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Character of a Hero

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"Prisoner escaped!"

That shout brought the attention of all within range of the booming voice, and within seconds the prison grounds were as alive as freshly disturbed anthill. Horo, the head guard of the prison, kicked his desk, declared everyone an incompetent fool, and ground his teeth when he considered what a mess he was in. Between all this he growled orders to search the prison and the woods around it, to double the men on the bridge, and to post guards on all sides of the island. The other prisoners watched quietly from their cells and each wished he were as fortunate as the escapee. Cards, rupees and beverages sat forgotten upon the wardroom tables as every man turned out. The youngest guard, the one at the bottom of the pecking order, scurried to the castle to make a report.

"His Majesty isn't going to like this," captain of the guard, Quave, muttered darkly. Jerking his head toward the messenger, he snapped, "Get out of here! And find that prisoner if you hope to keep your position!"

A worthy leader of men would dishonor himself if he sent someone else to do a job he was loath to do himself; as such, Quave straightened the sword at his hip, put on his helmet, and marched to the prison with more of his men. Sending them off to help in the search, he stared Horo down while demanding an accounting. A while later he was back at the castle, waiting for a footman to deliver his message to the king in the dining hall.

King Rhoam's sharp, eagle-like eyes were fixed upon his captain as he approached. "I hope you have a good reason for disturbing my meal, Captain."

Quave leaned near the king's ear. "My apologies Your Majesty, but it is very important. That prisoner—the one involved with Minister Uron's death—has escaped."

The king's gray eyebrows lowered further. "I gather from your hesitancy that the prisoner is still at large."

"Yes, Sire," Quave replied, striving to keep from barking his annoyance while in his sovereign's presence. "My men are still searching. One of them reported he saw a boy in the area just an hour before they discovered the prisoner gone. At this moment the boy and his father are on their way from the garrison and he will tell us what he knows. Rest assured, we will find the prisoner, Sire."

"See that you do, Captain. Bring me a report in an hour."

"Your Majesty," said Quave, bowing.

His armor clanking minutely, he retreated from the room filled with all the smells of a delectable meal, knowing that his own dinner would of necessity have to be put off for a while yet. Upon returning to his chambers he saw guard and boy waiting just outside his door.

"Come!" the captain snapped.

Marching to his desk, he threw himself in his chair and glowered while the guard, a man named Rankin, approached with one hand firmly clasped to the boy's shoulder. Quave took in the child's appearance with one glance; his tawny hair was unkempt and surely uncombed for days, his clothes a bit too large for his skinny body, his shaking knees were bare and grass-stained and his hands rough, and yet he held himself with the straight and stoic air of a soldier.

"This is your boy, Rankin?" he questioned, briefly shifting his gaze to the father.

"Yes sir."

"Your name, boy," Quave demanded, once more staring hard and fixedly at the child who, he'd decided, couldn't be much more than half past his eighth birthday.

"Link…um, sir," he replied. His father nudged him and he raised his head to meet Quave's gaze.

The captain was satisfied to see the fear and uncertainty lingering in those blue eyes, yet at the same time he was unsure of what to make of the determined set of the child's features. With just those few words out of the boy's mouth, he was plagued with the knowledge that the escapee would not so easily be caught. Quickly brushing those negative thoughts under the carpet of his mind, he leaned forward and brought his gauntleted fist to the surface of his desk.

"Were you at the prison today, boy?"

Link started at the sudden motion. Instead of answering, he pressed his lips closer together as he continued to stare at the captain, whom the boy thought had hair that looked exactly like pepper. Just thinking about pepper made him feel like sneezing.

"Captain Quave asked you a question, Link," Rankin said, his tone bearing an edge. He shook his son by the shoulder. "Answer him!"

"…Yes."

The sardonic twist of the captain's lips could in no way be considered a smile. "And do you know Vrena, the prisoner who has escaped?" He eyed the boy even more carefully, searching for any sort of reaction.

Link nodded and then remembered that he was supposed to speak. "Yes, sir."

Quave boomed suddenly, causing Link to jump again, "Did you help her escape? Answer me! Where is the prisoner?"

The boy tried to hide his trembling hands behind his back, but then thrust them down at his sides. He lowered his head, his eyes attached to the worn paneling at the bottom of the captain's desk and the wooden floor beneath it. His mouth firmly shut, he held his tongue between his teeth. He knew the captain was staring at him intensely enough to paralyze and he didn't dare look up.

"Answer me, boy!" Quave barked, rising to his feet.

"I…" Link stammered as he swallowed his heart lodged in his throat. "I can't tell you."

He could feel the captain looming near as he growled, "That prisoner is a dangerous criminal, judged guilty in the minister's death. By keeping silent you are abetting a traitor, an enemy to the crown! Do you know what happens to anyone who helps such a person?"

Link pulled his fingers into fists in a fruitless attempt to keep them from shaking. His lip trembled. Even with his father's hand still upon his shoulder he could draw no comfort from it; he felt as small and as alone as he would be if he were the last person left in the world. He knew he was in big trouble and it was much, much worse than the time he had fallen into Zora River and nearly drowned.

Rankin's voice, sounding over his head, held all the sharp sternness he usually reserved for errant trainees. "Link, loosen that tongue of yours and tell the captain what you know! This will not go lightly on you!"

Drawing a halting breath, the boy dared to look at Quave again. "She didn't do anything!" he exclaimed, but his words came out with a tremor and much softer than he intended. "She…she shouldn't be in prison."

Captain Quave's face, which Link had first thought resembled the color of a perfectly cooked chicken leg, was now like the inside of a rarely done steak. The man advanced upon him and Link shrank back, afraid that he would strike him.

"So you think this is a game, do you?! Boy, I'll show you what sort of game this is!"

"Are you going…to put me in prison?" he queried, his voice nearly hidden in his gulping breaths.

"Not yet," the captain replied, darkly. "You are going up on the walls and keep watch with the guards. If you fall asleep they will wake you. You will remain there until I send for you in the morning, then we'll see how talkative you feel." It was a common punishment the castle guards faced if they incurred their captain's wrath.

Link's lip trembled before he pulled it against his teeth. Not a sound escaped him as he quit the room with his father. Perhaps worst of all was his father's silence. Link knew Rankin had to be terribly disappointed and ashamed of him. That knowledge, coupled with his own misery and shame, made him want to crawl deep into a hole and never come out until everyone was gone.

Another guard took charge of the boy, allowing Rankin to return to his duties at the garrison. Link watched his father stride down the corridor, away from him without a backward glance, and felt like the last familiar thing had slipped through his fingers and he couldn't even reach out for him. His heart pounded so thunderously that he placed a hand over it, wondering fearfully if it could possibly beat right out of his chest.

It seemed as though word of the escape and of his rumored part in it had flown from mouth to mouth as if by sparrows' wings. Once up on the castle's walls, Link immediately felt the hostility in the glances and silence directed his way. The guard who'd been guiding him pushed him up the last few steps and departed just as quickly. No one told him where he should stand and so he took a spot in a corner, staring at the sight of Castle Town below him and he wore the forlorn expression of one who feels abandoned. He even wished for his father's disapproving silence over that of his current companions.

The sun painted Castle Town in its rosy and gold glow on its descent into the horizon. With darkness also came a chill wind which set Link to shivering and teeth-chattering. He pushed his hands up his sleeves and huddled in his spot, thinking of what he'd done.

He thought of the woman Vrena, of the way she always let him sneak bits from her cooking, of how she always had a scrap to spare and an encouraging word for anyone who needed it, of the way she allowed no petty politics in her kitchen, and of how she reminded him of his mother, though as a Sheikah, Vrena looked nothing like her. He thought of how frightened she'd looked through the crack he'd found in the rock of the prison wall, and how tired and defeated she'd sounded after the grueling questioning and then the trial. She hadn't told him that she hadn't poisoned the king's minister, he had known it already. He had offered his help, and after weeks of imprisonment, with all hope for the trial gone, she finally told him to bring her the handle of her smallest kettle, so she could pick the lock. She had been watching the schedules of the guards and knew there was half a minute in which she could probably slip through without detection.

Link had told her she could conceal herself in the nearby forest or in some hidden spot along the river, until everyone realized she hadn't done anything wrong. It was a very childish idea he realized even then, but more than anything else he was afraid that she would be executed. Shivering up there on the castle wall, feeling like he was hundreds of miles from a familiar face, he wondered if Vrena was still hiding away and if she'd found the satchel of food he'd secreted for her in the small hollow of a tree. His own stomach grumbled like an imminent thunderstorm.

The guards, who normally would have covered for a friend snatching a few winks on the job, had no charitable inclinations toward the boy. They knew he had some part in the escape and blamed him for the extra shifts which were a result of it. Whenever Link started nodding, one of them was always there to shake him roughly, or to prod him with the hilt of a spear.

Though a change of guards came by every four hours, none of them treated him differently. They ordered him heedlessly and seemed to take pleasure in sending him walking from one corner to another. He obeyed without word because he knew royal guards were supposed to follow their orders without question and without complaint; his father was always reminding him of that during their practice sessions. And so he tripped between crenellations, stopping to rest whenever he could, until one of the men told him to move on. The activity made him warmer, but he was so drowsy he could barely keep his eyes open and several times he stumbled.

At one point—he wasn't sure if it was still the deep of night or early morning—he lifted his half closed eyes heavenward and wondered sleepily if his mother was watching him from her place amongst the thousands of stars. His father frowned on such ideas, but all the stories Link had heard about the spirits of the dearly departed watching over those they loved were immensely comforting. He often wondered if her spirit was contented up there. He missed her so much, missed her hugs and the way she smelled of horses and spices, missed the way she always told him how proud she was of him, missed her silly jokes and how she could always make both her husband and son smile and sometimes laugh.

A shooting star beamed across the sky, bringing a little thrill to his heart. An old Zora had once told him that shooting stars were very lucky and under the right circumstances someone who saw it would have his desire granted. One night several months back, he and his friends had slipped away and climbed to a peak shining with luminous stones; seeing a shooting star over the ocean, they had all wished that Link wouldn't have to move away.

"I wish you were here, Mother…" he whispered, his lips barely forming the words.

He closed his eyes for a moment and he imagined his father chastising him for such a foolish desire. No one could wish the dead to life! There was something more important than that right now, wasn't there? His sleep-deprived mind groped for the answer as a soft breeze caressed his eyelids and whispered a lullaby in his ear. His head drooped as he leaned against the wall, his head entering the land of dreams while his feet were still planted on the stone of the castle battlement. His moment of peace lasted only a half-minute before a hand descended on him.

"Wake up there, you! Keep moving along!"

Link jerked up and stumbled. The prod reminded him of the reason he sought and he amended his wish, "…Please don't let them find Vrena…"

As time wore on Link grew more and more dazed, hardly keeping track of where he was. Afterwards, he hardly remembered anything, except that every once in a while he would take a peek through his eyelashes to the eastern sky, expecting to see the beginnings of the blush that would bring the dawn. He wasn't sure, however, if he wanted the morning to come so his sleepless ordeal would be over, or if he dreaded it because he knew not what it would bring him.

When the sun rose, it cast its brightest beams into the cracks of his eyelids with cheery abandon. He'd never thought sunlight was so bright before, not even when it shone directly on the rivers and lakes of Zoras' Domain. No matter how hard he tried he couldn't get his eyes to open fully and he blinked almost constantly.

The guard who came to fetch him had to hold Link by the arm, as he nearly fell down the stairs. The boy was not aware of where they were going and he mumbled something about going to sleep. Then they stopped moving. He thought he heard his father's voice, but his eyes, which felt like they were stuck with the gooiest sap, would not cooperate with his desire to open them. He wondered distantly if he was back in the captain's office, but the little bit of floor that he could see was covered in carpet. He heard voices speaking as if from the other end of a deep, deep well, but he was having trouble thinking what they meant.

"So this is the boy?"

"Yes, Sire. He refused to answer about the prisoner."

"He is asleep on his feet and of no use in questioning now. Let him sleep and then bring him back."

"But, Your Majesty…"

"Do not argue with me, Captain. Keep a watch on him so he too does not escape."

"A-as you wish, Sire."

Hands led Link away and again he heard his father's voice, this time much closer.

"Go to sleep, son," Rankin said.

The boy found himself on a cot; he would have thought it to be the most heavenly thing he could imagine, except he was asleep while he was still sitting up. His father eased his head down. He looked upon his boy for a few seconds, shook his head and then quit the room.

Meanwhile, the search for the convicted prisoner continued as furiously as before. For the tenth time the guards swatted through the forest next to the prison, grumbling all the while. Since the escape, both banks of the river were so closely watched that not even a dragonfly was able to cross the waters unnoticed and all the fish found less fearsome waters to inhabit. Captain Quave fumed and barked at everyone, head prison guard Horo paced, fretted, and cast nervous looks toward his superior, and Rankin asked to be let off from his usual duties at the garrison so he could help in the search.

Link wakened later in the afternoon by jolting up from the cot. Glancing around frantically, he was only slightly relieved that he was not in a cell. Someone soon discovered he was awake and told him to remain as he was until the king summoned him. A pinch-faced woman brought him a sorry plate of food and he was so nervous he ate it without tasting or enjoying it.

Appearing before the king again, Link was flanked by two guards who did not open their mouths. The boy lost track of how many times he felt like he'd swallowed his tongue. As they approached, King Rhoam was speaking to his chancellor about the excavations under way in different areas of the kingdom. The two guards bowed deeply and Link fell to his knees as his eyes sought the floor.

The king turned in his chair. "How old are you, boy?"

"I-I'm nine, sir. Your Majesty."

"And I suppose you want to become a knight like your father?"

Link nodded wordlessly, too afraid that if he spoke his throat would produce no more than a squeak. The floor, though carpeted, ate away at his bare knees.

"Look at me, boy."

Trembling, he obeyed the king's command, raising his eyes to meet deep green ones. King Rhoam's expression was stern and regal and terrifying all at once. His sharp eyes and considerable nose were rather like a magnificent, stately sort of bird. Like a lion he had a thick head of hair and beard reaching down to his chest, except unlike a tawny lion's mane his hair was all gray, rapidly turning white.

"There is no room in the ranks for a knight who tries to hide a traitor. If you persist in your stubbornness you will never become a knight. Is that clear?"

Again Link nodded, but a prod from one of the guards standing behind him made him open his mouth. "I-I understand, Your Majesty," he whispered. He felt as though a cold hand had taken hold of his heart and kept it in a viselike grip, slowly tightening. His fondest dream was to become a royal guard like his father, to be useful, to protect Hyrule, to make his father so proud he wouldn't know what to say. He couldn't give that up, he couldn't!

"I command you to tell me: where is the prisoner, Vrena?"

Vrena! The name ricocheted in Link's mind. He felt like throwing himself on the floor, covering his eyes and ears, and to scream and bawl, anything to silence the voice in his mind. Instead he remained quite still, his jaw quivering as his eyes were held captive by the king's imperial gaze.

"Speak!"

He knew he was supposed to obey the king above all others. His parents had always taught him to be respectful and subservient to elders and superiors; his father always obeyed the orders given him, and they were ultimately from the king. His parents had also instilled in him the virtue of being faithful to one's friends and family and never to break a promise. He had promised to help Vrena, he'd promised! If he betrayed her, they would take her and put her back in prison. They would hang her and he was the only one who knew she was innocent.

"Link, for goddess' sake, speak out!" came his father's voice, somewhere behind and to the side. It was peculiar, as Rankin was a very reserved individual who rarely made any sort of protest in the presence of others, and never before superiors.

The boy's lips parted slightly, but his answer was stillborn and even he didn't know what he was trying to say. His tongue seemed to fill his mouth like a wad of cotton. His mind, his every instinct, his whole being screamed at him to tell, to tell all and stop being so cursedly foolish! But something kept him back.

He had once been tempted by someone who seemed to be a friend to steal ten rupees from his mother's pocket money, but he could not go through with it when he thought of how upset and disappointed she'd be. The supposed friend had left him with disgust showing in eerie red eyes, while Link went to his mother and confessed what he'd almost done. It was one of the few times he had seen her so serious. "Never do something that you know, deep down in your soul, is wrong," she'd said. Then she'd kissed him and told him how proud she was of him.

The air in the room was so charged with silence that it pressed unbearably on the boy. The experience could be likened to being trapped in a tomb, except that all the eyes fixed on him were quite alive. Every gaze pierced him like so many icy daggers.

"I-I…" he gasped. "…I can't…tell. I-I promised…"

King Rhoam didn't blink as his whole expression turned graver. "Then you must be prepared to take the prisoner's place."

A noise like a half stifled, undiscernible exclamation sounded behind Link. The boy lowered his head as if it was too heavy to hold up anymore. He felt as empty as a flour barrel left on the rubbish heap. His heart, which was somewhere in the vicinity of his shoes, was as heavy as a goron's dinner and he was simply too numb to think anymore.

"I do not say this lightly," the king said. He was all too aware that the boy was only a little older than his own beloved daughter. "I will not allow anyone, be it man, woman or child, to flaunt the laws given to us by our goddesses. Take him to the prison."

The same two guards stepped forward, hauled Link to his feet and propelled him from the room. Exiting one of the castle's side gates, they crossed the moat bridge and hailed the watchman at the prison gate.

"The king says to lock this one up," said the guard on Link's right.

"Yeah, ha-hah! Give him a nice cozy little cell!" chuckled the other. "Hey, you'd better keep a watch on him or he might escape too!"

"You two can go throw yourselves into Death Mountain!" snapped the watchman. Grabbing the boy, he pulled him inside the gate and then let it fall with a resounding clatter. "This one won't be escaping, we'll see to that."

A minute later, someone else was none too gently guiding Link down the steep steps leading to the depths of the prison. With the only discernable light coming from the spluttering flame of a lantern, the boy could hardly see, so he was half dragged along stone corridors which reeked of must and other distinctly distasteful odors. Stopping at one of the regular indentations of the unrelenting walls, the guard unbolted a door, pushed Link forward, and then closed and locked it with a bang and a rattle.

