She stood, furious, her hand on her shapely hip, glaring at him. The road to Eldin and the Maw of Death Mountain specifically had been as uneventful as Link could have hoped, punctuated only by Princess Zelda's unusual ventures into science and a few spats about his station.
This was another one of them.
"You can't drink that," Link said.
"I most certainly can," she said.
"You're going to poison yourself," Link insisted.
"This extract," she said, "is a necessary concoction that may well be more potent than any sort of protective garment―"
Link snatched the phial out of her hand, and held it aloft, out of her reach. "I am going to throw this down the cliff."
"Don't you dare," she warned, looking as threatening as a blonde green-eyed sixteen year-old princess could. "That is the result of meticulous study―"
"You boiled a dead lizard you found off the road," Link said. "I am not letting you drink this, fireproof potion or not."
"Very well," she said, stepping back. She crossed her arms and looked up at him haughtily. "Go on, defy your future Queen."
"I will," Link said, "because otherwise I may not have a future Queen."
He dropped the phial down a ravine. When it landed, the liquid splashed and ignited, creating a small deflagration that startled nearby birds into flying away.
"Ah," Link said, inhaling deeply. "The smell of patriotism."
"Barbarian," Zelda grumbled. "I can't believe they saddled me with you."
"Technically," Link said, trying to savour the feeling of victory as he won a round, for once, "the Master Sword did that. And we've already established I am unworthy."
"At last," the princess said, with a smile that seemed more perfunctory than sincere, "we agree."
He was getting better at ignoring the squeeze of hurt every time she spoke against his selection. There was nothing he could change about the Master Sword's choice, or her opinion on it. He could change his own reaction, though, and he did, remaining either stoic or, in this case, pleasantly oblivious.
"You should just be patient," Link said, inhaling the light sulfur scent of nearby hot springs and scowling at the smell. "The Goron delegation will be here any minute."
She ignored his advice. She did that a lot, too. Instead, she turned back to studying the red stone around them, the unusual formations created by lava over millennia. Death Mountain, in the heart of Eldin province, was a highly active area of Hyrule, geologically, or so she'd explained before being distracted by the dead lizard. It rose high above the plains, surrounded by fertile, nutrient-rich highlands that made Eldin a wonderful place for luxury crops ― truffles, spices, peppers ― and the active geyser fields at its base made its hot springs a rejuvenating visit for the sick all over Hyrule.
But higher up, on the upper slopes of the mountain, the active volcano warmed the air and made most visitors highly uncomfortable. Goron memory spoke of a long history of eruptions divided by periods of relative quiet, and, despite the uncomfortable heat and difficult trek, it was generally accepted that Death Mountain was, for now, mostly inactive and pleasant.
Pleasant. When the mountain was awake, the Gorons swore, then no one would be able to visit unless they were equipped with specialized protective clothing. The Gorons would be forced to leave their mountain and trade in the lowlands, rather than hosting anyone in their city.
Link watched the princess pick up a rock and examine it in the sunlight. It was an ordinary rock, common and unremarkable, but this piece had broken in a way that made it look almost translucent at one end.
"I wonder what stone this is," the princess said.
"It's flint," Link commented.
She cast him an annoyed look. "How can you be so sure?"
Link shrugged. There were plenty of flint deposits here, near the base of the mountain, and travelers collected them to resell in other markets, where they would be more valuable. "I use flint fairly often."
She looked disappointed. "I'm told there are diamond deposits on the mountain." She dropped the flint to the ground. It chipped into two pieces and was lost amidst all the other fragments. "When I was a girl, I used to daydream that I was a great adventurer, discovering precious treasures." She didn't look at him. "It was stupid."
"I used to daydream I could fight dragons," Link volunteered. "Fire-breathing ones."
"I read a book about dragons once," she said, before she could stop herself. Their gazes met. She immediately looked away. "Legends of dragons, anyway."
Link's lips quirked up, unable to explain why his heart felt like it was thumping against his chest. "Well, we've discovered some legends that are real, so why not the dragons?"
"I wish legends stayed in books," Zelda said, and now she was looking at the Master Sword again, and the moment was over. Link's own mood soured.
