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Sophos, Sophia

Chapter Text

Fragment I: Breathe

Breathe.

In.

Out.

Again, but slower.

In.

And out.

In—

Feel the breath filling your lungs, catch the scent of the cool air, feel how good it is to breathe—

Out—

Feel the hot breath expanding, flowing out of you as the air leaves your body, feel the weight of it on your tongue. Let it go. Let everything go.

In—

Take in the strength you need; draw it from the air and the earth, from the birds and the trees and the stone and the sky—

Out—

Release every concern, every drifting, wayward thought, every distraction, everything that keeps you from that quiet place in the center of yourself.

In. Out. In. Out.

Slower and slower.

Let every drifting thought, every passing emotion do what it must. Watch it dissolve. Force nothing. Wait and see. Follow the rhythm.

Be.

For a long time I hold that stillness. Slowly my whirling thoughts subside. Slowly my fears fade away. My mind stills, its waters at last smooth. And in those calm reflections, like a lake on a windless day, I see myself. I breathe myself. I know myself. All of me, all the complicated parts, held gently in those waters.

When I open my eyes again, it’s with renewed purpose and understanding. There’s still a pounding in my chest, but it’s lessened now. I’m no longer so afraid. It’s time to look and to listen. To see what I have to do.

I’ve been in danger before. But never so clearly as this. Walls of energy surround me, hold me in place. I float in midair, my feet dangling above the cobbled stones. A crystalline prison, bright as a rose. I lift a hand, place a finger to a wall—and sure enough, what I touch feels like icy frost, colder than the coldest glacier, and there’s a surge of pain, so that I’m forced to pull back with a hastily muffled yelp. No one notices. Yet.

I don’t think I can act directly yet. I need to listen, to see more, to understand the situation I’m in. Watch and wait, I tell myself. That’s how I’ll get out of this cage. I’ll wait. Until the moment is right.

That I can do. I’m good at waiting.

If only everything wasn’t starting to feel so strange—

Never mind. I grow quiet again, listen to the creaks and faint rustles of the castle. Close my eyes. Focus on my breathing again. In. Out.

I will wait, and pay attention to the stillness. Find myself in the silence. Make my own center of motion. I know I can do this. This is how I survive. This is what has kept me alive all this time. This is how I will triumph again.

After all, this wait is nothing compared to the long road that led me here. Believe me. Seven years? They teach you about waiting.

And, not incidentally, about yourself.

Chapter Text

Fragment II: Stranger

Two years ago, a stranger came to town.

There’s a place, in the south of Hyrule. Out in the grasslands where the plain rolls on and on, hill after green hill rising up out of the earth, with golden wheat growing in fields alongside the road, though the wheat has been ragged of late, and some of the fields have become choked with weeds, next to houses faded and empty, and the rolling hills are no longer so green—out there, between the forests and the heartlands, there’s a little town.

One wouldn’t think much of it to look at it. It doesn’t show up on every map. It’s not the sort of place great heroes pass through. To my knowledge it’s never been hailed in any ballad or poem. But it’s a good place, a quiet place, along the road, near a small creek, where you might stop for the night and find food and rest, a place to water your horses or trade for some small, interesting bauble, a goddess-icon, perhaps, or a protective charm. These are the places where the grain of Hyrule is packed on carts and wagons to be brought north to the capital. This is the earth where we come from. I could name many such towns, but this one I know best of all, and the name of this town is Elon.

In midsummer, when the sun shone its fiercest and some fields managed to get their grain to grow tall, despite blights and exhausted soil and a land some now said was cursed, a young man came to Elon. His hair was shaggy and blonde, poking like straw from the wrappings around his head and face. His eyes were red, and his skin was smooth and dark. His clothes were patterned and foreign, and there was a strangeness to him which no one could quite name. There were many whispers about him in the fields and in the taverns, and some stories were told which were true, and some stories were told which were not at all true, and some stories told could be taken for the truth if viewed in a certain light.

But in due course word trickled over from neighboring towns, cousin by cousin, traveler by traveler. It was said the young man was a healer, a travelling medicine man who knew the secrets of different herbs, knew how to cure illness and set broken limbs right. It was said he was a Sheikah, one of that strange, funny tribe that used to hang about the royal family in days now long gone by. The people marveled at this. A Sheikah, here? Everyone said they were in hiding, holding onto whatever part of their culture they had left, trying to keep their heads down to avoid provoking the wrath of the new king. Not this Sheikah youth, apparently. They said he wandered from town to town, curing ills, telling fortunes, and sharing the last of his tribe’s knowledge with whoever had ears to listen. From the arch of his nose and the light of his eyes they guessed he might be handsome—though who could tell under all those wrappings, pressed around him like a burial shroud? They said he changed them regularly, to protect against contracting illness. They said he asked very little for his services, looking only for a bite to eat, and a place out of the rain to sleep. They said he knew all manner of secrets, and would reveal them to those who asked the right questions. He was quiet, though. Guarded. He almost never spoke of himself.

After some consideration, the townsfolk came to the conclusion that a man like that was a good person to have visiting one’s town. So they tried not to make trouble with the stranger, despite his strange looks and his foreign ways, and stayed out of the way to let him do his work. As in towns before, word grew of his presence and his skill, and more and more sought him out to prescribe an herb for their coughs, to patch up their wounds, or simply to have a look at their stars. So it was that three men with worried faces came to the house where the young man had been staying, where he had given an elderly matriarch salves for her old bones a few nights ago, and asked for him by name.

When he came down, one of the three spoke first, a small, balding man with broad, muscled shoulders and a thick black moustache. “Well, I’ll get straight to it,” he said, wiping his brow. “Leth, one of our workhands, had a bad fall this morning when Vonna, his mare, snapped her leg. He’s in a lot of pain, and the horse isn’t looking so good either. Now I don’t know if you know anything about animals, but we walked here from the ranch hoping you could do some good for them both.”

The young man nodded, as if to say he could.

A crease of worry came over the older man’s face. “You are the one I’ve heard about, right? You’re the one they call Sheik?”

“I am,” I said gently. Thoughts were already flying through my mind about the best way to help both horse and rider.

He looked relieved. “They say you’re a man we can trust, Sheik. Is that true?”

“It is,” I said.

I still didn’t know whether I was lying.

Chapter Text

Fragment III: Questions

It’s hard to say where all this started.

I’ve looked back at the start of my life, time and again, trying to read the secret of myself like the future in a fall of bones. But portents are easier to divine than the answers I’m looking for. I’m not sure there’s a point in searching anyway. There was a time when I thought I might turn back to a certain point in my life, like a page in an old book, and find written on its page a sentence that explained everything that followed. Foreshadowing for the twist in my tale. If I found that beginning, I thought, the rest would all make sense. But I searched in vain for that starting point. However I followed the trail, I could never find the moment where it entered the page.

Oh, there are things in my childhood I can point to and say—look! There! A hint of my future strangeness. But just as many things complicate the picture, and make me wonder—what if I’ve changed, instead? Did any of my yearnings mean then what they mean now? Were they only a child’s strange anxieties and fantasies? Or were they an insight, the key to the person I’d become? I truly don’t know.

Maybe it doesn’t matter as much as I once thought. It’s tempting to try to make everything fit into the story you most want to tell. But either way, I have to deal with the real, solid fact of myself, in this moment. Am I the same person I was back then? Only the gods could tell you. That’s as close as I have to an answer.

I remember there were many questions surrounding Sheik. Everywhere he went, they rose up like dust in his wake. I have just as many for him now. And the same number for a young woman named Zelda. Whoever she is. If indeed she really exists. The questions men and women and children wanted to ask of Sheik were such as these: who are you? Where do you come from? How do you know what you say you know? Are you really who you claim to be? Now, as for myself, I’ve known Sheik better than any of them. They thought he was a wise man, a sage, shrouded in his mysteries. I knew the truth. I knew he was just a kid: a young man as confused and full of uncertainty as any other adolescent, just trying to figure out how to help the world. Putting on a brave face, doing the best he could to make it through his strange circumstances. All the same I find my questions for him are pretty similar. I, too, would like to ask him: were you real, Sheik? Did you really exist?