Scrambling backward until his back hit the wall, the boy drew his arms about his knees and lowered his head as he tried to convince himself it was all a dream. One peek into the smothering darkness which surrounded him was enough to prove to himself the reality of his situation. He was alone in a prison cell, everyone in the castle, from King Rhoam to the pinch-faced new cook, was angry with him, he had no idea where Vrena was or how she fared, and most of all he was sure his father now hated him with the same passion with which his mother had loved him. With no one to see or hear, Link broke down, only his knees muffling the sound of his sobs.

Chapter Text

The cell was little more than five feet square. It had no outer window and no obvious source of light, but there were trace amounts of luminescence coming from somewhere. After a while Link's eyes adjusted to the dimness and when he lifted his head he was able to pick out the shapes of the only two things in the place. The pail in the further corner, near the door, was dented and stank horribly, its handle gone. The bed, which was to his left, was nothing more than moldy straw stuffed under cloth too moth-eaten to be considered blankets.

After a time, he climbed rather shakily to his feet and examined the wall behind him, hoping to see even the tiniest of cracks which would let him glimpse the sunlight. He was disappointed, however, for nothing met his eyes than the same gloom which surrounded him. So this was not the same cell which they had used to hold Vrena. He sighed and leaned against the wall again. Even that familiarity was denied him.

Hearing a slight noise from the corridor, he straightened himself and quickly scrubbed at the tears still moist upon his cheeks. The sound of clanking armor echoed through the corridor and met Link's ears. Through the tiny opening in the door a hint of swinging lantern light became visible and drew ever closer. Then the light ceased its movement as it before the door, followed by an uncertain silence. The boy remained in his spot at the furthest end of the cell and hardly dared breathe or hope.

"Link," sighed a voice he knew as well as his own. "Link!"

The boy froze. He knew if he spoke he would probably betray himself. He hated how the tears were again springing to his eyes and he brushed his face first on one shoulder and then the other.

"Answer me, Link! I know you're in there, son. Come nearer the door."

With a whisper of his shoes on the stone, he stepped closer as bidden. In his current state of mind, all he heard in his father's voice was the reproach and anger. He was oblivious to that fact that the reproach was directed more at Rankin's own self, and the anger was intertwined with confusion and remorse.

In the silence which followed, Link struggled to suppress the hitching breaths which would surely betray him if he spoke more than one syllable. The tiny window in the door allowed him to see only a small portion of the dark shape which was his father. Link wondered why he didn't say anything. Perhaps he was trying to calm his fury, to keep himself from yelling at his son with unbridled anger. The boy had rarely seen his father so enraged as to be scared of him; the only time it had been directed at him was the time he'd taken his father's best sword without permission and used it to chop bushes as he played with his friends. He had brought it back home chipped and dulled beyond use and Rankin had been positively livid. Link hadn't sat down for days afterward.

"I'm here, sir," he said at last, parting the thick curtain of silence between them.

"…I know, son," Rankin replied, but his voice was too quiet.

It reminded a nervous Link of his six-year-old excursion with his father to the outskirts of Eldin. He'd encountered a yugan viper which quickly coiled itself in preparation to strike. It first attacked Link's mount and had Rankin not hacked off the head of the snake, the boy's life would have been shortened to mere minutes. He was now afraid his father would lash out as suddenly and unexpectedly as the snake had.

The explosion came but it lacked any of the violence of volume which the boy had expected. "What are you trying to do, Link? Do you realize what kind of trouble you've gotten yourself into?! Where do you think this is going to put your hopes of becoming one of the royal guard? You've brought the king's wrath upon yourself…I cannot get you out of this mess." He paused as if to catch his breath. "…What would your mother say if she could see you now?"

Link's throat constricted. In a half-strangled shout, he returned, "If Mother were here she would believe me!"

The space between them was growing ever wider, like the earth was splitting to form a great chasm. This time it was Rankin who tried to broach it.

"So you're going to remain stubborn," he said, but no question punctuated his words.

The only sound from Link was a little choking gasp which he didn't quite succeed at repressing. Covering his mouth with his hand, he blinked tears onto his fingers and wished he hadn't done quite a few things. He should never have yelled at his father, never defied the king, never moved away from the moor garrison, never wished to be like his father, never… He shouldn't have lost the money his mother gave him for buying fish that day she died.

Rankin parted his cracked lips to say something else, but for all the rupees in Hyrule he couldn't form the right words into any sort of coherent sentence or fragment thereof. He departed with hardly a sound, making all his steps slow and deliberate; the only way by which his son knew he was gone was the absence of the somber flicker of the lantern.

Time meant everything and nothing to Link alone in his cell. He placed himself in a corner and made himself very still, but as hard as he tried he could not stop thinking. He had no other human visitors save for a close-mouthed man who delivered his meal.

"What time is it?" he ventured to ask as he accepted the wooden bowl and small pitcher of water. "Is it nighttime yet?"

The man cleared his throat, turned his head away and spat into the corridor. Then he was gone.

The bowl contained something that Link guessed was supposed to be soup. It contained none of the vegetables and meat chunks to which he was accustomed, and it was so repulsively greasy that he pushed it away when he was only halfway through. He curled up on the straw pallet and pulled the ragged covers over him to try to keep warm. Listening to the immense silence surrounding him, he finally fell asleep and dreamed of a woman in white who spoke to him in the manner of his mother.

The morrow, or whatever it was when he woke, brought him a sliver of hope. He remembered the story of his father and a comrade who had been set upon and captured by a band of rogues. While the friend had been injured, Rankin was relatively unharmed. During their four-day long captivity, between tending to his friend and sleeping, Rankin exercised himself. His simple reasoning whenever Link asked him about it was that he was staying strong in case they had a chance to escape. The boy decided to follow his example, if only for want of something to do. He realized, after just a few push-ups, that the exercise not only kept his muscles engaged, but his mind as well.

He tired after a while and then ate the next meal left for him by the same surly man. It was little better than the soup, but he ate all the dry bread and the pasty stuff he hoped had meat in it. He sat in the corner for a while but grew so bored that he jumped to his feet and started pacing the tiny space. He was desperate to think of something else than his situation and so he tried to imagine what his friends were doing. They were probably taking spear lessons, or maybe they were on break and going for a swim. Perhaps they were even enjoying a meal of glazed fish and herbs. His mouth began to water and he cut off that line of thought with some difficulty.

He wondered what his friends would think if they knew where he was and what was happening to him. He would be shamed if they saw him now, especially Mipha. She was so sweet and gentle that she usually got more embarrassed for someone else than that person would himself. Link even found himself missing his best friend's little pest of a baby brother, who was always showing off in the water, who always gobbled the tail of a grilled fish before Link could, and who was also known to bite on occasion.

Without any clue to the patterns of the sun, the boy quickly lost any sense of time outside his cell. There only seemed to be two meals in a day, but they were spaced so far apart that one was not discernable from the other, and the food itself varied unpredictably. Sometimes he paced or did his exercises, but those came to be tiring too quickly. Sometimes he pounded the walls and screamed his frustration, knowing full well that no one would hear him. Other times he sat or lay upon his bed and tried to either think himself out of the prison for a bit, or to try and will himself to sleep.

His father stood outside the door one more time, though Link did not know how long it was after his previous visit. As soon as he heard his father's voice he padded noiselessly to the door so he could just be closer to someone familiar, especially one who would talk to him.

"Link, this is no place for a boy who wants to become a knight! Would you give up your stubborn resolve if the king were to ask you again?"

Down in the depths of the dank prison, he was deprived of nearly everything he had been accustomed to beforehand. What food he did get was barely palatable and he only managed to consume it because he hadn't stopped feeling hungry since the night he'd spent on the walls of the castle. He missed the sky, the trees, the freedom to move about as he wished, the feeling when he took a deep breath of air, and the contact with people, even the other kids at the nearby garrison. The idea of gaining all of it back again at the cost of betraying his friend was too tempting to think on. He shoved it away quickly and forcibly.

"No," he said.

Pushing his father's words away was as difficult, if not more, as giving up a bowl of the carrot and heart-meat stew that was his mother's special recipe. He wanted to shout to the sky that he had not given in, but at the same time he also wanted to bury his face in the earth and wail.

Rankin was silent so long that Link thought he was no longer there. "Son…" he began, but whatever else he was planning to say fell uselessly into the darkness like the cries of his boy.

Too depressed to go through any of his exercises, Link threw himself on his pallet, his face to the wall. Only then did he realize he'd forgotten to ask his father what day it was. He balled his fists against the stone and wished with all of his slight being that he could burst through that wall.

He made up his mind he wasn't going to get up from his bed, especially for that disgusting glop that was supposed to be food. However, when the jailor wordlessly delivered his next meal, it actually smelled good. Link shuffled over, dipped a finger in, tasted it and peered closer. It was stew, still warm and with chunks of meat! He sat with the bowl between his crossed legs and savored every drop for as long as he could. When it was as empty as a wine cask after an all-night party, Link burped, grinned, and then fell asleep.

He found himself looking forward to his next meal, hoping it would be like the stew which had so satisfied him for a few hours at least. He was not disappointed; the following meal was nothing less than his expectations, being soup of a completely different variety and with different ingredients. After savoring it, he leaned his head back and tried to decide which one tasted better. After a while of not being able to decide, he stood and began some sit-ups.

Someone was at the door again. Link's first thought was another meal and then quickly realized that the time was wrong. He watched the little grate on the bottom of the door, but it did not open. Instead, there was a scratching, grating sound of a key in the lock and the door opened, revealing two guards in the damp dimness of the corridor. The boy shrank back against the wall, suddenly terrified as his thoughts caught up to him. If he had taken Vrena's place, did that mean they were going to carry out her sentence on him?

The faces of both guards were perhaps a bit grim, and they didn't say anything. One of the men stepped forward, grabbed Link and pulled him across the floor. He couldn't believe he was thinking it, but all he wanted in that moment was to stay in the cell.

"No! I don't want to go!" he protested as he dragged his feet and tried to wrench himself from that unyielding grip.

"You're coming whether you like it or not. King's orders. And quit your fighting or I'll smack you one."

Link's heart kept up its erratic beat, but his resistance lessened slowly as it dawned on him that all his struggles were only wearing him out. He didn't know where executions were supposed to take place; perhaps somewhere in town where everyone could see and mock him. The butterflies, grasshoppers and dragonflies which had previously been flapping around with his last meal now lay in his stomach as heavy and sickening as three-day-old gruel.

His only consolation was that he had the opportunity to see the sky again, even though most of it was covered with clouds which were as gray as he felt. After what seemed such a long time in prison, the light of day was at first overwhelming, causing him to squint and blink. However, once his eyes had adjusted he stared up at the sky as though it was the last thing he'd ever see. He wished he could see the blue of the sky again, for it was so much like his mother's merry eyes. For a second he could almost forget what was going to happen to him, but he could not hold onto that peace for long.

The guards took him across the bridge and to the castle again, never loosening their viselike grip on his upper arms. The wild thought which had first occurred to him, that he might find an opportunity to slip out of their hold, was looking sadder by the second. He knew escape was futile as they went further into the castle, finally stopping at the same room in which the king had spoken to him a long time earlier. An aide bade them enter and Link knelt into a bow before his sovereign.

King Rhoam, his eyebrows crinkled with some concern, glanced up from the ledger and papers before him. "You have spent three days in prison. Are you prepared to speak now?"

Had it only been three days?! Link's mouth was open in his confusion and disbelief as he stared at the floor at the king's feet. He was sure he'd been confined for at least a month. Disappointment filled him as he realized that Vrena was likely still in the vicinity and in danger of being captured again.

He knew the king's eyes were fixed upon him, but what could he say? The dead insects in his stomach started to smolder and ignite a spark of anger in his chest. Why did they all keep commanding him to tell what he could not, would not? He would not betray the woman who had been his only friend since he and his father moved to central Hyrule! She was as blameless in the minister's death as he was, but how could he possibly convince anyone else? He ached to tell King Rhoam what he knew, but the words faded away long ere they reached his tongue.

The king shook his head and placed his fingers against his brow. "I have no time for your stubbornness, boy." He gestured a hand to the guards behind Link. "Captain Quave will deal with you."

It was an irate, acerbic captain who beheld the boy a couple of minutes later in the former's office. The troubles kept piling up for Quave, first he had to deal with the man shortage due to all the excavations going on in different parts of Hyrule and he was spread thin trying to ensure that every garrison still had enough guards. There was no end to the problems and crimes both petty and not which crossed his path on a daily basis, and then with minister's death and escape of the murderess no one could seem to find he wanted to pull his hair out. The last thing he need was a young boy who made his job all the harder.

"So you still won't talk, eh?" he snarled, peering over his desk and fixing Link in a scathing glare. "I know of more than one way to break down a stubborn man and you're not half the size, boy! Let's see if some time in the pillory loosens that tongue of yours."

As the guards marched him away again, Link was too distracted by his relief to struggle against them. They were taking him to the pillory, not the scaffold! The fact that the former punishment was largely humiliating mattered little when weighed against the finality of a hanging.

Situated just outside the gates of the castle was the pillory to which the men brought him. The height of the framework had been built to fit an average sized man and therefore was too high for Link. One of the guards brought over a crate and set it before the post.

"Get up there, you!" he barked.

When Link hesitated, the other man hauled him up physically and forced his neck and wrists into the opened holes. They locked the boards in place and then marched away; the boy could not see them as he was facing Castle Town. The central hole of the pillory left him a little room to move his neck without touching the rough wood, which was certainly more than a full-grown adult would have been able to do. He quickly found that he was barely able to slip his hands out of the wrist holes, but he could not extricate his head.

He watched as people passed by, to and from the castle. He'd seen people in pillories before and knew that they were usually subjected to ridicule and even abuse, but the citizens and castle staff seemed to be largely ignoring him. The expressions of the women who looked his way melted into pity before they hurried on. A couple of guardsmen passed and taunted him before they went on into the castle. A small group of children wandered near and had a few minutes of sport by lobbing rotten vegetables and fruit at him, but Link, having his hands free, merely picked off the mess as best he could. The children ran out of ammunition and quickly became bored with a lack of response to their jeers.

Three youths whom Link recognized as local miscreants came swaggering up the road, grinning when they spotted him. They went over and looked up at him with smirking expressions that Link didn't trust any more than he could throw a horse. Standing before him, they turned to each other and began to speak to one another as though the pilloried boy wasn't there.

"Hey, what do you suppose this is, fellows?"

"Looks like a cucco waiting to have its head chopped off!"

"A dirty cucco! Look at him! Bwaaaark, bwooock, bucooock!"

"Heh! Maybe the little cucco stole some of the cows' feed and they decided to hang him up to teach him a lesson."

The youths snorted with laughter and continued making exaggerated clucking noises and flapping their elbows. Link refused to give them any sort of acknowledgement, though he did ball his fists behind the board in which he was trapped. Then, while two of the youths looked around for something they could throw, the third one climbed up onto the platform behind Link.

"Hey, what are you doing?" one of the other two asked when he looked up at his friend.

"This sure is a scrawny cucco," he replied, standing where Link could not see him. "He's so short he can't even reach the ground! Hey, c'mere fellows."

With all three of them behind him, Link knew they were up to something worse than throwing mud at him. He kicked backward, first with one foot and then the other, but they easily avoided him.

Laughing, one of them said, "What would happen if we…"

They looked at each other, grinning maliciously. Then, with a feeling like he was plunging over a cliff, Link felt the box beneath his feet tremble and start to slide away as the youths kicked it. He did not lash back at them anymore, for to make his footing any more unsteady was foolish. He threw his arms up to the top of the pillory just as they managed to wiggle the crate out from under him. There he hung, clinging to the pillory by his hands, his legs swinging uselessly, and his neck scratching against the wood. The three rascals chortled with glee and slapped their legs, but they were abruptly cut short in their devilish mirth.

"Get away from there!" came the sound of a man's voice.

Link hardly heard the words through the rush of blood roaring ever louder in his ears. The youths rushed from the area as though the calamity itself was upon them, and another pair of feet marched toward Link. Someone quickly righted the crate and placed it under his feet again.

"Now see if you can stay out of trouble, why don't you!" the voice told him, and then the owner thereof stamped away.

The boy was still so shaken that he couldn't say anything, not even a word of thanks. When he was quite sure his feet would not slip off the box, he slowly lowered his hands, incognizant of the fact that he had acquired a number splinters on his fingers and palms. His neck throbbed with a pulse of its own, a bit like the rope burns he'd given himself when he and a couple friends pulled a deer from hole in which it had been trapped. He tried to feel the area, but had difficulty in reaching around the board.

Droplets of rain began to fall from clouds which had thickened since Link had been escorted out of the prison. The drizzle turned into a deluge and within a minute he was soaked, from drenched hair to shoes running over. The moisture was soothing for his neck, but he soon started to shiver. The muscles of his shoulders and neck ached from the constant strain and his legs felt wobbly. Without the sun, he couldn't tell what time it was and had no way of gauging how long he'd been there. His mood matched what the weather had become.

As the rain began to slacken, a woman, who looked to be old by the hunch of her shoulders and the shawl covering her pale hair, shuffled toward the pillory and stood there, not quite looking up at Link. He hoped a nice-looking old granny like her wouldn't taunt him or pelt him with anything. The only thing she seemed to be carrying was a small flask made from animal skin.

"I brought you some water," she said, tilting her head up so she could see him with one eye.

He knew that voice! And it did not belong to an old woman. It belonged to… "Miss Vrena!" he exclaimed.

He would have slapped a hand to his mouth if he could have easily reached it. He hoped no one had heard him, and fortunately the patter of the lessening rain muffled all sound. Instead of her usual Sheikah garb she was clothed in a baggy dress and two shawls, which made her less discernable as one of her clan.

Whispering, he questioned anxiously of her, "Why are you here? They'll catch you!"

After glancing around carefully and making sure she was not being watched, the former cook climbed nimbly to the platform, much unlike the old woman of her disguise, and pushed the flask under his nose. "Be quiet now and take this."

But with his head in that position it was about impossible for him to drink from the vessel she held. Vrena cupped her hand, poured some water into it and then Link lapped it up like a cat. They repeated the process several times without a word, though the woman often cast her eyes about cautiously. Link gulped and swallowed, relishing the sweet taste of the water, for the rain had not been able to quench his thirst.

After replacing the cork, she crouched in front of him so they could better see each other. Only then did she have the chance to look him over, and as she did her eyes clouded with anguish. "Oh, Link…" she breathed. "What have I done to you?"