Sometimes he wondered whether the pall that the Calamity cast over them would ever go away. If it hadn't existed, could they have been friends? The princess seemed to have the same vivaciousness and curiosity he did, somewhere under the distance and arrogance and disdain. If there had been no threat, could he―
No. Without the Calamity, none of this would have happened. It was silly to wonder.
The princess seemed inordinately relieved to finally be rescued of her misery. She turned to the Gorons, and Daruk especially, with a bright smile that made Link feel strangely weak.
"Daruk! How good of you to come in person," she said, warmly.
The massive Goron bowed. "Well, I wasn't going to leave the two of you to trek up the mountain all on your own." He pulled a heavy pack off his shoulder. "And before we continue, I have a gift for you."
"Oh," Princess Zelda said, surprised at the lack of ceremony that seemed completely characteristic of Gorons in general, "That is… very kind."
Daruk smiled toothily. "The mountain may be quiet," he said, "but it remains one of the hottest places in Hyrule. Thankfully," he continued, rummaging through his pack, "the Gerudo are particularly adept at harnessing sapphires."
He pulled out a circlet of sapphires that glittered in the sun. Link's mouth went dry. The damn thing was undoubtedly worth a fortune. It would attract the greed of anyone who saw the princess wearing it.
With a gentle motion, Daruk placed the circlet on the princess' head, and Link lost track of where his panic was headed.
Skies, stones, seas and sands, the princess looked… beautiful. The way the metal was folded and worked seemed to make her eyes greener, her cheeks pinker.
Link took a deep breath and focused, trying not to look.
Zelda seemed stunned by the Goron's gift. "Oh," she reached up to brush at the cooling stones against her forehead, "Daruk, I think you are being too generous."
"Nonsense," Daruk said, gruffly. He seemed pleased with the way she wore the gift, and smiled softly. "You were made to wear crowns," he said. "And I have something similar for our knight," he said, turning to Link. "But I figured he'd be shy about wearing crowns, so here you go."
He handed Link two matching sapphire earrings. Link's ears had been pierced when he became a squire, a tradition for most common Hylian men and women who could ill afford larger, more expensive pieces of jewellery. Still, he wasn't one for fancy gifts, and usually kept simple metal rings there, refusing to indulge in expenses when the family barns needed repairing or the horses needed new saddles.
But the worth of these earrings, Link realized, would be enough to pay for new thatching on the homesteads and maybe even for a new water pump. He might be able to fix the windmill's grindstone, which had chipped and now turned somewhat unevenly―
He glanced up, and smiled at Daruk, who was looking down on him with a grin. "Thank you, Daruk."
"No problem, lil' guy," Daruk said, chuckling, visibly aware of the direction of Link's thoughts. "You'll have to give my regards to your mother."
"I will," Link said, slipping the earrings on. Instantly, the sapphires began to work, spreading their inherent magic through his body and cooling him off. Their power was potent, he realized. Clearly, they had been mined and cut and mounted recently. With time, their effects would fade, and they would become nothing more than ordinary precious gemstones, worth a fortune to the rich and nothing at all to the adventurers.
"Well, well," Daruk said, placing his boulder-sized fists on his hips and smiling at the result, "now you look like one of those fancy nobles, back at the castle."
Link managed an embarrassed chuckle. He caught the princess' gaze, but she looked away quickly.
Stones, but she was pretty. She was prettier here, in the harsh rugged landscape of Death Mountain than in the grand ballrooms of her father, where the silks and gems detracted from the simplicity he saw now.
He was getting distracted.
"I think we're ready to move on," Daruk said, cheerfully. He motioned to his fellow Gorons. "Scout the road ahead and make sure there are no pebblits. We'll be walking, not rolling."
"Pebblits?" Princess Zelda asked, as she fell into step next to the Goron Champion.
Daruk nodded. "Little stone spirits. Usually they don't really bother anyone, because we roll by too fast for them to catch up, but…" He shrugged. "You never know."
"Fascinating," the princess said, her hand instinctively moving to her Sheikah Slate. "I would love to see one, if possible."
"There will be plenty of time," Daruk said. "As long as we also work on my Divine Beast."
"Of course," she said, and her expression lit up.
Link tuned out the rest of their conversation. It focused on movement axes and propulsion mechanisms, which bored him completely. Instead, he delved into other thoughts… thoughts of autumn and winter.
