injury?"
"Uh, injury, no. There've been others before me who had accidents. Diseases... I'm not sure. People get sick but no one dies of it, so..." He trailed off.
"The Great Deku Tree wouldn't have let something like that happen," Navi said firmly.
"You've mentioned this Deku Tree a few times now. I've never heard of it."
The boy looked at his fairy. "He was the protector of the forest," she said, "a guardian deity much like Lord Jabu-Jabu. You know of him, right?" Muraka inclined his head. "Well, the Deku Tree is like him, except he does―did a lot more, like turn away intruders from the forest and protect the Kokiri against those who entered anyway."
"Mm. And you said he died recently? What happened?"
And there they were getting into a topic neither Link nor Navi wanted to broach. While he was considering what to say, the interim stretched and became awkward. Luckily Muraka had the tact to let it drop.
"My apologies," the man said. "It's not for me to pry, and I suppose the cause matters little next to the fact, eh?"
Link mumbled agreement and eventually they resumed their journey up.
Muraka let the boy know that he should speak up if he started feeling weak or dizzy; if they had no mountains it would be the Kokiri's first time at such altitudes. It was hardly the most pressing of threats, though their approach should be safe enough. The eastern slopes of Death Mountain were full of grooves, ridges, boulders, vales and old lava channels, and the only way for their enemy to spot them would be if they happened to have someone keeping watch right along the route they were taking. And even then, with a bit of luck they might pass unnoticed by that lookout mere yards away. Muraka never felt particularly safe when enemies were afoot and looking for him, but as refuges went, there was no other place he would choose over the obscure trails of Death Mountain. It was reassuring to know exactly how hard it would be to find two people in such a place, and to do so under time pressure would have been mostly a matter of luck even with a pack of bloodhounds.
He considered his traveling companions. A few hours of trekking had improved Muraka's opinion of the child in green. The Kokiri boy was definitely a cut above the street urchins of Castle Town. Muraka could hear him breathing hard, but he didn't groan and moan about oh, how very hard the going was. He didn't curse if he stumbled on a rock or run his mouth all the time. And from the way he cast his eyes about he seemed to have genuine appreciation for the mountain, which was always something in Muraka's books.
They came to a relatively flat and open canyon where the going was easier and the slope not as steep. Once upon a time this little tunnel had been a river of lava. The last serious eruption of Death Mountain had altered the topography in such a way that the channels had since taken on different courses. For a while their biggest obstacles were the odd boulder here and there. It was as good a time and place to chat as any. The opportunity was almost certainly unique, and one the the best things about talking to the boy was that he didn't need to beat around the bush too much. The things he'd heard so far already gave him much to report – should he choose to do so. He hadn't yet made a decision on that. Perhaps it wasn't his place to undo the secret of the Kokiri after all these years.
And perhaps it would be best not to ask at all, but he didn't really agree with that deep down. It couldn't hurt to know more, and he had yet to look into the boy's significance in the greater scheme of things. He had orders not to concern himself with the boy's mission, but his conscience wouldn't mind him probing. He slowed down to allow the Kokiri to catch up with him.
"Would you like to take a breather? We've a ways to go yet and we won't reach the summit in one day no matter how hard we hustle."
The boy swallowed, shrugged and said, a little breathlessly, "Well, sure. If you like."
Muraka hid a smile. Ah, a boy's pride. As they settled down the Kokiri let out a sigh that gave his bluff away.
"So, what do you think of Hyrule so far? Living up to your expectations?"
"Oh yeah," the boy agreed readily. "It's so interesting out here. There's so many people and places to go and everything's so different."
"Hm. All of that is certainly true, but there are dangers as well. Don't they bother you in the least?"
The boy stuck out his lower lip. "Well, sure. But you can solve problems or wait till they go away."
Muraka grunted neutrally but said nothing.
"...What?" There we go.
"Well, for example... Did you see anything of Hyrule Field on your way to the castle?"
Link shrugged. "I suppose. There wasn't much to see. It's a pretty empty place."
"Mm. Did you see the ranch?"
"No. I was invited to visit but haven't gone yet."
Muraka the let the remark pass. "It's true that Hyrule Field is quite the desolate place these days. Yet it wasn't always that way."
"No. Tell me, did you happen to see any low stone walls there?"
"I don't think so. Did you, Navi?" The fairy swung from side to side. "You mean there used to be houses there?"
"Houses, yes, and more than houses. There were hamlets, villages and towns, including three larger than Kakariko. A pair of forts as well, one to the west and another to the south. There are less than two hundred people living south of Lon Lon Ranch now, when there used to be tens of thousands."
The boy thought about that with evident difficulty. It was likely he could hardly grasp such numbers. The plaza in the Castle Town market could hold a few hundred people, and that would have been new to him not long ago.
"So what happened to them?"
Muraka stared back impassively and the Kokiri made a face.
"Oh sure, I get it - the war."
Bit of an attitude there. "What does that mean?"
Link sighed. "I'm just so sick of everyone talking about it like it happened yesterday. I mean seriously, why would you hold a grudge for ten years? Who does that? I mean yeah, in the forest we've got this guy called Mido who's older than me but way dumb, and maybe he might be that stupid, but they can't all be like him, can they?"
Muraka made no comment. Apparently the silence was a touch too oppressive for the kid because he hadn't taken five breaths when Link spoke.
"So... You were in it, right?"
"The war?" He shrugged. "Yes." The Kokiri obviously had something on his mind he was considering whether to ask about or not. Since he didn't seem the type to dither on the safer side of politeness, it was probably something he wasn't sure Muraka could be trusted with. Which would mean his mission. Which Muraka did know something about, but which Link might not expect him to know anything about. Muraka knew what the princess's letter said, but not what she herself might have said to the boy.
He could have kept his peace and baited the question that way, but there was little to gain by dancing around the issue. The boy certainly wouldn't notice anything. "Why do you ask?"
A brief pause with not-so-furtive looks exchanged between boy and fairy. Then, "How dangerous is the Gerudo king? What kind of things can he do?"
Too quick, too quick. But it so happened that this part Muraka already knew about, so he might as well answer. And he did have actual orders to that effect as well. He made a noncommittal gesture. "Truth be told, we never learned as much about him as we would've liked. His abilities were something of an open question during the war, and part of the reason why things went the way they did. Why the war was drawn out as long as it was. As for what we did learn..." He pursed his lips in thought. "Ganondorf had a... liking for intimidation, shows of force, ruthlessness, unpredictability and deception. And, I suppose, as much as one could while still being all of those other things, he was also cautious. He didn't take risks he didn't have to – indeed, doing apparently impossible things as if it was easy was like a personal seal of his."
Link frowned. "That's cool, but I didn't mean it like that. I meant, what can he do? I mean how could he get into the forest and kill the Deku Tree, stuff like that."
...Ah. So that's what it is. I see. The boy didn't seem to realize he'd refused to provide that same information not too long ago, but the fairy's wings suddenly seemed stiff, like a person's hands when they became self-conscious and didn't know what to do with them. "There was a reason why I answered you like I did. We simply don't know. We confirmed him to be an extraordinary mage and swordsman on the battlefield and thought we had his measure then. He proved us wrong. It was his actions when we didn't have our eyes on him that put everyone on their toes."
"Like gating a squad of twenty elite Gerudo warriors fully across Hyrule on the day following a fairly minor raid on a town with a Gerudo populace."
Ah, yes. This was no student of the magic arts he was talking to. He paused to rearrange his thoughts. "Gating is the military term for moving something from place to place by spellcraft. Perhaps you're familiar with the older name for it, teleporting?"
The boy shook his head.
Muraka shrugged. "Well, no matter. Gating is basically a way to move from place to place quickly. The catch is that there's a staggering array of complications when gating anything anywhere. If the caster can't see the place of arrival with their own eyes, it has to be prepared somehow. Jumping in blind is possible, but it's risky and still requires some awareness of the destination. Longer distances require increasingly more effort, and crossing from the desert to Hyrule's northern border... well. Gating others is supposedly even trickier, and doing it without gating yourself is simply preposterous. And not only did he move them it, he also got them out again after their job was done. And, as I said, he apparently did all this on impulse, for the raid he was exacting revenge on had only taken place the day before. By now you may guess that gating is not quite as easily done as snapping one's fingers, whatever the preparations."
Muraka shook his head in genuine bafflement. Even after all these years... "I'm not a mage. No doubt one could tell you in deeper detail exactly why Ganondorf's stunt was considered impossible. The first time he did it, the king's ranking generals and mages almost came to blows trying to explain it."
"The first time?" the boy said uncertainly. Muraka imagined a lot of people still felt like Link looked just then. He sure did.
"Yes. The first time..." He trailed off, scratching his forehead abstractedly. "Look, everything else aside, the sheer amount of power it takes to gate two dozen people two hundred miles twice took some serious explaining. You don't just cough something like that up in a fit of righteous anger. Everyone agreed that the maneuver had to have been in the works for quite some time – and this was a cause of considerable talk in its own right, mind you – but even taking a long time to prepare doesn't account for something like that. It was eventually agreed that whatever reservoir of magical power Ganondorf had been tapping, he had to have exhausted it. Every theory that was even halfway palatable hinged on that operation having been ruinously costly for him, and so the idea of it being done again seemed nothing short of absurd."
Muraka sighed. "Long story short, he did it again not long after, similarly in retaliation to a raid. That time he also put in a personal appearance at the castle itself. I won't be giving away any highly confidential secrets when I say it was supposed to be warded against that sort of thing. This was all talk of the town for weeks and no one could tell you how it was done."
There was a long silence, during which Muraka couldn't guess at Link's thoughts. It made the conversation feel more honest, somehow. More genuine. And perhaps there was an opportunity here. If he could convince the boy to reconsider by being honest with him about what he was getting into, perhaps it would save his life.
"Those are by far the most famous of Ganondorf's little impossibilities, but they are not the only ones. He can summon and create living monsters, raise Re-Dead, cast potent divinations and half a dozen other arcane tricks that make the king's court mages look like pretentious hedge wizards. He is a formidable opponent with a sword and up there with the best military minds."
The Kokiri's tight-lipped frown looked like it had been carved in place. The only problem was it was one of stubbornness, not despair. Muraka could still hardly believe that Impa and the king had drafted this child into their employ and treated the matter seriously. Surely they wouldn't bet on uninformed determination if there really was something at stake?
Is it for me to stand by and let this happen?
"How do you know all that?" Testing the waters for reasons not to believe him.
"I'm Sheikah. It was wartime, and we are tasked with protecting the Royal Family. I was kept close."
He could tell the child was about to pry, so he rose up, dusting himself off. "Well, I think we've sat about long enough. Shall we?"
They spent the night in a cave sheltered enough that Navi could come out of hiding. There were no branches to build a bed and they had no fuel for a proper fire, but Muraka had anticipated that and packed an extra blanket for Link. The boy was curled up on his side, breathing soundlessly. Navi the fairy was using his cap as a sleeping bag. Hiding the fairy's glow had taken some doing, including cutting a shrub loose, moving it to the mouth of the cave and throwing his cloak over it, but eventually Muraka had judged their lair to be safe for the night.
The pleasant weariness of a full day's travel filled his body, and the comfortable mood allowed Muraka to relax. There were moments when doing the king's bidding wasn't so bad. He had spent some time naming constellations for the boy and his fairy and sharing the old legends behind them; the Cradle, a triangle ancient philosophers had once believed to be the resting place of the Triforce; the Star Brook, a belt-like formation thicker in the middle, which was to that day believed to be the largest collection of stars in the sky in spite of its dimness; Din's Quarry, a small black circle whose surrounding stars gave the vague impression of being the sides of a small pit, slanting down towards the center; and many others, all the random patterns that people had felt the need to explain away over the centuries.
Muraka had never had children. He never would. And for thirteen years now he hadn't had any other living relatives young enough to relate these silly things to. It made him feel like... like... It felt futile to try to finish that thought. Nevertheless, it did satisfy some shriveled part of his soul. When they weren't dancing around the subject of their missions, Muraka found it quite easy to talk to Link. He told Muraka about his home, and Muraka recounted everyday facts as if they were the beating heart of the mysteries of Hyrule.
The Kokiri ate it all up, snacking on hazelnuts in the meantime. Like Muraka, he had been using his sword's pommel to break the nuts open. The glint of steel by fairylight caught Muraka's curiosity. He held out his hand.
"Hm? Oh, sure." Link flipped the sword over and offered Muraka the handle. There was that aptitude again, those easy, confident movements.
The blade was an odd thing. The steel was of the highest quality, the edge sharp and the workmanship exquisite in its plainness – not to forget the thumbnail-sized perfect ruby set in the hilt, of course. The balance and proportions were unique; no weaponsmith in Hyrule would have crafted a blade like this. They could have, but would not; if a Hylian noble parent wanted to make a gift of a sword to their child, they would go for frills and filigree and gold enamel – and if a man simply wanted to arm his son, he wouldn't need to commission this kind of quality. There was no doubt that it was a master's work.
The boy had previously mentioned finding it stashed in a box in the woods, and that there were no forges in their village.
"A beautiful sword," he said honestly as he handed it back. "Some day I would like to meet the one who made it."
"I believe it came to the village from the outside," Navi supplied, "but I forget from where or who exactly."
"We'll ask around when we next get back home," Link resolved. Muraka inclined his head.
He had found the Deku stick wasn't the only item of interest in the Kokiri's possession. In fact, the child was veritably decked with magical artifacts, with enough of them on his person to leave no room left for any idea of their value. Most things would wash off his tunic simply by soaking it in flowing water – only blood and a few other things would stick. Kokiri-made boots never wore out. The little conversation they'd had about the boy's pouch had been particularly telling. There had been a steep cliff they'd needed both hands to climb, at which point Link had fed the four-foot Deku stick into the pouch at his waist right in front of Muraka's eyes.
"Those pouches... don't come cheap. Where did you get that one?"
Link had shrugged. "A friend of mine makes them."
"A friend of yours makes them."
"Do you realize one of those would sell for its volume in greens in Castle Town?"
And the boy had laughed and said, "Then maybe I should ask Rada to make a few more and go sell them in town once I've got the time?"
Muraka had cautioned him against strolling into the market square with several times the wealth of every present vendor combined. The boy hadn't stopped muttering about that until Muraka promised to look into the matter for him. He wondered what Hylian enchanters and merchants might have to say about their new Kokiri competition. Din, with even a modicum of business savvy the forest children could probably buy the whole town...
As assignments went, this one had definitely turned out to be interesting. Perhaps when he reported back he would go lighter on the thinly veiled contempt than usual.
In all earnestness – if only inside his own skull – Muraka was forced to admit he was already happy to have met the Kokiri. The post-war gloom that the rest of Hyrule was still in the process of shaking off didn't weigh on Link and he wasn't timid or dull of mind. It may not have been possible to talk to the child on equal terms but his casual enthusiasm was contagious. There had been enough darkness in Hyrule in his lifetime, and Muraka felt they could all stand to learn something from this boy who genuinely did not care.
"Then the dragon has not been awakened?"
"Oh? You do not think you would notice if that were the case? Tee-hee!" Urti's voice was pleasantly deep and tinkling light at the same time. An empathic trick to mirror the "physical" surroundings, perhaps? If so, the visual effect was not nearly so strong as the auditory – but perhaps that was only because he couldn't quite see everything there was to see about Urti's domain... Either way, the voice alone was a thing to haunt mortal men for a lifetime. It even stirred himself, but he knew when he was being played with, and he never liked to show when another was getting to him. Unfortunately, he would have to show something now. That was the nature of their game, no more and no less. Being teased by one of the most stunning creatures in the world made it easy to signal frustration.
Urti's compulsively teasing nature aside, it was a piece of good news. That was strictly relatively speaking, of course; King Dodongo was far less of a problem than Volvagia. Still, it said something about their situation that that great atavism was the lesser of two realistic threats. They were still looking at the possibility of a widespread Dodongo infestation of Hyrule, but at least the issue wasn't critical... Yet.
"Have the Gorons petitioned you for aid?"
"Of course not. Nor will they." Urti flicked her wrist in dismissal. 'Foolish you to have suggested it,' the gesture said. And perhaps it was at that. Easier to grind Death Mountain down to a children's sandbox than make the Gorons under Darunia ask for help.
Still... "But if they will, or if another makes the request in their place, will you grant it?"
Again that mocking laugh. "I will do as I see fit."
In other words, Urti didn't give a hoot about Hyrule's plight. Not that he had expected otherwise, but he was glad his current form didn't have any teeth, else he would have been grinding them right then. Hopefully she couldn't see through the owl form.
Like others of her kind, Urti was a capricious creature. They both knew he had nothing to bargain with except his dignity. He couldn't simply ask directly; more likely than not she would just refuse for the giggles. Nor could he be too circumspect, for if she missed it and he had to elaborate, she would probably take insult. Same thing should his hints be too transparent; she might think he thought her stupid – imagine the tragedy – and refuse to help out of spite. He couldn't ignore the jibes without risking her displeasure. And he couldn't be too doggedly persistent or she would become annoyed.
And so he was stuck with earnest but indirect appeals and deliberately frustrated candor, stomaching the little needling and the petty indignities, all in the hope it would amuse Urti in just the right way to steer her toward some beneficial action.
I'm a lazy reader, so I haven't read much of it. But I think your conversion of the game into a story so far is stellar. I cried during the scene with Saria. I don't think of it in such a way as I play the game - I just want to explore the outside world. But this is far more realistic, and I love this.
There were clouds rolling in from the south and Muraka was concerned they might be caught in a storm. There was no telling yet whether they were going to rain down on their heads when they reached the mountains, but Muraka gave it good odds. If that happened, they'd be forced to sit it out. According to the Sheikah, trying to climb Death Mountain in a rainstorm took a very special kind of fool, and he wouldn't walk them into the middle of a flood.
Their pace got slower the farther up they went, mostly due to Link getting winded more quickly. He didn't get the headaches and other things Muraka told him to watch out for, but he could notice the air thinning out. He could fill his lungs without feeling full – the air was crisp and clean, but somehow... airier. Muraka had meant for them to reach the city of the Gorons on the second day, but that estimate was pushed to late morning on the third. Link tried to keep up a better speed, but it just made things worse. They were taking more and longer breaks now, and stopping to sit down or eat didn't help much. It wasn't as much a debilitating weakness as a constant nuisance, like a blistered foot that forced him to tread carefully no matter how much he rested or didn't rest. Still, progress was made, and Muraka obliged him by telling him as much as he could think to ask about Gorons and then some, Navi occasionally filling in with comments of her own.
"They look like they're made of stone," the Sheikah said. "And partly they are, though much of it is actually very tough and rough skin. There's some real stone on their back and head, the backs of their arms, and knees and shins. There are differences from one Goron to another, much like some Hylians are hairier than others. They're very strong and very friendly – you won't meet a more hospitable people no matter how much you travel, so do try to show respect. And try not to mind it when they call you Brother, they call most everyone that, each other included. Unlike the Zora, they're generally happy to receive visitors. They'll have some food in store for us, but they eat rocks themselves, so don't expect too much―"
"They eat rocks? Is that a joke?"
Navi confirmed it wasn't. Gorons lived off of rocks in a perfectly literal sense. She said it was only the one specific kind of stone they could eat. Muraka disagreed with her about that, saying it was just that there was only the only thing to be found near Death Mountain. Either way, Link was very interested in seeing that for himself. Maybe their food wasn't really stone at all and he could try it for himself. Muraka drily advised against it when he brought it up.
The clouds didn't rain down on them that day, but they covered all the sky and made it grow dark more quickly. The storm barrier itself was preceded by a more ragged front of clouds that reminded Link of home. If he simply thought of them that way, he could still see them as normal air and the actual sky as some weird anomaly...
Their place to stay for the night was not a cave but the belly of an overhang. Far from perfect, it was still sheltered against rain and the worst of the wind. The blanket Muraka had given to Link kept him warm, but there were some chills it couldn't dispel. There were moments that filled him with awe, forces that went beyond his imagination even when he was seeing them with his own eyes. Watching the storm clouds of the south creep in was one such experience. They buried the world, swallowing the sky and stars, threatening and unstoppable. The rumble of thunder and faraway flashes of lightning preceded their passage. When Navi peeked out of his hat for a moment to share the view, her steady glow lined the stony edges of their little sanctuary in bluish white, a protective circle of soft light warding off fear if not the forces of nature themselves.
Zelda had spoken of clouds too. She was worried she couldn't stop the ones in her vision. Link now understood why, and he understood why such a threat would take on the form of clouds. What can you do against clouds? What can any of us do?
Nothing. There was no stopping the storm.
But even as a part of him quailed, another part raised its head in defiance. I may not know what it'll take, but I'll find out. I'll find out, and I'll do it. Crying injustice wouldn't make it go away, but something would have to. Saria had once told him something the Deku Tree had told her: no storm lasts forever. They didn't just move from place to place; they would run their course, weakening gradually before finally dissipating. He'd do his best to break the clouds like Zelda said he could, and if he failed, he'd wait it out until the storm's power was spent and try again.
We'll be left standing after you're done, he thought at the clouds. Just you watch.
They were up early the following morning, and per usual after being forced to rise with the sun, Link was dead tired. The world was roofed by dark gray clouds that reached down to touch the earth somewhere in the distance. Muraka pointed that out to Link and told him it was rain he was seeing. The rains were creeping closer, but the wind had weakened and Muraka suggested they try to reach the Gorons that morning. Link knew it was a masked question: "Can you keep up the necessary pace?" was what their guide was too polite to say straight up. Since he was hardly about to say, "No, let's crawl instead," they were off. The way Muraka wasn't even breathing hard when Link himself was huffing and puffing annoyed him no end, so he forged on without a word. They'd fed his stick, sword and shield and Muraka's backpack into Link's pouch to ease their way, but the Kokiri was still the weakest strand in their little rope.
After about an hour of trudging Muraka called one more pause. "The last one before the city itself," he said. Link grunted and sat down, breathing deeply.
He jerked his chin up at the summit, visible again from this position on the slope. "Why's that cloud shaped like a ring? And why doesn't it ever move?"
"No one knows. That's how it has always been."
"Why's it colored like that?" From a sufficient distance the ring was nothing but a brownish patch hanging in place or a starless blotch in the night sky, but when they'd gotten closer Link could spot a faint glow in it – a weak, reddish light like a piece of sunset caught inside long after sundown.
"The lava in the crater glows with heat. If you've ever seen molten metal, you've got the idea." Link hadn't, and didn't. "They say the cloud reflects the state of the mountain, and that as long as the ring stays normal, it means the mountain is at peace."
"Is it true?"
"I suppose if the mountain were to erupt, the cloud would be blasted away. Or if the crater were filling with lava, the red glow would grow stronger."
Link hummed agreement. It made sense. Well, as much as a brownish, stationary donut cloud circling a pit full of liquid stone ever could, anyway. By now he had seen plenty of weird things and wasn't moved so easily. The winds were starting to pick up, though, and if they got any stronger they stood a good chance of moving him in a concrete way. Sitting still once more, he became aware of the chill that accompanied the breezes now. He suddenly missed sunlight. I want it to be sunny always. I've had enough of clouds. Walking, too. He wanted to actually stop somewhere for a while instead of spending all day ambling across the country.
Muraka was sitting still, giving Link his space and what time he wanted. Link could tell he was anxious to be on his way, so he pushed himself to his feet after only a short rest. Not long to go... Let's get it over with. "I'm ready."
Muraka didn't question his decision, but Navi sat down on his shoulder when the Sheikah's back was turned and whispered, "Hey. Don't you want to catch your breath at least? I'm sure Muraka wouldn't mind."
"I'm fine," Link grunted. Being babied by a fairy was irksome and rather embarrassing. It would have been better if Navi herself had the same problem and Link had to carry her, but no, she took no issue with the heights. She might not even have noticed. Fairies could breathe in water, so thin air was probably nothing to her.
The winds might just have been something even to her, however; they seemed to grow more and more insistent by the minute, making the hem and sleeves of his tunic flap almost painfully against his skin. Navi took shelter against his chest, hanging on to his sword belt and the collar of his tunic. Link felt a little queasy when he considered the possibility that the weather might keep getting worse still.
The first drops fell soon after. The tiniest things, they were, but their promise was clear. The rumbling now came from all around them instead of only south. Well, at least they're at our back and not our face. That would have really sucked. When Link glanced back, he could still spy their previous resting spot. He told himself it was just the open slope, but he knew he was flagging. He clenched his jaw and kept going. After all, what else was there to do?
Eventually they came to a flatter area, an old lava field similar to some of the channels they'd followed on their way up. There were grooves like frozen waves in the stone under their feet, as well as a great many irregularly shaped rocks, some of which had hundreds of holes in them while others looked like normal boulders. Past the little plain the mountain was all forbidding ridges and impossible ascents; if they went much farther, it wouldn't be a hike but a genuine climb.
Muraka noticed Link glancing around curiously. "Leftovers from the last eruption. The porous black and gray rocks are younger and come from cooled-down magma, while the others were blasted loose from the older stone of the mountain itself. Oh, and here we are."
Link looked at him and was about to ask where that was exactly. The Kokiri could see nothing except rocks. All the same, Muraka had stopped.
"Hello there," the Sheikah said loudly, almost shouting to be heard over the wind.
The rock in front of them moved.
"Whoa!" Link jumped back as the brown boulder groaned and unfolded into a standing position. The Goron was round, shorter and thicker than a grown Hylian and had long arms, large hands and legs that looked almost spindly by comparison. Its eyes were like dark red pearls with no whites, eyelids or pupils. This one only had rock-like growths on the head and back, not on the arms or legs. As was his wont, Link stared slack-jawed.
"Howdy, bro! It's so nice to see you here again!" the Goron said to Muraka, giving him a friendly whack on the arm. Muraka returned the gesture – hitting quite hard, Link thought. Then the Goron looked at him and Navi. Don't stare, don't stare. "And what do have here? What's your name, little fella?"
"I'm Link. This is Navi." He jerked a thumb at Navi. "Who're you?"
With the pupilless eyes it would have been hard to tell where the Goron was looking... except right now it leaned in really close and bent to take a closer look at Navi. That wide mouth was doing its best to reach an O-shape. "Oh? Oh! You're a fairy!"
"I am," Navi said. "Pleased to meet you, mister...?"
"Qurdu. That's my name!" The Goron puffed his chest out in pride. "So did you come to see your big sis, miss fairy?"
"Huh? Who's that?" Link asked.
"Sorry to interrupt you all, but could we take this inside?" Muraka interjected. "The storm's coming on. Might we continue this in the shelter of Goron City, brother Qurdu?"
"Right, right! It's just around here. Come on!" The Goron set off at a waddling walk and the others followed.
Link couldn't take his eyes off the stone person. "Uhm... Are you a boy or a girl?"
Qurdu guffawed. "Gorons don't have either, hey! We're all just brothers, y'know?"
"Oh." Could it be the same way with the Zora?
"Yeah, yeah, that's just how it is. Bet you didn't know that before, did you bro? You Hylians are always so surprised at that, ho ho!"
I'm not Hylian, I'm Kokiri, Link protested inwardly, but left it unsaid. Maybe it wouldn't be so long before he became comfortable with keeping all these secrets. Qurdu was still chuckling to himself when they rounded a bend in the trail and Link found himself facing the way into the city.
When Muraka had said that the city was built into the mountain, Link had gotten a mental picture of a ravine or cliff face studded with caves. Something like his home village, except with stone instead of trees. What he found instead was the mouth of a huge tunnel leading into the mountain, one that reminded him a touch too much of the hole bored into the Deku Tree. The ground sloped downwards now, reinforcing the image of a maw poised to swallow the young Kokiri.
Link noticed he'd stopped walking when Qurdu spoke to him.
"Something the matter, bro?"
"No, nothing." He made himself walk on with confident steps.
Then he noticed Muraka wasn't following. Link looked askance at the older man. "Aren't you coming?"
"I'll wait here, if you don't mind," the Sheikah said. "See that little cave there? It's a guest house of sorts, and the only place here designed for Hylian use. I've seen the city before and I believe your business with Big Brother Darunia is between the two of you alone."
That much was true. "All right. This shouldn't take too long, so... See you soon, I guess."
Their new Goron friend waved at the departing Sheikah effusively. "Nice seeing you, bro! Well then, brother Link, let's go. So you're going down to see Big Brother, are you?"
"That's right, but I can't say what it's about. Sorry." Link worried that Qurdu might take issue with that.
He need not have worried. "Eh, no problem. All the Hylians who come visit have some hush-hush business with Big Bro. I do get so curious about the things you talk about, though, let me tell you that, bro." Qurdu leaned over and leveled a comical stare at Link, who did his best not to laugh. He didn't want to be rude, but Gorons had such funny faces.
"So, anyway... What was that you said about Navi's big sis?" He glanced at the fairy. "I didn't know fairies had any. Is she like someone who was born the same year you were?"
The fairy cleared her throat. "I believe the one Mr Qurdu was referring to was Urti, the Great Fairy who lives on the summit of the mountain."
"Yup, that's right," the Goron confirmed. "She's real old and powerful and stuff. She gets almost no visitors and we get almost no fairies, so I thought that's what you were here for. You here to talk to Big Brother too, miss fairy?"
"You could say that," Navi said. "But really I'm just here as Link's friend, that's all."
"Whoa, wait," Link interrupted. "She's one of the Great Fairies? And she lives here? Is there a... a fountain, all the way up here?" If ever there was a place fairies would go for, that would be the one. Fountain on a mountain. Fairies... Link hadn't seen the smallest pool on his way up, however. The whole place was so dry and bare he couldn't imagine why anyone would come live there. Well, aside from the Gorons.
"Urti is no regular fairy, Link. She could create her own domain anywhere she wished."
"Oh. Why here, then?"
Navi said nothing. Qurdu shrugged and smiled. "Guess she's got good taste, eh? Eh?"
Or she's been rolling in her own glitter a bit too long, just like most fairies, Link thought.
The tunnel leading into the mountain was long and dark and the stone was well-worn if not exactly polished. There were veins of something that glimmered in the rock, flakes and facets that seemed to shift as Navi drifted by. The road – for lack of a better word – was mildly convex like the streets of Castle Town, with grooves etched into the ground near the walls. A small trickle was already flowing down them. In Castle Town they used gutters to lead water away from the streets, but it seemed the Gorons gathered it into their city instead. Link wondered why, if all they ate was rocks.
"Hey Kur―ah, Qurdu, do Gorons drink anything?"
The other gave him a toothy grin. "Of course we do, bro! We got some real tasty drinks down in the storerooms if you want to give them a sip. How 'bout it, bro? Eh, eh?"
Link smiled. "Sure thing! Sounds good to me."
Qurdu whooped and threw his arms up in enthusiasm. "Awesome, bro! You'll love 'em, I know you will, ho ho ho!"
As they went deeper Link fancied he could feel the air getting warmer. He kept waiting for some glimmer of light to appear in the depths but none did, and the one at their back grew fainter and fainter until it almost vanished. If the tunnel hadn't been two dozen feet high and over twice as wide, it probably would have. As it was, Navi was their principal source of light by the time Qurdu stopped, proudly planted his fists at his hips and said, "Well! What do ya think?"
Link looked around a scratched his head. "Uh. I'm not sure."
The cave was very big, that much was obvious. Qurdu's voice and those of other Gorons somewhere below them echoed from the walls, which opened outward and vanished beyond the reach of Navi's glow, only a hint of an inward curve visible. If space they were in now was circular, what Link was looking at had to be a massive pit. They had stopped near its edge and Navi's light only reached the level immediately below theirs and no farther, making it hard to get an idea just how vast the place was and what might have been at the bottom or on the other side. The sounds from below got Link's imagination racing; friendly hollering, rocks hitting rocks, metal hitting metal like in a Castle Town smithy, unidentifiable rumblings and echoes to match the best the Lost Woods had to offer.
And nowhere was there a single flame to be seen; the tunnel to outside air was a bright blot behind him but little more than that. The Gorons must not have had much need for light. He turned to their native guide.
"How big is this place, anyway?"
"How do you mean, bro? Can't you see?"
"Uh... no, actually. It's pretty dark. Can you?"
"Oh yeah, that's right. You Hylians don't see too well. Us Gorons have good eyes! And this is the biggest Goron city for a thousand leagues!" Qurdu proudly proclaimed.
"But how big?"
"Uhhh..." Qurdu scratched his head with a tooth-grating sound like gravel rubbing against bigger rocks. "Uh. Uhhh..." Then, "Bro! I dunno! Gosh, I done lived here all my years but I don't know what to tell ya!"
The Goron was so obviously nonplussed – mouth open and eyebrows lost somewhere up in that rocky head – that Link had to laugh. "That's alright, Qurdu. I'm sure it's bigger than words anyway."
"Yeah! Yeah, that's right! You say it so well, bro!" He grinned so widely Link couldn't help giving him a friendly punch on the arm. He wasn't sure if Qurdu would even feel it but the Goron hooted with mirth and returned an elbow bump that almost sent Link to the floor.
Navi floated in front of the Goron's eyes. "Mr Qurdu, do you think anyone will mind if I try to shine some light on the city?"
The Goron clapped his hands. "You can shine brightlier, miss fairy? Oo, I want to see! Go ahead, miss fairy, shine as bright as you like!"
"Thank you, I will. Don't look straight at me." Navi drifted some way beyond the lip of the pit until she was just a bright spot hanging in darkness. Apparently the ceiling was too far above for her light, too. Link couldn't see the drop in front of him now, nor yet the other side of the cavern. Navi gradually began growing brighter in little pulses, as if puffing herself up breath by breath. Link saw what was coming and raised his hand to block out the sight a moment before she flared almost as bright as the sun, illuminating the upper levels of the city for the blink of an eye. It was only enough for the briefest glimpse, but that was plenty.
The city was roughly circular, spiraling down towards a bottom he still couldn't see. The sides of the cavern were a warren of stairs and walkways and doorways taking the form of dark blotches, much of the intact surfaces taken up by dark lines and forms that defied quick recognition. Gauging the dimensions was still hard, but Link was pretty sure it was at least a good two hundred yards to the other side if it was twenty, and the bottom was even further down.
Some startled cries came from below and from Link's left, where Qurdu had failed to cover his eyes properly. The voices from below were Gorons wanting to know what the deal was. Navi, currently shimmering more weakly than Link had ever seen, woozily drifted over to him and flopped to lie belly down on his head. He couldn't quite make out any specific features, but he could make out the fairy's form without his eyes hurting.
At their side Qurdu was becoming animated. "Wow! Wow! That was great, miss fairy! Can you do it again? Sorry, but I kind of missed it."
"Not just now, Mr Qurdu. My apologies," was her faint reply.
"That's okay, Navi. Thanks for the help." Link patted her on the back with a couple of fingers. "So Qurdu, can you show us to your Big Brother now?"
"Yeah, yeah! Sure thing, bro! Here, let me carry you there!"
Link snickered. "Thanks, but that's okayeeeh!" Qurdu picked Link up with one hand and placed him on his shoulder. Link tried to squirm himself into a more comfortable position and managed it with some difficulty. Maybe this is how Gorons carry their kids around. Or their honored guests. He could only wonder.
Soon enough he had better things to wonder at. On the way down Qurdu bellowed his helloes at any round, brown Goron face that showed itself, and many of the locals came to peer at Link, poke his shoulder and talk to him. They were all very friendly, Muraka had been right on the mark about that. It bothered Link that they all looked so similar, however. He could hardly have told any two of them apart by their faces and half the names were a challenge for his throat, so most of the names and introductions were hopelessly lost on him. When trying to memorize faces failed he tried to pay attention to other things, like their size and the patterns of darker rock on their bodies, but with limited success. He did note that Qurdu was a bit on the shorter side compared to the average Goron. Whether that meant he wasn't yet an adult or that he was just small Link had no idea. Many of the bigger ones had a tattoo-like pattern in their upper arms. Link wondered whether they really were tattoos, and whether tattoos would work on Goron skin anyway. Only four Kokiri had chosen to mark their skin permanently, and two of those had later gone back to the Deku Tree for help getting rid of them.
The squiggles he'd spied on the wall earlier turned out to be artwork; pictures of Gorons, Hylians and other creatures roughly as pretty as what the Kokiri would occasionally scrawl on tree trunks – which was to say, not very. The work was crude compared even to the signs Hylian shopkeepers hung above their doors. They were oddly repetitive, too, now that he looked at them more closely.
He tapped Qurdu on the head. The Goron only noticed on the second try. "Hey Qurdu, what's with these drawings?"
"They tell the story of our history, bro. See there?" He jabbed at a picture where a Goron and a lizard-like creature seemed to be wrestling. "That one's about the last time we had to fight Dodongos to get into the caves to mine kibumite."
"It's what we eat, bro! We can't just eat any old minerals, you know." Qurdu turned his head to look at the wall on their left, almost causing Link to hit his head on a jutting bump in the ceiling when he wasn't looking. "The story's in the tunnel there on the other side, these days. I guess it'll have some more of this soon enough, huh, bro?"
Link was lost. "What do you mean?"
Qurdu jostled him a bit. Link found it was easier to hold on if he wrapped an arm around the Goron's head. Qurdu didn't seem to mind. "The drawings, brother, the drawings! All this business with the Dodongos is just like then, see what I mean?"
Link looked at Navi, but she only did one of her shrugs. He only remembered that they were large, fire-breathing lizards. "What business is that?"
"Y-you don't know about that?" Qurdu blurted in astonishment, and with a degree of worry. "But, but... Isn't that what you're here about, bro? Isn't it?"
Oh-oh. "Well... I can't really say. Right, Navi?"
Fortunately she seemed to be thinking along the same lines. "Link is right, Mr Qurdu. It's hush-hush, remember?"
Their friend came to some conclusion and seemed to relax. "Oh, oh, I get it now, bro," he said. "I gotcha, I gotcha. You can't speak about it is all. I gotcha, eh? Ho ho!" He tapped Link's thigh with a fist. Link flinched and hoped it wouldn't bruise.
Thankfully that was enough to make Qurdu forget all about Link asking about the Dodongos. Navi and Muraka had mentioned them briefly before but neither had seemed to think there was anything current about the topic. Keeping secrets was tough; hopefully he could steer clear of conversational pitfalls when talking to the Big Brother.
The winding paths went on for a long time. The way was easy to remember, at least; the road down hugged the central pit and they were rarely out of sight of it for more than a few moments. Link and Navi wouldn't need directions returning to the surface if it came to that – Link thought he might even have been able to find the way without her light if necessary. On every level down the quality of the echoes in the pit changed and the sounds closest to them were different. The hive-like city had some structure to it, Link was sure. Twice they passed rooms that emitted a pretty red glow. Qurdu tried to take him in to see the Goron smiths at work, but the heat of the room blasted Link as soon as he came within viewing distance, and he had to kick Qurdu into turning back just as quickly. He had no idea how they could stand it, but evidently they could.
They reached the bottom floor of the city not long after leaving the second forge behind. Looking around, Link found the level small enough that Navi's usual light was sufficient to gauge its dimensions by. There were only three doorways in addition to the one they came in through, and one of them also had a door to boot, a big stone slab with no jamb or handle. Whereas the Hylians of Castle Town could hardly seem to put together three planks of wood without adding a leaf and hinges, the home of the Gorons was almost completely devoid of them. Of the only other one they had seen on the way, Qurdu had remarked – wistfully, unless Link had imagined it – that it lead to a food storage room. There was no distinctive scent about the room like in a Castle Town bakery, just the same smell that permeated most of the city: rock powder, ironworks and the occasional dank crevice where water had found its way in.
"Now then, here we are at last!" Qurdu proclaimed, setting Link on his feet. "See that door there? That's the Big Brother's room. Usually he's out and about most of the time but he's been shut in recently 'cause... Well, you know, bro. Eh, eh?"
"Right." Link was already heading for the door to knock on it when he remembered his manners. "Thanks for all the help, Qurdu. I appreciate it."
"Oh, don't mention it. You've still got to try the ales, eh? I'll roll around here and we'll go back together when you're done." The Goron lumbered off into one of the adjoining rooms. It was too dark to see what was waiting for him there.
Maybe 'rolling around' is like 'hanging around,' Link supposed. Now, about this door... The stone slab blocking the way to the Big Brother's chamber was a huge thing. Link had no hope of moving it on his own. He tried knocking, but it was so thick his fist hardly made any sound at all. He had to hammer on it with the pommel of his sword before there was any response.
"Unless it's the High King's messenger, I don't want to hear it! Go away!" came a muffled voice from the other side. The tone sounded about as welcoming as the words themselves.
"I've come from the castle! Open up!" Link screamed at the door, briefly filling the cavernous city with echoes of his own. There was no immediate reply and he was about to bang on the stone again when he heard approaching steps. The stone slab was rolled to the side, revealing a very big rock-bearded Goron who did not look happy. Although he was intimidated in spite of himself, Link didn't want to step back, but he still had to crane his neck up.
"What the heck! Who are you?" the Big Brother roared. "Is this supposed to be a joke? Does the High King think so lowly of his Sworn Brother that he sends mere children to treat with me? Explain yourself!"
The disdainful remark unloosened Link's tongue from the knot it'd been shocked into by the outburst. He folded his arms and stared up in defiance. "I'm Link, it's not a joke, I did come from the castle, and what's your problem, anyway?" Navi was hissing at him again. He ignored her.
Darunia crossed his own arms and leveled a flinty gaze down his belly at the Kokiri. "You'd have me believe that a twerp like you could be the the Royal Family's messenger? Well, think again! Get out of my face before I throw you off the mountain myself!"
So much for Goron hospitality. "Look," Link said, gritting his teeth, "Muraka and me spent three days coming here, and I'm not leaving until you've taken one darn moment to hear me out! There's important things you need to hear!"
"Important things!" the Big Brother roared. "Important things! Hah! Well, get in! Get in and let's hear what's so important that a brat like you gets sent to say it!" He stepped to the side and slapped the wall with impatience.
Link promptly marched inside without stopping to make a retort, his guardian fairy circling him anxiously. He stared straight ahead and didn't wait to see if Darunia followed him.
Navi's distressed protests were coming through now. "Link! What are you doing? You were very disrespectful just now and have you forgotten that you came here to ask him for something? If you want me to do the talking, I can―"
"He started it!" he spat back. Behind them the door was being rolled shut again. "And I'm not asking for me, I came to warn him! To do him a favor, remember? If he doesn't want to listen because I talked to him like he did to me then too bad!"
Link felt like yelling at her now. Wasn't she supposed to be on his side? Didn't she hear how Darunia shouted at him? Who could he turn to if even his own fairy was blind to everything? Well, he wouldn't grovel – not for the Big Brother's approval and not for hers. He swallowed the lump in his throat and made himself angry instead.
The way to the Goron leader's chamber wasn't long, and the one room that made it up wasn't particularly big. Certainly there was little of the splendor of the castle in it, and scarcely more furnishings than in some of his friends' homes, but it was lavish in comparison to the rest of Goron City. There were a number of small tapestries hanging from the walls and ceiling, and the bare parts of the room held more crude pictures. There were a couple of plain-looking clay pots on a table, a wooden crate, a brazier with dark coals in it, two large but rather ragged dun-colored carpets on the floor, and a big statue resembling a Goron at the back. Link himself could have decorated a room much better, he thought spitefully. The air was noticeably warmer and stuffier than in the rest of the city and the room smelled faintly of smoke.
Heavy footsteps announced Darunia's approach. The Big Brother grumbled to himself all the while.
"Hrrmm. So you came with Muraka, did you, boy? Well then, let's hear it. What did you travel three days to tell me?"
Well, at least he wasn't shouting anymore. "It's about the Spiritual Stone – the Goron's Ruby."
Darunia grunted, taking up position in front of the ugly statue. "What of it?"
"Someone really dangerous is coming to steal it. The king has offered to guard it at the castle."
There was a silence.
If Darunia didn't look ready to crush something (perhaps Link) with his bare hands, it was only because he was too incredulous. "Is that it? Is that all my Sworn Brother has to say? And had the king nothing to say in reply to my message? He doesn't care about the Dodongos infesting our caverns? And where is the messenger I sent? He was supposed to be here by now!"
"There was no message." That I know of. "And no messenger, either. One was sent your way, though; did he ever get here?"
"No." The Goron boss and Kokiri stared at each other. "Then you're saying... The king doesn't know of what has transpired?"
Link shook his head.
"Then there's no... is that why..." Darunia trailed off, mumbling to himself under his breath. He then shot a sharp look at Link. "And what's this about my brother wanting me to hand over the Ruby? Is he saying he doesn't think we're strong enough to hold on to what's ours? What does the thief want it for?" Darunia seemed to notice Navi for the first time. "And who is this?"
Well, he's like the king of the Gorons. Here goes. That had been one thing Zelda thought necessary; they couldn't talk the kings of the other two races over without convincing them of the threat. "She's my fairy. Her name is Navi. Yeah, and I'm Kokiri and not Hylian, by the way." Darunia made a dismissive wave, either not knowing or not caring about the distinction. "The thief is the Gerudo king. He needs the Spiritual Stones to steal the Triforce."
The Big Brother didn't bat an eye. "...And?"
"Why should we give it to you? We are perfectly capable of protecting it on our own."
Link opened his mouth to speak. Then he snapped it shut, his head for once a step ahead of his words. He realized he couldn't relay the king's offer of assistance without the Goron taking it as an insult.
Why does it have to be so difficult?
He started over, wiping a sheen of sweat out of his eyes. "Look. The Gerudo king already killed the Deku Tree, and no offence but he's way stronger than..." you. "...Than the Great Fairies. You've got one here, right? And I'm guessing you've asked her for help and she wasn't able to fix things, right?"
Link was rather proud of his on-the-spot thinking―until Darunia grunted disdainfully and rumbled, "No, we have not asked. Nor will we. This is a Goron problem and will stay between brothers. That's Gorons and our Sworn Brother, the High King. We don't need anyone else's help."
"Well, what are you doing to solve it, then?"
Navi was hissing into his ear again but he didn't break eye contact with the Big Brother, who was glowering at him something fierce. "It doesn't concern you."
"But I want to help! I can't do that if I don't know what you're doing!"
Something changed in Darunia's expression. Goron faces weren't quite as inscrutable as Zora ones, but Link was still left feeling he was missing something. "We are digging new tunnels into the mines," Darunia said. "We hope to connect to certain smaller tunnels and sneak past the Dodongos."
"And how long will that take?" Link persisted.
"Well, what if it doesn't work?"
He had thought it was impossible for a person to look less receptive than Darunia right then; body literally made of stone, arms crossed, face set in a frown. Then he corrected Link by pursing his lips. "Then we'll try something else." Okay, now it's got to be as bad as it'll get.
"Have you tried getting rid of the Dodongos?"
Wrong again. Darunia clenched his jaw, as though needing to give his words a good chew before spitting them out. "We could go squash the lizards, but it would costly in lives. That is a last resort."
"Well, I could help you w―"
"Link, no!" Navi's cry was as shrill as her chime of alarm. "Dodongos are dangerous, Link, much more dangerous than those spider spawn!"
"More dangerous than the big one?" he countered.
Navi was taken aback, but only for a moment. "...Maybe so! The parasites at least had to come within striking distance to attack you – Dodongos can breathe fire, Link―"
"And are they as fast as the spider creatures?"
"Well, no, but if you run into more than one at a time it won't matter! And we don't know how many of them there are!
"Your fairy friend is right, young one," Darunia rumbled. "A grown Dodongo is a dangerous creature, even to a wary Goron. Their fire breath is of little concern to us, but they can crush skulls with one bite and limbs with a swing of their tail. And they hunt in packs; if you find one, there will be more nearby." Link hardly noticed, but the scowl was slowly leaving Darunia's face and transferring to his own. "I appreciate your desire to help, child. It is worthy of a Goron brother. But this is an adult matter. Our Sworn Brother the King of Hylians would agree."
"The king sent me," Link insisted, more out of dogged frustration than anything. Adults were all the same everywhere he went.
Darunia gave an uncertain frown. "Yes. That... surprises me. But he did not send you as a soldier, did he? You and brother Muraka came as messengers, and your task is done." His manner grew more distant and less disapproving. "When you return to the king, tell him we were pleased that he contacted us. You may tell him of our situation; as our Sworn Brother, he will wish to hear. This we will permit you to do for us, child."
It was sensible. Link knew that, and on some level he also felt it. It was no more than what he'd been doing up till then.
And yet it made him clench his fists. The Gorons were doomed. If they couldn't even take a bunch of stupid lizards, what hope would they have of stopping Ganondorf when he came by?
Darunia had cracked open the one box in the room and was rifling through its contents. "I will make you a gift, brother Link. You look rather pale." He pulled out a red garment that resembled Link's own shirt, differing chiefly in that it was adult-sized. "This tunic is Goron make. Wearing it will give you a Goron's tolerance to heat, and the thin mountain air won't bother you any more."
"Uhm... Wow. Thanks." Was the Goron chief making amends? It sure sounded like a valuable gift. But then, maybe the Gorons could make others like it as easily as the Kokiri could make things like the pouch that had impressed Muraka so. Link shifted his weight from foot to foot. "I don't really have anything to give back. Well, I do, but I kinda need them myself, and..."
Darunia waved him to silence. "It is a gift, not trade goods. Accept it with pride." The chieftain tromped past him, dropping the tunic in his arms – a bit unceremoniously, Link had to say – and went to roll open the door for him. Link stepped through without comment.
"Give my regards to my Sworn Brother."
Link nodded, the way already closing in his face. The grinding from the rolling stone must have carried to Qurdu's ears, as he was already emerging from a nearby chamber.
Well, Link thought. What now?
Qurdu congratulated Link on his gift but refrained from asking questions, though it was obvious he wanted to. Maybe he saw it in Link's face that he didn't want to talk about his audience with the Big Brother. Whatever the case, Link appreciated his discretion.
He couldn't help but think of the whole trip as another pointless dead end. Not that he minded having gotten to see the city, but the mission itself had just taken another huge nose dive. Just more people refusing to be helped. Everyone in the outside world seemed to have some problem or other with listening to him. Even Mido was better in some ways, and having to admit that made Link grate his teeth.
Well, he had passed on the warning. That was something. Maybe the Gorons would take the threat of Ganondorf seriously when the time came. Maybe they would be more receptive to aid from the king, once that message was delivered.
He'd put the red tunic on without bothering to take off his own, mostly to see if it really worked. It did. It made the air much easier to breathe and he had stopped sweating. The size meant it didn't sit too well; frankly, it was almost like wearing a Hylian girls' dress, but rearranging his belts, tightening the laces and tying a couple of extra knots with a length of twine he'd picked up at home was by far the lesser inconvenience. He could tell the difference when walking back up toward the surface. It didn't make the long climb easy, strictly speaking, but at least it made it easier. Does this thing prevent sunburn, I wonder?
He and Navi hadn't had much to say to each other since leaving Darunia's chamber. Link was still mad at her for taking Darunia's side. At least the Goron had had the grace to seem embarrassed afterwards. Link wondered if the fairy realized how he felt. Or cared.
Qurdu led them along a different route than on the way down. The detour was so they could drop by at the Gorons' brewery. There wasn't much going on when they got there, only a few Gorons loitering about and complaining about their hunger. There had been quite a few Gorons curled up around the corridors, actually. Link hadn't paid much mind to it before meeting Darunia, but now the fact demanded his attention. He'd thought they were lazy, or just sleepy. But were they in fact all curled up because their stomachs hurt so bad from the hunger? He was burning to know but couldn't bring himself to ask in case the answer was yes.
Qurdu had procured some samples of Goron ales for Link, as promised. Their Goron friend had found the experience as gut-busting as Link, if for a different reason. The master of the brewery had taken a dimmer view of Link's "tragic lack of taste," which Link found baffling because it was exactly his desire to keep his sense of taste that made him spray the fiery concoctions all over the floor. Except that first mouthful, which he'd almost choked on, having gotten it all the way to his unsuspecting throat.
After the initial series of pranks – for such it had to have been, Link was firmly convinced – they had moved on to less volatile substances, ones which didn't feel as life-threatening but nevertheless failed to tickle Link's fancy. He had complimented their "interesting" and "new" flavors, which seemed to satisfy Qurdu. The boss of the brewers had been less impressed but contented himself with glaring. Link was still light-headed from the experience. The coughing spells he had subjected himself to must have been more taxing than he realized. Or maybe it was somethng in the drinks; Qurdu had been swaying tiredly since leaving the brewery, too. He'd tried to pick Link up again but he'd talked the Goron over for fear of the other cracking his skull open should he stumble against a wall.
Then they came to a place where there was a branch in the tunnel. It was so obviously new even Link could see it without needing it pointed out for him: the way was rough-hewn and a bit too low for comfort for the average Goron, there were cartfuls of rock piled up outside it, and, as a finishing touch, armed guards were keeping watch on the corridor. Over two dozen Gorons were conferring nearby, voices too low to make out.
Qurdu pointed at the passage with an unsteady hand. "See that, bro? Tha'ss one of the new tunnels we been diggin'. 's where we... but you knew that, right? Eh? I gotcha, bro, I gotcha."
But Link was staring down the cramped little passage intently. That was where the enemies were. That way was the source of all the Gorons' problems. He overheard the murmurs of the group as he passed by.
"...tight squeeze... noticed..."
"...were tremors from the..."
That last word, spoken in a hushed whisper, sent ripples through the crowd and brought the conversation to a halt. The rock people quivered in fear of their ancestral enemy, despair writ plain on the faces Link could see.
Darunia's stubborn expression and the unyielding note in his words was fresh in Link's memory. "This is a Goron problem."
Well, damn right it is.
He dashed into the tunnel.
"What―Link, no! No, someone stop him! Link!" Navi followed him, screeching protests.
The armed lookouts noticed the movement but were too taken aback to think to stop him in time. All the Gorons merely watched him go, and by then he was in. There was commotion from behind, Qurdu calling after him and the other Gorons raising their voices, but they were all soon nothing but dull echoes. None of them followed him inside.
I wish I could say the next one is well on its way this time, too, but that'd be a lie. It's got something written for it, but not much. And now that school's starting again, my productivity doesn't seem likely to be facing an upswing any time soon. Ergh.
A/N: For those of you who have been reading since the beginning, note that as of this chapter the story is officially updating to the M-rating. You have been warned. The profile page holds some extra details for the curious.
The tunnel continued as it was for a time before beginning to grow narrower. As the ceiling and walls closed in, Link wondered how the Gorons could have dug there; there was no room for someone like Darunia to swing a pickaxe around, that was for sure. He didn't notice when the change happened, but at some point the color of the walls had changed into a lighter shade. These would be the old tunnels Darunia mentioned.
Navi, who had been whinging on with her exhortations to turn back, finally interrupted his train of thought by flying past his face close enough to flick the tip of his nose.
"What?" Link snapped, coming to a halt.
The fairy was beside herself. "What do you think you are doing? Are you trying to get yourself killed? Didn't you hear what Darunia said? Don't you care at all about what he asked you to do?"
"I heard what Darunia said," Link ground out.
"Then why are you―"
"They're slow! They couldn't outrun that fat one-legged guy in Castle Town if it was their lives on the line! And they're stupid! Did you hear what Darunia said? They know they've got a rotting Great Fairy nesting upstairs and they're not going to ask for help! They're idiots! We could run a hundred messages and they'd still end up having to walk in here themselves, all because they're...!"
Link ran out of words. It was insane. Everyone else involved in the whole thing was insane.
He felt horrible saying all that about the Gorons after how nice they'd been to him – even Darunia had given him a gift, for Din's sake, but he was so angry...
And, a part of him insisted, it was all true. The only help the Gorons would accept was from their Sworn bloody Brother. Probably not even the king's troops; Darunia must have been expecting the king himself to take up sword and shield and march right up to Death Mountain or something. Link could have told them what the chances were of that happening. Not that anyone cared what he thought. Least of all his fairy.
"Look," he continued, "if you don't want to be of help, then fine, suit yourself. All I need you to do is fly in circles so I can see and do what needs doing. All right? Can you do that?"
Navi still wasn't having it. "And what if I won't follow you in there? What then?"
Link stared at her in astonishment. He wished he could make out her face to see if she was equally shocked by what she just said. A fairy not follow her ward? It was unheard of.
"Well...! Well, then I'll just―!" Then I'll just go on my own, he wanted to say, but even then he couldn't invoke that much empty bluster. Never mind the Dodongos, the truth was that he would be blind and probably trip into some crevice and die if Navi left him.
"Listen. You don't need to do this." She was begging now. "Someone still needs to take the Big Brother's message to the king. And you promised to Saria you'd come back alive, remember? Don't you want keep your word to her? Or Zelda?"
More excuses from his excuse of a fairy companion. "What I want to do is go! But you won't let me!"
"Are you really so angry at me that you would ask me to lead you to your death? Is this just to get at me?"
She sounded so anguished it forced him to stop and take stock. It was harder to be angry at her than at the Gorons because she was actually sorry for not agreeing with him. He still thought she was wrong, but he wanted to give her something.
"I didn't... I didn't come here to get killed, Navi. I came here to get rid of the Dodongos. If I can't even take one, then I'll turn back. Alright?"
"It may be too late then!"
"Then I'll be careful, all right? Just tell me everything you know about them and we'll do what we can."
And so, with a defeated air Link could take no pleasure from, she did.
Dodongos were like lizards, but with certain telling differences. First, they weren't the size of a Kokiri's hand, they were the size of a grown Hylian, or even bigger. Second, they only had one pair of legs, which were that much more massive for it. The legs had claws but they didn't use them for fighting. Their jaws were strong enough to chew through stone – they would have to be, given that they were dangerous to the Gorons. And just as the Gorons had some stone on their backs and elsewhere, Dodongos had bony growths in various places around their bodies. Link considered the possibility that Navi was exaggerating some or all of their traits, but it wasn't something she was given to.
After the transition to the older part of the mine, the passage began to broaden again ever so slightly. They started seeing markings on the walls, short combinations of numbers and letters that meant nothing at all to Link. Soon after the first markings they came to the first branch in the road. Or, more rightly, they reached the main tunnel whose offshoot the previous passage was. It was a proper tunnel, with a much smoother floor and high enough to comfortably accommodate a Goron. There was a pair of long metal bars were laid parallel on the ground, stretching out of sight in both directions.
"Navi, what's this?" Link kept his voice low. The tunnel didn't echo but there was no telling how far it might carry their voices.
"It's a rail track for mining carts. We'll probably run into one soon enough."
Link considered which way to go. Both directions were equally nondescript, there was no draft of air, no sound, and no way of knowing which led deeper into the mines. He hadn't been paying attention to where in the city the tunnel lay, but by his best guess they would be heading into the heart of the mountain if they turned right.
That was what he did, and Navi followed. The silence of the caves was absolute and unnerving. Link had the impression of sinking deeper into it as they went on. Though he forced himself not to slow to a similar crawl as inside the Deku Tree, he was still tiptoeing. As if Navi's light isn't revealing enough, he thought to himself disdainfully, letting his heels touch the ground. Link also drew his sword and shield. He'd come here to use it so he might as well have them ready. Besides which, the feel of them in his hand was reassuring.
Link and Navi came to other intersections but never turned, keeping to the largest tunnel. At every crossroads they stopped to inspect the cavern floor for signs of use; claw marks in the stone or a trail of displaced dust and pebbles a huge body might have dragged itself across. There was nothing.
Then they reached the first chamber. It was maybe seven yards long and about as wide. The metal track split into two and the offshoot made a loop around the room before reuniting with its friend on the other side and disappearing into the darkness. Chunks of rock were arranged in heaps around the room. Link couldn't guess why they were kept in many small piles instead of one big one. Also in the room were two metallic carts, as Navi had predicted.
"What's this place?" he asked.
"It's a depot. Different ores are brought here for rough sorting before they're moved outside. I think ahead we'll find..."
Her voice trailed away.
Link glanced up. "What is it?"
"...No. See what?"
"There." She faced directly at... nothing out of the ordinary.
Link sighed. "There's nothing there, Navi."
"That mound right there – that's a Goron, Link. A dead Goron."
Startled, Link took another look, but there was nothing there. He snorted.
"You're imagining it, Navi. It's not a Goron, it's not big e―"
Then he saw it. It was a Goron all right, though only half of one. The legs and most of the lower body was just... gone. "Eaten," he blurted in a strangled voice.
The ground around the body was a ghastly mess. Link shivered, unable to look away.
Navi was pushing at his shoulder. "Link, please, let's turn back! You see what happened to that poor guy? I don't want that to be you. Can't we please just go back?"