He stared back at her, uncomprehending.

"And you're skinnier than ever," said she, mournfully. She reached up and cupped his face in both hands. "You wouldn't tell them anything about my escape. Isn't that why you're here?"

Her fingers felt so warm and alive against his cheeks. He averted his gaze so she could not see the emotion that welled up in his eyes. He was so glad she was safe!

"Link, I can't bear for you to suffer like this on account of me! I must…I have to give myself up to the guards."

"No!" he cried. Reaching forth, he grabbed her arms. He winced at the splinters in his hands, but he did not let go. He barely remembered to keep himself from shouting as he pleaded, "You can't! Please don't give up! You can't!"

She clasped his hands in her own. "It's so cruel to see you like this. You're the sweetest boy I know and often I've wished you were my son… You don't deserve this!"

"They'll…they'll hang you," he whispered. "Please, please…"

There was more moisture on her face than from the drizzle, especially around the eyes. "Link…"

The boy strained against the boards which held him captive, clutching at her hands as if they were both falling into an abyss. "Don't give up! I'll…I'll tell them you didn't do anything wrong! I'll make them understand! I will!"

"Link, I don't think it will be so easy…"

"Please," he begged, squeezing his eyes shut as he tried to keep the tears from escaping. "I…don't want to lose you…like…like my mother…"

She couldn't say anything, the sorrow too thick in her throat. Holding his fingers so tightly, her grip was strong, almost as firm as his father's. She too had averted her eyes and for a long moment they did not look at each other as they both grappled with inner demons.

Link remembered a day several months before, when his mother had asked him to buy a few fish from the little market near the moor garrison where they lived. She was very heavy with child and though tired, she smiled at him as she usually did. He'd dutifully marched off to do just that, but along the way he met a couple of his friends. They spoke to him of a perfect, secret fishing spot and assured him they were off catch more fish than they could carry home in one trip. He wanted to surprise his mother by bringing back both the fish and the rupees she gave him, so he headed off with his Zoran friends. Unfortunately, their little excursion took longer than expected and it was much later when he ran home, dripping wet, carrying only half the desired fish and having lost the rupees in the pond. Upon his return, he was stunned to learn that his mother had died in giving birth to a boy who never drew his first breath. And Link had failed her last request.

Vrena remembered an incident from her youth in which she had allowed the cows get out of their pen and one of them had been killed by a wild animal. She had been afraid and not admitted her fault. As no one saw her do it, she thought she was safe, but the blame fell to another child who was then punished. The shame of that deed had stayed with her for all the next twenty years of her life and here was a nine-year-old boy so willing to make the sacrifice for her. She had not deserved mercy then, and she wondered if she did now.

"You're such a brave boy," she whispered. Then, without wiping the tears from her face, she squeezed his hands one last time. "I must go."

Forgetting the pain of the splinters, he clutched her hands in a shaking, white-knuckled grip, refusing to let her go. "You won't let them take you, will you?"

She paused, her gaze on a knot in the wood of the platform below her. "Not…yet," she consented at last. "But I won't let them punish you. I'll be watching over you, Link."

She extracted her fingers from his and removed the shawl from about her shoulders. After placing it over his shivering shoulders, she came around again and placed a kiss on his bent head. Then she fled.

Chapter Text

The drizzle of rain continued, washing the mud into the cracks of the cobbles and leaving a fresh, wet smell everywhere. It had cleansed from Link the grime and vegetable mush which had so uncomfortably clung to him, but it also seemed to penetrate his very bones. The shawl that Vrena had draped around him provided little physical warmth, as it too was rapidly soaked through, yet his heart glowed with some small pleasure. He pulled it closer despite the fact that it dripped.

As Link lifted his head a bit, trying to shake some of the water from his hair, he glimpsed a group of people approaching the castle gates. There were no more than a dozen of them, perhaps about a third of them guards and the rest easily identifiable as Sheikah by their garb and silvery hair. Each of them rode a fine horse, and both the riders and their mounts appeared eager to arrive at a dry place.

None of them seemed to notice Link, except for a young, serious-faced Sheikah woman who glanced his way. On her forehead was painted a curious symbol in blue. She wore a widely brimmed hat that looked like it kept the rain off the long hair piled atop her head and hanging down her back. Her gaze became even more serious upon beholding him and he could not look away for the moment or two until she had ridden past his line of view. Link felt strange under her unwavering scrutiny, as if she could guess his thoughts.

All his muscles ached from the strain of keeping a hunched-over position and from so much shivering. No movement he could make assuaged his discomfort. How long had he been there? It seemed a whole day but he knew that was wrong, for the evening had not yet cast her dimming cloak over the land. He tried not to think too much, as it made his plight all the more unbearable.

A large, bedraggled dog approached the pillory and upon seeing the boy, sat back on its haunches and began yipping at him. Link watched the beast quietly, noticing how its black and white fur was caked in mud not yet washed off by the rain. The tip of the dog's right ear was missing. The longer he looked at the animal, the more it reminded him of a spectacular wolf he'd once seen in the woods of Tabahl. The wolf had appeared atop a slight hill and the creature had looked down at him and twitched its tail. By the time Link reached the place it had been standing, it had disappeared without leaving a footprint.

Two pairs of booted feet approached him from behind and mounted the platform. One of the guards entered into Link's view and unlocked the upper bar of the pillory, allowing him to pull his head free. He nearly fell off the crate, so much was his exhaustion and his relief to be free. Despite all his weariness, he could not forget the new promise he'd uttered to Vrena.

Looking up at one of the guards, he stammered out through chattering teeth, "Pl-please, sir, I n-need to speak to the k-king."

"Oh, you do, do you? Well, it just so happens the king is busy with one of his visitors," one guard informed him.

Link swallowed. "Pl-please, I m-must speak to him…"

The other guard fixed the boy with a cutting look. "We're taking you to Captain Quave. He's to decide what to do with you."

And to that peppery-haired captain they took him. His legs were still so wobbly and they propelled him so quickly that half the time his feet just dragged on the ground. Once standing before Quave, he once more stared at the floor, trying to gather his courage to say what he must. One of the guards seized the shawl still half wrapped around him and he bit his tongue to keep from protesting.

"Well, what have you to say?" Quave asked, glowering from beneath his considerable eyebrows. "Have you given up on your folly?"

"Sir, pl-please, I n-need to speak to the king," Link said, finding ease in words he'd uttered before.

One of the big man's half silver eyebrows rose. "And what could you possibly tell the king that you can't tell me?" he challenged.

He raised his eyes to meet those of the captain's. "I m-must tell him…" Link gulped. "…I must t-tell him what I know."

"The king is busy. You'll tell me."

The boy shook his head slowly, knowing he was risking the captain's wrath. "Pl-please, sir, I—"

"Tell me, goddess confound you!" Quave roared, slamming his desk hard enough to make every item on top dance.

Link recoiled slightly, his legs trembling more than ever. He tried clasping his hands together and was instantly reminded of the angry splinters in both palms. He winced again.

The captain stared at him with narrowed eyes. "You know I have full authority to deal with you, do you not?"

With that familiar grip of fear taking hold of his heart again, Link nodded.

"Give me one good reason why I should not simply send you back to prison."

"Please, sir... I only w-want to t-tell the k-king what I know. You…you can send me b-back after…if you w-want…"

Quave scrutinized him for a moment and then stamped to the door. Flinging back to the guards who'd brought the boy, he growled, "Get some dry clothes on him so he doesn't drip all over the king's carpet."

The two men called upon the laundress mistress for the required clothes. She thrust a tunic and drawers toward him and the guards bade Link change quickly. He had to leave his squelching shoes behind and there was not another pair which would even remotely fit him. He was still shivering a bit as they waited outside the king's study.

As Link came before the king once more, he noticed the young woman who had looked at him while he was in the pillory was standing at King Rhoam's side. Again she gazed upon him with those piercing eyes, much as the king viewed him with an expression of royally contained annoyance. Link knelt, trying to find a suitable place for his smarting hands. Finally he let them hang uselessly at his sides.

"My captain informs me you have something important to tell me. What is it, boy? Do not waste my time."

Terror crept into Link's eyes. "I…I…" What was he supposed to say? How could he explain to the king that Vrena was innocent? All the right words escaped him, leaving his mind as empty as the marketplace on a rainy day.

"You try my patience, boy! Speak now or begone," said the king, placing a hand on the arm of his chair and staring pointedly.

The young Sheikah woman, her expression somber, nodded at him. Her movement was so slight he was half unsure if he'd only imagined it, but he felt as though encouragement emanated from her. Gulping a breath, he stammered, "Your M-Majesty, I must tell you…Miss Vrena is…is innocent. She didn't kill the minister."

A richly robed official on the other side of the king started forward and exclaimed, "That's absurd! The boy is mad, Your Majesty! Everyone knows—"

King Rhoam held up his hand. "Enough, Chancellor Duvile." He focused on the boy again. "What proof do have of your claim?"

"P-proof?" he faltered, wishing he didn't feel so utterly useless.

A self-satisfied, sneering grin spread over the face of the man who'd spoken out.

The king continued, "The prisoner has already been judged guilty. To prove innocence you must either have evidence or a veritable witness to speak on the accused's behalf. Can you present either of these to me, boy?"

Link's heart beat faster. "I don't have proof…but I know… I know she's innocent."

The chancellor guffawed. "You need an eyewitness! Someone who can swear to her whereabouts and actions when the deed was done!"

"…I don't have that," Link admitted quietly, desperation filling his being. "I know she didn't kill anyone."

"Is this all you came to tell me?" King Rhoam asked, his eyebrows lowering dangerously.

"Yes…Your Majesty. I…had to tell you."

Duvile stepped closer to his sovereign's chair. "Sire, I suggest that the prisoner has been in contact with this boy and fed him a new meal of lies. Why else would he come here to protest her guilt?"

The king turned to Quave, who stood at the side of the room, straight-spined and grouchy. "Captain, is there a time when the prisoner had an opportunity to contact him?"

Quave stepped forward. "When he was in the pillory, Sire, anyone could have spoken to him, but the guards at the gate would have seen." He thought for a moment and began to perspire. "He came back afterward with this on him, Sire." He motioned to one of his men, who held up the sodden shawl.

Hanging his head miserably and squeezing his arms closer to his middle, Link felt like digging a hole for himself and pulling the ground in over him. What a great mess he'd made out of everything!

The king's green eyes pierced him again. "Did the prisoner speak to you?"

Would he be untrue to Vrena if he told them he had seen her? He wasn't sure but he couldn't risk it, couldn't risk her being caught. Link's mind whirled with turbulent thoughts as he trembled and did not answer.

"His silence proves it, Your Majesty," Chancellor Duvile declared.

Quave ground his teeth, knowing he was in for another reprimand for inefficiency, and he would later thoroughly castigate the men who'd been at the gate. He'd thought the pillory to be a satisfactory punishment for that stubborn whelp of a boy, and simply hadn't accounted for the daring exposure on the part of the escapee.

King Rhoam was himself silent, as if he was contemplating a complex problem. His gaze was fixed solely on Link, who did not lift his head or make a sound. The chancellor's words seemed to have gone unnoticed by the king even as he stood from his chair.

"Rise, boy," he commanded. Pointing, he said, "Go to the chest over there and bring me the sword you find within." When the two guards behind made to follow the boy, King Rhoam stayed them with a single motion.

Link rose on legs he wasn't sure would support him, but he did not fall as he tripped his way across the carpet and to the far wall. He knew he had to obey the king without delay and his heart pounded erratically as he lifted the carved lid of the chest. The sheathed sword he withdrew was a bit heavier and of a much finer quality than his father's; he held it in both trembling hands as he returned to the king and fell to his knees once more. The room was so quiet that even the skittering of a mouse could easily have been heard.

Taking the blade from him, the king let the sheath fall to the carpeted floor, where it hardly made a sound. Link jerked as it did but he did not look up, for he knew the king held the sword above him. He wanted to cry out, to say anything that would keep the blade from falling upon him; instead he clenched his jaw so firmly that he bit both his lip and the inside of his cheek. He waited and waited, seemingly a millennium in seconds, yet the blow never came.

"Guards, take him away. Captain Quave, you are to keep him in the castle. Put him on the wall with the guards again if you will, but do not leave him unwatched for a moment, is that clear?"

Stiffly, the captain replied, "Yes, Sire." He placed a fist to his chest, bowed and then exited the room before his men.

King Rhoam handed his blade to an attendant who scurried forward, and seated himself again. "You may all go," he said, addressing the varied personnel gathered there. "Only Lady Impa is to remain."

Bowing and shuffling, the others departed, leaving just the king and the silvery-haired young woman. He turned to her. "You are waiting to tell me something. What is it?"

Impa faced the king completely, unafraid to look him in the eye. "Sire, I sense a purpose in that boy. It is most unusual to see in one as young as he."

"Hmm," he mused, absently dandling the lower hairs of his beard. "His father asked for leniency for him. I am beginning to see why now."

"He passed your test, did he not? He obeyed your command immediately though he shook all the while. He believes in what he says down to his very soul."

"I did not think so at first, but now I wonder if there is some truth in what he says after all. I will look into the matter. But for now, what is your report on the excavations? Have you found anything?"

"We've been unearthing more relics which my sister has been studying constantly. They are completely resilient to all elements and look as though they work with some of the ancient machinery we've uncovered. I brought a few of them with me…"

Meanwhile, Captain Quave strode down the corridor, his two men behind him and Link being transported between them. Knowing what sort of mood their superior was in, the guards didn't dare open their mouths. Link was so disappointed in himself that he hadn't been able to convince anyone of Vrena's innocence, but mixed deep within that regret was a bit of relief that the king hadn't ended his life. He couldn't walk fast enough to keep up with the wide stride of the men who held him and he stubbed his toes several times on the floor, but he hardly noticed.

The captain turned to his men and snapped, "You heard the king! Take him up to the wall and don't take your eyes off him!"

"Aye, sir."

Once more on the wall of the castle, Link felt alone despite knowing the other guards on watch were nearby. His stomach gnawed at the rest of his insides and he was beginning to feel so tired that he leaned against the battlement, being cautious about what he did with his hands. He only budged when one of the guards told him to move on.

As the boy came around a corner, he looked down into the training courtyard, where some recruits were engaged in mock battles which even Link could tell needed much improvement. With just enough of the day's light left, he spotted Rankin barking instructions to the young men. Seeing that brought back recollections of his own training with his father, something which had been ongoing until Link had been summoned to the castle.

During a slight pause in his commands, Rankin glanced up, spotting his son. His eyes locked onto his boy and his mouth crinkled still further downward at the corners. He held the gaze for a moment longer before he turned his attention back to his duties. Due to the distance and the swift arrival of the night, Link did not glimpse or even guess at the relief which eased the hard sternness of his father's expression. He only saw the quick look and then the lowering of his eyes; with a sigh Link turned his own back and let himself slide slowly down till he was sitting on the cold stone.

He could barely rise to his feet when one of the men prodded him. Every glance he cast to the sky showed him a great expanse of ashen clouds, leaving him to feel abandoned even by the stars. Closing his eyes, he wished he was back in the wetlands with his friends. If only he could jump into the moat and swim there! He couldn't do it, but one of his Zora friends certainly could.

"Hello," said a voice just a few feet away.

Link jerked and his eyes flew open. Standing before him was the same young Sheikah woman, her face relaxed into something that was not quite a smile. Seeing her so close made him realize she was even younger than he'd first thought; she was hardly more than a girl in years, but she carried herself with the experience of someone nearly twice her age. She wore the standard garb of her clan and she had a dagger belted to her waist but she was without the huge hat she'd worn in the rain.

He knew she was an important guest of the king's and so he made haste to bow, except he somehow managed to overbalance himself and fell right over. It all happened so quickly that he found himself staring at the stones beneath his aching hands, wondering how he got down there. Then, when he looked up he saw her leaning over slightly with her hand extended toward him.

"Allow me to help you," she said, and pulled him to his feet with a strength that belied her petite physique. "My name is Impa. I didn't catch yours before."

He stared at her, his mouth hanging open slightly, completely unsure of what to make of her and forgetting he was supposed to answer.

She raised her eyebrows. "Am I supposed to guess your name then?"

"M-my name is Link… Lady Impa," he replied, for he knew instinctively that she should be addressed as such.

"Are you hungry?" she questioned. "You look all tired out."

He nodded instantly, as his last meal had been too early in the day for his stomach to remember it.

"Come then, we'll go down to the kitchens and find something for you." She began to stride away, but realized that he wasn't following her. Turning back, she put a hand on his shoulder. "What's wrong?"

His eyes betraying how forlorn and lost he felt, he whispered, "I don't know if I'm supposed to leave…"

Impa's strong fingers moved from his shoulder to the back of his head as she made him lift his face. "No one is going to stop you. I won't allow it."

She avoided taking his hand or wrist and start drawing him along with her, as she could well guess he'd had enough of being pulled and dragged by others. After a moment's hesitation in which he seemed to be processing what she told him, he followed her, exhaling a soft sigh. Her footfalls were as quiet as the landing of snowflakes, while his bare feet pattered wearily.

The kitchen staff had all retired for the night, but Impa found some stew still warm on the stove and went into the pantry for some bread and butter. Link stared with eyes larger than soup ladles, first with astonishment and then with admiration for the young woman who walked past guards like they were toy soldiers, and didn't look out of place in the king's study or a kitchen. Setting the things she'd gathered on a table near the fireplace, she bade him sit.

He needed no invitation, for smelling the food was making him feel a mite faint. However, he was too eager in gripping the spoon and it dug painfully into one of the worst splinters in his palm. He jerked and dropped the utensil back into the bowl. Before he could make another, more cautious attempt, Impa arrested his hand, turned it over gently and revealed the splinters embedded in his palm and fingers and the angry burn of his skin around each sliver. She reached for his other hand and saw it to be in the same condition.

"How long have these been here?" she demanded, her mouth arching downward.

He looked between his palms and her face, uncertainty crowding into his expression. He made a little shrug of the shoulders and tried to draw his hands back, but she held it fast in her grip.

"And you didn't tell anyone," said she, not quite chiding.

If it had been Vrena examining his hands he was sure she would have added a "tsk, tsk" to the end. He gazed longingly at the food he could practically taste by its smell.

Rising, she told him, "Stay here and eat. I'll be right back."

In the time she was gone, he wolfed the entire bowl of stew in a matter of minutes. Gazing sadly into his empty bowl, he wondered if he could help himself to more. Finally his stomach won over any qualms of conscience and he pulled a stool in front of the stove. As he licked some broth from the spoon he noticed the jars of spices which sat on a shelf just above his head; Vrena had let him season her dishes sometimes and he'd realized the stew he ate was more flat than flavorful.

Impa returned just as he finished sprinkling a few spices into the pot. The serious angle of her mouth gentled somewhat as she watched him taste a mouthful. "You certainly have some varied talents," she said, a smile creeping into her eyes.

"My mother was teaching me how to cook," he admitted quietly.

From his tone, she could well guess at what had happened to the lady in question. "Time well spent. You'll never lack for some fine meals, wherever you are." She broke out into a wry smile. "Now, if I left the meals to my sister we'd get really sick of hard boiled eggs and rice. It's all she can make and sometimes she burns those."

Impa kept her own expression serious, but her eyes crinkled as she observed the boy's small smile at her words.

While he brought a newly filled bowl over to the table, she set down a couple of jars, tweezers and bandage. He chewed and swallowed as fast as he could, all the while eying her preparations. He didn't say anything, as his mouth was too full anyway, but Impa noticed the worried little twinge of his eyebrows.

"Finish your meal first," she told him, and then went to fetch some water.

Removing each of the tiny slivers of wood and cleaning the inflamed skin around them proved to be slow and arduous task. As deft and swift as Impa's fingers were, she had difficulty in extracting the deeply embedded splinters. Link, however, never made a sound, never tried to pull his hand away. She noticed this and how he bit his lip, clenched his jaw and wrapped his feet tightly around the legs of his chair.

By the time she had withdrawn the last of the splinters, Link was all but falling from his seat in exhaustion. She dabbed ointment on each of the tiny wounds and then wrapped his palms with the bandage. Urging him to lift his head, she also examined the abrasions on his neck and found that by some fortune of the goddesses there were no deep splinters. By that time he was nodding, his eyes closed and his mouth slightly open.

Hearing a sound from the doorway she snapped up her head, her muscles going tense in the event of a confrontation. She relaxed when she saw it was only one of the guards, and by the color of the hair almost obscured by his helmet, she could guess who he was. His expression was stern, even frightening, but as soon as he saw them the concern lifted somewhat. He strode closer, his eyes not leaving the boy who leaned against her.

"You're Link's father, are you not?"

He folded himself into a bow. "Yes, Lady Impa, I am."

"I expect you've been looking for him? Well, he's completely done in, as you can see. I've seen to his hands and now what he needs is sleep."

Rankin looked as though he wanted to pose a question but instead he nodded. "Thank you," he said simply. Leaning over his son, he shook him gently. "Come on, Link. It's time for bed."

The boy stirred and mumbled something. Rankin managed to get him to his feet and began to guide him from the room. Impa watched them go.

"Father…?" Link said sleepily.

"Yes son?"

His eyes still more than halfway shut, he mumbled, "When…are we going home…?"

"Soon, son. Soon."

Chapter Text

Link awoke the next morning without memory of his sleepy words, or of his father's response. He drifted to consciousness slowly, like bobbing on his little raft in the calm waters downstream of Zora's Domain. He usually woke up each morning anticipating the brand new day, but now he wondered with some trepidation what unpleasant punishment he would next face. Rising, he looked down at his snugly bandaged hands and remembered Impa. She had been serious but kind in a way different than the gentleness of Vrena or his mother.

The guard who had orders to fetch him allowed Link a few minutes for a hurried breakfast, which he ate under the nerve-pinching, silent gaze of the new cook. She seemed in an especially bad mood, as if she'd detected that someone had been in the kitchen after she'd gone to bed. No sooner had the boy sopped up the last bit of watered-down egg with his bread, than the guard ushered him to the king's study.

When King Rhoam looked at him Link again felt the same familiar tremble of his legs, but at the same time he felt that there was something different in the king's gaze. He didn't' know what it meant and it didn't keep him from feeling any less rigidly nervous.

"I have a command for you, boy."

Link froze, the breath stolen from him as though being held by the throat. His eyes registered panic, fearing the king would again ask him to do what he could not. His breakfast felt suddenly lumpy in his stomach and he half wished he hadn't eaten at all if all he was going to do was give it up.

"You saw the guard standing outside this room?"

Hesitating in his confused stare, Link finally remembered to nod.

"You will stand on the other side of the doorway and greet everyone who enters. You will say, 'Hail to thee, o blessed servant of the goddess Hylia.' Is that clear?"

Knowing he'd better respond with more than a nod, the boy replied, "Y-yes, Your M-Majesty."

"What are you to say?"

"'Hail to thee, o bl-blessed servant of the goddess Hylia.'"

"Good. Now take your place and do not move from it until I give you leave."

Link rose from his knees, shakily bowed again and left the room to stand opposite the guard already there. Fortunately for him, no one was waiting to go in and he had a minute to try to sort out all the confused thoughts careening around in his mind. Why did the king give him such a seemingly important task as guarding his door, even if there was already a man there? Was it a new sort of punishment, to make him stand there and speak to people? His conversational skills were certainly lacking when it came to anyone with whom he was not familiar, and he wondered if the king had somehow known or guessed that. Most important of all, why hadn't the king asked him about Vrena again? He couldn't help but be worried, feeling like he was in a lull of one of those unpredictable summer storms when no one could tell if it was over or just getting started.

A young girl with golden hair approached the king's study, her steps quick and eager; Link guessed her to be the princess, as she looked to be the right age. He tried to keep his tongue from faltering as he said his required line, but her eyes only flitted to him for a split second, not actually focusing on him before she entered the study.

"Oh Father," she said, barely able to keep her excitement from showing as she bobbed a tiny curtsy. "I heard that Impa brought back more relics. May I see them?"

King Rhoam's eyes softened the moment he turned to her, but upon hearing her words he stiffened and seemed to force himself into a stern manner. "And what of your training, Zelda?" he asked pointedly.

The blithe tilt of her mouth lessened considerably as she clasped her hands behind her back and stared at the floor. "…I have already prayed for two hours this morning. I…I thought I could take a break now and finish after lunch," she said, raising her head and finishing with a little lilt of hope.

"No, Zelda. You know the rules regarding your training. You will finish your prayers and perform your other duties before you indulge in pleasures." His tone was stern and his mouth concentrated into a slight frown but his eyes were sad, as though he hated to utter those words. "Do you understand?"

A moment of silence passed between them in which the princess bit at her lip and threw her hands down to her sides. All delight gone from her voice, she responded, "Yes, Father." Then she quit the room, her shoulders straight, almost too straight, and her eyes seeing naught but the floor.

Link heard none of this from his place outside the door, nor did he hear the reports from the king's various ministers, Impa's advice, including a suggestion that they begin excavating beneath the castle again in hopes of finding what they had not before, or the conference with Captain Quave. Most of the people who heard the boy utter his line stared at him and some chuckled under their breaths. Impa gave him a slight nod, Quave sent him a narrow-eyed look, and Chancellor Duvile stared at him with such dark maliciousness in his eyes that Link's stomach tightened into impossible knots and the whole of his spine froze up.

The boy remained in that spot for hours. When he was sure no one else was around and the guard wasn't looking his way, sometimes he switched his weight first from one foot and then the other. He had learned what a terribly boring job being a guard could be after his time up on the wall and now outside the king's door. He still felt incredibly embarrassed each time someone, or a group of someones, entered the study and he repeated his line. He said it once for each person, as he wanted to make quite sure he was fulfilling the king's orders, even though by the time he could finish all three of the secretaries, the chancellor and the keeper of the records had long since gone into the room and let the door close.

King Rhoam allowed him twenty minutes in the afternoon to attend to his needs, such as finding a bite to eat. When Link returned he noticed that another guard had replaced the man in the other spot. He half wished it had been his father who had that position, but he knew that Rankin was of a higher rank and therefore had other duties.

His mind wandered to the Zoran soldiers with whom he'd been become somewhat acquainted on his many excursions to the Domain. They were rarely so busy that they couldn't spare a word or a funny joke, or to point out someone's direction in a friendly game of swim tag. However, if faced with a threat of any kind, they were unwavering in their fierce protection of realm and families. All Zoras began learning to use a spear at a young age and Link had sometimes joined in. Mipha was the best one with the spear even though she always said softly how she hated it.

By the end of the day, Link's legs felt to him as though he'd been running a very long and arduous race. Nothing would he have liked better than to let himself scoot down on the floor and give his weary bones a rest, but the king had told him quite specifically to stand, hadn't he? Then, when the king sent word for him to enter, he did so with a stiff step and a sense of hopeful relief.

King Rhoam was conversing closely with Impa as he fingered several papers an aide had brought him. "…He was worried about something before his death. You're positive there's a shortage?"

"Yes, Your Majesty," the aide replied. "I checked three times."

"Mention this to no one," the king commanded him. "You may go." He pressed his fingers against his forehead, his elbow on his desk. "This is more serious than I thought, Impa. You were right to question this affair."

"The credit does not lie with me, Sire," the young woman said, her arms folded and her whole expression as serious as an attack on Hyrule.

"I will find the traitor who has done this and the birds will peck the eyes from his corpse!"

Link entered after the retreat of the aide; the king looked up as he approached and made the customary gesture of respect.

"Boy, you are released from my order. Go, get some sleep. I have questions for you, but those will have to wait until morning. Goodness knows we all need the rest…"

Somewhere around the eyes, King Rhoam looked even more tired than Link felt. However, he didn't say anything other than, "Yes, Your Majesty."

A guard marched him back to the closet-like space in which he'd slept before. On the way there, Link had the most disturbing feeling that someone was watching him. He stopped suddenly and twisted around, but he could see no one in the dim torchlight of the corridor.

The man holding his arm grunted. "What's the matter with you, kid? You'd best not be thinking of trying to escape."

Turning back, Link shook his head. He still felt a prickling at the back of his neck and he heart throbbed in tune with his nerves. He shivered.

Once in his room, the guard barred the door behind Link. Wearily, the boy gnawed on the jerky and bread which he'd earlier managed to stuff into his pockets without catching the cross eye of the new cook. Then, letting himself succumb to the inviting blankets of the cot, he wondered briefly about the tiny thread he'd caught of conversation between the king and Impa. His last conscious thought was that he hoped they would finally come to believe what he'd told them about Vrena.

Nights at the castle were usually as peaceful and quiet as a ghostly forest. Only the patrolling guards moved about to protect the slumbering inhabitants from those who would prey like the worst of monsters. Having trouble sleeping, the king read the Sheikahs' reports for a while until he too fell to the same slumber as his subjects. A single tear had dried on the pillow of the princess, her dreams full of ancient machines and voices she couldn't understand.

In the deadest hour, after midnight but well before the promise of dawn, someone unbarred the door to the place in which Link slept. A pair of meaty hands seized the boy and dragged him out before he could fully wake. Torn so forcefully from his dreams, he did not realize for the first few moments what was happening to him. As he blinked, fear pierced his chest as with a thousand shards of ice, yet somehow his heart continued to beat and tremble inside him. When he parted his lips to make a sound, one of the large hands covered his mouth and nose, all but cutting off his air.

He wondered frantically if the king or Captain Quave had decided on another punishment for him. Somehow, though the terror which had a paralyzing, claw-like grip on his mind, he sensed that something was not right. That feeling tangled itself with the fear of the unknown, leaving him as taut as the strings of a violin. His struggles were weak and ineffectual against the man who held him, and not getting enough air was making his head swim.

The unknown man moved with purpose, striding stealthily from shadow to shadow and expertly avoiding any and all guards as he went down into the very depths of the castle. Then, holding onto the boy with a one handed grip that was even more uncomfortable and precarious, he descended a ladder dozens of yards long. To Link, that vertical descent was all the more terrifying because of the height and the vast, silent darkness yawning up toward him. He ceased the useless flailing of his arms and legs and instead tried to cling to the hand which held him.

The darkness reminded Link of the hopelessness he'd felt when locked in the prison cell. He almost passed out from the shortness of breath and the all-consuming panic that made his eyes bulge. A faint glow was coming from somewhere, but the walls were shrouded in dark nothingness. The boy's captor cracked his head on a low beam and cursed. Then they seemed to come around a bend in the great cavernous space and Link glimpsed where a couple of torches were burning.

"Bring him over here," a voice commanded, shattering the dark silence as suddenly as the breaking of glass.

Link's mind told him he knew that voice, knew that he'd heard it very recently, but he was too short on both breath and coherent thought to make the connection. The only thing he knew was that he wanted to get away from the bruising arms and hands which felt as though they were slowly crushing the life out of him. The man carried him toward the torchlight that seemed as welcoming as the sight of one's home on fire.

"Tie him," that same voice ordered.

The brute threw Link against the wall, grabbed his wrists and bound them with a length of cord to a metal ring in the wall meant to hold a torch. With his hands extended so far over his head, the boy's feet could hardly touch the ground. The man had removed his hand from Link's mouth and he could finally breathe. He gulped in several lungfuls of dank, unused air which, despite its staleness, was as welcome as a drink in the desert. As his chest heaved, he cast his eyes about, searching fearfully, frantically for the owner of the voice that made his every hair stand straight up.

"It won't do you any good to scream. No one will hear you."

Link's fear-crazed eyes sought out the man behind the voice, but all he glimpsed was the hint of a face and a shadowed form standing just outside the clutches of the light. He struggled, but the bonds which held him were like iron.

"No, no one will hear," the voice continued, the man behind it seeming to relish the thought. "They quit excavating down here a year ago and went elsewhere. I expect the king will want to begin again but that will be much too late for you, wretched boy!"

The owner of the voice moved a step closer, letting the flickering flames play upon his face. His mouth was curved into a gloating smile, the maliciousness of which was amplified by the shadows. His dark, seemingly soulless eyes emanated hate and guile as he beheld the boy writhing vainly against the wall. He beckoned to the huge brute of a man who stood, silent and hulking like a great bear.

"We're going to play a game," he said, his smile like the grotesque grin of a corpse.

Link shrank back, or at least he tried to except that there was nowhere for him to go. The terror was as alive in his expression as though he'd been washed in it.

"I'm going to ask you some questions and every time you don't give me an answer I want, or if you don't answer, my man here will make you regret it." Again he gestured to the large, dark-haired fellow who lumbered nearer the boy.

And suddenly, through the crippling fear which made Link swivel his gaze madly between his two captors, he knew the name behind that voice. He'd first heard it the previous day when he'd tried to explain his friend's innocence to the king, and he'd seen that sneering face just that afternoon. He couldn't wrap his mind around a reason that such an important-looking man as the chancellor would bring him to this place in an attempt to coerce him into speaking.

"Where is that poisoning traitor of a cook?" Duvile demanded.

Link was too afraid to respond, even if he'd wanted to. One thing he knew quite clearly was that the man wanted to kill him and would not think of letting him go even if he did talk. The breath escaped him in painfully short bursts and he could hear his heart thundering all the way up in his eardrums.

Duvile motioned to his henchman and the brute back-handed Link across the mouth, sending the boy's head back against the wall.

"Where is she?"

Link was silent, his lip smarting, his limbs trembling. The brute delivered another blow and that time he could taste the blood in his mouth. He spat it out.

"It's no use trying to protect her," Duvile told him, his face a shade redder and his cool façade slipping a bit at the edges. "She will hang! Now tell me where she is and I'll let you go."

The words would have been so easy for Link to believe, especially with a mouth that felt like he'd just gulped a whole plate of spicy peppers. His parents had warned him against the false words of people who had everything to gain, nothing to lose and most of all nothing to give. He was suddenly quite sure the chancellor wanted nothing more than to find and slay the Sheikah cook. He clung to the words his mother had spoken when he'd been compelled to confess one of his reckless ventures to his father.

Be strong, my son. Know your fear, but do not let it rule you. Never be afraid of your fear.

Over and over Duvile shouted his questions, "Where is the prisoner?" "What did she tell you?" "How did she escape?" and even "What makes you think the king would believe such a fantastic story?!" Shortly following each question was the briefest of silences, and then the sounds of a blow and then a cry punctuated the motionless air of the cavern. Each time Link refused to speak and each time the brute struck him, on the face, in the stomach, or across his hanging arms or dangling legs, and sometimes he trod on the boy's bare feet.

Every part of him hurt like nothing else he'd ever known and he couldn't help from crying out. It was worse than falling off a dozen horses and he did not have his mother there to urge him to pick himself up or to encourage him onward. Tears streamed down his face and mixed with blood from his nose and lip. His arms were numb from being stretched over his head, and his feet felt like they were submerged in an icy winter lake.

Duvile seemed to tire of that line of questioning and after a particularly brutal jab which left the boy gasping for breath, he waved his henchman away. His eyes glittered dangerously, the torch flames hitting their slight movement like the scales of a coiling snake.

"You think yourself stubborn, boy? You don't know yet what I'm capable of," the chancellor said, nearing Link. Pulling the dagger from his belt, he held it so sharply under the boy's chin that Link had to lift his head to keep from being cut. "I've heard of some very imaginative things people have done with a knife and someone who won't cooperate." His eyes flickered to the torches which kept silent watch on the ghastly scene. "And fire is a very useful tool in the right hands."

Link refused to look at him but the chancellor lowered his blade, grabbed the boy's chin and yanked his head so that he was forced to look at him. Glimpsing the naked fear in those blue eyes, Duvile threw back his head and roared with the laughter of a demon. Had he, however, searched a bit deeper he might have also seen a tiny glimmer of quiet willfulness and determination behind all the child's fear.

He waved the weapon under Link's nose again and chortled as the boy flinched. He repeated the process over and over, laughing each time, and sometimes he drew his knife across bare skin, just enough to make the boy shiver and perhaps to bring the tiniest trace of blood. He was like a dog playing with a toy that grew ever tattered the more he shook it.

Then he stepped back. "There will be time for that if you continue to be obstinate," he said, his slightly crooked teeth showing through his grin. "Speak now and I will let you go. Be silent and you'll wish your parents had smothered you when you were born!"