And then I remember I’m talking to myself. And as always I try to find an answer good enough for the question.

Let me put it this way: for seven years a girl named Zelda disappeared from the world. She didn’t exist. And for seven years a young man named Sheik existed in her place. And now he’s vanished again like a dream on waking. The world dreamed him up, and I did, too. If you don’t like that story, here’s another version: both of them have existed all seventeen and a half years of my life, and for seven years, they walked hand in hand, side by side. Still not satisfied? Here’s a third: neither of them were ever any more than a story, a legend told on the wind. None of us are much more than fleeting shadows, after all. Ah, but if that’s the case, you’re talking with a ghost. I hope that doesn’t disquiet you. Certainly I would not think less of you for conversing with the dead. Come, let us all be ghosts here.

I’m dancing around the main point, of course, which is that as much as I tell myself the past doesn’t matter, my life’s still a story I want to tell. For myself, perhaps? For the world? For the gods? I’m not sure. I only know that as I tell it, to whoever’s listening, even if it’s only the echoes in my own head, it makes more sense. It takes on new colors, new dimensions, and my vision expands outward until I see my own tiny thread, my own tiny self, in the context of the world the gods made and everything in it. My story connects to so many others. Bit by bit, that helps me to be at peace with its strangeness. To see its importance. Call it mine.

How, then to approach the past, without losing myself in endless questions? A compromise: I’ll give you fragments. I’ll give you the loose pieces of myself, the moments that make a part of me, without declaring one part of the story, one figure, one face, more real than any other. At the end, we can decide what we want to leave and what we want to keep.

And maybe by then we’ll be able to get out of this cage, and figure out what comes next.

Chapter Text

Fragment IV: Story

My family has a lot of history. To put it mildly. So when I was a child and started being aware and alive and curious about the world the gods had dropped me into, it wasn’t long before I learned I was part of a long and venerable story. To put it another way: I didn’t have to wonder who I was, when I was a little child. Everyone told me the answer.

The story goes something like this:

Once upon a time, there was a girl who had a strange and wonderful destiny. For she was born and raised in the sky. She had a mother and father, just like you, and she loved to read stories, just like you, and she loved to make things with her hands, just like you, and she had friends and teachers and a little mole on the end of her nose, just like you, and there was magic inside of her, just like there is in you.

Sometime around this point I would laugh, and prod my tutor, and cry out, “Im-paaa! That can’t be true, you old silly. Nobody could live up in the sky!”

And my tutor would smile gently, and say, “It’s true, child. Ask your father and mother if you don’t believe me. Everyone lived up in the sky back then, in that strange time. Mothers and fathers and little girls and flowers and all sorts of creatures. They lived above the clouds, and grew wheat kissed by the sun, and flew around on great birds with feathers of red and blue.”

“But how did they live up there?” I would ask, puzzled. “Clouds are—they’re like big smoke puffs from a chimney, so there’d be no place for them to stand.”

She would nod wisely. “That is why the goddess brought land, ever so much land, from the earth below. She placed it in the sky like islands in the sea, so men and women would have a place to grow their wheat, and raise little girls, and build houses, and eat and sleep and live happily, when they weren’t flying from island to island in the sky.”

“It sounds nice,” I would say dreamily.

“Indeed.” She would lean close to me, like a conspirator, and say: “I have even heard that some people never left the sky, and are living there still, though their bodies have grown strange, more like little birds with little wings than people with arms and legs like you or I.”

A shiver would run through me to think of that strangeness, and I would let out an ooooo of excitement.

“But that is only an old traveler’s tale. There is much more to the story, little one,” she would remind me. “Don’t you want to hear more about that girl who was like you?”

I would nod, and sit cross-legged before her, and try hard to show that I was listening carefully.

A great goddess had taken the people of the world and placed them up in the sky, to keep them safe from the monsters that lurked below. And those people had become mothers and fathers and in due time the girl had been born. And from her house in the sky, she would look out, and feel the breeze blowing past her, and she would imagine all the things that could exist out in the sky, but then imagine what might be down on the hidden earth. A land said to be far below, much like her sky-land, but vast, and fixed in place. She had never seen such a land before. But her heart told her the stories of it were so. So she would look out over the clouds, and wonder what kind of life she was going to live. She knew she would live a life in the sky, like her father and mother and all her friends. But she so much wanted to know what it would be like to live down on the earth where they had come from.

One day, she had the chance to find out. As she flew through the sky with a friend, a great storm blew up, and the girl was dragged down to the earth. As she was walking through the first forest she had ever seen, she came across a wise woman.

“That was you!” I would shout, giggling.

Her smile was warm. “My ancestor, child. But yes. The same name and the same task, to protect the girl she found.”

And this wise woman taught the girl how to look within herself and find the truth. And the truth this girl discovered was that she was the great goddess herself, born into human form. She had divinity within her like a flame in her heart, and that was her great destiny. For when the goddess was revealed in human form, it was the sign that the people of the sky were to come back down to the earth, and build a new world.

So that is just what they did. Her friend, who had been looking for her, came down from the sky, too, and as it turned out, he had the spirit of a great hero within him. He slew the monsters that plagued the land and made it safe for all the people to return. And so the two led their people down from the sky and taught them to plant earthly crops and build houses and walls and great castles. Together, the two of them founded a great kingdom, and they were your ancestors. For all the children of the goddess Hylia were called Hylians, and their kingdom the great nation of Hy-rule. And ever since, the bloodline of that boy and that girl has carried the spirit of the goddess. She is the presence that keeps our kingdom prosperous and safe. And that girl, whose name, like yours, was Zelda, is the source of all the magic inside of you.

And I would shiver and imagine the magic tingling inside of me—

And ever since, all the girls of your family have been named Zelda in her honor, so that we always remember that the spirit of the goddess lives inside the Hylians, giving the land of Hyrule its strength, and that the royal family, like the goddess, must watch over the land just as the goddess did.

Then Impa would press my nose gently, sweetly. “For she lives in you, my darling girl.”

You see? It wasn’t difficult, growing up with a story like that, to think I knew exactly who I was.

Think of it, all those Zeldas, passing on the sacred blood, girl after girl continuing the line, one two three four five six seven, a great trail of mothers and daughters and mothers again extending all the way up into the heavens. Can’t you just see them there, in their violet gowns, hand in hand, stretching out to the horizon? I know I could, growing up. And always the same old story, over and over. Always a maiden who was sacred. Who was everything. And always a hero, a gallant lad who came by just in the right moment to save her.

Like I said, I didn’t really believe the story when I first heard it, especially the part about living up in the sky, but when I finally tracked down my mother and father to ask them about it, to my surprise they seemed to think it was all true. So did everyone else I asked, including the hoary old priests who ran the worship at the palace shrines. Which clinched it. If they said it was true, it was true. As I grew older, I learned it was mostly true—it seemed we did come down out of the sky, with all sorts of other creatures besides, but the details were very fuzzy, and varied greatly with the telling. But there were parts everyone agreed upon: there was always a land in the sky, a girl who was a goddess, and a boy who saved her from the monsters below. Once upon a time a maiden was rescued. No story’s so ancient or inescapable as that old, old tale.

I suppose my story might look like a version of that one, when viewed from a certain angle. It’s not a thought I particularly relish.