Usually, landowners had to pitch in for the harvest. He wondered whether his mother had managed to hire help to replace him, given his new duties as appointed knight. He hoped he would make it back in time to help a little.
Sullenly, his thoughts returned to the task at hand, and the reason he couldn't just go now. He had greater responsibilities.
His mother had taken it all in stride, demonstrating the necessary pride when he had returned home a knight. She was happy he had been designated as Zelda's appointed protector, because his added income from the responsibility meant more warm clothing for the people of the family acreage, and new candles, and better boots for the coming winter. Her boy, she called him, fondly, kissing his forehead. Her boy was going to shield them all.
Shield them all. Link's mouth felt dry, and he was fairly sure it wasn't the heat.
He had tried to explain the Calamity to his mother, but he wasn't sure she understood. She had squeezed his hand and looked upon him with quiet confidence, as though she were certain he would not fail.
And Link hadn't corrected her. What good would that do?
The road up Death Mountain climbed steeply, and for a moment he interrupted his thoughts to focus on navigating the winding path. They stopped frequently, for the princess' benefit, although Link wasn't complaining that he got a breather, too. Occasionally, Link would unstopper the water canteen he had on his belt and offer it to the princess, but more often than not, the sapphires they wore sufficed.
They passed by quarries and mines, as a myriad other tunnels that lined the cliffs along the road. Diamond, sapphire, ruby, opal― most of Hyrule's precious gemstones originated here, somewhere in the blistering heart of the Mountain, where only Gorons dared to delve.
Ravines of ash and cooled magma hinted at times where the lava flowed underfoot, where heat rose up uncomfortably and only the thickest stone skins could resist the burning air. It made Link somewhat uneasy. The mountain loomed over them, deceptively quiet, but from time to time Link was sure he could feel a rumbling that was deeper than heard, humming in his gut like a distant tremor that could well have been hallucination.
They reached Goron City by mid-afternoon. It was far less refined in look than Rito Village had been, but Link felt more welcome here. The Gorons had gathered round to greet their princess, not bowing or clapping, but smiling broadly in a way that felt more genuinely friendly.
A few Goron children were eyeing them with open curiosity, and Link pulled out a few choice stones he'd collected along the way ― fragments of a hard deposit he knew the rock-eating race particularly adored, distributing them as he would have given out candy among Hylians.
"Heh," Daruk said, as Goron Chief Darbus approached, "The lil' guy knows how to make friends."
Link said nothing. He'd grown to like the few Gorons he knew. They were a simple people with simple tastes. Even the haphazard layout of their city spoke to their general lack of concern for aesthetics if they were inconvenient.
"Princess," Chief Darbus said, bowing to Princess Zelda.
Link almost tuned out the pleasantries. They exchanged greetings of well-wishes from the king to the Goron people, and back, and then they discussed how long the princess would be staying ― a little over a week, or as long as necessary to tune Vah Rudania to Daruk's liking. They would want to begin their descent back to Hyrule Castle before the end of autumn, though, as the snows would begin to slow their progress.
Darbus and Daruk mostly showered the princess with the classic Goron hospitality, which was utterly without dissemblance or malice, and perhaps a little bit plainer than she was used to. But she took it all in stride, appearing to mesh as comfortably with the Gorons as she had among the proud Rito.
That was a skill, Link knew, that perhaps might have gone unnoticed.
They were provided a house, if it could be called that. It lay among the cliffs, well in the shadow of the mountain, where a steady breeze managed to cool it to just bearable temperatures. A thick curtain separated the princess' sleeping quarters from the common area, where Link was provided a nicely comfortable cot.
Afterwards, Daruk insisted it was too late in the day to trek up to Vah Rudania, so they were offered a bath in hot spring water, which the Gorons were gracious enough to bring down into the house, for the princess' sake. Link, for his part, was ushered out to bathe in the actual springs among the rest of the Gorons, leaving the princess to have a moment of peace.
Relaxing in the foul smelling waters, which in spite of their scent managed to take most of Link's aches away, Link pondered. The Goron children were playing with their fathers as the sun sat low on the horizon, splashing and rolling.