What an absurd notion that was! Though Link was unsure of his father's love in the past few days, he'd never before felt uncared for by either of his parents. They had always loved him even when they had to discipline him, though he was still too young to realize all that. His mother had often told him how much she loved him and called him her miracle boy. His parents had tried unsuccessfully for years to have children until the goddess had blessed them with a son. When he was born, his screams filled the house until the midwife put him in his mother's arms; his father said years afterward it was the loudest he'd ever been and compared his yowls to those of a lion cub.

Duvile drew back from the boy, allowing the shadows to swallow him. "He makes a fine target there, doesn't he?" Unseen by the boy, he motioned to his henchman. "Show him your marksmanship."

Link heard the sharp twang of a bowstring and a split second later the head of an arrow was sticking out of the earthy part of the wall, just under where his arm would have been if it was not stretched over his head. He twitched and stared down at it with eyes wider than a frog's. The arrow had struck just a quarter of an inch away from the fabric of his tunic. His terrified shivers intensified as he tugged weakly at his bound wrists.

"He's the best archer in Hyrule," the chancellor gloated and he sounded as though he was rubbing his hands together. "His skill rivals even that of the Rito. At my word he could put an arrow through that scrawny neck of yours! …But I'm not going to have him do that…yet."

He snapped his fingers and before Link had time to blink, another arrow found its mark an inch from his right ear. He opened his mouth but all that escaped was a terrified little gasp.

"You see?" Duvile said. "My man can keep this up all night. He has a quiver stuffed with arrows and his arm is strong." To the brute he said, "Go on, you great lout! And don't fire them all at once. Give him pause to think about what his stubbornness has led him to."

When Link closed his eyes in an attempt to distance himself from the blinding, numbing fear which overwhelmed him, the chancellor had his henchman go over and strike the boy.

"We'll have none of that," Duvile laughed. "You're going to watch everything coming to you!"

The brute continued firing his arrows, always striking very close to Link but doing little else than nicking a bit of skin or catching and tearing cloth. The sweat lay thick in the boy's hair and ran into his eyes, half blinding him. He wasn't sure if he should try to jerk out of the way or remain as still as the corpse he was sure to become, and neither prospect brought any consolation. The worst and most terrifying part was that he could not see beyond the semi-circle of torchlight which held him in its grasp; he did not know whence came the projectiles until they had flown so near his body that the whoosh sound filled his ears. His throat was drier than powdery sand and his heartbeat seemed to be throbbing everywhere, from his head to his fingers and toes.

When a good dozen arrows were stuck around Link and a few more besides lying on the ground after bouncing off stone, he cringed, waiting for the next one. However, it didn't come and each second was like a hundred thousand.

Duvile snarled, "Turn him around and use your belt."

The brute, having divested himself of his bow but not his quiver, entered into the torchlight and turned Link so his face was to the wall. The motion further twisted cruelly at the boy's wrists and he bit back another gasp, which he so quickly forgot when the sharp snap of the thick leather belt met his back. He jerked, trying not to bite a lip both bleeding and swollen. Several muffled groans and cries were torn from him as the man beat him, often striking him not only with the leather but also with the metal fastener on its end.

Link's slightly torn tunic hid a hidden multitude of horrible bruises on his back and his legs were covered in bleeding welts. His face was pressed so firmly against the wall that the scent of earth filled his nostrils and his lungs whenever he gasped a breath. The soil found its way into his varied cuts, making them sting further, though it was nothing as compared to the new fire of pain on his back.

The chancellor bade his henchman cease. The brute turned a trembling Link around again and retreated into the darkness once more, to pick up his bow. The boy had hardly time to blink, to try to take another shaking breath, than another shaft brushed against the skin of his leg. Link was unsuccessful at keeping the half-choked cry in his throat.

"Tell me where she hides!"

The man seemed to be pacing, both his voice and steps going back and forth like the pendulum of a noisy clock. At his word, the archer fired again; his skill was uncanny, even in the dim torchlight.

"Tell me what I want to know, wretched child! Tell me and I will end this right now." He sounded as though he wanted to go over and strike the obstinate boy himself, but for being worried about keeping his own skin out of range of the arrows he remained well in the darkness. "Tell me, curse you!"

Link raised his head, his face streaked with grime and blood both dried and fresh. His good sense, or what was left of it after being immersed in a lake of pain and fear, told him to be silent. He knew he was going to die at these men's hands and he hadn't the strength to be afraid any more. He wanted to have just one tiny victory over the chancellor. For the first time he let words pass his lips.

"…I…will never…tell you…"

Had there been more light, he would have seen the chancellor's livid features go from red to white and then to crimson again. A string of foul words escaped him amid his frustrated howls. He cursed Link in several colorful ways and shrieked at his henchman.

"Shoot! Shoot! Don't stand there like a thrice-damned fool! Shoot!"

The brute let his arrow fly, but with Duvile making such a noise and all but poking him with his dagger, his elbow jerked and he was too hasty before letting the projectile fly. This time the arrow didn't miss by a mark, but struck the boy. Link screamed.

The pain hit him worse than any blow, any gut-wrenching stab of fear ever had. It mushroomed until it enveloped him completely, cutting off all other sensation, yet the roaring in his ears remained the same. He couldn't breathe and he realized the sound was coming from his own throat. Drawing in a breath, he wished he hadn't as the pain tore through him tenfold. He could not move, could not find the breath to scream, could hardly gasp the air he needed and there he hung, limp as a flower gone days without water.

"You ill-begotten, imbecilic spawn of a horsefly! What have you done?!" Duvile raged.

"H-he moved, I t-tell you!" the brute protested in his defense, edging slightly away from the chancellor.

Duvile continued to curse and swear, railing his henchman with words as though they were the thongs of a cat-o'-nine-tails. Then he looked toward the sagging boy still held by his bonds and pinned to the wall by the arrow in his side. The chancellor's mouth, formerly filled with obscenities, curved at the edges with fiendish mirth.

"I am better off without you, boy! You will no longer whisper ideas of innocence into the king's ear. Hah!" Slapping the brute, he ordered, "When he is dead you will come back and take care of the body." Then he turned away, pulling the collar of his cloak closer. "I grow tired of breathing this air. Move yourself, you addlepated lump of pig lard!"

"You're not going to finish him off?" the brute questioned.

Duvile whirled. "And put an end to his misery so soon? Don't even think of it!"

His henchman shouldered his bow and made to follow, but the chancellor yelled at him again.

"Where are your brains, dimwit? Pick up your blasted arrows!"

The brute moved over to Link but instead of picking up his shafts right away, he stared at the boy, his face screwed up in thought. Removing the knife from his belt, he slashed the ropes which held Link's wrists. This was perhaps not mercy at all, for the arrowhead sticking out of his back and into the loose rock of the wall lost to the pull of gravity. The boy's knees buckled and he collapsed with a pitiable moan.

The brute gathered up every one of his spent projectiles with their distinct fletchings, some of which would be usable again with some mending. Then he bent over Link and snapped off the fletching from the shaft that pieced him. Another tortuous cry ripped itself from the boy's throat as he dug his fingers into the ground. Neither man paid the sound any heed, though, as they both made all haste for the exit, Duvile muttering something about finding a way to put off the probable excavating for a couple of days. His henchman followed, clumsily trying to stuff the recovered arrows into his quiver and dropping at least one of them.

Left alone, with only the nearly burned-out torches and caverns of silence as his companions, Link lay in a widening pool of his own blood. When the brute had cut him down he had fallen on his good side, a small mercy. He tried to crawl in the same direction as the men had gone, but every movement brought renewed agony, every breath felt as though it would be his last. The heat of the pain passed away, leaving him colder than the air that surrounded him and making him shiver uncontrollably. Darkness seemed to be creeping into his vision, either because the torches were dying or he was.

He thought of his mother, hoping to join her and wishing he could feel her embrace again. And suddenly she was there, bending over him and caressing his bloody face. He knew she had to be a hallucination, that his eyes were so dimmed he wasn't seeing straight, but he also wanted so desperately for her to be real. She floated there, just as beautiful as he remembered, surrounded in an otherworldly glow and her garments floating loosely about her. She seemed to be touching him yet he couldn't feel anything but the pain.

"Mu-mother…" he wheezed and tried to reach out to her. Both the word and the movement cost him dearly.

Link…my son, be strong… My miracle boy…

She floated away, beckoning to him. He tried to tell her how much he hurt, to beg her to come back, but his tongue was as thick as a blanket. He wanted to close his eyes and let himself fall away from the world, to forget his torment. He also wanted to earn her touch and for it to be as real as it had that day when he'd gone to buy fish. He dragged himself after her, biting through his lip each time he moved.

Link… Link…

Crawling as far as he could before his muscles simply refused to obey him, he dropped his head, both hands resting against the rough floor. His mother was gone, leaving just him in the smothering darkness which threatened to steal the very breath from his throat. He opened his mouth and screamed for her, for help, because of the agony he felt and because he didn't want to die alone in that tomb of a cavern. He cried out until his throat was raw but not one human ear heard him.

Chapter Text

As the sun sent its pale promise of dawn beyond the horizon when Princess Zelda left her room and tiptoed down the stairs. With her white robe over her nightgown, she slipped through the corridors with boot-leather steps as silent as cat's paws, making sure that no one saw her. Taking a shovel and lantern which she had hidden the day before, she tugged at the heavy door which had been installed to seal off the excavation site.

She paused as she began to lower herself down the ladder, but she shook her head, pressed her lips together and descended anyway. She knew she was disobeying her father and her conscience still pricked at her as her hands and feet took her unerringly down. She'd heard her father and Impa discussing the relics that had been uncovered at one of the other excavations and she yearned to examine them herself. She also knew that they were planning on renewing the excavation under the castle and she felt that if she could just dig for a little while she could find something. Her fingers ached to examine the items which she'd seen so briefly on her father's desk.

"I will spend two extra hours at my prayers," she promised herself as a balm on her uneasy guilt.

Reaching the ground, she turned and held the lantern as high as she could. A pleased little smile stole over her as she contemplated where she should start her search. She slipped deeper into the passage, moving cautiously and watching the uneven ground below her feet. Her father would certainly be angry if he learned of her little excursion belowground and she would have to remind herself not to get lost in her work.

She heard a slight sound and stopped mid-step, peering into the darkness while the hand that held the lantern shook just a little. She hoped it wasn't an animal, or something worse, for the king had made sure the area was sealed off from the outside. She was beginning to wonder if she had simply imagined it, when she heard it again. It was a soft sound, like the bewildered gasp of a very young animal that couldn't quite figure how to get up.

"It couldn't be anything dangerous or else it would not be so quiet," she whispered in an attempt to assure herself.

All the same she held her shovel in front of her body, just in case, as she tiptoed closer to the spot from which she thought the sound came. She thought of calling out, but decided to wait until she could see what was there. It could just be a keese, as they somehow managed to get in the tunnels occasionally; she did not relish coming across one of those creatures, but on the other hand if she was able to observe one it would be simply splendid. She moved slowly, turning her lantern around and carefully scrutinizing every strange shadow. Nothing could have prepared her for what she found.

"Oh no…" she gasped. Her fingers loosened and the shovel fell to the ground with a dull clatter.

The orange glow of her lantern fell upon a boy, bloodied, dirtied, and with an arrow sticking through his side. He was lying near the wall and his hands were outstretched as if he was trying to reach for something beyond him. Zelda fell to her knees beside him and stared at him for one horror-filled moment. She didn't even know if he still breathed. She contemplated touching him to find out, and shivered at the thought.

"Are you…alive?" she whispered, leaning near. She held her own breath as she reached tentatively forward to find his breath or pulse.

His fingers twitched. One of his eyelids quivered as he tried to look up at her; his mouth worked, but only a painful wheeze escaped his throat.

The princess was on her feet quicker than it takes to tell, racing for the ladder. She flew to the first person she could find aboveground, who was one of the guards. She exclaimed urgently, "There is a boy down at the excavation site! He's hurt! Oh, please hurry!"

With a wrinkle to his brow, the guard hurried away to find a few of his fellows, while Zelda ran on to the room of the castle's healer, Resia. On the way she saw two more of the guards and told them as well. She knocked hurriedly on the door and when the woman answered it, she breathlessly repeated her message.

The sleepy healer's eyes widened and she all but dropped the shawl drawn loosely around her shoulders. Hastily gathering bandages, blankets, and several bottles of elixirs and potions, she bustled down to the site of excavation. Already there were half a dozen guards there; they had brought torches, put them into the makeshift holders and then stood stiffly as if they were standing watch. One of the guards was waiting near the ladder, as if for her arrival, and he guided her to the spot in question. A couple more of the men were bending over the small, unmoving form on the ground and one of them had just placed a cloak over the boy's legs.

"Let me through!" said Resia.

Her tone had enough quiet authority and urgency that they obeyed her instantly, drawing back so that she could attend to her patient. She went down on her knees.

"Oh dear goddess…" she murmured. Horror and indignation flashed through her eyes as she beheld the boy; her hands trembled a little despite her best efforts to keep herself in check. She thrust the blankets into the hands of one of the nearby guards. "Put these over him. Take care not to jostle that arrow!"

She brought a bottle of a deep red liquid from her bag of medicines. The boy moved slightly and seemed to be trying to speak, despite a throat spent with futile screams. Resia lifted his head gently and put the mouth of the tiny vessel to his lips.

"Shhh… Just be quiet now. Drink this."

When he had swallowed the last drop, he began reaching out with his fingers, though no one knew what he was trying to communicate. The healer leaned over his side and tore his blood-soaked tunic to reveal the ugly wound and the wickedly sharp head of the arrow which just barely stuck out his back. With both hands she reached over and snapped the shaft close to his skin, causing him to inhale sharply, painfully. Then, in one quick movement, she pulled out the arrow. The boy jerked convulsively once and then went quite limp.

Resia worked with frenzied speed, pressing cloths to the entry and exit points and commanding the guards to cover him more fully with the blankets. As soon as she'd gotten the bleeding to stop she poured a smelly green concoction over the wounds and formed a makeshift bandage. She pulled the blanket over him completely and stood, facing the men.

"That's all I can do here. Carry him up to the infirmary and hurry! Be careful with him!"

The guards quickly rigged up a sort of sling by which they could draw him up the shaft. At the top, as one of the men reached for the boy in his bundle of blankets, a commotion of voices sounded, coming nearer.

"What in all tarnation is going on here?" Quave stormed.

Resia hurried on ahead of the guard who bore the unconscious Link gingerly in his arms. "Captain, I suggest you move out of the way and let us pass, or this boy will surely die while you stand there ridiculously!" she said, and raised her hand as though she was going to push past him.

The captain stepped aside and his expression could have been described as little else than stupefied. He caught a glimpse of the tawny hair and bloodied face and, with a sick little feeling that was like a punch to the gut, he recognized the boy to whom they belonged. Turning to his men, he ordered them, nearly with dire looks alone, to tell him what had happened. They knew very little, only that the princess had raised the alarm and they found the boy in the passage below. One of the guards held out the broken shaft which Resia had removed.

"Don't just stand there!" Quave snarled, snatching the bloody pieces. "Go back down there and find out what happened! Bring me a report on your findings in no more than ten minutes."

The men scattered. They found a trail of blood which led them to the spot where Link had been shot. They noticed the cut rope and remembered the raw abrasions on the boy's wrists. They found a single arrow, the fletching of which seemed familiar to a few of the men. Gathering what evidence they were able they returned to their captain who, after the brief report, looked all the grimmer. He had to tell the king.

On his way out of the room, the scowling captain turned to one of his men. "Find the boy's father."

A few minutes later, before Quave could quite form the right words, King Rhoam faced him with tired eyes. "I feel that something is wrong, Captain. What is it this time?"

"Sire, the boy who helped the prisoner escape, the boy called Link, was found in the underground passage."

"The excavation? Why was he there?"

"He was beaten, perhaps even tortured, Sire." The words felt ugly as they left his mouth.

The king's eyes narrowed angrily. "What?"

"Someone took him down there, tied him up and used what means I don't all know yet. He was found with an arrow in him. The healer is caring for him now. She looked very grim."

King Rhoam rose from his chair and began to pace. He was still wearing his dressing gown as he hadn't long been awake. Facing the captain, his expression was forebodingly stern. "You know what this means, do you not? The boy's story about the prisoner was the truth. But it seems we've realized that too late." He pressed a hand to his eyes and suppressed a weary sigh.

"Sire, it is my fault that this happened under my very nose. I will do everything to find this…this demon, you have my vow on that!" His mouth and eyes turned down into a concentrated frown, Quave thumped a fist to his chest.

With his back halfway to the captain, King Rhoam made no indication that he'd heard him. Quave bowed and turned to go, knowing his king had nothing more to say. He was prepared to begin the task of trying to find the culprit which, in a castle full of people, would be no simple matter.

"The blame does not all fall to you, Captain. The man is very likely closer than you think," the king said, suddenly.

Quave faced his sovereign again. "Your Majesty?"

The king pulled the bell for his valet. "First, find Lady Impa. The three of us must devise a plan to catch a traitor, quickly!"

"Yes, Sire!"

While King Rhoam went to get dressed, the captain exited the room and gave orders to the guards who waited without. One of them he instructed to find Impa, others he charged to spread out and keep watch. They were to let no strange activity, no matter how seemingly innocent, go unchallenged. They were to spread the word along to the other guards and rouse those in the garrison as well. If the castle was to be turned inside out and everyone scrambled around like ants on a griddle, the man behind the crime of mercilessly beating a young boy would be caught and face the wrath of the king, nay, even of the goddess herself. Captain Quave would see to it, or resign his post.

"Captain, sir, you sent for me?"

His frown deepening, Quave turned to the man who had approached him. "Has no one told you, then?"

"Told me? No sir. What is it?" His own expression took a turn for the worse, as if his captain's concern was contagious.

Quave grumbled under his breath. "Rankin, there is no easy way to tell you this. Your son is hurt."

All the blood seemed to drain from the man's face. "Link…?"

The captain nodded curtly. "He is in the infirmary right now." He might even be dead by now, he thought, but choose not to voice those pessimistic words for the father's sake.

Rankin's jaw worked for a moment before he allowed himself to speak. His Adam's apple bobbed several times. "How…? Who?"