Link swallowed and shook his head. He didn't want to risk his voice failing, so he just resumed walking. He had to be brave, both for his own sake and Navi's.
Link inched ahead and out of the depot room step by step, his eyes transfixed on the mauled corpse as though it itself was a threat to fear. He didn't face forward again until the body was lost to sight, after which he released a huge, tense breath. He didn't bother with relaxing his white-knuckled grip on the Kokiri Sword.
They kept going. Link's nerves were raw from the oppressive silence, and all his senses felt heightened. The feel of the odd pebble stuck in the sole of his boot, the sound of Navi's nervous flight, the haphazard patterns in the stony walls... Was that a reptilian scent or was he imagining it? And that – that was definitely a smell he knew, some fume released by the volcano that Muraka had told him about. A drop of sweat rolled into his eyebrows and he brushed it away.
After several more minutes they were coming up on another chamber; Navi's light was just beginning to vanish from the walls into the emptiness of a larger space when she stopped.
"What is it?" Link whispered. "Did you hear something?"
"Look at the ground ahead, Link. See that? That's sand."
"Dodongos nest in sand."
Link drew a breath. All right. Here goes...
He forged on ahead. Navi made a dismayed noise and followed.
They were barely inside the chamber when there came the sound of something large moving. Navi's light had been seen; a huge body dragged itself into view, a nightmarish monstrosity crawling out of the darkness towards their light.
Never mind an adult Hylian, the Dodongo looked the size of a horse. Red eyes full of menace stared at him unflinchingly, and its dark greenish scales looked like a display piece on the stands of a particularly reputable Castle Town armorer. Just about impervious to ordinary weaponry, Link recalled Navi saying. Or was it Muraka? Maybe Darunia?
The realization of how bad an idea this grew in Link's mind.
"We could still turn back," Navi pleaded.
Link ignored the suggestion. "What do you recommend?"
"Other than running?"
"Yes, other than that."
Navi took a deep breath. "Dodongos are hardy creatures and their hides are tough. You can wound them but if you mean to kill, you should go for the eyes first."
Link swallowed, hopefully noiselessly. "Right..." He stared back at the lizard in exactly the way he'd been told not to stare at wild animals back in the forest; directly in the eye, trying to be as aggressive as possible. Perhaps the creatures could be cowed...
No such luck. The Dodongo kept coming in its slow, deliberate, waddling gait, its head swinging from side to side as it pulled itself along with its two massive forelegs. Farther back, at the edges of Navi's light, something else was moving. Link's body quivered with tension. He must be fast, faster than ever, and he must not miss. One chance, or he would have to retreat... If he still could.
Navi was floating above the Dodongo's head, softly calling a stream of instructions. The beast's eyes rolled balefully up to take her in, but then dismissed her presence to focus on Link. "When it raises its head, it's filling its lungs to breathe. When it does, you may see the sacs in its mouth briefly. They contain a gas that burns when exposed to air; that's what it spits at you. You can approach it from the front when it's rearing up and it won't see you. If you try to sneak up to its flank, you'll come into its field of vision. It will catch you with the fire if it can, but it may also club you with its head if you're close enough. It won't bite while spitting fire. If you get past the midriff it may turn and try to slap you with its tail. The shield won't do any good against any of its attacks."
Reluctantly Link fed the shield back into his pouch. "Can it see me when it's breathing fire?" For now their mutual stalk was a slow thing, but he knew it wouldn't last.
"If you're in front of it, no. But then it won't need to. Approach when it can't see you and strike before it does."
The beast drew closer and closer, its slowness an attack on Link's nerves in its own right. He'd been waiting for an opening, but he might need to make the first move; the movement at the edge of his vision would be another Dodongo, and that was a deadline he couldn't afford to push. If the lizard failed to do anything soon...
The monster was so close now Link feared it would just rush him – pounce into a charge with those massive forelegs, crush him in an instant and swallow him in one bite. The ground trembled at every fall of its limbs, every pull of its body.
And then, instead of raising a foot, the Dodongo opened its mouth and raised its head.
"Link, now!" Navi's glow turned from yellow to red. Link could hear the whizz of indrawn breath, see the lizard's sides and throat bulging. He darted forward―
―to where? Not into its line of sight – slash at the throat? No, reach up around the head to cut at its eye – no, too high―
―he had to run back, turned to do so, but there was no time, the head was coming down―
"Link!" Navi screamed.
He froze. Unable to think of anything, he ducked down in front of the lizard, right under its jaw. The gout of fire above him heated his back, but he wasn't on fire.
The roar of the flames faded. The world lay still and Link's heart possibly along with it. He turned his head fractionally, trying to see what the Dodongo was doing. It stayed unmoving for a moment, then turned its head slightly side to side, seeking its prey. The underside of its jaw was barely a finger's breadth above him.
Link realized the sword was still in his hand.
There was a flurry of action. The Dodongo dipped its head slightly, and upon touching an object that wasn't there before, it reared violently – but Link was already moving; he grasped the lizard's bony cheek plate, pulled himself up and stabbed the Kokiri Sword at the beast's eye. The beast's sudden jerk ruined the thrust: the blade cut the eye but failed to penetrate to the brain. The creature thrashed frantically, little flames leaking from from its mouth and licking Link's clothes and skin. Link followed through with his overextended thrust to leap onto the lizard's back and went for the eyes again in the same wild movement, but the Dodongo raised its lower body while lowering its head and bucked him off. There was a sharp clap as its tail slammed against its own back.
Link landed badly on his side but tried to roll with it. Stars swam in his vision as he heard the Dodongo draw another breath. He stumbled to his feet, had the time to see the Dodongo's mouth gape open, its maw reaching the limit of its size―
Navi darted between them, almost into the creature's mouth, screaming, "The sacs! The sacs!"
Link saw them: a pair of bulges behind the rearmost of the creature's teeth. He rushed past the creature on its left, slashing horizontally across the side its mouth as he went. He didn't see whether his sword connected or not, but the blade did hit the mandible with jarring force. The Dodongo jerked away, hitting its head on the wall of the cave but managing to lash out at Link with its tail. Link saw it coming and tried to halt his charge, but there was no time―
There was a great burst of fire and a thunderclap, followed by some force – maybe the Dodongo, maybe something else – slamming into Link and throwing him into the air.
When he came to, he was lying halfway across the room, facing a wall. There was either a tempestuous roar or a profound silence in his ears, he couldn't tell which.
"Get up! Get up! Link! GET UP!"
Navi's piercing screams drove him to his knees. He had a hand on both the wall and the ground, both of which seemed to be moving, like the whole world was tumbling down a hill. Something glimmered dimly in the wall straight in front of him. Whatever it was, it was rising, rising... Then it stopped, and then it vanished―
"Move! Move! Move!"
Link pushed away from the wall and his legs scrabbled for purchase – but they failed to find any. He fell flat on his stomach and his breath whooshed out of him. He kicked at the ground and scrabbled madly along with his arms―
There was a roar, Navi screaming, his back was on fire, and then he screamed too.
He flailed on the ground, eyes closed against an intense heat. He rolled away without seeing where, frantically wiping his hands across his head to put out flames in his hair.
"Here! Come here! My voice, follow my voice!"
He did as Navi said, crawling on all fours toward where he thought she was. The whole backside of his body was a mess of pain and there was dust in his mouth. He opened his eyes, got to his feet, and stumbled toward where Navi was, near a smoking heap of... something.
It was a Dodongo. Or it had been, before Din herself had ripped away the upper half of its body and splattered it on the wall and around the room with her fiery fist. The remains were still smoking and flickering with little flames. He noticed his clothes, too, were still on fire in places, and he patted them out. The Dodongo was lumbering towards him at its steady pace. The corpse wasn't what Navi wanted to lead him to, though. As soon as Link got close enough to feel the wet muck of gore beneath his boots, Navi shot away. Link only just had the presence of mind to recognize the mouth of the tunnel they had come in through.
But that wasn't where Link wanted to go. He cast his eye about for his sword, and a glint of metal revealed it some yards away. He ran to pick it up, keeping an eye on the lizard monster all the while. It returned the favor, creeping inexorably closer.
"Link, what are you doing! Come on!"
The Dodongo was the only thing in his world, a world whose edges moved as Navi came after him. It mattered not, for he had the lizard in his sights now. It was rising up onto its legs again, its chest was filling with air. Link didn't hesitate. He ran past it and slashed upwards, hitting the sac and doding the bony plate of its mandible. It had seen him and was twisting its whole body towards him, to either bash him with its head of slap him with its tail.
He didn't stop this time. He ran straight ahead and jumped, clearing the tail that came at him by a precious few finger breadths. When his feet touched the ground he immediately took a dive forward and down.
The explosion rocked the cave and almost deafened him, but his fall was more controlled this time and he was on his feet while chunks of the Dodongo were still raining down from where they'd momentarily stuck to the ceiling.
Link whirled around at a sound from the rear of the cave. A third Dodongo dragged itself out of the shadows and set its beady eyes on him.
Link snarled and charged that one too.
You had your chance.
It was late afternoon. Zelda's drawing room lay at the base of one of the castle's smaller turrets. It was a comfortable place, roomy without being wasteful, with a clever design that gave the impression of spaciousness. It commanded a view of the hills to the east and north, and clerestory windows set high in a white, vaulted ceiling provided light enough to see by almost until sunset. The walls of the octagonal room were covered with paintings, tapestries, sculptures on their pedestals, and a number of games and musical instruments lay on display, awaiting the interest of the curious and the bored. Five chairs, all currently occupied, were arranged around a table in the middle. For herself Zelda preferred her own bedchamber, but there were guests to entertain.
Zelda's lessons occupied much of her time but most days had an hour or two set aside for her to socialize. Typically, as now, that meant the other nobility of the kingdom, in which case the event was not unlike another scheduled lesson. Only dignitaries from abroad could make what could be called claims on her time.
What gave the little sessions the proceedings-like feeling they possessed was being aware of their purpose. She didn't remember when she had worked it out that it wasn't about finding friends for her. It was about putting in face time, being seen, forming alliances for the future – that was how she had seen it as far back as her memory went. There was always a distance between herself and those of the lower classes. Which, for her, meant almost everyone. She had always been aware of that. Sometimes she wondered whether the net effect of that remoteness was desirable, but so far she had not sought to change it.
She had dim recollections of mostly meeting with other girls closer to her own age in the past. Eda, her maidservant and most frequent companion by her father's choice, was a year younger than her. It was all part of a carefully managed process, she was sure. She had been told early on that all highborn and royalty in particular must take care to not let their poise slip. It was hardly even etiquette, merely the basic facts of life: the Royal Family must not seem ignorant or weak. To that end, it was considered safer for her not to be exposed to those who might outdo her. She must always be the best in whatever company she might find herself in, because that was the image which had to be presented to a world that was always looking for a weakness, a way in. She had the best tutors in the realm but no one else to attend the lessons with her.
However, she had been spending more and more time with women older than herself of late. Of the five gathered in her chambers at the moment, she was the youngest, only Elin being within a year of her own age. The change could mean several things. Either her father considered her to have grown enough to face such challenges, or he had only recently noticed that she was capable... or their hand was being forced. That possibility was ever on her mind these days.
Carefully managed encounters. It was typical of the distance that was always there, in everything she did. She had no end of companions or polite society, but no true friends, either. The only ones she could talk to as equals were her tutors and Impa. It was only with them that she could ask questions and openly discuss things of consequence.
She didn't mind; it was how things were, no more and no less. She was neither alone nor lonely, and her teachers weren't the only ones in the world with interesting things to say.
"...and as you can imagine, the Crayfs were quite happy to accept the proposal," Alys Alderlet was saying. She was a second daughter, fourteen and quite pretty even in simple attire with her brown curls and near-classical features, the sort you would regularly find in sculptures of Hylia or the Golden Goddesses. The Alderlets were not permanent residents of Castle Town and as such were only an occasional presence at court. Zelda was quite content to listen to her talk of the north and its affairs. Zelda suspected her father had arranged the visit to let her be seen by a likely squire or knight. Maybe sir Oxas Axet of her own guard, recently raised to full knighthood?
"But I do say! A quick agreement like that – like they were striking everyday deals in the midweek market! – it's quite something, is it not?" That from Elin, of House Macahas, one of her family's most prominent allies. Since the two were almost of age, Zelda had been seeing Elin quite often for most of her life. And though Zelda would never have said so, she thought poor Elin was, as usual, trying a bit too hard. She was waving an expensive imported fan at herself and her cup of tea, nervous in the company of the older girls, or so it seemed from the way she jumped to punctuate any remark from them with a scandalized sigh.
Alys shrugged, her gaze straying slightly above and behind Elin. "Oh, I wouldn't blame them. They were hardly like to find a better match and the courting, short as it was, was conducted with all propriety." Alys wasn't very impressed with the Macahas heir and evidently not afraid to show it.
"Still, though!" Elin insisted. "I don't think I would like to be married off that, that... hastily! Would you?"
"Oh, I wouldn't harbor any fears on that account," said Elzbeth, sharing a look with Alys. The two were fast friends and neither one was likely to pass up an opportunity to needle a subject of the other's ire. "Your circumstance, dear Elin, is such that I doubt you will ever have to fend off hasty proposals."
Elin gave a relieved little titter at what she took for a compliment. Zelda sighed quietly and sipped her own tea, taking in the last of her guests. Cedany Dinsdeed was the eldest in their company by two years and currently appeared composed in a way that hinted at hidden disapproval. Aside from Zelda herself, Cedany was the only one who seemed to have little taste for japes at Elin's expense. Though perhaps she should include Eda in that number; the maid attending on their party was avoiding the guests' eyes more studiously than usual. Eda was far from timid, but no doubt she knew well how it was to be looked down on.
Zelda decided she should say something. There would be no drama as long as Elin didn't pick up on Alys and Elzbeth's rather unsubtle attempts at provocation, but sitting out the ongoing conversation would be a tedious way to spend an entire afternoon.
"What do you make of the match, Cedany?" Zelda asked. "You have cousins in those parts, do you not?"
"Indeed, your highness." Cedany's reply was smooth and timely, as if she had been paying full attention all along. "This news first came to me from Haukin – my cousin, as you say. It came as no great surprise. The Crayfs have been hunting for a chance at social elevation openly enough that it had grown to become an established part of their... renown. Ms Alderlet was quite correct in that the Nothtonlies had sore need of Crayf rupees." She shrugged. "Both parties benefited and, again as per Ms Alderlet's assessment, neither had anyone better to turn to."
"I wouldn't dream to disagree with your gist, dear Cedany," Elzbeth said, smiling, "but you do take such a reserved view on the whole affair. Cold, even, if I may be so bold."
Cedany quirked an eyebrow. "Perhaps it signifies nothing more than a chronic failure of imagination on my part, but I seldom find myself moved to ebullience by events that are neither rare, dramatic nor unexpected."
Zelda took care not to smile too widely. Cedany could handle herself – and, by the looks of it, Elzbeth as well. That was just as well. It wouldn't hurt to rein the ladies Hikah and Alderlet in a bit, and it would be best if she not be the one to do so.
Elin, missing the undercurrent as usual, remarked, "I must say I disagree with you about this being entirely ordinary, Ms Dinsdeed! Two weeks is hardly observing of decorum; it is not regular to―"
The sound of a trumpet interrupted her; a distinctive clarion call announcing someone of consequence approaching the castle. Inquisitive glances were exchanged, and Elin spoke what they all were thinking.
"I wonder who that is?"
"Might you or your father be expecting more visitors, your highness?" Alys asked.
"Not that I know of," Zelda said. Not yet. "Though I believe I can guess. Eda, go see what's happening, would you?"
"Yes, your highness." The serving girl slipped out of the room. The following handful of minutes were spent in excited speculation on the identity of the visitor. The others directed veiled inquiries in Zelda general direction, but none were gauche enough to ask after what she had declined to say directly.
When Eda returned, the word she brought confirmed Zelda's suspicions. "My ladies, the visitor is an envoy of the Gerudo. His majesty received her in the great hall and she has announced that their king will be arriving in seven days. Also, your highness, your father requests your presence after your engagement with your friends is concluded."
It would serve to set the castle abuzz for the following week. It certainly did their little gathering. Zelda did her best to contain the sinking feeling in her chest, but the news was enough to set her heart thudding uncomfortably. It demanded discipline to avoid blanching or flushing, and to participate in the ongoing conversation. Her thoughts, however, lay elsewhere.
Link... Where are you?
It was done after the fifth one exploded. No more enemies, only the stench of blood, guts and burnt meat. And the source of that stench, the unholy mess coating much of the room. The fourth Dodongo had managed to singe the left side of Link's body slightly, but it was as nothing next to the brush with death the first and second ones had dealt him.
Link turned around slowly, scouring the area for hints of movement. Nothing. The only thing moving was Navi, drifting slowly from place to place to shed light on every corner of the room to make sure there were no enemies hiding anywhere, or creeping up from underground lairs. Link's heart was still racing after all the dashing, slashing, jumping, sprinting and falling, to say nothing of the sheer danger he had just faced.
The Kokiri Sword fell to the ground from his nerveless fingers. He closed his eyes and slowly bent double in exhaustion, leaning forward with his hands on his knees.
Sitting down seemed like the finest idea in the world just then. Link opened his eyes to see a dark pool of thick blood spread sluggishly towards him. He recoiled from it, stepping away before it could touch him. He trod on something soft – a bloody piece of Dodongo's tail. Shaken by a tremor of shock and disgust, he touched the wall for support, only to find it wet. His heart skipped and bile rose in his throat as his hand came away red.
The sheer macabreness of the scene chose then to sink in in full. The shattered ribcages with entrails flowing out of them sluggishly, the shards of bone, the gore, and of course the blood, all bathed in Navi's pale blue, ghostlike glow. And the miasma hanging all around the room. And the utter silence, broken only by the occasional wet plop.
It was worse than any nightmare. He could feel the weight of untold tons of stone above him and around him, enveloping and entombing him inside Death Mountain.
Link shuddered violently and took to his feet, hopping awkwardly across a cavern floor strewn with body parts, doing his best not to touch any of it.
"Link?" Navi called after him.
He couldn't find enough clean spots to step on. When he chanced to step on a particularly bloody piece of meat and felt it grind under his toes, he whimpered and broke into a run, wet, sticky sounds accompanying his every step: shluck, shluck, shluck.
He found a corner untouched by the carnage and pressed himself against the wall there. However, he was brought to his knees by a sudden flare of pain from his back. As Navi approached, Link finally noticed exactly what condition his clothes were in. All the red on red hadn't registered right away, but now that he looked...
He yanked the Goron tunic off and threw it on the ground along with his sword belt, kicking off his boots as well. He found his Kokiri tunic spattered with blood, too, but when he tried to remove it, a scream tore loose from his throat. If he hadn't already been sitting, he would have fallen on his face. It was like pulling at a hundred hooks sunk into his skin, and the agony was as crushing as when the gigantic parasite in the Deku Tree had come close to taking his leg off. His scream only faded into a hoarse groan when he ran out of air.
After the blackness faded from his eyes and he could see right again, he became aware of slimy chunks of something inside his shirt. He pinched the fabric of his shirt with trembling fingers and lifted it from his skin, reaching inside with his other hand. He pulled something out and, against his better judgement, looked at it.
It was a Dodongo's eye.
He threw up.
Already unable catch his breath and now retching again and again, Link felt like he was choking, or drowning. He tried both swallowing and spitting the acrid taste from his mouth but it refused to go away. His breaths came shallower and shallower. I need the tunic. Where is it? Where did I―where... He cast his eye about for the garment, couldn't find it―
Navi appeared in front of his face and put her hands just below his eyes, as though holding him up. The cave vanished into her brightness.
"Link, stop. Stop."
He stopped. The caves were icy cold. That's weird...
"Link, listen to me. Close your eyes."
What? "Wh... Why?"
"Just do it. Close your eyes."
He did. Behind his eyelids the brightness became red.
"Take deep breaths. Just breathe."
"Can you hear what I'm saying? Nod if you can."
He nodded. What an odd question. Hadn't he just been doing what she said?
"Can you hear my wings?"
He listened. Yes, that was the sound a fairy made when hovering in place. So quiet, almost too quiet even for his ears.
"Can you feel my hands?"
Yes, they were still on his face. "Yeah..."
"Good. Now how's your breathing? No, don't open your eyes. Just... sit still, okay? Good, that's right." She said other things after that, things Link didn't really get the point of. But he was glad she was there.
And slowly, slowly his panic left him.
A short time later Link was hunched awkwardly on the ground, unable to find a way to sit with any degree of comfort. His back was killing him so he forced himself up into a kneeling position. The range of his movements was severely limited; an incautious shrug or raising an arm too far the wrong way felt like a Goron taking a rake to his back. It wasn't absolutely intolerable if he stayed perfectly still, but that was about it.
His whole body was tingly with sweat, scrapes and shallow cuts, the places where his skin had been touched by a Dodongo's breath made him forget all about his sunburn, and he had bruises all over. To top things off, there was a warm trickle down his back. He didn't need to look to see what it was. He was calmer now, and he knew he had to leave the cave – and the sooner the better – but he couldn't bear the notion of standing up, much less walking. There was just no way.
"Link, reach into your pouch and get your Deku stick. Drink as much of the sap as the stick holds right now. It'll help."
He was not in a state to argue. Even opening the knot that held the pouch closed took an effort. He was dragging the piece of wood out inch by inch when he realized something.
"Where's... where's the sword? I dropped it..."
"Oh, right. Well... Well, I should be able to pull the sword here, so leave that to me. You just worry about the stick, all right?"
She flew away and the dark closed in on Link. The cave wasn't big enough that he lost all signs of her, but it still scared him. If she left now, he would truly be lost.
Navi didn't leave, though. She disappeared behind a pillar and then stopped moving. Then there was a scraping sound, and a moment later the fairy came in sight, dragging the Kokiri Sword by the pommel. The going was slow for both of them, but Link had the stick out by the time Navi let the sword thump into the sand at his side. The blade seemed five times its usual weight when Link lifted it, but all he needed was a shallow cut to set the sap leaking.
Nothing had ever tasted so sweet. Link brought the branch to his lips to suck on it, having to hold the stick up with trembling hands so all the sap would be sure to flow down. There was blessedly much of it and he felt almost full when the fluid finally ran out.
"Good. Now let me look at your back, okay?"
Navi settled on his shoulder first, and then tried to pry the tunic loose as gently as possible. Several twinges and sharp indrawn breaths later she abandoned the idea, instead settling down on the ground beside him to lift the hem of his shirt. That worked a bit better, though it still ended in a cry of pain.
Navi fluttered shakily back to face him.
"I-is it bad?"
She gave a fairy-nod. "I... I think it's melted on, Link."
Link shivered. "W-what does that mean, Navi? Clothes don't melt."
"Skin can," she said quietly. "In a temperature of... That is, if it's hot enough..."
Link moaned hopelessly. He wanted to curl up and cry, but almost anything he did sent excruciating jolts down his back.
He couldn't help it; he was still going to cry. He could feel the wracking sobs coming, but there was no hiding it from Navi because he was stuck, frozen in place on his knees. Not even in Death Mountain could you hide from your fairy.
"S-sorry, Navi. I-I'm s-sorry."
She alighted on his knee, seeking his eye. "What for, Link?"
"F-f-for not l-listening to you. Y-you were r-right. We shouldn't have c-come here. I'm so s-stupid... " Every twitch and hiccup made it worse and had his head swimming. It hurt so much it was tiring.
Navi shushed him. "It's okay, Link. It's fine now, it's over. Let's just get going, all right? Come on, stand up. We'll leave here together. Just like back in the forest, remember? Come on."
Link couldn't imagine rising to his feet under his own power. He tried putting his hand on the ground to push off but couldn't reach it without pulling at the tunic on – by the Goddesses, in? – his back. He grunted and shuddered, trying to wriggle even one of his feet into position under him, but it was impossible to do that without moving his back.
"I c-can't. I can't." It was so stupid. His legs and arms were fine – well, mostly fine – but he couldn't get up.
"You can," Navi insisted. "It'll be easier once you're on your feet again, you'll see. You were running around just a moment ago, remember? So I know you can. Won't you try again?"
"I-I can't, Navi. It's not p-possible. It hurts too much."
She was fluttering left and right in front of him. "Listen, let's just... let's just wait here a while, all right? Let's rest a bit and then we'll leave. Give that Deku sap some time to work and then we'll leave this cave, yeah?"
"O-okay..." He'd never heard of Deku stick sap having any healing properties. Was she leading him on? Maybe he would never be able to leave. He would stay hunched in there forever, just like that dead Goron they'd passed on the way.
"I got five Dodongos... Th-that's not too bad, is it?"
"No, Link. It's not bad at all." She patted him on the cheek. He just closed his eyes and let her.
Link found to his surprise that he was too tired to cry. Truth be told he was bone-weary. Sleepy, too. And very sweaty, apparently; it wasn't cold anymore. The Goron tunic lay on the ground. There was no way he would be able to pull it over his head, so he fed it into the pouch.
"Link, why did you go after that second one? You were already hurt then," Navi said.
Link himself wasn't sure why he had chosen to do that. What had he been thinking? He could only shake his head.
"I don't know. I... I'd just noticed that they all moved the same way – the way animals do, you know? I knew I could take the other one, and then the third one showed up, and then the other two were there behind the pillar, and..." He sighed. "And I didn't want to run."
"And next time?" Navi said softly.
"Yeah. Next time..." Although he said that, Link wasn't so sure anymore. Yeah, he'd been mauled on, and even the thought of battling another Dodongo now almost made him flinch, but he knew how to do it now. He was confident he could pull it off, if only it didn't hurt so much.
Navi nudged his knee. "Hey. Remember what the Great Deku Tree said? 'Thou art courageous?' Well, you are. And here's one more story you can tell the others back home, isn't there?"
"Yeah, I guess..."
"That's right. You've done your part and more besides, and I won't let anyone say otherwise – including you, mister. Let the Gorons handle their own mines from here on, right?"
The sword was still on the ground. Link couldn't very well leave it there, but the problem was what to do with it. Putting sharp objects inside the pouch might break it, and the sheath wasn't much of an option at the moment; the flames that had burned his back had ruined it beyond all salvaging. The only intact part of the item was the metal throat; its shaft was more severely damaged the further down one went, ceasing to exist entirely some distance short of the tip. The collection of singed tatters that was his scabbard more resembled a hook to hang a sword on than a container for one.
Wrapping the sword in the Goron tunic would have worked, but Link didn't want his weapon swaddled in layers and layers of cloth in case some Dodongos had shambled onto their line of retreat. Such a huge heap of good having the sword ready would do, too, with his back like this. All the same, he wanted it at hand.
With considerable difficulty he reattached the sword belt on his waist. It should be enough to ensure he wouldn't be cutting himself on the partly naked blade all the time, and he would need both hands for his walking stick. His hat was lost somewhere, probably burned to cinders. Link left the spare in the bag. He was in Din-damned Death Mountain, anyway. Who was going to call him out on going bareheaded?
In the course of putting the sword belt back on Link found that if he kept his arms close to his body and used the right one as much as possible, he could move around. Maybe he could use that to stand up.
"All right... Let's do this." Link leaned forward stiffly, turning his torso sideways, and – yes, he got his right hand on the ground! He put more of his weight on it and off his legs. It was far from graceful or swift, and his legs were still wobbly, so he had to make use of the Deku stick, too. In the end, though, he had himself standing up. He found his boots and stepped into them. His back was a throbbing blaze of hurt, but everything felt so much more possible now that he was on his feet again.
"Well, there you go!" Navi was flying around, excited. "Now let's leave this hole behind!"
"And good riddance," Link heartily agreed.
There was a rumble from all around them and the earth shivered. The fairy and her ward both froze, as if to listen.
"What's that?" Link said.
"Either an earthquake, or just the mountain acting up," Navi replied thoughtfully. "I wouldn't worry, though. It didn't sound very serious, and the Gorons wouldn't have dug their mines so that they're filled with lava every time there's the tiniest bit of activity from the volcano."
"Let's hope so."
They were off back the way they came. The way felt no shorter on the return trip and the reason for Link's cautious gait was different, but he was definitely eager to see the last of the place. Navi had the right of it: if he could take five Dodongos, the Gorons could bloody well take at least one apiece.
His near-death experience hadn't bestowed any newfound beauty on the nondescript tunnels or the pair of metal bars that were their guide back towards Goron City. Link hobbled into the first chamber with the dead Goron, sparing the body only a passing glance this time. This room was relatively free of signs of havoc; no exploded Dodongos anywhere. It made him hesitate slightly, and wonder. Had this poor Goron been surprised? Had he been paralyzed by fear? Was he just not a fighter in the least degree? Whatever the case, there were few signs of struggle – and no weapon the Goron might have used. Surely if they sent soldiers down here, those ones would fare better?
Link swallowed, hoping the Gorons could handle it on their own like Navi thought they could.
And yet... Darunia had said retaking the mines would cost lives, hadn't he?
He shook his head. He would have helped them if he could, of course. It was no less than he'd just attempted, but all that was entirely outside the realm of possibility now. He had his work cut out just putting a foot in front of the other.
They came to a little bump by the side of the railway track which Link found unfamiliar. It was only a rock, but it sent shivers down his spine. Had the Dodongos already reached the exit? There was a bit of smoke in the air. With the state he and his clothes were in he couldn't smell it, but he could see it by the light Navi gave off. Oh please Farore, let them have just passed it by. We're so close, I know we are...
Navi's light reflected off something ahead of them. Something in the middle of the tunnel.
Link whipped his sword out – fast enough to tear something, or so it felt.
"Oh no," he and Navi said at the same time.
Link stopped walking, while Navi drifted ahead. A sharp fear of being alone made Link hobble after her, expecting to see the Dodongo turn around at any second to face the light with its eyes like glowing red embers―
But it didn't.
Navi stopped first, and Link right after her.
Link stared at the rubble blocking the way, first without comprehension and then with a terrible realization dawning.
The fairy said nothing.
His back was throbbing again. A coughing sob escaped him.
"I, uh..." She trailed away, her hesitation scraping away at the remnants of Link's ability to hope. "Yes. Yes, Link, there has to be. I'm... I'm not an expert on mining, but the Gorons are. And even I know there has to be a second exit, maybe even more than one. It's just common sense, in case there's a cave-in. This is an active volcano, after all." She grew more confident as she went on. "And anyway, this little tunnel is much too small to be the main corridor for the whole mine. Yeah, there's another way. All we need to do is find it."
It sounded blessedly believable. Link accepted it as true. He had to.
"So do we... head back again?"
"I guess we do. "
Link didn't relish the prospect; the mere thought of returning made his back throb harder. He never wanted to see a Dodongo nest again in his life. "W-what about all those other tunnels? If one led to the city, why not more?"
"I doubt the Gorons would be keeping more than one way open at a time like this. It'd only place them in more danger."
"But we don't know for sure." The dust hanging in the air made Link cough, racking his burnt back. The dust tasted and smelled like blood.
"...No. Not for sure."
"Well then. Let's go."
The going was slow and not getting any faster, but, tired as Link was, he could force himself to keep walking. His current hobbling pace was a lot like one of his all-day runs through Hyrule Field; he was winded, but not so badly that he was in danger of collapsing. Unless he pushed himself.
They came to the first turn in the tunnel.
"I can go alone if you'd rather rest for a bit. Do you want to wait here?" Navi asked.
The notion of not having to walk was attractive, but Link also didn't want to be left alone in the dark of the mine.
But then, if he went in and a Dodongo did crawl all the way here and after them, and the tunnel didn't lead to safety...
"...I'll come with you." He really didn't want to be alone right then.
It was a dead end, and so were the next two. The first one showed signs of having been closed off on purpose; it ended in worked stone blocks instead of a haphazard pile of rubble. Link shouted and banged on the wall with the pommel of his sword, gritting his teeth as each horribly loud strike stretched his frayed nerves tighter and tighter. There was no reply from the other side, however, and Link was left in a cold sweat for fear of the racket calling every oversized lizard in the mountain his way.
In the end, though, no Dodongos came for him. The second tunnel tapered out to something too small for Link to crawl through, and Navi only had to fly a short way in to confirm it led nowhere anyway. The last passage had caved in like the big one, though apparently a long time ago, since there was no dust in the air.
That left nowhere to go but farther in.
They followed the rails past the depot with the dead Gorons and the havoc of the Dodongos' lair, after which the stifling nondescriptness of the mines enfolded them once more.
"What do you think the Gorons will do? Will they come looking for us?" Link asked of his partner, mostly out of a need to hear something other than his own shuffling feet.
"I don't know," Navi said slowly. "Maybe they'll try to rescue us, and maybe they'll follow your lead and come help us fight. But we never saw how much food they had in reserve, so..."
"So maybe they'll just seal every tunnel and leave us here until things get bad for them," Link finished.
"Let's hope not. Whatever they had stored up will run out sooner or later, and they'd need to plan for that."
Link cleared his throat. He wished he had Muraka's waterskin right now. "What do you mean? Wouldn't they just wait until there's nothing left, if they're so scared?"
"The longer they wait, the weaker hunger will make them. Even if fighting is to be their last resort, they'd want to be capable when the time comes."
Link grunted. The Gorons wouldn't run out of stores fast enough for it to be relevant to him and Navi, though. He didn't have that kind of luck. His one hope was that he had impressed Darunia enough to warrant a rescue.
The mine complex took a turn for the deeper some ways after the lair chamber. Navi followed the tracks several steps ahead of Link, who in turn followed her, inwardly lamenting the fact his eyes could never get properly used to the contrast between fairy light and total darkness. He'd found it to be more of a hindrance than an aid when Navi hovered too close.
The last room before the downward turn in the road was a rather snug pit stop of sorts. It housed a handful of mining carts, some of which were overturned while others were still laden with rocks. In one nondescript iron bucket they found a bunch of round and obviously non-rock objects three or four times the size of Link's fist. Navi took one look at them, snapped into a "shocked fairy" pose complete with the appropriate pi-pi-pi-ping noise, and in a shaky voice told Link about bombs.
Link wasn't sure if he wanted any on him. He'd had quite enough of explosions and walking around ready to go off like a dying Dodongo didn't appeal to him much. Navi was no more enthusiastic than he was, but she pointed out that they could be used as weapons against the Dodongos; they could be thrown in the monsters' mouths if it came to it.
"What could the Gorons possibly want with these things?" Link said, holding one of the bombs in his hands in a way suggesting he half expected it to blow at any second. The bombs were a bit lighter than a stone their size in spite of their metal casing, but still quite heavy. They weren't made to be thrown for someone like Link, that was for sure.
"You saw how much punch a dying Dodongo packs. That force can be used for mining, and these bombs may be even more powerful."
The explosives had a fuse that had to be screwed in and lit for them to detonate. That was no problem; Link had his sword and he'd brought with him one of the several flints he'd bought at the town market with his minstreling money. They were sold dirt cheap at smithies and he'd thought they'd make excellent gifts back home. And as he also had his pouch for storing the bombs safely, there was little reason not to take some along.
He took a dozen. In the end, the idea of being able to blow up Dodongos without having to get close was too good to pass up.
The last point of interest in the cave was a deep shaft with a set of pulleys and chains rigged into the ceiling above it. Unidentified sounds echoed up the chasm, granting no clue about the distance of their source. Nevertheless, Link could hear the scratching of Dodongos pulling their bodies along in all of them. Had there been any other way, down would have been his absolute last choice of direction.
Two landings later they came to the next proper level, which they promptly began to explore. It had become warmer and warmer the farther down they went, and when Link began to sweat from the heat instead of his nerves, he and Navi took the time to dig out the Goron tunic and wrangle him into it. The process was laborious and took some imagination, but it turned out doable, in no small part thanks to the large size of the garment.
On the upside, his back was better now; what had been ripping waves of hurt had diminished into a dull ache. He didn't stash his Deku stick but no longer was he in danger of falling down and staying there. The darkness of the mine was unyielding, the air dusty and hot, but after a while in the Goron tunic it felt no more draining than running across Hyrule field in fair weather. Link wondered if it was morning outside the mountain yet, and why he didn't feel any sleepier after having been ready to pass out before. Maybe there was something to the idea of Deku sap being good for you?
If not for the sounds Link might have gotten used to the surroundings. Unfortunately, as they made their sluggish way through the tunnels, it was becoming more and more obvious that the noises he had heard coming up the mineshaft were indeed of Dodongo origin; sporadic thumps and clashes were punctuated by hisses and sounds that could only come from large, snapping jaws. However, when they distanced themselves from the mineshaft, another, duller clamor soon reached their ears and covered the sounds from the depths.
Among the numerous smaller tunnels that branched off the main corridor there was one whose walls were smoother and floor more worn than typical. It seemed to be the source of the noise, and there was a noticeable draught of hot air from it as well. It wasn't the most promising of prospects, but Link decided to go there anyway, figuring that at least the sound from there wasn't Dodongo-like.
Somewhat unexpectedly the two came to a corner; not a bend in the road or an intersection of roughly hewn passages, but an actual corner of worked stone. Navi peeked around it carefully.
"Hey! Come see this!"
Link did. His breath caught when he realized he could see something at the other end. It was red, like in the Goron smithies.
Navi answered him before he could ask. "That glow comes from lava, I believe. Remember what Muraka said about it?"
"Yeah..." Link's eyes were fixated on the distant light.
"Well, it's really hot, and the way may be impassable there. We might be looking at the volcano's crater right now." Just as Link was about to protest, she added, "But let's go ahead and check. It's still our best bet right now."
"That's more like it," Link said eagerly. He couldn't help it; the prospect of an exit filled his imagination. He felt like he could run all the way back to Kokiri Forest if necessary. The Goron smithy had been intolerable the last time, but he hadn't had the tunic on then. Even the air now wafting in his face only felt mildly warm.
Navi slipped inside his sleeve when the light grew strong enough to see by. Although he itched to run, caution and the loudening roar made Link slow down and hunch lower as he drew near the end of the hall. What he saw upon reaching it stole his breath. He squatted down instinctively, earning a sharp twinge in his back and falling to a knee, but he hardly batted an eye.
The cavern was vast, on par with the central pit of Goron City if not as deep. What he had stumbled across was some kind of viewing platform; there was a ledge circling the room from where he was crouching, though he didn't see it leading anywhere. It may have been narrow by Darunia's standards but it was amply spacious for Link. This he noted as a quick detail, only to promptly forget it.
The first heart-stopping distraction was the gigantic skull glaring almost straight at him: a nightmare of charred, yellowing bone lit from below by an otherworldly red radiance. It took all Link had not to crawl away from that lifeless gaze as fast as his injuries allowed. The other thing was the walls, or rather the bones that comprised them. What he had at first taken to be ornamental brackets like he'd seen on some bigger buildings in Castle Town turned out to be the ribs of... Link couldn't even say. Whatever monstrosity that skull had belonged to? No, why would the dead creature's own head be stuck inside its ribcage? Did those belong to something even bigger?
Were they the remains of a Dodongo? Could anything but the Deku Tree really grow that big?
Oh sweet scrubs. Who at home is going to believe this? Not even Saria, that's who.
Link stared in awestruck silence for a time before he thought to check out the source of the light. Several black patches of ground were cracked and bulged like the cobblestone roads of Castle Town, revealing shimmering red wounds in the gaps. Streamlets of beautiful, bright liquid red bubbled up and trickled down from a couple of the walls. The glowing parts must have been very hot, for the whole cave was filled heat shimmers.
But the air wasn't the only thing writhing in the cavern.
No. Oh Farore, no. Goddesses, no...
The floor was a crawling mass of Dodongos. Lizards small and large pushed and jostled each other, squirmed in the press of each others' bodies and climbed over one another on their way to and fro all over the room, out of it, into it. Most were between a Kokiri and Hylian in size, others were a brighter green and about the size of a dog, while others were even bigger than the ones Link had run into, lumbering hulks the smaller beasts scrambled to avoid.
Link felt a crushing despair, tempered only slightly by his being safely out of reach – for the moment, that was. These Dodongos were without a doubt what he'd heard swarming in the lower levels. They appeared to be milling around chaotically now, but he could have been wrong there; he couldn't see the whole room. Maybe there was a route to the surface somewhere just out of his sight. Maybe they were moving out in all directions.
Only one thing was for sure.
I won't go down there. I won't.
There had to be some other way, some option that didn't include running over the backs of Dodongos...
Navi tapped on his arm. "What do you see, Link?" she whispered. Link almost didn't hear her over the background noise.
Link brought his arm forward so Navi could see the Dodongo skull, covering her with his hand so her shine wouldn't light the ceiling. He gave a shuddering sigh, trying to make himself sound flippant though he felt more like crying. "The bottom of the room is full of Dodongos. There's no way forward."
"Full? How many are we talking?"
"I don't know. Thousands? Hear that noise? They're what's making it."
She tried to reassure him. "Well, we weren't heading that way anyway, were we? There's still plenty to explore on this level."
"The mine only goes down, Navi. None of those little tunnels ever have anything in them."
"Then what about this footpath we're on right now? Is there anything else up here?"
Link surveyed his surroundings, wishing it were so. It's not impossible... I can't see anything, but maybe that's just the dimness and heat. But then, if he moved anywhere, they might be seen.
"I'd wager this thing has to lead somewhere, wouldn't you? Cheer up now and let's take a look around," Navi pressed.
"All right," Link said. After everything else, what's a little walk in full view of thousands of Dodongos?
Navi crawled back up Link's sleeve and he got to his feet. He hugged the wall and tried to keep his head down, for all the good it did him. Which, he suspected, wasn't all that much. It seemed more likely that the lizards were just shortsighted. Or maybe it was the heat shimmers. Link would never know, but he was able to walk the platform with no reaction from the Dodongos.
And true to Navi's guess, there was another doorway on the upper level, previously disguised as an ambient shadow on the wall. The corridor sloped down, but it was quieter and felt safer.
They went deeper.
"You will let me through!" Muraka shouted.
"No, brother. Sorry," one of the dozen guards blocking the hall told him.
Muraka had come running when word reached him – at risk to life and limb in the darkness of Goron City, no less – only to discover that the Gorons had already walled the passage in and were piling up more stones and mortar to strengthen the block. After the initial dismayed shock of disbelief he had been all but climbing the walls in his fury.
"You have no right to hold me up here! Now move aside, or by Farore so help me I will―"
"I believe it best, brother Muraka, that you stop there."
Muraka whirled around to face the Big Brother of the Gorons, who was just pushing his way through the mass of people gathered to witness the spectacle. He stood a head taller than anyone else in the crowd, and two heads taller than most. "Tell your guards to let me pass, Darunia! Apparently this one took Link to the ale cellars, got him drunk and then joined these others in watching him run into the Din-searing mines, and now they're refusing to aid him or allow me to do so!" Muraka sucked in a breath, flushed from the shouting. Darunia raised a rocky eyebrow.
"That true, Qurdu?" the Goron boss grumbled.
"I didn't, I didn't know he was going to run in! I swear I didn't, Big Bro, I swear! It surprised us all when he did! We was... we were just having a good time..." Muraka wasn't sure if Gorons could cry, though Qurdu sounded like he might. Two others had their arms around his shoulders.
"What's done is done," Darunia said. "I offer my apologies to you and my Sworn Brother the king for the slowness of my watchmen."
Nayru, grant me patience. The Sheikah tried not to spit out each individual word. "I do not, at present, care about the slowness of your watchmen, except as pertains to undoing the damage of their negligence. That is my only concern at this time. And to that end, esteemed Big Brother, if you would...?"
And yet, even as he waved his hand at the steadily growing blockade for Darunia to order it opened, he watched resolve settle more firmly into the Big Brother's face.
"I fear there's no reopening the passage now. I have more concerns than you do, brother Muraka, for I must protect this city. It's too late now."
"He has only been gone, what? An hour or so? It's not too late!"
Darunia folded his arms across his massive chest. "One miner was already killed not far from the other end of this drift. His body had to be left for the lizards. The damn things already had our scent, and they were probably already on their way when the boy ran in. His scent will only lead them here that much faster. We will be lucky if this proves enough to hold them." He gestured at the hastily erected barricade.
"If you won't let him out, at least let me in!"
"You're not hearing me, brother. It's too dangerous."
Muraka grit his teeth. "You could give the order. You're just refusing to," he said quietly.
Darunia clenched his jaw. "I'm sorry."
Glancing around the sea of Gorons around them Muraka found many sympathetic faces – almost as many as fearful ones. He didn't want to see either. Right then he wanted to see a warrior race, bristling with injured dignity at the doubt cast upon their valor. Alas, the typical Goron was no more a warrior than the average Hylian. Instead of trained in the use of arms, most were simply afraid and weak with hunger.
The Gerudo wouldn't have rolled over like this, Muraka thought. Nor the Zora. They would have rallied their whole race to rescue the least of their number.
Yes, said the part of him sworn to serve the Royal Family. And that is why they don't win wars.
It was a cruel thing to accuse a peaceful people of weakness. A cruel thing, but true.
Muraka turned to leave. He had to think of something, to find help somehow, somewhere.
"I don't suppose there's another, safer way in?"
"No," Darunia said to his back.
Muraka walked away.
"There's no way this one's going anywhere, Navi. We should turn back."
They had followed the tunnel for quite some time. The path had been interspersed with upward and downward turns, left and right turns and smaller adjoining tunnels, none of which showed much signs of use. The noise of the Dodongo multitude had faded long ago and been replaced by a deep silence and the occasional grumble of the mountain itself. Link had eaten every ripe and mostly ripe nut off the stick a while back, half for hunger and half to have something to do. He was walking half-asleep on his feet, all fear and alertness having surrendered to boredom. This is ridiculous, he thought. How big is this place anyway?
"I don't know about that," Navi said. "I have a feeling this might be one of the emergency exits."
"How do you figure that?"
"It's not a lava tube and there are no landings or signs of mining. It was built for some purpose, and there were all those other corridors leading to this one."
Link gave a groan that turned into a yawn. "Sure, and now we're heading down again. Think we'll come out the bottom any time soon?"
"A downward trend doesn't mean we're not heading out," Navi pointed out. "We were pretty high up on the mountain to begin with, if you recall. Maybe we'll come out somewhere halfway down the slope?"
"Do you think?" Could they really have come all that way?
"Your guess is as good as mine, but... I'd say it's possible."
Link yawned again. He hadn't slept since before entering Goron City and had half a mind to just lay down and have at it. He'd probably found the safest place in the mountain to do so, so why not?
The answer came in the form of a rumble louder than he had heard when then tunnel collapsed. No dust trickled down their necks this time but it still set his heart racing. A series of crashed reverberated in the stone, as though vast boulders were falling down elsewhere in the mountain.
Link took the hint. No sleeping in Death Mountain. No thinking about sleeping in Death Mountain. Check. After the volcano quieted down again he trudged on, silently envying Navi her tirelessness. He knew fairies slept like everyone else, so where did she get her energy?
A bend in the corridor loomed in front of them before he could ask. By then Link and Navi had seen so many they hardly even slowed down before rounding it. In the distance they saw a now familiar red glow.
More lava. Great. "This is so pointless..." Link muttered. If that chamber turned out to be a dead end he was going to sleep in the doorway.
Navi floated ahead, Link dragging his feet in tow. The chamber was some forty odd yards in diameter and roughly hemispherical with a slightly lower ceiling. In several places the walls had buckled under the force of past eruptions, leaving behind mounds of debris. Like the cave with the giant skeleton, this one's floor was broken and lava oozed through. The lava was mostly confined to a central pit, but every so often bubbles burst through the surface and spattered the ground. It was the closest he'd been to molten stone so far, and the air felt hot and breathing uncomfortable even with the Goron tunic on. Most of the ground wasn't smoking, so at least it was passable, but of course there was nothing in―
"Look! See that up there?" Navi pointed up. There was a set of stairs running the circumference of the room in an upward spiral, terminating in yet another entrance to yet another tunnel.
"I'll bet you next day's nut crop it'll only lead to more tunnels," Link groused, but he made to climb the stairs regardless. Maybe if I walk until I drop of exhaustion I won't mind the hardness of the floor...
He was about a quarter of the way up the stairs when the mountain trembled again.
No, not the mountain. A part of the cavern shifted, uncoiling into a gray, four-legged monster the size of a house. Despite the color, number of legs and unreasonable size it was obviously a Dodongo. Link's eyes widened and he backed up against the wall. He was halfway down to a crouch when the beast rounded on him and he remembered how stupid it was trying to hide with Navi hanging in shock right above him. He sidled up the stairs slowly, every muscle tense and prepared to spring into a run. A memory came to him of Saria telling him not to run away from wild animals because that might make them attack. All the while the massive Dodongo stared at him balefully, as if weighing his merits as a morsel. If he could only make it a little farther up, out of the reach of its jaws... Oh, please let it not think me worth the trouble...
The moment the creature took its first ground-shaking steps in his direction, Link abandoned all caution and broke into a run.
The Dodongo came at him, picking up speed―but didn't raise a clawed foreleg or try to crush him in one bite. Link realized what it was going to do a mere heartbeat before it slammed into the wall.
Link threw himself down on the ground right by the wall just before a violent tremor shook the chamber, causing stones and dust to rain from the ceiling and cracks to appear in the wall he was pressed against. He banged his chin on the floor but didn't fall off the stairway.
He was on his feet and running again well before the pretty lights stopped dancing in his vision, while the Dodongo persisted in pummeling the wall further. It was no longer threatening to shake him down but it did cause a section of the stairway behind him to crumple, and its wild thrashing was disturbing the lava in the central pit, throwing up globs and droplets every which way. Navi was right ahead of him, lighting his way to the best of her ability and calling warnings when stones from above were about to land dangerously close.
There was a moment of calm. Link didn't stop running but he risked a glance down. The huge Dodongo glared at him in stillness and silence.
Then it opened its mouth and began to draw in air.
Panic struck Link. There was nowhere to hide, and the exit was too far so there was no running away either.
"Link, the bombs! Get the bombs ready!" Navi yelled.
Link yanked at the strings of his pouch and fumbled inside for a bomb and a fuse. He held his own breath while the Dodongo filled its lungs. Keep breathing, damn you. Just keep breathing and suck that air until the whole room is empty...
With trembling hands that had never felt so slow in his life, Link managed to screw the fuse in place.
Then his heart stopped. The flint!
Navi swept down a short distance in front of him. "Here!"
There was a lump of cooling magma on the stairs. Link scrambled over to touch the fuse to it and almost ended up burying his face in it. The fuse ignited instantly on contact with a sharp hissing sound, easily audible in the sudden silence; the Dodongo had finished inhaling.
Link tossed the bomb down, straight toward the beast's gaping maw. Please go in, please go in! Link prayed, but he didn't stay to see what would happen. As soon as the bomb left his hand, he turned tail and dashed up after Navi, towards the exit and away from the Dodongo.
Just a moment more! Gods, give me a moment, just a few seconds―!
Then the cavern flashed brighter than daylight and the sound that followed rocked the world, lifted Link off his feet and smashed him bodily into the wall.
It was quite late in the evening when Zelda was brought to his study. On most days she would already have been asleep by then. Harkinian wondered if staying up late seemed the same exciting privilege to her as it had to him as a young boy. The memories felt three lifetimes distant, but once upon a time it would have been the adventure of his life to be invited into his mother's study to talk of weighty matters and perhaps to gain a candlelit glimpse of official documents, the queen's personal letters and other such arcane scripture.
Zelda was visibly weary and had not changed from her audience outfit. Her hair hadn't been undone from its coiffure and she was even wearing the plain silver diadem from her meeting. If she'd assumed he would care more about the delay than her dress, she had assumed correctly. It was a small thing but it attested to her sense of dutifulness.
"Hello, father. I apologize for the lateness of the hour."
Harkinian smiled. "It's fine, child. Here, come." Zelda came around the table to take the hand he held out and let herself be guided onto his lap. At ten years she might not require much rocking on the knee anymore, but there was still enough leeway for him to indulge himself. Soon enough there would be little and less of it.
He lifted the diadem from Zelda brow and touched behind her ear. The metallic band had left a little depression in the skin. He met her curious look with a mildly amused one of his own and placed the circlet on the table. "The haste was not such that you didn't have the time to take this off."
"As you say, father." Zelda hid a yawn behind her hand.
"I shan't keep you long, my child. Eda told you that king Dragmire will be here in one week, didn't she?"
"You seem subdued." No response. "Does he scare you?"
"...Yes." Zelda closed her hands into loose fists, which Harkinian closed inside his own.
Poor girl. She doesn't trust in her safety here. He hoped she was wrong not to.
"Remember the important thing about truths?" he asked.
"Yes, father. They should be faced," Zelda cited. Harkinian had made sure that every one of her tutors used some variant of the phrase now and again.
The king nodded. "I won't tell you he's not dangerous. You know better than that. But this is our stronghold, not his, and you don't need to guard against every threat yourself." He tried a smile but Zelda didn't return it. He knew the look on his daughter's face well enough: she had something to say but didn't know how. Didn't know... or, in those rare cases he did his best to gently discourage, didn't dare. "Also," Harkinian continued, "we already know to tread carefully thanks to your vision. Impa will guard you against any threat in this world, and in my vainer moments I am yet wont to think I didn't stay on my throne through a civil war by pure happenstance. You are right to be concerned, but not to fear."
Zelda said nothing. She had a distant look.
"Well," the king said eventually, doing his best to sound reassuring. "Don't feel too guilty about your apprehensions, at least. It wouldn't do not to keep a clear head, would it? You will want your mind sharp in a few days."
Again nothing. Harkinian hoped it was only the hour, but knew it was not.
His own apprehensions wouldn't let him rest, however. He raised their clasped hands to regain her attention. "Zelda... Are you happy?"
Zelda raised her eyes to meet his in surprise. She drew one of her hands free and placed it on his. "Yes, father. Of course. It is only this late... disquiet that has me anxious. Please don't worry, I'm not... unhappy."
To his relief she seemed sincere. It was something. And for the moment, it would have to be enough.
"I'm glad to hear it. Now, this will be the first time in a while that we've had any formal dealings with the Gerudo. And you, of course, have never met one of their people yourself. To remedy that you'll be having additional sessions with Yrej every day this following week. He will instruct you in some of the finer points of Gerudo customs."
She did smile then. "I will look forward to it, father. He is a good teacher. I always enjoy his lessons."
That's my girl, Harkinian thought with a chuckle. "I know you do, child. I know you do." He brushed her cheek with a thumb. "I only wish you would smile more. The desert sorcerer is not the end of the world."
Zelda met his eyes sadly. "I still don't think we should let him come."
Neither do I, dear one. Harkinian kissed her on the forehead. "Noted. Yet I ask that you have a little faith in your old father. He loves you much too dearly to risk bringing you to harm."
He lifted her from his lap and placed her on her feet, refusing to grunt with the effort. "You may go now. Good night, Zelda."
"Good night, father." Zelda curtsied before showing herself out.
Only when she was gone did Harkinian realize she'd forgotten the diadem. It is late, isn't it? he thought.
He produced a glass from his desk drawer and made his way across the room to a cabinet containing a bottle of wine. By the example of his mother, Harkinian wouldn't have more than one in his study at any given time unless he had visitors. The habit of keeping the liquor at a walking distance was his own contribution to the tradition.
He poured himself a full glass and had a taste. A good vintage of southern red. The kind there wouldn't be any more of any time soon. All newer wines were of inferior northern crops or imported, the famed hills of Faron having lain empty and untended for years. It was – Literally, the king mused – a bitter reminder of the past. He took a deep pull and savored it.
His late wife had been of southern stock as well. As fiercely as he had loved her, and as content as she had appeared to be, he had never shaken his doubts. He was no fool. What young woman would be entirely content with a man a hundred years her senior? In their years together she had never given him reason to believe her unhappy, but the insecurities of age were insistent... Except in one thing.
Zelda. The greatest joy they had shared, however briefly, and the best thing had done with his life.
You would have been proud of her, Sunya. All those late evenings she had spent planning ahead for how their heir should be raised, often down to individual lessons and specific teachers, frequently featuring herself. Plans he had carried out to the best of his ability in her absence. Would she have approved of his execution? Would she have been mortified that he couldn't find more time for his only child? But then, the plan had never been for one of them to be saddled with all the work. Perhaps she would have understood...
He thought back to Zelda's last brief smile and shook his head. Such a thing to smile about – extra lessons! She had to have gotten that from Sunya. Harkinian had never enjoyed a lecture in his life before a position of power had saddled him with responsibilities and expectations to live up to. Zelda was different. Learning had ever been her joy and her teachers her best friends. It gave him pause sometimes, but there was no real harm in it. That, and he was content not to interfere any more than he already had to. A princess of the realm had a hard enough time connecting with anyone even without him orchestrating her entire life in the manner of a puppet show.
The king allowed his thoughts to wander. One shouldn't have to rule over a country while raising a child. Both tasks deserve one's full attention. And for that matter, one shouldn't have to grow up while learning to rule a country. How long until a person should be properly ready for that?
Was anyone ever?
Red refractions glittered in the wine as Harkinian sloshed it around the glass. The swirling movement mesmerized him for a moment and he spilled some on himself. He frowned at the stain it left on his sleeve. Already I am letting this get to me. A statement that applied to both the situation and the wine. It was time to retire from both for the night.
After stowing the glass, papers, quill and ink, the only thing remaining on the desk was the circlet Zelda had left behind. Harkinian's thoughts returned to his parting words to his daughter and the upcoming arrival of the Gerudo king.
Oh, you Goddesses, do not make a liar out of me.
He couldn't remember waking up or anything else for a while after that. His legs hurt and bled and couldn't be moved. The cavern was unrecognizable and the details left only the briefest impressions on his hazy mind. Here and there were Dodongo teeth, embedded in the walls. The ceiling was scorched, dripping blood and missing chunks, and the room was almost full of rocks. From one side of the chamber liquid fire was pouring into the cracks, maybe threatening to fill the whole chamber eventually. The only thing that had shielded their lives through the cave-in was dumb luck.
Link was in too much of a daze to do anything. Fortunately for him, Navi was there to tell him where to go. The first thing Link actually noticed himself doing and the only thing he would later remember was climbing up a huge, steep pile of rubble towards a hole at the other end.
Link dragged himself along, pull after excruciating pull. He breathed in and out twice for each time he lifted his weight off the ground. There was neither thought nor stubbornness to his perseverance; it was simply a thing he was doing at the moment, and it hadn't occurred to him to stop, or his body to collapse. It was a timeless process, eternities threaded on a string of mechanical motions like so many beads. He didn't see where he was going and couldn't raise his head. All he saw were his hands, the way he moved them and how Navi's light regularly fell on them.
Up... was all he could think. "Out," Navi had said. It was night out, the storm had passed and the stars were beautiful – wouldn't he please come and see? He didn't know if that was true. Had she left him at some point, or was she making it up?
Something had torn loose inside his tunic. He couldn't have crawled the way he did if it hadn't. Blissfully, it had stopped hurting. Or maybe he was just too tired to feel it. He was so tired...
Link had only glanced back once, and he had still been in the same chamber then. He hadn't been able to bear the thought of repeating that discovery since, and had only stared ahead or at the ground.
Maybe he was making no progress at all. Maybe he was slowly sliding back at the same pace he crawled forward. Maybe Navi was just hanging still in the air, waiting for him to get a move on.
The air got colder and Navi cried encouragement. Link heard her speak of the outside and other things. It didn't change anything much. Pull, pause. Pull, pause. Pull, pause...
"See, Link? See? You did it. Look, we're out!"
Link raised himself off the ground on both arms to see. His neck felt weak and keeping his head up was surprisingly difficult. The ceiling was gone, and above him hung the star-studded night sky. A few soft-edged tatters of clouds left behind by the storm lagged on their lonely northward journey. The moon was out, peeking out from behind a cliff in front of him. He tried to raise himself higher to see more of it, but his arms gave out and he ended up kissing the ground instead. Ow.
Navi was there. "Are you all right?"
He wanted to tell her he was fine. They were out now and the air smelled to good, so clean. It wasn't hot anymore, either. No, it was blessedly cool. Link splayed his fingers against the stone beneath him and laid his burning cheek against the ground. It was such a relief.
Heh. It worked. Not hard at all...
"No, Link, don't fall asleep! The spring is somewhere near here! I'll, I'll get help! Just stay awake, please, just a few more moments!" Navi's light went away.
Just for a moment, he wanted to say, but what came out was only a sigh. He could move his tongue but not his lips. That's funny. I said that before...