Master Impa had explained to him that, in the old Goron tongue, genders were non-existent. Pronouns were neutral. It was only through contact with the Hylian race, and its duality of sexes, that the Gorons had decided to adopt some form of pronoun, and chosen the male, because most Hylians seemed to assume they were. But all Gorons could choose to have children, and all Gorons considered themselves part of one family, one group.
It seemed like a good way to live, Link considered, as one of the Goron children tumbled into the water, shrieking with delight. They reminded him of the rough and tumble childhood he'd had himself, both in Hyrule Castle Town and among the Zoras, back when his father had been assigned to teach Princess Mipha to use the spear.
Some things were universal, evidently. Children. Family. Exuberant laughter.
"You seem deep in thought," Daruk said, coming to sit by him. The water sloshed up with the sudden displacement, then settled back to the middle of Link's chest. On his other side, Chief Darbus did the same, though he remained quiet.
"I was thinking about family," Link said.
"Hm," Daruk said, nodding in appreciation. His own gaze turned to the children splashing about in the sulfur-rich pools. "I always enjoyed family."
"The one thing," Chief Darbus observed, rubbing his leg to relieve some sort of cramp that ailed him, "that makes a brother stronger and weaker at once."
There were other things, Link thought, but he didn't let his mind wander all the way back to the princess. He dragged it to the present moment and said, "I'm surprised this is my first time visiting Death Mountain. My father spoke of it all the time."
"A good man, your father," Daruk said, and Darbus nodded slowly, emphatically, in silence. "Took his job very seriously, but everything else was fair game."
"When we were in Zora's Domain, he would make a habit of catching me to throw me into the water," Link said, remembering. "I pretended that I hated it."
Daruk snorted. "He knew you liked it. Fathers know."
They quietly watched the Goron children racing through the shallow waters, splashing everyone around them.
"When you have children of your own," Daruk said, "you'll find yourself doing all the same things."
Link said nothing. Part of him wondered if there would ever be a time when his job would be over. Would he live to see his duty completed? And when it was, what sort of woman could he possibly hope to marry and start a family with? It seemed that none managed to capture his attention with quite nearly the same vivaciousness as the current bane of his existence, who wasn't here at the moment because she was bathing in hot steamy spring water―
"Before I worry about children," Link said, "we need to make sure there remains a world for them to live in."
Grim, sure, but it was a better line of thought than the alternative.
"Hah!" Daruk said, chuckling. "No sweat. We'll crush that Calamity, no doubt about it. Our little princess will help me fix my Divine Beast, and then we'll be unstoppable."
Link said nothing to that. He didn't want to be dismissive of those hopes. Part of him figured that Daruk's confidence was good. It meant that the Goron Champion would be unflinching before the threat.
But then, he also completely ignored the harsh realities they faced: Link's inexperience, Zelda's powerlessness, the danger of overconfidence from both Revali and Daruk, and the overall lack of knowledge the Sheikah had on how to operate the Guardians, even as a threat of such magnitude and evil loomed…
"Has anyone described the Calamity to you?" Link asked, casually, though he was genuinely curious.
"Yeah," Daruk said, his massive hand brushing the thought aside. "Big pig dragon smoke monster. Malice incarnate. Wants to annihilate the world. To be honest, it doesn't matter what it is: if it wants to hurt me and mine, I'll stop it."
"That's our Daruk," Chief Darbus said, chuckling. Darbus was old, very old, but he still seemed strong, considering. Link wanted to believe them. Sometimes, he still felt like the young man who firmly believed that being a knight was the greatest achievement a poor Hylian boy could aspire to, and that women were meek and quiet, and that all Sheikah served the royal family.
He was being forced to face disillusionment at every turn, lately. Now both Daruk and Darbus' confidence seemed foolhardy, and all the more terrifying for it.
For the first time since arriving in Death Mountain, Link shivered.
"I think I should turn in early," he said, pushing himself to his feet. "Make sure her royal highness has everything in order. She will want to visit Vah Rudania early in the morning."
"Glad to hear it," Daruk said, genially. Link bowed to both of them, as befit their stations, and Daruk added, "And be sure you're there too. This is your mission as much as ours."
Link blinked. Somehow, he'd expected that their venture to Death Mountain would be much like it had been in Tabantha: a lonely expedition. But Daruk seemed more inclined to make Link a part of the team than Revali had been, and that made Link feel a surge of… it was hard to define. Belonging, perhaps.
But reality called. "Um. We'll see what the princess thinks of that. She doesn't usually want me to be there if I don't have to be."
Daruk shrugged, smiling. "Alright, lil' guy. You're the expert on Hylian princesses."
That was a sad truth if ever Link heard one, he thought to himself as he wandered back towards town. He and the princess had been forced to interact and make polite truces for months now. She was easily the most infuriating woman he'd ever met, a creature of ambitions and scholarly passions, a mix of fury and grace that apparently wanted nothing more than to overturn his carefully laid plans in favour of… of lizard elixirs.
And she could be funny, Link knew, sometimes despite herself, when she got carried away, when she thought he wasn't paying attention. But she so often went off on tangents of curiosity that he was ever vigilant, and he had found himself observing the way she sketched, the way she spoke to herself ― she spoke to herself a lot, clearly preferring her own company to his ― and the way she examined every new thing she came across.
She could be a marvel of compassion or a wonder of clinical detachment, switching with the same ease Link changed fighting stances, and her eyes were a window into a mind that Link admired despite himself, full of quiet resolve and furious contradictions.
She prayed every morning while Link cooked or practiced, and she prayed every night while Link hunted and foraged in the dusk, and Link knew he had to steer clear when she finished, because it was in those moments she was most often irritable and most likely to lash out against him, against the Sword. And, watching her helpless devotionals, Link couldn't help but sympathize.
He found his princess brushing through her wet hair meticulously, scowling as a tangle stubbornly refused to unmake itself, dressed in her usual sleepwear. She rarely had any opportunity to sleep in an actual bed, often having to manage with the cots of nomad stables or, rarely, a mat of furs when no inn or stable could be found.
She handled the road with quiet dignity, which was more than Link had expected, and never complained of discomfort. Maybe her upbringing had taught her to keep her thoughts to herself.
But tonight, Link knew, she would sleep soundly and be impossible to wake before morning.
And so would he, blessedly. On the road he was constantly on the watch for possible attacks, and rarely slept more than an hour at a time. Sometimes, he would nod off in the saddle. He hoped she hadn't noticed. At least, if she had, she hadn't made any comment to that effect.
"It will be good for you to finally get a full night's sleep," she said, raising a brow at him.
Well. So much for that.
"For both of us, I think," Link said.
"I will tell my father that this entire idea of you accompanying me everywhere I go is ridiculous," she said, shaking her head. "Hyrule may be threatened by a great Calamity, but until then it remains a safe place."
Link opened his mouth to argue. He had yet to broach the topic of the Yiga Clan to the princess, mostly because she generally refused to listen to what he said, and also because he hadn't seen any sign of it on their travels so far.
"I know you feel like it's your duty to protest," she said, to her own reflection, as she began to tie her hair into a loose braid. "But let's be honest. You don't like traveling with me, and I don't like traveling with you."
Link blinked, trying to quash the rise of disappointment and failing. "Er…"
"This whole business," she said, "is a sham. You should be in Hyrule Castle Town, enjoying your well-earned glory."
Now a muscle in Link's jaw leaped. She was mocking him. "I'd rather see the Divine Beasts," he said.
She seemed mildly surprised. "Oh."
There was a drawn out silence, so Link assumed the conversation was over. He turned away and he prepared his cot with military precision. She pulled the thick curtain until it was fully drawn and he couldn't see her end of the house anymore.
He finally sat down on his cot and began to remove his boots, when suddenly she emerged again, but she looked embarrassed. Her voice was smaller than before, and now she did look like a girl, a girl who had bitten off more than she could chew, and Link felt a surge of protectiveness wash over him.
"I know you're doing what my father and Master Impa are making you do, following me around like this. Thank you for doing your duty. But I wish you would stop."
Link ignored the pinch of hurt and looked away, as he had every time she brought the subject up on the road. "Good night, your highness."
She pressed her lips together, and Link saw her gaze slide to the Master Sword. Her fists balled up, and then she turned on her heel and went back to her side of the curtain.
He lay awake in his cot a long time, listening to her toss and turn, and waited until she settled down before letting himself relax. Then, ignoring the echo of her words that tumbled around his head, he closed his eyes and imagined himself in another world, in another reality, where the princess didn't hate him.
The next morning came, as stifling hot as the one before, heralded by a pillow landing on him, and the shuffling and grumbling of a sixteen year-old girl.
"Honestly," he heard her saying, "can the fate of Hyrule really rest on the shoulders of such a lazy man?"
She did that a lot, mumbling about him. He was almost used to it by now. She must have just come back from prayers, then. She always mumbled when she was done with prayers.
He had hoped she would sleep in more. She always seemed tired. But it apparently wouldn't be.
"Come on," she said, bustling about as she rummaged through her pack to find what scholarly instruments she would need for the day ahead, "if you don't hurry, you'll miss breakfast."
Breakfast! Few things could invigorate Link like the promise of a full belly. The Gorons, especially, had a magical touch with spices, and they offered deviled Eldin ostrich eggs, various pilafs, curries and breads― alongside simple seared and braised meats. It was the kind of food Castle guards and squires could aspire to on the eve of a long deployment, filling and tasty, to make up for the coming weeks or months of lackluster rations.
Link's appetite quickly became legendary. By the second day, the Gorons would sit around the table and watch him eat, laughing. They, themselves, tended to munch on rocks of all sorts.
"Igneous is the way to go," one of them assured him, even as another dismissed the notion and argued that igneous rocks were for the uneducated masses ― the true refinement of metamorphic rocks was the real delight.
Link typically had too much of a mouthful to reply, but he nodded with interest all the same. Across the table, the princess eyed them all with speechless wonder, occasionally forgetting to chew.
After breakfast, they would collect their surveying gear and follow Daruk up to Vah Rudania.
Somehow, having seen Vah Medoh first removed the sentiment of absolute awe that the Divine Beasts seemed designed to inspire. Vah Rudania was a lizard, massive and intimidating, but it at least touched the ground. It was also Link's first opportunity to climb aboard a Divine Beast.
They would spend most of their mornings performing adjustments and having Daruk test them out. Occasionally, Link would follow along on the tests as Zelda waited near Goron City. She seemed reluctant to be in Link's presence if she could avoid it.
Lunches were light, relatively speaking, and afternoons typically involved traipsing about Death Mountain in search of rare species of lizards, butterflies and other creatures, on days when Daruk felt no more work was necessary. They would then return in time for a supper that put breakfast to shame, then visit the hot springs to clean the day's grime off.
His time in Goron City turned out infinitely more pleasant than their visit to Rito Village. At least the Gorons seemed to like him. Actually, the Gorons seemed to like everyone.
They treated the princess with surprising gentleness, especially given how powerful their shoulder 'pats' were, and three days in, she had decided to bathe with the rest of them for the remaining days of her stay, which meant Link had to sit there and pretend she wasn't a sixteen year-old girl with hips that would not have been amiss on a Gerudo. It was easy to ignore her, though, especially if he looked skyward and drowned out the sound of her voice by roughhousing with the Goron children.
Luckily, at least, Urbosa had given her something to cover up with, even if it did expose her midriff and shoulders and most of her shapely legs.
Sometimes Link wondered if anyone on Death Mountain had the slightest idea what actually went through a young Hylian man's mind. Clearly, Princess Zelda had decided that he hated her, for some reason, and therefore that he had absolutely no capacity for any other thought, and the Gorons… Well. The Gorons were simple creatures with, apparently, no concept of gender or physical tension, and as long as Zelda was mostly clothed, there was nothing to worry about, as far as they were concerned.
The entire thing combined produced what was probably considered to be torture, in certain circles.
As a result, the week flew by, except for those few moments that just seemed to go on forever.
At least, the princess' adjustments to Vah Rudania had seemed to improve Daruk's control over the Divine Beast. The Goron Champion still appeared absurdly overconfident in his abilities, but there was no doubt that, when the time came, he'd do a passable job aiming and shooting.
Or so Link hoped, because in truth there was no other hope to cling to.
"I may not know a whole lot about this Calamity Ganon thing, but mark my words, I'll protect this land of ours to the death! Right, little guy?"