"I don't yet know," he replied stiffly.

"This is about that escaped prisoner, is it not?" the father asked, yet his gaze seemed to be a thousand miles away.

Quave nodded, a bit reticently. "It is. Whoever did this, be it the woman or someone else, will be in the dungeon by nightfall."

"I…I will help," Rankin said, clenching his fists as his tormented eyes came to rest on his captain. "I must… I have to do something…"

"No," Quave said quickly, with all the force of his position. "Go to your boy."

"Sir…"

"Go to your son. That is an order."

Rankin was silent for a second before replying to his superior. Then he saluted with a hand that shook inside its gauntlet and then turned away slowly, his other hand crushed into a fist. He retreated into the corridor whence he had come.

While Rankin's steps faltered on his way to the infirmary, the king, Impa and Quave met behind closed doors and made a plan for capturing a traitor, a torturer of a young boy. They were well aware of the need to move quickly before the man in question figured out what was going on. News in the castle traveled fast, as Impa pointed out, and it was very likely the culprit already knew that his victim had been found.

Afterward, the captain stalked away to gather a few of his best and most trusted men, Impa went off on silent feet to summon a couple of her clansmen, and King Rhoam went out to one of the castle's gardens. It was high up on the western side of the castle and was always the most beautiful, well-tended courtyard on all the castle grounds. The place had been a favorite of someone who was very dear. The king's eyes fell on a white bench beneath the low, sweeping branches of an old, wizened tree and he looked away quickly, not allowing himself to dwell on certain memories.

He moved toward a small grotto, resolutely keeping his eyes on the path and his mind centered on his mission. The princess's attendant was seated just outside the entrance, her needle flying in and out of her sewing; she flew up and curtsied deeply at the approach of her sovereign. Zelda herself was inside the grotto, kneeling before an elaborately carved statue of the goddess. Flowers grew at the base of the statue and twined elegantly around it. King Rhoam entered, creating a shadow which made the princess lift her head and lower her hands. She rose, turned and saw him, an expression of guilt immediately crossing her features.

Lowering her head and thrusting her hands behind her back, she said quietly, "Hello Father."

"Zelda, the guards tell me you were the one to find the injured boy. Would you care to tell me what you were doing down there?" he inquired, as if he hadn't already made a well-informed guess.

She bit her lip. "I'm sorry, Father," she mumbled, shuffling her feet under her dress. I wanted…I only wanted to find one of the relics so I could study it."

She raised her eyes just enough to meet her father's gaze. His own eyes were not quite stern, but not friendly either. She knew he had to be mad at her and she let her face fall again. What she did not realize was that he examined her carefully and then breathed a silent sigh of relief that she was fine and not too shaken at her earlier discovery.

"You know that the excavation site is not a place to play, do you not? You could have been hurt."

"I know it was wrong. I'm sorry… I will spend more time at my training," she promised, utterly miserable.

King Rhoam never once took his steady, hawk-like eyes off her. "You will not go down to the excavation site unless someone is with you. Is that clear, Zelda?"

"Yes, Father," she replied, swallowing a lump in her throat but stubbornly refusing to let her emotions overpower her.

The king moved closer and lifted her chin with a couple fingers. "All I want is for you to be safe, my dear daughter," he said quietly.

She thought she'd heard a slight huskiness to his voice but as she raised her eyes to meet his she forgot it completely. His expression was still tense but he had gentled somewhat, as he fixed her with eyes so much like her own. Her mind was flooded with all the memories of happier times before her mother died and she had begun her training, times when he would lift her high into the air just to hear her squeal, or when he would hide something behind his back until she guessed which hand it was in. He played with her and even in their games he managed to impart some bit of knowledge for her eager little mind. She swallowed and tried to push away the wishful thoughts that she could have those times back again.

King Rhoam lowered his hand. "Did you see or hear anything while you were down there? It is important that we know if there was anyone else there too."

Zelda pushed her fingers together and crinkled her eyes in concentration. "I didn't hear or see anything, except for that boy. …Is he going to be all right?"

"I do not know."

"Oh…" she murmured, looking down at the ground again.

His face quite stern again, the king beckoned to his daughter. "Now, you will return to your room and remain there until I send word. One of the guards will go with you."

"But, my prayers…" she faltered, scolding herself a moment later for opening her mouth.

King Rhoam had been turning to leave and faced her again. "Go to your room, Zelda," he repeated, morphing into the same stern tone he'd come to use when speaking of her training. "You may finish your prayers later."

He ushered her out of the little grotto and into the morning sunlight, noticing how she kept her shoulders back so stiffly. Motioning to the trusted guard who had accompanied him to the courtyard, the king gave brief orders to stand at the princess's door and to defend her with his life if need be before letting anyone enter. He had already dispatched another good man to stand watch at Zelda's balcony. The princess went away with her head held low, thinking she was very much in disgrace. Only much later would she realize her father was only ensuring her protection while a traitor was loose in the castle.

As King Rhoam strode back to his study and the rendezvous with his captain and Impa, he paused as a man, one of the guardsmen, approached him, helmet in his hands. He bowed deeply, but with a distracted sort of air as if there was something most massive weighing on his mind.

"Your Majesty…"

"What is it? I am too busy for trivial matters," the king replied, sounding brusque in his hurry to get back to the pressing matter at hand.

"Please, Sire, I come to ask you a favor," he said, his words a bit strange and halting. His eyes were bloodshot and dark circles were forming underneath.

King Rhoam was about to dismiss him but stopped mid-breath as he recognized the man. "You are the boy's father, are you not? How does he fare?"

Rankin swallowed twice before he made a reply. "He is… not well, Your Majesty. I… I fear he is dying…"

"I am sorry," the king said, and into that simple apology went all the regret that he had not acted sooner, all the anger at the traitor, and all the compassion one father could have for another.

"That is why I beg a favor, Sire," Rankin said, twisting his helmet in his hands as if the motion would help him find the right words to address his king.

"Name it."

Rankin raised his eyes. "The Zora princess has the gift of healing, Sire. She and my son were friends before we moved here and she has helped him before. If we were to send someone to Zora's Domain… If she were to come…perhaps she could save him…"

The man felt as though he were starting to ramble, a most embarrassing thing to do in front of one's sovereign, except he hardly cared. He could not bring himself to mention that the healer had given Link nearly a dozen elixirs and still he wavered on that thin edge separating the mortal world from that of the spirits.

"It shall be done," King Rhoam declared. "I will see that the fastest messenger is sent off at once."

"Thank you…Your Majesty."

Rankin all but ran back to the infirmary, trying not to think, to dread what he might find upon his return. Both anguished fear and a dangerous anger warred within him like beings of ice and fire. He wanted to hope that his son could still be saved, but he was also afraid to cling to that hope too much. He had much hope when his wife was in childbirth, and still had it when she began hemorrhaging. She died so quickly, even before she could see her stillborn son's face; half his heart seemed to have flown with her departing soul. He had been foolish then, to hope.

Meanwhile, the first thing the king did was fulfill his promise. When he asked for someone who could get to Zora's Domain fastest, a visiting Rito volunteered and in a manner of minutes was winging through the morning skies. Impa had entered the room while the king was making those rapid arrangements. As soon as he had finished she leaned near and gave him the latest information from her clansmen keeping an eye on their suspect.

"He's been moving around," she whispered. "I fear he suspects we are getting close."

"Where is Quave? We move, now."

With that, King Rhoam quit the room. He had to hold his sword to keep it from bumping his leg and Impa, who followed just behind him, was as silent-footed as ever. Down the corridor they met Quave and the few, especially selected guards he had summoned. Impa slipped away to get an update from her clansmen while king and captain quietly and forcefully told the men what was expected of them.

"Bad news, Sire," the young Sheikah reported several moments later. "Our man just entered the infirmary. A large fellow followed him."

King Rhoam frowned beneath his beard, his eyebrows taking an angled dip. "There is no time to waste," he said, and strode in that direction as well.

In the infirmary, Rankin sat over by one of the beds, his armor-clad bulk partially blocking the small, childish form which lay so still beneath the blankets. Resia had been hovering near her patient but moved away when the chancellor and his man entered. She stopped them before they were halfway to the occupied bed.

"My man cut himself," Duvile was saying to the healer. He glared at his henchman who stood a few paces away. "I want you to fix him up."

"You'll have to wait a while," she replied crisply. She pointed to a chair on the other side of the room. "Tell him to sit over there."

Frustration began to heat up the chancellor's face. "He has duties. I need you to treat him right away!"

At this moment, the king and Impa entered the infirmary. Quave stationed himself in the doorway and the guards stood just outside and behind him, tensed for the order to move, to fight, to take down anyone who would defy their king. The others already in the room faced King Rhoam and made the appropriate gesture of respect.

"Your M-Majesty," the chancellor said, unable to keep the aggravation, fear and rage from showing through his eyes. "What brings you here?"

"How is the boy?" King Rhoam inquired, his eyes on Resia.

"I am afraid he is failing," responded she, her lips pulled into a serious frown. "He has lost so much blood… There is little else I can do for him."

"And what about my man?" Duvile demanded. Being in the presence of his sovereign, he was forced to temper his tongue. "Are you just going to ignore him?"

"As I told you, he will have to wait, Sir Chancellor. He is not seriously injured and I have another patient I must get back to." She held out a small, corked bottle of pale red liquid. "You may give this to him, however." Then she returned to the bedside.

Except for the presence of the newcomers, Duvile most likely would have begun kicking up a whole hornet's nest of complaints over her abrupt dismissal. Instead, he worriedly looked between the king, Impa, and Captain Quave in the doorway, as if he was trying to figure out what they were planning. He could gauge nothing from their expressions and he did not see the men without.

"Please forgive my rudeness, Sire," he simpered, in an attempt to create a mask of innocence and decorum. "I am worried about my man and my schedule is busy, as is yours, I am sure."

King Rhoam blocked out all other thoughts and feelings as he focused on the man he suspected. "I am glad to have found you, Chancellor. In reading your report last night I noticed you made a recommendation to wait a day or two before we resume excavations below the castle. Why do you think this is necessary?"

Swallowing quickly, Duvile's eyes roved as, half-panicked, he strove to fabricate a satisfactory response. "I-I was merely thinking, Your Majesty, of the creatures that get into the passageways despite being sealed off." He seemed to gain confidence as he went on. "The workers must be kept safe. I was simply looking after their interests as any good man would."

"And have you been down to the excavation site?"

The chancellor's throat jumped. "I have not, Sire."

"Hmm, I see." The king nodded as though he was satisfied. "You know that the boy in the bed was found down in the passageways?"

"I b-believe I heard something of the sort," Duvile replied.

King Rhoam and Impa both noticed how he seemed to be trying to keep his gaze on his sovereign but often shifted his eyes to someone else, especially to his henchman. Behind her back, the young Sheikah made a signal to Quave, telling him to be ready to move. She kept her own gaze fixedly on the chancellor but made use of her periphery vision to be constantly mindful of what the others were doing as well. She knew that Rankin was half turned to them and obviously listening to everything, Resia leaned over her patient but was probably listening too, and the chancellor's man stared at Duvile.

"If you will pardon me, Sire, I should get back to my duties." His eyes shifted to Quave, but the captain had not moved even the tiniest bit, had hardly even blinked.

"Hold off, Chancellor," the king bade him, extending the palm of his hand. The way he said Duvile's title seemed to have some sort of meaning which boded no good for the man. "There is one other matter on which I must speak to you. Who has access to the royal treasury?"

Duvile's jaw twitched as he looked back to the king. "I d-don't understand…"

King Rhoam's sharp, bird-like eyes flashed for a second. "It is not a difficult question, Chancellor. Do you think a blow would make you answer on it better?"

The man opened his mouth and shut it again, his eyes narrowed. He flinched slightly though no one raised a hand toward him. It seemed to be all he could do to keep himself from looking toward the bed, where the boy's breaths were so shallow and raspy it was a wonder he still drew them.

"…I was only confused by your question, Sire," he returned. "I was sure you knew."

"Inform me anyway."

Swallowing again, Duvile glanced first to his henchman, then to Impa and back to the king. "You know as well as I, Sire, the minister…myself and our aides have access."

"And who holds the key?" King Rhoam demanded, lowering his chin as his look became all the harder.

"Majesty, I see no point in asking me these—"

"Only two people hold a key, one of whom was my minister, now deceased," said the king, his green eyes fixated fiercely on the mentally squirming man. "He was poisoned and the cook was accused. It was you, Chancellor Duvile, who produced evidence that she was his cast-off mistress and murdered him out of spite. If not for the boy in the bed over there, she would have been hanged and no one might have learned of your treachery!"

"The minister stole from the treasury, not I," Duvile said quickly, his hands wetter than newly frosted leaf and just as cold. "He did it all for his mistress. He threw her away and that is why she murdered him!"

"That, sir, is a dreadful lie!" a new voice sobbed out.

Everyone except the unconscious boy turned or whirled to face the source of that cry. The owner thereof was none other than the subject of Duvile's accusations. In a window across the room from the sickbed, Vrena half-crouched on the slight sill, one foot dangling into the room and one hand gripping the stone casing. The other hand loosely held her shawl just below her neck. Her eyes were rimmed with tired, dark circles and her skirt bore all the muddy grime and bits of leaves one would find in the countryside. She still wore the disguise in which she'd met Link two days prior, though certainly more travel-worn than before.

Quave immediately signaled his men into the room. They stepped nearer the escaped prisoner, but a quick order from the king kept them from going too close and from putting their backs to either the chancellor or his henchman.

"Have you come to give yourself up?" King Rhoam asked her.

"She means no good! She's come to do more harm to the boy!" Duvile exclaimed, his face as red as a strawberry. "She wants to kill him, to keep him from—"

"Be silent, Chancellor," the king said. His expression grave, he nodded to the woman again. "Tell us."

Her eyes dewy and her lips and throat quivering, the Sheikah cook spoke. "I came…I came because I heard my dear boy was dying! You may lock me up again, but please, please don't punish him any more! You can even hang me, but don't hurt him!" She slipped from the windowsill and landed softly on both feet. She looked toward the bed and trembled as though she wanted to go to Link, but a look at the guards told her she'd best remain as she was. "He could have told you anything. He didn't know where I was hiding! Oh Link, Link, why did I ever let you…" She devolved into anguished sobs, her right hand still hovering near her collarbone.

"Was there another reason for coming back?" Impa questioned, her eyes resting on that hand.

Vrena glanced at her clanswoman, taking a couple of gulping breaths. "Y-yes. I searched for someone who is wiser than most mortals, someone who could tell me if I really killed the minister…and I thought I found her. All she told me was to come back here and she sent…"

Duvile was practically purple. "Your Majesty! This woman spews lies of the worst sort! She is only trying to cover her crime with more subterfuge!"

"Enough!" the king roared. "You protest far too much, Duvile. If you are as innocent as you would have us believe, how then do you know of the shortage in the treasury? I learned of it only yesterday!" He finished with that pronouncement which hit the room like the sudden cessation of a heartbeat.

Several things happened within that next moment. The chancellor lunged toward the bed, his dagger suddenly in his hand. With an oath on his tongue, Rankin leapt at him ere he could reach the boy, intercepting the blade with his bare hand and striking Duvile a heavy blow with the other. The king, having wrenched his sword from its sheath, held it at the traitor's throat, bidding him surrender himself or his life. The chancellor's henchman barely had time to withdraw a compact crossbow and start to aim it at Vrena before small blade, thrown by a hand both swift and unerring, struck a nerve in his forearm, causing him to yowl and drop his weapon. The captain and guards were upon him then and probably would have killed him except for the strict orders to keep the prisoners alive except at risk to one's own life. Vrena gave a shout of fright and threw up both hands, releasing her tender hold over her shawl.

As if oblivious to everything else, the healer put her ear over her patient's mouth, her hand over his heart and her brows furrowing ever deeper.

"He's not breathing…!"

Chapter Text

When Vrena moved her hand her shawl also dropped away, setting free a tiny being that flew up toward the ceiling. This small creature was a fairy, surrounded with a softly glowing sphere of light and wings that sparkled with hues of pink and green. In the center of the glow, the diminutive, feminine form was attired in silk like wisps of sunset clouds, dew-like pearls and tiny, perfect leaves. As the Sheikah cook cast her eyes upward, the fairy herself was looking around for someone who needed her power. She saw the bleeding hand of a man who held another man in an unyielding grip but she looked beyond that, for she had already sensed a greater wound. Then she saw the boy.

With perspiration clinging to her hairline, the healer leaned over her dying patient, giving him her own breaths in an attempt to keep him from slipping away completely. "Come on… Breathe…!" she begged between gasps.

The fairy alighted on Link with all the grace of a seed puff on the surface of water and shook her wings over him. She whispered a few words in a tongue known only to fairies and began to extend her tiny hands. Resia took a step back as she watched; as a healer, she knew of the power of fairies but had never witnessed it with her own eyes. She was still breathing hard as she pushed back a few errant strands of hair.

The guards had both the chancellor and his henchman under control, binding their hands tightly and shoving them to the floor in submission. The brute was a bit cut up and Duvile sported some fine bruises around the neck and along his jawline, and both would certainly live until they were tried.

"Take them away!" the king ordered, just the slightest bit short on breath. He let his sword fall back into its scabbard with a little click.

The guards hustled the two men from the room, Duvile with screams and curses on his lips. Only then did the others have the chance to notice what else was happening. Rankin's heart nearly stopped as he saw his son and though he started forward, Resia stopped him with an emphatic, firm shake of the head. They all stared at the wondrous sight as silence prevailed in the room, save for the infinitesimal sound like the chattering of leaves.

The fairy held her hands out and up until they were a little higher than her head. The glow surrounding her intensified until it encompassed Link like a silken, shimmering cocoon and slowly she made his inert form rise from where he lay. When there were several hand breadths of air between him and the bed, she lowered her hands and flew around him in tight circles, paying close attention to the wound through his side. The blankets had fallen from him and all those present glimpsed the new breaths which swelled in and out of his chest. Then the fairy was finished and the glow faded; she lowered him gently back to the bed.

"That is all I can do," she whispered, and tiredly flitted out the window to return to the mistress who had sent her.

Rankin was at his son's side in an instant, not caring in the least that he was getting the sheets bloody from his injured hand. He scrunched his face into a stern expression to hide the great relief which surged through him as though a wave lifted him to the surface. He touched Link's hair and chin, and watched his chest rise and fall as though he needed the reassurance that his son still lived.

As Resia bent to check his wounds, the boy's eyelids fluttered and slowly lifted to reveal the blue eyes that Rankin had feared would never look at him again. His throat was so tight that he suddenly found himself without words. He clutched at his son's hand with his good one and even clasped over it with his cut palm. Link turned his head as he glanced at his surroundings, and then focused on Rankin.

"Father…?" he murmured.

But Rankin could not yet trust himself to speak. He only nodded his head slightly as he blinked rapidly to keep his eyes clear. He strove to keep his face averted from everyone else save his son.

"…Where am I?" a disoriented Link asked, casting his eyes about again and making a movement like he wanted to rise. His words were slurred, a result of his swollen lip.

"You're safe," the healer told him, and he could hear the glad truth in her tone. "But you have to stay right where you are and rest. You must not undo the work of that little fairy."

King Rhoam took that moment to approach the bed and enter the boy's line of vision. "You are a courageous lad, Link. I am in your debt." A bit of a smile half hid itself beneath his gray beard. "I've no doubt your father is very proud of you."

Link could only stare back, utterly perplexed and with his mouth slightly open. Then he looked at his father again and his heart did a queer little flip when he glimpsed the emotion swimming in Rankin's eyes.

Vrena was still in the same spot by the window, as if she didn't dare move. The captain had summoned a couple more of his men and they stood on either side of her to take her away as well. She did not move her eyes from the bed, though she could see little else than a bit of tawny hair on the pillow. Quave made a motion to the guards, but she lifted her voice at last.

"Please," she pleaded, her eyes seeking out the king. "Please, Your Majesty… May I just see him?" She gestured toward the bed. "I will not try to escape. I only want to see that he is all right."

King Rhoam faced her, all traces of the smile fading from his expression. He regarded her for a moment. "You may."

The guards were right behind her as she hastened to the bedside and dropped to her knees. The tears which had been shining at the corners of her eyes ran down her cheeks as she reached over and took the hand not held by the boy's father.

"Link…oh, Link! You are…a brave boy to do all you've done…for me. I am not worthy…" she wept, but there was no denying the relief in her eyes.

Alarm crept into the boy's eyes as he tried to reach out for her. "Are you all right, Miss Vrena? They're not going to hang you, are they? They can't…!"

His father held him back from making any further exertion as concern crinkled his brows. "Link…"

However, King Rhoam, having watched the exchange between the former cook and the boy, spoke. "She will not hang, lad. You have my promise that justice will truly be done this time. I am quite convinced your friend had nothing to do with my minister's death."

Looking at the king, Link ceased his weakened struggles against the hands that kept him down. He glanced over at Vrena and let his breath escape him all at once. Then Resia brought a vial of lavender liquid to his lips and bade him drink, and it tasted like bitter mushrooms. He wanted to say something else but couldn't remember what it was, for sleepiness suddenly overtook him like a ravenous canine.

"Father…" he mumbled, his eyes already closed.

"He will be right all now?" Rankin asked the healer, tripping over his words. His voice was quiet with concern as he still clutched at his boy's hand with a grip that not even death could loosen.

"Yes," replied she. "The fairy brought him back to life and mended the worst of the injury, but he still has much healing to do. There is no cause for worry, sir. He has proven thus far to be a resilient boy."

Impa placed a hand on the end of the bed and spoke to her clanswoman. "That brings me to my question. We seldom see fairies in our world and they do not easily associate with people. There is no doubt you brought her just time, but how was it that you knew to bring her?"

Vrena placed a hand to her cheek and smoothed away some of the tears, trying to make herself less of a sorry sight. "…I had to find someone wise who could help me to figure out what to do. I went to Melisé."

At that name, the light of recognition came to the faces of the king and Impa. They knew well the name of the wise old woman who had prophesied the return of Calamity Ganon.

"When at last I found her, she did not tell me what I wanted to know. Instead, she took me to the Great Fairy, and they urged me to hurry back here. They told me I was needed here, but I did not understand. The Great Fairy sent the little one with me."

"It is well you did," the king said, "For you have saved his life and he in turn has saved you from the scaffold."

She looked down at the boy, placing both hands over her mouth as her emotions threatened to spill over again. She nodded, as if to acknowledge the fact that she was immeasurably in debt to young Link.

King Rhoam's eyes settled on the former cook, his expression becoming more regally stern. "You understand that we will have to hold you until we can clear up this whole business, do you not?"

"Yes, Your Majesty," she replied in a whisper, lowering her head.

Turning to Quave, the king said, "I want you to find better accommodations for her, Captain. She is a prisoner in name only." Facing the woman again, he added, "I will see that this matter is settled quickly and then I would be most pleased to have you resume your duties in the kitchen once more. I must say, the meals of late have been abysmal."

She let out a sound which was half-sob, half-laugh. "It w-will be my pleasure, Sire."

Impa quit the room with the guards and Vrena. Captain Quave left as well and the king also made to depart, but turned back to the other father, who remained at his son's side. Rankin was submitting his injured hand to the healer's care and tried to be still as she washed and then stitched the gash across his palm.

"Sir Rankin."

"Yes, Sire?" the knight replied, lifting his head. He started to rise, but Resia pulled him down and the king held out his hand, giving him leave to remain as he was.

"The woman seemed very fond of your son, but she is not his mother?"

"No… Sire, my wife died…eight months ago…in childbirth."

A second of silence filled the air between the two fathers, each in a vastly different position but both with something that was a sort of bond between them. King Rhoam's eyes softened at the corners, but did not focus on anything. "And all you have left is your son…" he murmured. "It is a feeling I know well."

"He formed an attachment to the Sheikah woman for want of a mother, I think. His mother was a wonderful cook as well, only equal to her skill as a horsewoman. She taught him what she knew…" He trailed off, knowing his words were beginning to wander as much as his mind and his gaze had drifted back to his son.

The king left the room quietly and went to the one person who was so much in his thoughts, especially after seeing how nearly Rankin had lost his child. King Rhoam went straight to his daughter's room.

Link developed a slight fever and was restless the remainder of the day, his snatches of sleep fitful and laced with images of the dark caverns and of Chancellor Duvile's horrible smile. Under Resia's care, however, he improved by nightfall and could take some nourishment. He wanted to sit up but the healer was concerned that he might put too much stress on his wounds.

Rankin remained in the infirmary most of the day as well, but he said very little to his son. Link could not decipher the look in his father's eyes and wondered fretfully if he was still angry. Resia had just given the boy a potion to make him sleep for the night and Link's blearing vision shifted downward to his father's bandaged right hand.

"Father, what…happened?" he mumbled, gesturing with his own hand that hardly seemed to obey him.

"It is nothing, son. Go to sleep."

Link closed his eyes, a welcome relief.

Even when he succumbed to that deep and encompassing slumber, his forehead was still puckered between the eyebrows and his lips pulled into an uncertain frown. He slept all that night marked with few dreams but with the uneasy sense that something was wrong. When he awoke the next morning, he was still plagued by that feeling and when he looked around he saw with a saddened expression that Rankin was not there.

As he was not allowed to get up, or even to attempt it, he lay in the bed, propped up on pillows, fretting and working himself into a state of misery beyond the ache of pain he still felt. His father stopped by once in the afternoon, but as Link had fallen asleep he would not have known except that Resia told him. The boy found a history book of Hyrule sitting on the table by his bed and he picked it up, not connecting its presence with his father's visit. Normally he would have lost himself in those pages, imagining himself to be one of the brave knights from the past, but his side ached and he did not allow himself to enjoy the stories. He felt abandoned again, for he'd set eyes on no one save the healer the whole day.

"Hello there."

Link jerked his head up, seeing Impa approaching him just as Resia left with his supper dishes. He brightened a bit as the young Sheikah woman neared the bed.

"Is it too late for a visitor?" she asked.

He shook his head and then glumly looked down at the history book near his hand. He'd been so bored that he was contemplating picking it up again but he really didn't have his heart in that thought.

"What's this?" she demanded, her tone beginning playfully but turning serious. "What is the matter, Link? Are you in pain?"

Again he shook his head. The healer had throughout the day asked him that similar question and he was not able to keep anything from her. She had bidden him drink an elixir at those times and he was feeling a wee mite woozy from them, in addition to his worried state of mind. For the moment he was glad that he was not trying to get up.

Impa seated herself at the side of the bed and made him lift his head so she could look into his eyes. "Something is bothering you; it is as obvious as the sky is blue, dear boy." She perched herself on the side of the bed. "Tell me."

He gulped, wishing he didn't feel so uselessly silly. It wasn't as if he didn't trust Impa. Somehow, he knew she was the kind of person who would keep a secret, or a friendship or a loyalty till the day she died, and he was also quite sure the king trusted her in like manner. He wanted to tell her, but he felt so pathetic that he hesitated.

"I…I…" he stammered, using one hand to twist the bedclothes. "I think my father is still angry at me."

"What makes you think that?" She lowered her hand and examined his palms.

"He…barely looks at me and only talks to me when he has to."

"Does he usually say much?"

"No-o, I guess not." In fact, Link remembered how his mother had remarked what a quiet man she had married, even though he was more open with her than anyone else. Though the boy always knew when his father was angry, he always had difficulty in discerning Rankin's other emotions, especially after the death of his mother.

"You are quite a lot like your father, you know. Have you said anything to him?"

"Not today. He hasn't been here." He lowered his eyes to his lap and used his fingers to knead at the blanket which covered him.

"Then the next time you see your father, say something to him, no matter how hard it is to find the words. Maybe he is just at a loss as you are, hmm?"

Link's lips moved sideways and his eyebrows crinkled. He stopped clutching at the blanket and continued to stare at his lap as if concentrating on a complex problem.

Impa folded her own hands and kept her keen gaze fixed upon him. Deciding to try a new tactic, she said, "Do you know how your father injured his hand?"

The boy indicated a "no" with a shake of his tawny head.

"He was protecting you from the blade of that traitor."

Snapping up his head, Link stared at her, his blue eyes wide as ponds and his mouth hanging open. "H-he did?"

Impa nodded. She had her doubts that the man would ever broach the subject on his own and thus she continued. "Link, your father interceded for you this whole time. Many times he besought the king to give you another chance, to lessen your punishment. He wanted to go out himself and kill the man who hurt you. And he was so afraid for your life that he asked the king another favor."

His mind was churning. "What?"

"See for yourself."

She gestured behind her, toward the entrance to the infirmary. Link strained to see around her and when she rose from her seat beside him, he beheld his best friend. The young Zora princess stood in the doorway, her hands folded delicately at chest level and her golden eyes lighting up like twin suns as soon as she saw him.

"Link!" she said, her soft voice barely carrying to him.

She rushed toward him, her feet making floppy, slightly wet sounds on the floor. Upon reaching him she tenderly took both his hands and held them so tightly in her moist grip.

"Oh, Link…" she whispered as she eyed his face, taking in every cut and abrasion, every greenish bruise. "When the messenger came to the domain, I was so worried about you…"

Every time he'd gotten himself hurt, ever since that day he fell into Zora's River, struck his head and nearly drowned, she'd always been there to heal him. She invariably shed a few tears when she saw the injury, however small, and Link would always put on a brave face and tell her the same thing.

"Please don't cry, Mipha," he pleaded. "I'm all right."

"I'm sorry," she said quietly, looking down at his hands and feeling all the little marks left from the splinters.

Then, with the light of her power forming beneath her palms, she healed him completely. The time it took her was longer than it had ever been; that and the lengthy journey caused her to be near exhausted by the time she was finished. The two Zora guards who had accompanied her then swept her away to rest somewhere. She gave her friend a sweet smile before she left the room.

Link looked first at his hands, which no longer held any trace of the splinters, and then peered down at his side and saw nothing more than a small scar. Resia looked him over thoroughly, pronounced him quite well again, and gave him permission to get out of bed.

"That young Zora princess is a wondrous healer…" she murmured as she went about putting away her varied potions and elixirs.

Link threw his legs off the bed, letting his bare feet touch the floor. He pulled his undershirt and then the tunic which Resia provided him over his head; so delighted was he at being up and well again that he almost felt dizzy. There were no shoes nearby for him to wear, but he didn't really care for he liked the solid feel of the floor beneath his feet. He took a couple of steps toward the door, but then stopped, his eyebrows furrowing slightly.

Turning to Impa, who was still a few paces away, he questioned, "Is it all right…if I go?"

"You are free to leave, Link," she told him.

He let out his breath all at once and his face relaxed into something that was not quite a smile. Then he darted from the infirmary door and through the dim corridors and candlelit hallways in search of one person. He passed a couple of guards, who gave him a brief look that made Link wonder if he'd grown a second nose. He did not know that they were two of the men who had helped haul him up the shaft and that their looks were more flabbergasted surprise than anything else.

The dark passageways made him shiver and he was reminded of that horrible time in the underground excavations with Duvile and his henchman. He stopped and almost turned back, so much was he disturbed by his remembered terror, but before he could do anything, he saw someone approaching him. Without thinking and without the definite knowledge that the man was in prison, he cringed and shrank back against the wall, fearing it was the chancellor.

"Who is there?" a voice challenged.

"Name yourself or meet my blade!"

Hardly seeing anything through eyes clouded with fear, Link heard the sound of a sword ringing out of its sheath. In a split second of clarity he knew he recognized the first voice that had spoken and he fell to his knees. The wavering torchlight, held in the hand of one of the guards, came nearer quickly until it captured the boy in its yellowy glow.

"You may put away your sword," the king bade the man at his side. Looking upon Link, he said, "It is good to see that you are well, lad."

"Th-thank you," he stammered, not quite daring to turn his glance upwards. He was uncertain if there was any displeasure in the king's tone.

"You may stand, Link," King Rhoam told him. "Where are you headed?"

The boy obeyed immediately. "I'm looking for my father, Your Majesty."

A hint of some feeling flashed ever so briefly through the king's green eyes; the corners of his mouth moved but the torchlight simply was not enough to tell for sure. "Then hurry on, lad. Do not linger here."

With another expression of his thanks, Link bowed again and scurried away. The king's words in his mind were enough to keep him from wandering to the darker memories, and after some searching he finally located his father. Rankin was in the large, bare courtyard reserved for royal guards' training, where he had just finished instructing the last assortment of men for the day. His head was tilted up to the sky, where the first couple of stars were beginning to wink merrily. As if sensing someone's approach, he lowered his gaze and turned quickly.

"Son," he said. His eyes, though they seemed stern, took in every detail of the boy's face, attire and extremities, noticing the lack of even the slightest wound.

"Can I train with you?"

As a response, Rankin threw a practice weapon in his son's direction, which Link caught without a fumble. They began to circle each other and trade blows, unaware that they were observed by two pairs of eyes from separate vantage points in the castle. It was obvious to the watchers that this was something to which the father and his boy were well accustomed, even from that very first movement. The match which followed could not be considered as simple sparring, as Rankin did not go easy on his boy and he did not seem at a disadvantage by having to use his other hand. At the end they both separated, their breaths coming in spurts and gasps.

"You have missed several days of training, son," Rankin said, setting his weapon aside. "You will have to work hard to make up for that."

Link followed his father's action in putting his weapon away. His heart was still racing and his breath coming like harsh gusts of wind as he replied, "Yes sir."

It would have been easy to turn himself from his father's words, to think that he did not care, but as he felt the familiar anger threatening to burble up in his chest Link paused. He remembered Impa's earlier words to him. He also remembered his mother saying what kind of a man her husband was, that he spoke little and kept his emotions buried deeper than the roots of a great tree. The only time the boy had seen his father cry was after she died, and at that moment Link was supposed to have been in bed.

His hands resting on the rack of weapons, Link took a deep, shaky breath. "Father?"

Rankin turned only his head. "Yes, son?"

He wanted to thank his father for again instructing him in the art of the blade, yet he felt there was something more important to say. "…I'm sorry."

"Sorry? Sorry for what?" he asked tiredly, a bit of an edge coming through on the last word.

"For the trouble I caused you…and everyone," Link muttered, his eyes on his tightened fists.

"You needn't apologize, son," Rankin said and there almost seemed to be anger in his tone.

Link was surprised by the sudden nearness and the touch of his father's hand on his shoulder. The boy raised his head and met his gaze.

"You could have told the king of your reason for silence sooner, but you have nothing to be ashamed about. I should be the one to apologize to you, for not believing in you. I… I am proud of you, son."

Link's lips trembled and his eyes filled with unspoken emotion as he stared back at his father. He knew how much Rankin distained even remotely public physical displays of affection, but like his deceased mother often had, he decided to break through that barrier. He threw his arms about his father's waist and squeezed, not caring how uncomfortable the armor that met him was. After a moment Rankin patted his shoulder hesitantly, awkwardly and then Link let go.

"The hour grows late. You'd better get some rest, son," Rankin said, a certain thickness to his voice.

"Yes, Father," the boy replied, and he could not keep his lips from curving up at the corners.

He turned and took a few steps away, his thoughts as high as the clouds. His mother must have been in those clouds as well because he suddenly remembered something else he wanted to say. Facing his father again, he bit at the bottom of his lip. Rankin looked at him and waited, one of his hands resting at his belt.

"Father, um… Could we…talk about Mother sometime? I just…I miss her so much."

Rankin jerked as if he'd been struck a particularly low blow. His mouth moved, but no sound came therefrom and he swallowed several times, no longer able to look at his boy. Absently he twisted at the hilt of his sword.

"We'll…" he swallowed visibly again. "…We'll see, son. Now go to bed."

Link didn't dare delay any further. As he scampered from the courtyard, his heart beat an erratic rhythm in his chest and his hands trembled. He didn't think he'd be able to sleep for all the nervous excitement pent up inside him, but the day had taken its toll and his consciousness soon floated to the land of dreams. He dreamed of his mother and father and a small child he could not identify; when he awoke he did not remember any of it.

Bright and early the next morning, a guard came to Link with a summons from the king. The boy swallowed what felt like his tongue and followed the guard, though this time he was not pushed or dragged along. They ended up in a large room, high up in the castle, ornately decorated and filled with all manner of people. The boy could see rather little because of all the people, but the king, seated upon his throne and elevated by a few steps, was quite obviously visible to everyone. Link would have liked nothing better than to turn and flee.

King Rhoam lifted his eyes and saw him. "Come forward, boy," he commanded, raising his voice authoritatively and beckoning with one thick hand.

This Link did, walking through an opening created for him by the people who moved aside. With every eye upon him, he felt smaller than a beetle and just as important. As he approached, however, he was able to see more of the people in the room. By the king's side was the princess in a pale blue dress. As Link's eyes went briefly to her, he had a vision of the girl in a white robe with her hair forming a golden halo around her. She had bent over him as he lay in bitterly cold agony and said something to him. He could remember little else from that time, but that she had come to rescue him before death's grim fingers could claim him.

Also present in the room were all manner of officials and nobles and aides. Two secretaries were ready with quills poised to continue detailing the proceedings. A couple dozen men of the royal guard were positioned at all entry points and along the walls. Impa stood just behind and to the side of both the king and princess, and Captain Quave was stationed stolidly on the other side of the throne.

Then, as someone else caught his attention, Link all but jumped backward, treading on something which was probably someone's toes, his stomach doing mad flip flops. Separated slightly from the clusters of nobles and standing before the king there was Vrena on one side and Duvile on the other. The chancellor was shackled and flanked by two of the largest guards in the ranks, while Vrena was on her own.

Link's urge to bolt was stronger than ever, and he tried to keep as far away from Duvile as possible as he came to a stop between the prisoners. Facing the king, he dropped into the proper respectful gesture and tried not to tremble or to look at the chancellor.

"Rise, Link," King Rhoam bade him, "And tell us why you came to be down in the excavation caverns."

The boy gulped several times and shook even more as he tried to summon the words he needed to obey the king. Then he felt a hand alight on his shoulder and craned his neck up and back, with some relief filling his heart, to see his father. Rankin didn't nod or say anything, but only looked at his boy, his features seemingly unchanged from the night before.

Then Link turned his gaze back to the king and began to stammer a brief explanation of what had happened to him. Beads of sweat made icicles down the length of his back and his knees would not cease their trembling. Having to tell of his ordeal was too much like reliving it over again, but his one consolation was the hand that never left his shoulder, giving him a warmth that he had not had in the dark and terror of that night.

Duvile was nearly eggplant-colored again, and several times he attempted to interrupt Link's testimony with a protestation or curse. The two guards silenced him when the need arose, however. The king and everyone else were primarily focused on the boy and the words he spoke. When Link had finished, the king asked him a few questions pertaining to his reasons for protecting Vrena, the punishments he underwent as a result of his conviction, and ultimately, the fact that he was aware he had almost died. Link answered simply, still feeling like falling through a crack in the floor.

King Rhoam turned to the chancellor. "Now, Duvile, what can you say in your defense? Can you deny his words?"

"He's lying! He's nothing but a filthy brat!" Duvile raged. "I did nothing, Your Majesty, so please, set me free!"

A dangerous green fire smoldered in the king's eyes. "The evidence of your guilt is here for all to see. You will have to show me evidence, my former chancellor. Either that or provide a witness who can bear you out."

"My man will tell you! He is—"

"A scoundrel you picked up on your last excursion to the far islands, one who should take more care with his arrows," the king declared, his voice reverberating through a room quiet enough to have been stilled by a great storm.

He gestured firmly to the page boy who held the evidence. The two arrows, one broken and bloodied, one intact with all its distinct colors of fletching, were pointing at Duvile as if indicative of his guilt.

"No, Chancellor. This time it is you must give evidence. Is there anyone who will witness for you?"

Though King Rhoam seemed to be referring to the body of people present, he kept his gaze fixed solely on the traitorous chancellor. Duvile ground his teeth and cursed again, but neither he nor anyone else spoke. Meanwhile, Link tried again to edge away from the man he feared but was stayed by his father's firm hand.

"Then I have no reason to prolong judgement," continued the king. "After hearing the accounts of this Sheikah woman and of this boy, and in light of facts which others have brought to me, I declare you guilty of treason and the death of Minister Uron. Your title and fortunes are forfeit to the crown. I will later pronounce a sentence of death on you, and may the goddess have mercy on your soul." He paused for a second to take a quick breath. "Take the prisoner away."

Duvile, who had seemed to deflate with each new word from the king's lips, suddenly strained against his captors with the strength and ferocity of a rabid dog. A collective gasp went through the crowd and everyone backed away. Both Impa and Captain Quave jumped forward, ready to protect both their sovereign and princess if the need arose. Strangely enough, Link no longer felt like cowering, but instead had a desire not easily quelled to march over to the traitorous chancellor and give him the strongest blow he could.

The room was tense for only the space of three quick heartbeats, and then the two large guards had Duvile under control. Dragging him from the room as he screamed and cursed out some names, they returned him unceremoniously to the dank prison cell whence they'd brought him. The captain followed as well, as he was going to make quite sure there would not be another escapee.

Murmuring voices drifted through the thick air of the room, only to be silenced when the king spoke again. Fixing his eyes on the silver-haired cook, he beckoned, "Come to me, Vrena of the Sheikah."

She mounted the steps and dropped to her knees before him, her head bowed.

He held out his hand toward her, his eyes serious. "You have my apology that you were forced to into this trial, but you are now free to go. My hope is that you will once again delight us with your culinary delicacies."

"Thank you, Your Majesty. Oh, thank you!" she breathed. Curtsying, she retreated down the steps again, her head still bowed to keep her emotions to herself.

Then King Rhoam settled his eyes on the boy. "Come here, Link, son of Rankin."

Link stared at the steps leading to the throne as if they were an insurmountable peak. His father loosed his hold on his shoulder and gave him a minute nudge and Link stumbled forward, again feeling that every eye was upon him. The carpeted steps swallowed every sound his feet made as he climbed them and went before the king in much the same manner as Vrena had. To his utter amazement, the king rose from the throne and leaned over the boy, placing a hand on his left shoulder in a warm and almost fatherly way.

"I am indebted to you, Link, for your persistence in protecting your friend. Because of you we have found the true traitor in our midst. I have no doubt a brave lad such as yourself, skilled with a blade as you are, could well become a knight before you are fifteen."

King Rhoam compelled the boy to rise and with a hand on each shoulder, turned him around to face the assembled crowd. "Let everyone know that Link, son of Rankin, has pleased me greatly by his deeds," declared the king, gazing out to his subjects.

A noise like the thunder of ocean waves and like the wind swelled up in the room and Link realized that everyone was clapping…for him. He alternatively went pale and then as red as a radish and could not look up from the floor. He couldn't even look at his father; if he had he would have seen a ghost of a smile and eyes which exuded a great pride. Rankin applauded heartily with the rest, without the slightest thought of his injured hand.

Then the king returned to his throne and Link was alone at the very peak of the steps, feeling nervous enough to topple down them at any moment. The applause faded away, having lasted an eternal minute, and Link turned back to the king. He bowed twice, awkwardly, once to King Rhoam and once to Princess Zelda. He caught her eye for a moment, causing his heart to skip as she stared at him with a somber expression he couldn't decipher.

Link returned to his father and then the king declared the proceedings at an end. As the boy and his father made their exit he saw his best friend, who had not been there when he'd entered. With a sweet little smile, Mipha joined them, following them to the yard and watching all the time that Link and his father trained together. Only when their exertions were complete did Rankin allow his son to go off with his friend. The two children went somewhere quiet near the water and Mipha asked him what he'd been doing since he'd moved away. She managed to get him to tell her most of it, but she did not press when he did not want to talk about the worst parts of it. They spent the rest of the day together and it was the best Link had had in months.

Link would learn a little bit later that as a result of the chancellor's arrest, King Rhoam also found other men of his court who had been in league with Duvile. They were all severely punished, as they were all in effect working against the king's efforts to combat the prophesied calamity. The guilty nobles were, in fact, the owners of the names that Duvile had shrieked as the guards were dragging him away, and his curses was one of the clues which had helped the king, and Impa, to find them. Though Link listened to all that information, he had a little difficulty in processing it quickly.

"But never mind that," King Rhoam said, turning fully to the boy. "The reason I called you was to ask you what you most desire. I will grant it to you, with the understanding that it be within mortal means."

Link's eyes lit up. Just that morning he'd said farewell to Mipha; she had cried softly and to appease her he had rashly promised that he would come back to Lanayru. It was his dearest wish, next to seeing his mother again, the latter of which was obviously something he could not ask. Sweet Mipha had told him he shouldn't try to make the river bend against its will. She quoted a saying her people had long held, something about the water's surface reflecting growth. He didn't want to look, however, only wanted the old comfort of his life back.

He looked up at the king and opened his mouth, the words ready to jump from his tongue, but he did not utter them. Pressing his lips together again and biting at them, he glanced at his father. He was aware of how bitterly unhappy Rankin had been between his wife's death and their move to central Hyrule. Somehow, the boy knew that going back to the familiar places, filled with memories of the dearly departed lady, would be even harder on his father than it would be for him.

"You know what you need to do, Link," his mother's memory whispered in his ear.

Link turned his gaze back the king and, before he could think twice about it or try to persuade himself away, he blurted out, "I…I only want my father to have a good position. Your Majesty."

"That is what you want, lad?" questioned King Rhoam, his eyebrows reaching toward his crown.

The boy nodded, clenching his hands at his sides and stabbing the floor with his eyes. He half wished he hadn't said it, but there was no way to take the words back.

The king looked first at Link, then to his father and back at the boy. "Very well," he said. "Then you will be pleased to know I have made your father my Knight Commander." He eyed Rankin. "You are in charge of all training. The two of you will travel between garrisons and see that the proper disciplines are being observed and to see that all new trainees are given prompt lessons. Also, I will require you to gather escorts to and from our four main excavation sites."

The excitement of such a change had yet to impress itself upon Link, but his father immediately grasped what it meant, for he had always grown antsy when his duties kept him months at the moor garrison. His eyes flashed and he placed a hand which he tried to keep steady on his son's head.

"Our thanks, Your Majesty," Rankin said simply, all other words failing him.

"That's not all." A smile tickled at King Rhoam's mouth as if he were in possession of a great joke. "I have decided to bestow upon you some of the land which my former chancellor forfeited by his crimes."

The boy could only stare and even his father was reduced to open-mouthed amazement.

The king chuckled shortly. "That surprises you, doesn't it? It consists mostly of farmland and the tenants have been there for years. They know how to keep up the land. I'm sure you'll find some time to stop there during your travels."

"Sire, this…is simply too generous…" Rankin tried to protest.

"It is nothing when compared to the great service your son has done for me and our country. The tenants will welcome a new master, for Duvile was never a fair one. You may hold it for your son for now, but when he comes of age it will automatically fall to him. I have already drawn up the papers for the transferal." His eyes twinkled as he looked at the boy. "The land is yours."

Rankin recovered enough to nudge the back of his son's shoulder, prompting Link to step forward and say, "Thank—thank you, Your Majesty."

"You're headed on a new adventure, aren't you, lad?" King Rhoam said, more declaration than question. His smile was gone and his eyes seemed sadly pensive. He looked out at the sunset for a moment before turning and catching the boy's eye again. "Grow in your courage, test your strength, experience the lessons the world has to offer, and come back when you're ready to become a knight."

"Yes," said Link and he meant it. He would become a knight and he would make his father proud.

Chapter Text

"Master Link? Are you unwell?"

"You look like Koko did when she ate too many of Mama's pumpkin dumplings!"

"Cottla, hush! That is rude!"

Link's eyes focused into the present and he realized he was still standing in the middle of the pathway leading down from the hill above Kakariko Village. Dorian and his two daughters were looking at him, stern worry on the white-bearded face of the father, mild curiosity on the face of the younger child, and some concern on that of the elder. All three of them had just risen from their spot beneath a special tree in the village. Link blinked as he tried to adjust to suddenly being far away from the world to which his fragmented memories belonged.

"Are you all right?" Dorian asked again. His eyes darted around as if he expected to see a Yiga spy or two.

Link nodded quickly, and then pressed a hand to his forehead. His head throbbed and he felt as shaky as if he'd just battled a few dozen guardians. It was familiar enough to him, as he'd experienced those physical reactions whenever he relived a recollection of the past. Fortunately he'd usually been in peaceful surroundings and did not have to contend with monsters attacking him until he had recovered sufficiently.

"Children, why don't you run along now," the Sheikah guardsman told his children.

"O-kay!" Cottla sing-songed, and dashed away to try catching a frog in the village's little stream.

"Yes, Father. I'll go make dinner for you and Cottla." Koko sent one last look in Link's direction before she headed down the path.

Dorian turned back to the hero. "Did you remember something, Master Link?"

"Yes," he replied, letting his breath out all at once."

"I hope you do not mind that I told your story to my daughters. They grew tired of my usual tales and begged to hear a new one."

The young man shook his head. "It's all right."

"I've long wanted to thank you, you know."

Link held out his hands, ready to protest. "If this is about what you told me…"

This time it was Dorian who shook his head. "No, it isn't what you think it is. Though if it wasn't for you I might never have left the Yiga clan."

His face a study of befuddlement, Link stared. He spoke no words, but his expression cleared questioned, "What do you mean?"

"My wife. If you had been able to meet her you might see the resemblance between her and her mother. I like to think those fine looks are also with my daughters, but I suppose it's hard to tell yet when they're so young."

The hero was even further confused, which was making his head ache all the more. He was still trying to make some order in his mind after a sudden barrage of memories; those memories were like small children, as each one was clamoring to be heard and noticed.

"I'm doing a terrible job of explaining," Dorian said. "You see, my wife's mother was Vrena. She was the Sheikah you saved."

Understanding lit up Link's eyes like a fire and his face broke into a shaky sort of smile. He felt as though he should have known, should have recognized some slight resemblance, but he was relieved all the same to find a comforting connection to the life he'd known before.

"If not for you, I would never have been able to meet my wife, never have left the Yiga because of her, and we wouldn't have had two beautiful children." He grabbed Link's hand with both of his and shook it. "Thank you, Master Link. Thank you for saving us."

"What happened to her?" Link asked, swallowing lightly.

"…She passed away a few years ago. Koko can remember her a little."

The hero's eyes wandered, looking past the obstructions, in the direction of the graveyard.

Dorian followed his gaze. "We buried her there." He almost choked on his next words, barely audible. "I did not think I would bury my wife next to her soon after…"

Cottla ran by at that moment, happily waving to her father and friend. Dorian smiled back almost automatically, but then he smiled more and watched her dart down the path, thinking how he had to protect his girls. Link waved back as well.

"Well, I am late and I must go to my post. Cado will be impatient." The man walked a few steps away, but then turned back to the hero. "You should talk to Impa. She will be glad to hear about this."

Link nodded and mumbled absently, "Yes…"

Dorian raised his hand in a salute of farewell, and sprinted toward the entrance to the elder's house. Meanwhile, the hero, whose original mission had been to speak to Impa, instead mounted the hill whence he'd just come. His thoughts whirled like a desert sandstorm and his heart throbbed as though it was immersed in Death Mountain's toastiest hot spring. He did not stop at the shrine, but continued to ascend the steep hill behind it. Only when he could climb no more did he stop, staring out at the hills and wetlands yet hardly seeing any of it.

Listening to that story had brought back so many memories, like a few intersecting pieces of the gigantic puzzle which was his past. He could remember Vrena as if she had kissed him goodbye just yesterday instead of a hundred years before. He also remembered, faintly, that she had found a husband who was one of the Sheikah restoring the guardians to working condition. A tear slipped from an eye as blue as the sky and he squeezed them shut. Such a bittersweet taste was on his tongue!

With a shudder he could clearly recall his time in the passageways beneath Hyrule Castle when he was at Duvile's mercy. He always had a powerful aversion to the underground areas whenever Princess Zelda had found some reason to go down there, but as her knight he followed her anyway. He had nearly been consumed by a similar fear upon wakening in the Shrine of Resurrection and had not understood it, attributing it to the urgency he felt in following the heavenly voice.

He could finally remember his parents as more than an indistinct faces for whom he reached out in his dreams. He could remember his mother's love and he realized that the skills in cooking and knowing horses she had taught him never left him even when he was without his memories. The grief over her passing had eased over the years, but now, remembering it so suddenly, brought some of that sorrow back to his heart. He looked up at the sky almost automatically, but no stars were out yet.

Though he had not completely understood his taciturn father at times, he knew that he was more like his father than he sometimes wanted to admit. He and Rankin had traveled together under the king's orders, visited places and friends both old and new, and grown closer as the tiny family they were. They also had opportunities to travel to the land which the king had given Link and were welcomed by the tenants. On one such visit Link had accepted a man-sized challenge when he had gone out to the fields to chase off an overgrown bear which had been terrorizing the livestock. His father had clapped him on the shoulder and been fit to actually brag about his son.

Link remained on that small peak for hours, surrounded by the fragrance of nightshade and silent princesses. When he grew hungry he took some of his supplies from his pouch and ate and drank while sitting on the solitary stump on that hill. Somehow he felt it was easier to think and remember things up there on his own, half afraid that he would forget something if he went back down amongst the voices of people and all the problems of the world. Wiping his fingers on the back of his trousers, he grabbed the Sheikah Slate and began to write, just in case he later forgot any of the details which were tiny but of the utmost importance to him.

A while later he glanced toward the sun as it lowered itself into the horizon with enough majesty and color to rival even the princess's power. His eyes then moved to the castle where the purple mists of the calamity swirled while she kept its master imprisoned. She was the reason he fought, struggled and would not let himself forget for one second what she was fighting against. After all, like a goddess with white robes and shining hair of gold, she had saved him in the dark pit of the castle. She was the reason he had followed her all across Hyrule and tried to dismiss the careless words she sometimes spoke. She was his light, the sun that shone on the dark void left in the absence of his memories.

Slipping the slate back onto its place on his belt, he stood, his eyes still on the castle. He thought he saw a glimmer of light amidst its towers and his heart leapt as if to join her there. He didn't know if he was strong enough, but even if it meant braving a dark, unknown underground place, he knew what he needed to do.

"…Hold on just a little longer, Princess. I'm coming!"

~ Fin ~