Even as a kid it struck me there was something odd about the story. It didn’t fully make sense. With its mythic grandeur it felt like a gown too big for anyone to wear, least of all me. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with my father’s fluffy beard, my mother’s soft silks, Impa’s sharp gaze and gentle touch. Most of all, the tale didn’t tell you what to do. It just said: you, daughter of Hylia, are the goddess; you are the land. Your destiny is to exist. Just sit on your throne and look like you belong there. Now, a king like my father might have an escape. A king can go off conquering things, establishing taxes and all that—that’s considered part of his job. But what’s left for a princess? For any one of that long string of Zeldas? Maidens in storybooks like the ones I used to read always seem to sit in towers, waiting for rescue. What do they do up there? Do they sit, do they read, do they play card games, do they organize their letters, do they translate dead philosophers, do they throw messages out the window? Do they make marks on the walls? Do they make carvings in stone? Do they chip away at the cobbles? Do they claw at the walls until their nails are ragged and their fingers bleed?

Nobody ever told me.

So, I think from an early point I’d decided, even if I was a Zelda, I wasn’t going to try very hard to be a maiden or a princess, because I already knew I wasn’t going to be very good at either.

I’m not really being fair, and I know it. It’s not as if our household lacked respect for women. There were a few women among the royal guards, warriors we all called noble and brave, women in the soldiery, in scattered regiments of their own here and there. Women in the temples, everywhere, singing their hymns to a trinity of creator goddesses. There was Impa, of course, my tutor, who was strong, athletic, wise, and certainly no shrinking maid. And the Impa of the tales, a warrior who protected the royal family. Even in the old legends, there were women who took action, women who fought, resolute and brave. There was another story.

But that wasn’t the story, it seemed, that had been written for me.

There’s only so much you can do to change the fate of a princess. Someone whose blood is her very being, the reason she’s anywhere near a throne. Her job is to pull the thread of history through her womb, no matter what it takes. So her task is to be beautiful, regarded, holy—to marry well, bear a new goddess through her daughters, and be an image her country can behold itself in. She is a statue in the center of a palace, the fixed pin holding a country together.

I didn’t really like that fate.

I remember watching the young men training to be soldiers, out in the castle courtyards, from a window high above. Not with desire, but with curiosity and a strange wistful yearning. They moved together in slow, deliberate motions, marching across the gardens, step by step, sweeping their swords over the topiaries. They were magnificent in their armor, their crested helmets, their strong frames. Some of them were only gangly young men trying to step in unison for the first time. But they were still handsome, admirable, strong. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to have that strange, casual grace that comes from action, action taken oblivious to artistry. I wanted that strength and that deliberation. I wanted to know what it was like being them. Not being looked upon all the time, but being the one doing the looking. To know what it was like to be ordinary, shapeless, as simple and as familiar as stone.

One day I slashed off most of my hair with a little knife I had found in a palace room. Weaver-women, I think, had used it for cutting cloth. I stood in my bedroom and let red-gold curls fall to the ground, where they made a mess on the patterned rug. Seeing the mass of them sitting there was very satisfying to me. Before that my hair had been very long, long like my mother’s, never trimmed, never cut. I can’t say exactly why I did it. So many things had always surrounded me—expectations, stories, jewelry, long, draping dresses that made me trip and weighed down my knees. My hair was just one more. I took the knife in my hand feeling that at least one thing wouldn’t be clinging to me, weighing on me anymore. And you know, when I shook my head loose of the curls, I felt amazing. Like I could do anything. I was so light and so free.

Quite a few people were very angry with me. My parents were shocked that I could have done such a thing without consulting them; priests shook their hoods, servants clucked their tongues as they ran their hands over my ragged, patchy locks. I tried to act like I was sorry, but in truth I was still surging with the feeling I’d woken in myself. I couldn’t regret that feeling for a moment.

Fortunately for all who mourned the ruined looks of their beloved princess, they found a solution without too much delay. The weaver-women made cloths for me in the same colors as my gowns, white and fuchsia, violet, blue, and these joined my other garments as part of my ordinary wear. Each day, a cloth was tied around my head and fixed with a holy emblem as a clasp. The fringed back hung down like the hair I had lost. I didn’t know how to feel about it. Sometimes I frowned at the cloth as another rude fabric weighing me down. But sometimes I looked in the great mirror and liked seeing it instead of my hair, thinking, I did this. I made this happen. I felt like I’d won something. Though what I’d won, or who I’d won it from, I couldn’t have said for all the world.

Maybe I’ve always wanted to be able to shed my skin. Shapeshifters haunted me as a child. Impa’s little fable about our bird-formed cousins in the sky lingered in my mind a long time. I wasn’t sure if it was fear or curiosity that drew me so powerfully. Nights after I first heard the tale, I would lie awake at night and imagine waking up one day to find my hands transformed into wings, and I would shiver, and pull the covers tighter over my shoulders. In the morning I’d still be wondering what it would be like to turn from a girl to a bird.

Storybook tales encouraged my thoughts in this direction. It’s always the little fairy-stories that suggest the strangest possibilities. In the thick, hide-bound book of stories I kept up in my bedroom, given to me when I was seven, one story told of a brave man who was turned into a heroic wolf. Another told of a boy who lived underground for a month with a family of rabbits, turned into a fuzzy little bundle of fur. There was of course the story of the prince who became a frog and needed to be restored to his kingdom by a loving kiss. But the most arresting of all had to be the tale of a boy named Tir. The story told that Tir had never known his parents, and had been raised by an evil witch. After meeting strange friends and having wonderful adventures, Tir learned that the missing princess the kingdom had been looking for was none other than himself. The witch had transformed an infant girl into a boy’s shape. Breaking the curse, Tir, rechristened Princess Arafea, became a beautiful young woman and ruled the kingdom wisely and well.

I stared down at the pages, reading the lines over and over again. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the woodcut that showed Tir-Arafea breaking the magic amulet and becoming a girl. On the left, Tir in his dirty peasant’s rags, grasping the amulet in both hands; on the right, Arafea stepping forth amongst the shattered pieces, radiant in a shining gown, jeweled tiara and scepter marking her as every inch a princess. And in the center? Amidst a swirl of dust and light, someone in between, clothes flowing and changing shape, hair surging down from their head, eyes cast to the skies in a rapturous expression, amulet slipping from their hands, an emerald with jagged cracks running all through its surface captured in the very moment it hit the ground.

I stared and stared at that page, ran my fingers over the ink, trying to reach out and touch Tir or his maidenly double. What had she, Arafea, felt, what had Tir experienced? What was it like? I tried to imagine what it would be like to feel my whole body shimmer and change like the light through my bedroom window. I wondered what my world would be like if I woke up one day and everyone treated me as a boy. Called me son, encouraged me to fight, ruffled my short untidy hair. What if I was turned into a different person? What if it lasted forever? Gods. The thought was too big to think. It dazzled me, set explosions off inside my pounding chest. I trembled and nearly flung the book from my hands. But I couldn’t close it. I peeked again from between nervous fingers at the page. There he was. There she was. I didn’t know if I was scared or excited, but I felt sure I was witnessing something I wasn’t meant to see. And yet, oh, how I wanted to see it, again and again. The question burning in my mind now was:

If something like that could happen to Tir, why couldn’t it happen to me?

Chapter Text

Fragment V: Song

The stranger who had come to Elon followed the farmer, listening all the while. The young man’s strides were purposeful, deliberate. As the older man told him all about Leth’s fall, waving his hands about with some agitation, the newcomer cocked his head to one side, paying close attention. Though most of his face was shrouded in cloth, his eyes, unblinking, never left the farmer’s animated face.

I listened carefully to the farmer’s account of Leth’s pains and complications. I was certain I had most of the herbs I would need in my satchel—would heartroot or rosa berry be better? The first one, probably, since I planned to combine it with bluestem to dull the pain. A better and safer mixture. I had salves ready to go, and I was never without bandages and bindings. Rosa berry would probably be ideal for the mare instead, ground up into a paste. Other ingredients I lacked, but I suspected I could easily get them. The prairies and scrublands were surprisingly generous to the herbalist, if one knew where to look. Shrubs and roots everywhere that no one ever crouched down to see. A large part of nature’s kingdom went totally ignored by the untrained eye. A shame, really.

I followed the three men up out of town and back to their homestead. It wasn’t a long trip—I’d walked farther just to get to town—but we were all glad when we saw the red fences and sturdy wooden buildings come into view at the crest of the hill. The oldest man, the one who had summoned me, seemed to take comfort in my presence. My steady strides and patient nods seemed to calm him, and he relaxed into a friendly earnestness as we drew near. He seemed a kind fellow, with a round, pinkish face and not much hair on his head. He was not a tall or handsome man, short and with a protruding belly, but the hairy arms that stuck out from his reddish tunic were strong and well-muscled. He wore a thin bolo tie, held together with a strange clasp that showed a snarling monster’s face. Something to ward away evil, like the sign of the evil eye? I wasn’t sure. Beneath his thick, fluffy black moustache, which merged seamlessly with his equally bushy sideburns, a warm smile twitched. I could tell the hike tired him, but he shook his head when I offered him assistance. Panting and wheezing, he nonetheless made his way up the hill with self-assurance. I held back, respecting his pride.

 As we rose up above the valley, the whole farm came into view. It was a lovely scene. Up here, the land reached out into beautiful highlands, over which cattle and horses roamed and grazed, a long stretch of green out to the distant mountains. Nestled in a rocky outcropping at the top of the hill were a number of wooden buildings, some of them quite charming, painted in red and white with large, friendly windows. I spotted what I thought was the main farmhouse, with a broad, welcoming door and steeply sloping red roof. Other buildings appeared to be workers’ houses, stables—and places whose purpose I could not guess at. As we reached the top of the hill, I glanced back over my shoulder and marveled at the view. Down below, I could see the little shops and houses of Elon in the valley, from this distance looking like a child’s toys. I could the little shapes of people small as insects moving through the threadlike streets. Smoke drifted up from the chimneys in lazy spirals as the four of us watched.

The older man nodded with some satisfaction. “Sure enough, that’s our town. Not much, but it’s ours.” He turned his gaze to survey the farm. “And this here’s the part that’s specially mine. Not that I run it by myself—” he winked at the workers beside him— “but it’s family land. My father left it to me, and his father left it to him. And I don’t do nearly as well with it as they did, but I do what I can. It’s a nice place to call home, I’d say. Don’t you think so, sir?”

I nodded, looking out over the lowing cattle with their black-and-white spots, at the horses grazing far off on the plain. “It is indeed lovely. Quite beautiful.”

He grinned. “Glad to hear it. Now, you’ll be wanting to see the patients, I imagine.”

“Certainly.”

“Well, then, let’s not stand around, huh? Come on.” He motioned, and we followed him to the farm buildings nestled in the rocky enclave.  When we drew near the door of the largest, he stopped and looked at me strangely. “Tell you what…Rem, Valo, why don’t you go get Leth ready and let him know the medicine man’s arrived. I want to talk to our guest a bit.” The two younger men nodded and dashed off.

He stared at me a while. “You’re awful willing to help some folks you’ve never met before.”

I bowed my head slightly. “I try to do what I can to help. I apologize if I’ve intruded.”

“No, no, it’s just—” He trailed off distractedly. “These are suspicious times, Sheik.”

How well I knew it. “They are, sir,” I said. “I wish they were better. I hope the time will soon come when neighbor will not have so much cause to fear neighbor.” We both knew the circumstances I was talking about. Everyone knew.

He gestured vaguely. “They say that you don’t ask for damn near anything in payment for the healing you do. Is that really true?”

“That’s right, sir. Just a room where I may sleep and have some privacy, and enough to eat while I’m here.”

He shook his head in bafflement. “The King’s healers charge bags of gold, and they come when you’re damn near on death’s door. The local medics aren’t much better. But, you, you work for bread?”

“Yes,” I said carefully. “As you say, these are trying and frightening times. I have knowledge and skill. I know potions and salves and certain healing magic. I know something about the worship of the gods, in my own way, and I can teach it. I—I only wish to do what I can to help. I would like to help anyone I can.”

He smiled sadly. “Then you’re a better man than most, sir. You’ll eat well around here if you can do something for Leth.” He started forward, then hesitated again. “You said you needed a private room?”

I bowed my head. “Yes. Forgive me, but some of the rituals of my people must be done in seclusion. I hope you understand.”

“Hell, you don’t have to tell me the religious side of it,” he said cheerfully. “Every man deserves a little privacy, good gods, there’s no reason anyone should be seen without a loincloth on. There are a few little shacks that’re standing empty now, with a good padlock on. They used to be where the seasonal help stayed on in the summer. Back when we actually had some. Now we just use ‘em for storage. But I can clear out the boxes and tables and set up some bedding for you. I reckon that’d suit your purposes?

“That sounds ideal,” I said, grateful. “Thank you.”

“Sure,” he said distractedly. “Now there’s one other thing I wanted to mention. I—that is—” He frowned and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Oh hell, I don’t know how to say it. Well, I’ll say it like this. I can’t help but notice you’re a young man, Sheik. Younger than I thought you’d be by far.”

“That’s right, sir. Will that be a problem?”

“Well, in some ways, it’s good, on account of it makes you much less likely to be in close with the King’s forces. They all got into power when you were just a boy, I imagine. But there are other things that worry me about a young man such as yourself. Young men—well, they often have certain things on their mind. They say you’re a reliable sort, Sheik, but I want to see where we stand.”

He looked quite uncomfortable. “It’s like this. I have this daughter, you see. Pride of my life, heart of my heart, sweet as any girl can be. Now, I’m not like some, Sheik. I don’t mean at all to say I don’t trust her to make her own decisions. She runs half this place and she does it better than I do. She’ll never let me forget all the times I’ve fallen asleep on the job.” He smiled softly. “Just like her mother that way. Anyway, I just want to do right by her, Sheik, and I want to make one thing clear: I don’t want you or anyone taking advantage of her, y’hear? She might be sweet on you, and if she is, that’s your and her business, to be sure. But I’m expecting you to be a man of honor, just like they say you are. I’m trusting you not to do anything a man of honor wouldn’t do. I’ve known a lot of men, and I’ve found a lot of them to be cruel bastards, and I don’t want to bring that horseshit anywhere near her. Here’s my oath: If you hurt her in any way, I’m throwing you out on your ass that very day, you understand? And depending on the offense, I might take further steps. But I’m not expecting that to happen, understand. I reckon a man like you is wise enough to know where he stands. But I want to make sure we understand each other. You follow me?”

“Absolutely,” I said, bowing slightly. “Thank you for telling me this. My people do not easily forgive that kind of cruelty, either. I—I do all I can to act with integrity. I am here to help and to heal. Some think me wise. I do not know if I am, but I swear to hold to my purpose.”

His gaze softened. “That’s right as rain, then. Come along, and I’ll show you your patients so you can get to work.”

It wasn’t difficult. I was led to one of the smaller dwellings, where, amidst hastily-gathered blankets, a young man lay groaning in pain. His leg was propped up on several pillows, and the pain showed clearly on his face. My host quickly stepped out and let me work.  I inspected Leth’s injuries, and was not much surprised at what I found. I’d dealt with broken arms and legs dozens of times before. I was grateful his fall had not been worse. If he had broken his spine or his neck, the task ahead of me would have been much more difficult. I’d seen bodies twisted beyond repair before, seen soldiers with punctured lungs or shattered skulls. Those were the worst cases. Sometimes all I could do was mend some tiny part, to restore some bit of mobility that had been lost. Sometimes I could only prolong life, not preserve it. Those were my greatest disappointments. But those I helped had been grateful all the same.

No such trouble with Leth. First I gave him something to dull the pain. Then I attended to the broken leg, knew it to have splintered badly. I looked for open breaks in the skin, found none, then assessed the extent of his movement and his feeling. Carefully, I put together an image of the broken bones. I let the tips of my fingers rest gently upon the place of injury. I closed my eyes and began to heal.

I have always been taught to think of magic as a kind of prayer. This is truest with healing magic, I think. Rarely is there so clearly a sense of something so profoundly good flowing into you and through you. The source of magic is a much-debated topic, but most, myself included, think it comes from the gods. I closed my eyes and thought of the Goddess of Life. I concentrated until I could see her, clothed in green, crowned with leaves, ivy trailing through her hair, animals and insects at her side. I felt her energy flow into me. Soon I could feel the vitality flowing through Leth’s body. I sensed the shape of the fractured pieces and confirmed my suspicions. I held them gently in my mind. Next I thought of the Goddess of Water. Of Movement and Space and Flow. I let her rhythm guide my hand. Slowly, carefully, I brought the broken bones back to their proper place. For a moment Leth cried out, but I grasped his hand and soothed him. After the deed was done, his face relaxed, and he breathed more easily. Finally, I returned to the image of the goddess of Life, and I let her energy pour through me into the broken bones. I willed them to awaken, to surge with the vitality that had let them grow so that they might join together as one again. I felt their threads slowly slipping back into place.

When it was done, I bound up his leg with a sturdy brace. Then I prescribed to him herbs that would accelerate the healing process. I wrote down notes on a slate as to their proper use. Finally, as I had throughout the whole process, I helped him to breathe. I showed him how to breathe slowly, deeply. I let him listen to the sound of my breath and feel the rhythm flowing through me. Soon we were breathing together. Before long, his breathing was quiet and steady. Soon his eyes closed, his shoulders relaxed, and he was fast asleep.

Just as I’d been taught, and just as I’d done many times before. I slipped away to the sound of his heavy snores.

The horse proved trickier. I hadn’t much experience with horses, though I’d attended to animals before. I knew something of their anatomy, but not the specifics of treatment. I knew the herbs well enough, at least. Some of my cures, like ashleaf, would poison a horse where they would heal a person. But rosa berry would be a decent anesthetic. Several farmhands led me to the animal, where two more were trying to keep her still. She was lying down, kicking at the air with one of her good legs while shuddering and moaning every time she tried to move the broken one. She attempted to thrash about, but her head fell limply onto the hay every time she tried to lift it. I met her eyes. Her gaze seemed empty, her eyes drained of all their strength.

With some help from the farmhands, I managed to administer my potion, and the mare’s gaze sharpened. But her thrashing didn’t cease. I struggled to find any way of examining the extent of her injuries, let alone holding her still enough to work to heal them. She refused to lie quietly. I had to admit, I was running out of ideas.

“Well, you’re not going to accomplish anything that way!”

The voice came from a dark outline in front of the sunlight streaming through the stable doors. I squinted through the dust and gloom. The figure stepped forward. It was a girl.

She looked to be about my age, a little shorter than I was, with a broad, round face, and a wry smile playing on her lips. Red hair, which was interesting. You didn’t see that too often out here in the heartlands. It didn’t take me more than a moment to figure out who she was. She didn’t look much like her father at first glance, but if one looked closely, there was something in the arch of her brow and the shape of her nose that brought him to mind. She was wearing a white blouse, somewhat dirty and worn, and a floor-length pink skirt with a tan patterned cloth draped over it—some kind of apron, perhaps. The yellow handkerchief around her neck was fastened with the very same monster-face clasp her father had worn. She had large, bright eyes, and a gentle amusement played around her faint smile.

She marched through the stables with all the confidence of someone who owned the place. “Vonna panics easily, and she doesn’t like meeting new people much. She has to get to know you. Mostly she spends her time with me and Leth. Honestly, Dad should have told you what you were getting into with her.”

“We’ll figure this out,” I said hastily. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.” Actually I wasn’t.

She snorted. “They say you’re a pretty good doctor, Mr. Healer, and it sounds like you patched Leth up real good, but I don’t think you know much about animals.”

“I know—something of their biology—” I insisted, struggling as Vonna thrashed about again.

She shook her head. “That’s not the same thing as calming them. Here, let me do it.”

The girl rushed over to the thrashing horse before I even had time to warn her against getting in the path of those flailing hooves. In a flash she was safely out of the way, kneeling by the mare’s face. She placed her hand on the horse’s face and made soft, cooing noises. “There, there, Vonna, love, it’s going to be okay. I’m sorry you got hurt. It’s going to be okay.” The mare snorted and looked up at her uneasily. But her thrashing stopped.

I made a move towards the injured leg. The girl held up a hand sharply. “Not yet. She’s just stopped. She isn’t calm yet.”

“What do you suggest?” I asked, impressed.

Without a moment’s hesitation, she had an answer. “What you have to know about our fillies is that they relax, most of them, when they hear some music. Vonna here likes it when I sing to her. Leth sings, too, but his carrying a tune isn’t so good.” She fixed me with a steely eye. “Can you sing, Mr. Healer?”

“Certainly,” I said proudly.

She grinned. “Well, I’ll start, and if you want to join in, you can do that.” She closed her eyes, lifted her head, and sang to the rafters.

“Erito, my true love, stay here with me,
Though the horizon is calling, oh calls for thee
Erito, my true love, wait out this war,

Lest thy blood be spilt on some distant shore.”

The girl sang high and strong. Her voice was untrained, perhaps, and occasionally shaky. But the sound was round and sweet, and she had the confidence to let her song fly forth, loud and clear, without hesitation.

“The corn, it grows high in the meadow, my love,
And the bluebird flies high in the sky.
Won’t you stay here in the sunlight, my love,
So our two hearts need ne’er say goodbye?”

I knew this song. I’d heard it in taverns all around this part of the country. Homes, too, here and there, with chords played on harpsichord or pianoforte.  It was a lovely melody that I’d seen stir the memories of more than one listener. I thought it had been written back in the old war. She sang it differently than I’d heard before, though. Faster, just a bit, with more of a swinging lilt to it, like the sound of marching feet. A ballad, not a sleepy elegy.

I knew the next part, too, where the character changed from the girl pleading with her lover to stay to the young soldier going off to war. I lifted my voice and joined in as the next verse came around.

“Avia, my true love, wait here for me,
For the horizon is calling, still calls for me,
Avia, my true love, I’m needed in war,
Lest our land be conquered by some distant shore.

The girl gave me a small nod, pleased to hear me singing with her, and the two of us let our voices ring out together.

“The armies are gath’ring for battle, my love,
And our blessed king’s banner does fly.
I must give my strength to my country, my love,
That tomorrow, no good souls must die.”

She paused. A little longer than a breath. I stopped, too. She closed her eyes as if to steady herself before returning to the song. Now she was singing it much more slowly. The horse, Vonna, watched her, unblinking, her eyes wide. I wondered—was the girl trying to turn the ballad into a lullaby, so as to lull the mare to sleep? Or was she adopting a different tone for the somber verse that came next? Either way, I slowed down, too, to match her pace.

“Erito, my true love, where have you gone?
The fields, they stand barren, and the war, how it stretches on.
Erito, my true love, come back to me,
Lest thy sweet smile I never again see.”

We were singing very softly now. The horse let her head droop back down to the floor, and her eyelids flickered. The workhands around us were watching carefully. One of them had closed his eyes to listen.

“Our house, it stands empty without you, my love,
And the bright birds no longer do soar.
I think of you wounded and bleeding, my love,
And pray you’ll come home from this war.”

The mare’s eyes were closed now, too. I could hear her heavy breathing, see the rising and falling of her chest as we sang. The girl was breathing heavily as well, pouring herself into every note. As we neared the last few triumphant verses, I saw her hesitate. A strange look crossed her face and she bit her lip. Finally, with a toss of her head, she shook off the black mood and took up the song again. Though she kept her voice quiet so as not to wake the mare, a renewed vitality came into the song, and she picked up the pace again. As the two of us sang of homecoming, a smile crept over her face.

“Avia, my true love, I’ve come back to you.
Though my body is broken, my heart, oh, my heart is true.
Avia, my true love, I’m here in your arms,
If you’ll love me though broken, I’ll stay my life long.”

The room seemed to glow as we sang. The sun cast dusty streams of light through the windows, and the scene seemed a tableaux: the resting mare, the two of us singing on either side of her, and the workmen, listening, gathered all around us.

“The king says a new day is dawning, my love,
And the foe’s flags no longer will fly.
The queen says peace comes, war’s over, my love,
No longer will good, brave men die.”

We were surging through the song together as one, singing out the lovers’ joy. We reached the final verse, and together we sang the verse of their happy, lasting reunion:

“Erito, my true love, of course I’ll have you.
Our days here are blessed, now you’re here and war is through.
Avia, my true love, I’ll ne’er leave again.
The life that we’ll build here is our happy end.”

The two of us were grinning at each other now, catching each other’s gaze as we sang. We both knew there was only one way to end a song like this.

“So as it’s sung—” the girl sang, letting her voice carry the last note on and on—

“Let—it—be!” I added, joining my voice to hers in harmony. Our voices rang out for a moment, a perfect chord.  And then, there we were, looking at each other and grinning in the dark of the stables.

The mare between us had fallen fast asleep.

The girl met my gaze and nodded. “Okay, Mr. Healer. Now you can get to work.”

It didn’t take long. The girl watched, amazed, as I went through my usual procedure, closing my eyes and meditating on the healing goddesses. Every time something shifted in the horse’s leg, her eyes grew wide. She kept shaking her head and saying things like, “I never thought I’d see that.” Finally, it was done, the mare still sleeping peacefully. I explained the herbs she would need and the procedure for recovery. The girl nodded slowly, listening carefully. We talked a while of how to fit my nutrient supplements into the horse’s diet, and where in this region such herbs could be found. Finally I was satisfied I’d given the girl and the stablehands all they needed to know. The workers slowly dispersed, some of them to watch over the slumbering mare, some of them to tend to other horses, other tasks. The girl and I strolled outside, still talking.

It was getting late by this point. The sun was descending through a red sky, slipping away into the cracks between the distant mountains, a glint of gold eclipsed by shadowed stone. A handful of peach-stained clouds drifted above. All around us, the fields and corrals glowed, and the farm buildings cast long, dark shadows behind us. The young woman beside me grinned, as if she had flooded the world with scarlet. Our clothes, our faces, and everything around us were lit up with the same fire as her hair.

“I didn’t think that you would know that song,” she said after a moment. “It’s not really a song they sang in the capital. Or in Sheikah lands.”

I smiled. “I’ve learned much in my travels. It’s a popular song here in the heartlands, from what I can tell. I’ve heard it sung again and again in the towns and taverns near here.”

She nodded. “That’s as it should be. It’s a good song. It’s important.”

“Erito and Avia…” I ventured. “They were a famous couple in an old legend, weren’t they? From the time of the heroes and tales.”

“That’s right,” she said. She winked. “But that’s not when the song was written.”

“No, I thought as much,” I said quickly. “It was written during the Great War, wasn’t it? Not this Interregnum, but the war that ended just after we were born. You know what I mean.”

“Ooh, good guess,” she said. “You got it. That’s who the older men and women in the bars are singing it to. To those they’ve lost. People who died when I was really, really, small.”

I remembered a white-haired old man, with tears streaming down his face, raising a glass. “Yes. You’re right. It’s an important song.”

“But—” She thrust a playful finger in my direction. “I bet there’s something about this song you don’t know.”

“Oh?”

She grinned fiercely. “What you don’t know…is that the song was written right here. Right here in this very town. Isn’t that something?”

“It is,” I said. “Do you know who it was written by?”

She laughed. “That’s a story for another time. Stick around and maybe you’ll hear about it.”

I smiled. “Very well. I’ll try to be patient.”

She looked thoughtful. “Will you be staying around, Mr. Healer?”

I studied the cattle lowing in the distance. “I usually stay a little while. And I’d like to tend to Leth and Vonna as they recover.”

“Then I can’t keep calling you Mr. Healer anymore, can I?” she said, laughing. “What is your name? I can’t believe I’ve been talking to you all this time and didn’t think to ask it.”

“Your father didn’t tell you?” I said, surprised. “They’ve spoken of me a great deal around town.”

She shook her head. “I just heard there was a wandering Sheikah healer in town. And Dad said, ‘Welp, I’m gonna go track him down and see what he can do.’ “

I nodded. “Well, in that case, I should introduce myself. I am called Sheik.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Sheik the Sheikah? Kind of a funny name, isn’t it?”

I had to laugh. “It is a very respected name, closely tied to the identity of our people. So I am happy to bear it. It is…difficult to translate perfectly. But it means protector. Or, said a different way, the one protected.

She spread her arms wide. “Well, thank you for protecting our farm, Mr. Protector!”

I laughed again. “Just Sheik is fine.”

“I figured.” She looked me over. “You’re pretty young for a healer, aren’t you? I was kind of expecting an old man.”

I blushed. “I have some knowledge, at least. I try to do the best I can—”

She waved a hand. “I’m just teasing, silly. I like you better than some stuffy old sage, anyway.”

“Thank you,” I said. I hesitated a moment, then said: “I’m glad to hear that. I’ve—I’ve very much enjoyed this conversation with you.”

“Aww, thanks.” she said. “Well, don’t tell anyone I got all sappy about it, but me, too.” She beamed.

I looked over the darkening buildings. “I should go see about my lodgings, I suppose.”

A gleam came into her eye. “Hey, would you like to come up to the house for dinner? Me and Dad always eat together. It’ll be the three of us. It’ll be nice.”

I hesitated. “I wouldn’t want to intrude—”

She laughed. “We’re feeding you anyway! Come on, we’re not going to make you go eat in the shack. That wouldn’t be very neighborly of us, would it? Anyway, I bet you’d have stories to tell.”

I nodded slowly, thinking: What could be the harm?  “Well, if it’s all right with your father.”

“Oh, he’ll say yes in a heartbeat,” she informed me. “He likes you, I can tell.” She took my hand and grasped it tightly. “Come on! I should check up on the old fart anyway and see if he’s napping again. Either way, we’ll get dinner going.”

“Wait a moment—” I said quickly.

“What is it?”

“I—” I swallowed. “What’s your name? You never told me.”

She laughed. “Oh, I’m silly. It’s Malon, of course.”

I bowed slightly. “It’s good to meet you, Malon.”

She grinned. “Same to you, healer boy. Now let’s GO!”

Her hand pulling mine, we ran up to the farmhouse together. Despite my worries, a wild flutter of excitement was growing in my heart. Night was falling and I’d found a wonderful place to be, with the best company I could wish for.

And oh, how much I wanted to find out where she might lead me next.

Chapter Text

 Fragment VI: Dream

How does my story turn into Sheik’s like two threads woven into one tapestry?

Well, it begins with two strangers coming to town.

Not together, not at the same time. But part of the same tale nevertheless. There was a story written between them, and it stretched out and ensnared me, too.

I was ten when it happened. It wasn’t very long after I’d slashed away at my hair. They still made me wear a cloth to disguise what I’d done. I still took a certain amount of pride in it.

I wasn’t caught completely by surprise. There were warnings. Omens. But I didn’t know how to read them. I wouldn’t learn that art until much later. All the same, I still tried to do something. To make things right, and keep the world safe for a little while longer.

In the end, I think it mattered.

I saw both of them first in a dream. In my dream it was dark, well past midnight, and storm clouds hung in the sky, flashing staccato bursts of lightning and pouring rain down on us all. I was with Impa. The two of us were on horseback; I was clinging onto her fiercely. Behind us, there was something we were trying to escape. We rode and rode through the white streets of the capital as they poured with mud and rain, all the while straining to make the horse go faster, to push through the cold rain and the wind slashing at our faces, to shake off the terrible slowness that clung to us as our pursuer drew nearer and nearer. To the creature behind me I could put no face, no name. I had the sense of an inky blackness with terrible claws and mocking laughter. We rode on, hooves pounding the cobblestones, desperate to break free.

Finally we reached the city gates, and through them I could glimpse some hint of the muddy hills beyond the stone. Impa had found someone to lower the drawbridge, and we made it through just as the bridge came down, over the bridge, hooves pounding on the slick wood, out of the city and onward toward the wilderness.

Only then did I dare to turn around and see who pursued us. I turned, and there, coming through the city streets, was a man clad in dark leather, riding a vicious stallion black as the night. Even in these conditions, the man was ornately dressed, with rich patterns all over his clothes, and a single shining gem set into the diadem on his forehead. His hair was bright red and stuck out from the back of his head. His nose was long and thin, and there was a greenish pallor to his dark skin. I had never seen anyone who looked like that. Without warning, his head swung to look at me. I froze. He met my gaze with a look of such contempt, such utter disgust, that for a moment I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe for terror. The man stared at me as if my body, my whole being was an obstacle to him, as if he wanted to tear open my flesh and pluck out some jewel within. I felt sick. I had never, not once in my life, been looked at like that.

But there was another person there. For a moment, I didn’t realize it. But as the city walls shrank behind us, a small form rose up before our eyes. It was a boy, about my age, looking up at us in shock. Clad all in dark green, he’d almost disappeared into the mud and the night. I saw him now. Big eyes. Light hair and a sharp face like mine. A little blue light danced around his head.

As we rode past, I met his eyes for just a moment. He watched open-mouthed, but I thought I saw him trying to understand. I don’t know what I communicated in that instant, but perhaps he understood something of the fear I felt. My urgent call for help. Help from any quarter, from anyone who could grant it.

Then we were past, and he was shrinking behind us, a silhouette back at the gate. I saw our pursuer emerge through the gates and stop, surprised to see a boy standing in his path. The black stallion reared up on its hind legs and the man rose up, towering above this small boy, a sneer clearly written on his face. The boy stepped back in surprise. But only once. Then he held his ground and stood firm, small but defiant. And I thought I sensed in his stance the same glint of courage I had seen in his eyes.

And then?

The dream dissolved in a swirl of darkness and wet and fear, and I was left shaking, staring into the streaming moonlight, drenched with sweat, huddled beneath my blankets, in my dark bedroom, alone.

Only once did I ever have that dream. But others like it followed in its wake. For weeks and weeks I dreamed of darkness. Of looking out from my window and seeing all of Hyrule under a grey and formless shadow. Of grey-black clouds massing above, blocking out any hope of sun or moon. And when I looked at that endless storm, I had the same sick feeling of fear that I’d felt from our pursuer. Only this time, it was all around us, encircling us. Closing in.

But one night, and often afterward, that dream ended on a different note. Just when the darkness seemed inescapable, the clouds recoiled as if struck, and began to pull away. And as the clouds parted, a bright shaft of light—brighter than any sunlight I had ever seen—streamed down from above, lighting a path to the city gates. And in that sunlight, a figure appeared. It had the shape of a young man, but green from head to toe, its face a blur of shimmering, emerald light. There was a smaller blue gleam hovering around its head. The young man, if that was what it was, raised above his head a jewel equally green, and as the gem rose, it sparkled dazzling white in the sunlight. And as the dream dissolved into brightness and warmth, the last thing I saw—again and again—was the glowing youth striding through the light, his steps taking him to the city and to me.

I didn’t know what to think at first. When I woke up, shaking, that first night, I told myself it had all been the product of my own strange imagination. Nothing worth stirring up more trouble with my family, who had no interest in being bothered with my nightmares. But as the dreams flooded my nights, they became difficult to dismiss. I started thinking they might be happening for a reason. Weren’t some dreams supposed to be messages from the gods? Maybe my dreams meant something. Something important. I had to find out.

I turned to the Temple for answers.

Ours was a large and prosperous city. There were no less than eighty-four different temples within the city gates. Altars to obscure incarnations of the gods, old and moldering chapels that had been here since the city was merely a gathering of houses around a great hill. Temples for protection, temples for safe passage through the wilderness, temples to suit every need. Some had been built in my own lifetime. Our population was large and diverse; there was a way of worshipping the gods for everyone. No shrine went unattended.

But if I were to tell someone that I was going to the Temple, they would know that there was only one temple I could mean. The Temple of the Goddess of Time.

I quietly crept down the winding stair that led to my bedroom and slipped through the halls out to the palace grounds. I made my way around gushing fountains and artfully trimmed hedges, passed familiar servants and courtiers along the way. They watched me closely, to make sure I wasn’t getting into any trouble. I waved vaguely and kept heading west, to where the Temple complex lay spread out beside the palace like a comfortable companion.  I knew this route well. I’d walked it many times before at my mother’s request. I was heading into her domain.

The year I turned eight, my mother declared it time I learned how to serve the gods in earnest. That meant following her to the Temple on every third day, and giving honor and sacrifice to them as she did. I remember the smell of incense clinging to her, jasmine and sage and others I could scarcely name. I remember those smells more than I remember her face, if you want to know the truth. When I think of her, I see her standing on a raised platform, huge throngs all around her, invoking the holy name of each goddess, her arms outstretched, her eyes cast to the sky, wide and rapturous. I remember her leading animals up to the platform, sheep and goats mostly, letting out their blood in sacrifice with a curved knife before a fiery altar. I remember her anointing the statuettes of each goddess with oil and wine. She stands there in her long gown, listening to voices no one else could hear, whispering to powers unseen. In my memory, she is always giving her whole life into their hands.

I cannot say I knew her very well. Neither of my parents wished to devote much of their time to raising a child. I do remember moments of affection, here and there, especially when I had done something well, and at times they would even hug and kiss their child as other parents did. But for the most part they preferred to delegate my upbringing to others—who they no doubt considered more suitable for the task—while they attended to more important things. I existed; the line was secure so long as I could be kept alive and educated for power. That was enough. My mother spent most of her time at the Temple, giving her service to the gods, studying mysticism, theological criticism. My father, by contrast, was the power on the throne. All trusted his authority. He had the unenviable task of keeping Hyrule in one piece and its institutions intact. Despite the challenges, he seemed to be born to command. I do not know exactly what he faced during the civil war, how he felt about what the country went through. Even as a child, though, it was clear to me that war had hardened him.

Why the stark difference between the two of them, why the separation of their stations? I’m not entirely certain. In theory, the rule of our kingdom was supposed to be shared between king and queen, their voices to be heard in equal measure. That was not how it was in practice. Nor had it been that way for a long time, long enough that no one remembered when it had changed. Many now felt that kings were meant to lead. They were ideal for defending Hyrule’s borders, for expanding its domain, for driving out evil as our first Hero had done. They made fine military men and able administrators. The queens of Hyrule, meanwhile, were of course more in touch with the goddesses.  Thus they were meant to teach the kingdom the ways of piety. The kings kept us safe, the queens kept us holy. Or so it was said. True, it had never been a hard rule. But my family adhered to it closely. Whether by political necessity or by temperament, I couldn’t tell you.

A few Zeldas before had taken the reins of power into their hands, sometimes with dutiful kings beside them, sometimes alone. It was, after all, their blood that made the rule. My mother was not one of those women. She never made any sign that she was not content with her libraries, her hymns, her oaths and ceremonies. She relished retranslating the old accounts of the descent of the goddesses, with new commentaries from modern scholars, as much as any military campaign. She seemed content to let my father dominate the reception hall and place his iron hand on the throne.

Did I resent her for it? For not taking strength into her own hands? The strength that was hers by right? Probably. I disliked the way she put on the fetters of queendom. She was happy to be the mother of the nation, another Zelda in a long string of them. I very much wasn’t. But I think I was perhaps unkind, then. I saw her only with a child’s understanding. She agreed to marry the noble, decorated young general who came calling at her gates. She chose her life. Perhaps in more ways than I did. And there is power, real power, in knowing and illuminating the will of the gods. That, to her, was life; that, to her, was worth striving toward. If to her, carrying out the divine will meant more than playing political games, I can hardly blame her for it.  Would that we all could be so devoted. To the priests and priestesses of our city, and indeed, the temples all around Hyrule, I know she shone like the light of the sun.

The crouching castle I called home shrank behind me as I stepped into the Temple grounds. I passed through more beautifully-laid gardens with flowing fountains, wandered past small shrines to the many incarnations of the great goddess, and passed buildings where priests and priestesses worked and slept. Soon I stood in the great open courtyard in front of the Temple, watching acolytes in long robes and pious visitors hurrying around me.  The Temple itself rose over me, a cathedral mighty enough to rival some wings of the palace, full of sweeping arches and columns and red-capped towers that rose like spears into the sky. For a while I stared up at its face, pale limestone brick with stained-glass windows looming over me like statues. Then I darted up the steps and between the enormous oak doors, thrown open in the daytime like a welcoming embrace. Inside, I stepped into a world of gleaming white marble, polished to a mirror shine. Above my head, the arches opened up like the very heavens the goddess had made. As always, I stared up at the vaulted ceiling, feeling dizzy and short of breath.

Once this place had been a shrine outside a town on a great hill; soon afterward it became a small, cherished chapel. Generations of Zeldas and their kings added wings and features at their pleasure—then, after the building sustained damage in a fire, one of our more visionary leaders cleared and consecrated the space to build anew. With this massive tribute to her beloved goddess, she hoped to show our deepest devotion to the gods. Her Temple had been well-loved for many years, but as other Zeldas turned to other gods and other concerns, it fell into disrepair. My mother had seen the crumbling stones and led a whirlwind campaign of renovation with her usual missionary zeal. The great stained-glass windows were cleaned and repaired, the crumbling façade set right. Even the system of torches was entirely redesigned, so that there would always be light shining down from high above, even during the darkest nights. And to the Temple complex she added not a few buildings of her own.

In that bright, shining space, filled with light, pouring through the great stained-glass windows and pooling from the torches all along the walls, I saw priests and priestesses at their work, kneeling before statuettes in alcoves, whispering prayers, reciting the gods’ holy names.

I knew many of the priestesses—they had been my teachers. What little I knew of my mother’s arts, I hadn’t learned from her directly. She had too many other duties. Once we’d stepped across the Temple threshold, I’d been given over to others. Young women who had trained under my mother years ago, older women who had been among her own teachers. Priestesses, generally, since they made the bulk of the sacrifices. The male priests were more concerned with temple administration, and scarcely concerned with me. Under the guidance of the women, I learned how to anoint the images of each goddess, how to sing the ancient hymns, how to prepare incense and light a brazier. Even how to hold the curved sacrificial knife, for those most important of occasions. From these women, too, I learned about the gods.

It will help to know a little of our religion. This is what I learned as a child, the holy doctrine of our kingdom: in the beginning, three deities encompassed and created all things. They were goddesses, for the power to bring life into being was the power that rested with women. But both male and female had come forth from them, and they wore many guises, so it was not untrue to say that they partook of the nature of both. (I remember thinking long and hard about that teaching.)

Their holy names and attributes were these:

Din, whose attribute was Power. She, with her strong arms, had forged the hard earth from molten rock. Her raw, untamable strength allowed the world to exist and its many forces to strive against each other.

Nayru, whose attribute was Wisdom. She, with her careful mind, had laid out the sky and the sweet waters that flow through the world. Her vast intelligence had given human beings their ability to reason and to build civilization, to rise above their animal appetites and plan for tomorrow.

And Farore, whose attribute was Courage. She, with her bold heart, had encouraged life to come into the world, from the tiniest green thing to the greatest wild beast. Her passionate spirit allowed living creatures to persist despite all the world’s dangers, and taught humankind how to overcome any challenge through faith in her imperishable vitality.                           

Every god that human beings worshipped throughout the lands was either one of these three in a different guise, or one of their godly children. So the reverend priestesses taught me. It had been the great insight of our kingdom to recognize this truth, ages and ages ago. Over the centuries, our priests had gone out and taught the common people that their ancestral gods were the Hylian goddesses wearing different faces. The harvest spirit Xyla, for instance, who was terribly popular in the southwest, was another guise of life-giving Farore—for how else could the harvests prosper but through life? And the storm-god whose hail and thunder swept through the east: that was another form of Din, raining destruction on the land. Over the centuries it had been a great point of pride to put the right identities to the right gods, and to catalogue and classify all their various incarnations. Meses, the patron god of carpenters and builders, was no doubt a name for Nayru, the greatest of all artisans. But who was Thua, a northern god of magical art? Was she Din, who brought destruction and might? Or Nayru, who unveiled the knowledge hidden away in books and scrolls? Debates raged for centuries as scholar-priests tried to come up with the best answer.

Of course, I have said my family was descended from a goddess. True enough. Our ancestor was one of those god-children created in the world by the holy three. Many of these spirits were glorious and godlike indeed. Immense and revered powers. But not creators. They were, like us, children of this world. Most of them were its guardians, protectors of mountains, of seas, of light itself. Some of them are still scarcely understood. There were dragons of old, I am told, who watched over three different parts of our land. But they are gone now. I have heard, too, of wandering spirits, like the strange and half-glimpsed Wind Fish. Our ancestor-goddess Hylia, though, was the mightiest of all. In her power, knowledge, and grace she most resembled her three mothers. She among all the children of the creators was most worthy to be called goddess. She was the guardian of the land itself, and, if you believe the account of our origins, through us she watches over it still.

It is a very elegant system, much perfected by generations of priests, each adding their own clever footnotes and scribbled contributions in the margins. There is a great beauty to its interlocking structure. It dazzled me when I was a child. Do I believe it now? Hard to say. I believe in the goddesses still. I do not doubt that the creation of the world was somewhat as the priests tell it. But I also know that in the towns and hamlets I have visited, there is not much belief that their local gods are incarnations of the Hylian trinity. Oh, they will certainly nod their heads vigorously when the Hylian priests arrive and babble at them. But for most people, it is not necessary to believe that Xyla is the same as Farore. Whether Xyla or Farore, the harvest arrives all the same.

Beyond the borders of ordinary Hyrule, there are many notions that my priests would have found strange. The rocky Gorons care nothing for any deity but Din, who they call their Lady of the Stone. The Gerudo also devote themselves to Din, but accept a strange heresy that in their deserts, she rules over family of uncanny gods she did not wish to share with her sisters. And in some very old tales, they whisper that the power which begets death and monsters into the universe is as old as the goddesses themselves, even a guest and patron at their birth. So it goes. My mother would have scowled to hear me say it, but it does not matter much to me what someone believes. Only that they work toward the good, choose to help others. The gods ask that much of us, in their way.

The Temple in which I stood, of course, was consecrated to Time.

The worship of a Goddess of Time had a very long history in Hyrule, reaching back to that era where history met myth. It was even said that the deity of Time had helped lead the first Zelda and her people back to the earth. Centuries ago, as the religion of Hyrule became more fixed—my mother would no doubt have said as its priests uncovered holy truth—it was determined that the great Goddess of Time was in fact our beloved goddess Nayru. Nayru was the goddess for all things that flowed like thought and understanding, not only the mother of consciousness, but of the deeper well of dreaming. