King Rhoam was late.
To Link, every passing minute felt like torture. He stood as tall as he could, tried not to fidget, and ignored the whispers.
The weight strapped to his back was a sore reminder, the target of darting glances, the object of hushed exchanges, as courtiers pretended not to be speaking of him, of it, of what it all meant, and of her.
For what felt like the hundredth time, he rolled his shoulder, trying to make the weight shift, trying to get used to it, to no avail. The strap was a perfect fit, and even the scabbard wasn't that heavy. It wasn't the sword that made him uncomfortable, really. It was everything that it represented. Everything that it entailed.
A summons from the king, for instance.
So here he stood, uncomfortable, the target of a hundred eyes, the topic of whispers and rumours, of gossip and speculation. He had no royal blood, no title of great significance, no lineage anyone could trace back more than a few generations. He looked common, in that way most squires did when they were still in training, and he was young, too young according to some, a whisper past his nineteenth birthday, a whisper past the accursed trial that had brought him all the way up here, now, to this very moment.
Had he known the trial would lead to this, he thought perhaps he would have refused. He wondered if the eternal mockery of his fellow soldiers would not have been better than this, the wonder, the horror, the stares.
But no. He had been insouciant, then. He had been a child. Perhaps that was why it was considered a coming of age trial.
A trial. Ridiculous. What manner of idiots thought up a tradition so bleeding dangerous, so bleeding fateful? It was so simple, too. So unassuming. One by one, all the squires had gathered around the pedestal in the Temple and taken turns at pulling on the hilt. It never budged, they said. It never even sparkled, or trembled. Hundreds of years it hadn't budged, and no one living could recall ever seeing the damned thing anywhere else but there, half buried in the damned pedestal in a dilapidated temple.
A coming of age trial, they said. You're old enough to pull on the hilt, now. If you don't, we'll know you're still a child.
Link clenched his jaw, staring sightlessly at the door to King Rhoam's study.
One by one, they had all failed, and when Link's turn had come, amidst laughter and ribbing, the damned thing had come out of its pedestal like a hot knife through butter, and the laughter had died.
And now he was here.
It wasn't fair.
Chosen by the Sword, they called it. Chosen! No part of his education had prepared him for this. His entire training was focused on one thing: fight, kill, and die if you must, like his father had done, somewhere in the fields of Tabantha, and his grandfather before that during the Battle of Crenel Hills, and his great-grandfather in some skirmish no one remembered. No one had taught him the prophecies. No one had taught him the meaning of the damned event. No one had told him that being chosen by the Master Sword heralded the doom of our time.
Three days of suddenly being taken under the tutelage of the terrifying Master Impa, of being told just how momentous this was, and hearing every possible rendition of the same speech: the prophecy foretold this. If the Master Sword chooses a champion, then that Champion will be needed. The great Calamity must be stopped, and the royal blood must prevail, or we are all doomed.
One of the castle soothsayers had spat on him, cursing him, as though it was his fault he was suddenly the trigger of a prophecy no one had ever warned him about. At least the other courtiers and nobles had the courtesy of merely glaring at him.
For a moment, he considered turning around, pulling out the sword, and telling them just what he thought. Yes, he'd say, this is the Sword. It chose me. I didn't choose it. I didn't know it would trigger a prophecy. It was an accident. It was a joke. They dared me to do it.
Instead, he clenched his jaw harder and stared fixedly at the wall, wishing he were anywhere but here.
Incidentally, that was when the door to King Rhoam's study creaked open. The courtiers scattered, like roaches.
"You may enter," the steward said, looking down his nose and staring right through Link, which was surprisingly refreshing.
Link nodded, suddenly aware that his movements were jerky, a consequence of his nerves.
The library was massive, one of the larger rooms in the castle, with vaulted ceilings and high windows. But it was to a small study that Link was guided, and he entered it to find the King already seated at his desk.
Automatic training kicked in, and Link fell to his knee, a scramble that made the sword on his back clang somewhat inside its scabbard.
King Rhoam turned to eye him, and the silence stretched on for a moment. Link wondered if he wasn't supposed to say something, and cursed his incomplete training, before suddenly the king's voice broke through his thoughts.
"You are Link, son of Raven, correct?"
"Just a boy," the king said, and Link wasn't sure whether he sounded mournful or not. Then, before he could reply: "You may rise."
Link pushed himself to his feet, trying to remember the proper posture for a private audience with a king.
But King Rhoam was not looking at him. He was looking at the Sword.
At length, the king said, his voice a deep rumble, "I imagine many have already told you how much of a bother that thing on your back has turned out to be."
Link swallowed. "Yes, your Grace."
"Have any of them explained why?"
Link couldn't meet the king's steady gaze. As unflinchingly as he could, he said, "It heralds the beginning of a prophecy."
"A prophecy, yes," King Rhoam said. "A prophecy of destruction and death, the likes of which have not been seen since the age of Twilight."
Link wasn't sure what to reply. An apology would have seemed trite, meaningless. It would not have encompassed the entirety of his feelings, either.
"I'm told someone spat on you yesterday," the king said. "If it comforts you at all, I have had that toothless mongrel removed from the Castle. What happened was not your fault. The fault lies with me."
"With you?" Link frowned. "Your Grace?"
But the king had stood. He walked over to a hanging painting ― a portrait of some distant ancestor or other― and apparently decided to change the subject entirely. "You have met my daughter, Zelda."
Link was fairly sure he expected a reply. "Yes, your Grace. During ceremonies and balls."
"Did you know she was born on Summertide? The one day of the year where children do not have the protection of a patron goddess?"
Link blinked, and the words came out before he could stop him: "But we celebrate her birthday on the following day― on Nayru's Day―"
"Yes, every woman of her line has ever been under the protection of the goddess Nayru," King Rhoam said. "The kingdom has never known a princess who was not under Nayru's protection. We waited. We said it was a close call. She might have been entirely godless, we said. But you have that sword, now, and it is time for you to hear the truth." King Rhoam turned to Link, his thick beard hiding the hard line of his lips. "My daughter is a godless child. She was born on Summertide, between Dinsfall and Nayru's Day, on the day that typically sees the birth of unlucky, cursed children."
Link blinked, uncertain of how to reply. It was a surprise, certainly, but he failed to see―
"This is especially unfortunate," King Rhoam continued, "because without the protection of a patron goddess, Zelda must now curry favour from not two, but three of the altars before it is too late."
Link didn't speak. He wasn't sure what to say, and he worried he still did not fully grasp the gravity of the situation.
"I had hoped," King Rhoam continued, "that the prophecy would not come to pass in her lifetime. Her mother's proficiency was but a shadow of Zelda's grandmother's, and that, too, was but a fragment of her great-grandmother's. When Zelda's mother died, the last remnant of knowledge vanished, leaving Zelda without much of a teacher. But I had hope." The king's eyes narrowed at the Master Sword. "I had hope that the Sword would remain immobile, as it had for centuries, and that my daughter might bear a luckier child, perhaps a true vessel for the goddess' power, and that the prophecy might wait yet another generation. I see now that was a mistake."
"I didn't mean―"
"You have done no harm," King Rhoam said, interrupting him. "As I said, it was not your fault. I should have pushed Zelda away from her scholarly pursuits and towards her true destiny sooner, more firmly. I doted on her, and I fear she is soft, now, too soft for what lies ahead."
It was on the tip of Link's tongue to argue against that notion. Princess Zelda had never struck him as a soft person. A gentle person, perhaps, and certainly a lady of noble descent, with the usual refined tastes and lofty interests, but never a soft person. She was intimidating to his fellow squires, and even her unusual beauty was terrifying. A boy might find himself liking a girl who looked like that.
"I fear I must now rely on you, my boy," King Rhoam continued. "Your appointment by the Master Sword means you will now be a part of castle life. You shall have free roam of the castle, within reason, and you will be expected to fulfill your duties as they arise. I trust Impa has already spoken to you of your role."
"Seal the darkness," Link said, gloomily. Or we are all doomed, he thought, remembering Sheikah Master Impa's insistent mantra. Then, catching himself, he stammered, "Your Grace."
"Indeed, but you must also work with the Champions. Every tribe in Hyrule has been designating a Champion since the discovery of the Divine Beasts. You've met the Champions, I believe?"
Link nodded. He had, though he could not claim great camaraderie with all four of them. But, at least: "Mipha of the Zora has ever been a frequent guest in the Castle, and we were playmates in childhood. And Daruk of the Gorons was a friend of my father's. He has been a friend to my family since."
The king nodded. "What of Revali, of the Rito?"
Link's expression soured. Revali was an arrogant prancing rooster whose skill with a bow only made Link's own tourney victories look decidedly bland.
King Rhoam noted his expression and chuckled. "I see. And I shall not ask of Urbosa, of the Gerudo. She only rarely visits, and when she does, she dotes more on my daughter than any other person I know. I doubt you have befriended her."
A squire in the barracks had described Urbosa as a gorgeous danger, and Link had been inclined to agree. Lovely to look at, impossible to approach. It was only fitting that she would spend what little time she had in the castle with the only other absurdly pretty woman to be found.
"You will now have to befriend them all," King Rhoam informed him. "The six of you will be working closely together to unmake this prophecy."
"Yes, you, the four Champions, and my daughter. It is clear now she must journey, and she will need protectors."
"I don't― I am a squire, your Grace, I don't have the skills of the Zora, or the strength of the Gorons, or the agility of the―"
"You were Chosen," King Rhoam said. "And henceforth you will trust that the Sword has chosen well. It must have, or we are all doomed." Eh, he'd stolen the words right from Impa's mouth. "I will hear no further protestations from you."
Link snapped his mouth shut, then managed a simple, "Yes, your Grace."
"What doubts you have in your mind, you will now eliminate. What fears and worries plague you, you must burn away. The kingdom must never know what horror we face, or the utter lack of preparation that ails us. There will be no weakness. Zelda will master the power that is her birthright, and all will be as it should be."
Or we are all doomed, Link completed mentally, a refrain he was becoming all too familiar with.
"I shall not presume to ask that you do this with any joy," King Rhoam said. "But know at least that what you achieve will not be forgotten."
Link found himself wishing it could be. The stares and whispers would be intolerable now.
"Do not speak of Zelda's birth to anyone," King Rhoam added. "And do not hope that she will thank you for pulling that sword. The Master Sword's choice means the true end of her childhood, and the beginning of a difficult journey for her."
Well. So much for bonding over shared burdens.
"I understand, your Grace."
"In time," the king said, turning back to his desk, "when her power finally manifests itself, I shall designate you as her appointed knight. Together, with the Champions, you will be a beacon of hope, a proof of strength. Now go, and train. The Master Sword's selection is a sign. We know now our doom is fast approaching. We shall not be unprepared."
Almost comforted, Link bowed, and turned to leave.
Yet, as he shut the door, he caught a final glimpse of King Rhoam, whose great stature was now bent in defeat, as the king ran a shaky hand over his tired face, and Link was almost certain he saw him mouth the words 'I'm sorry' to no one in particular.
Link's fledgling resolve crumbled to dust. He shut the door, and he schooled his expression into careful neutrality, clinging to what poor decorum he had managed to master.
He would have to find his own strength, then.
Otherwise, Master Impa, with her unsettling red eyes and scary lessons, was right. They were all doomed.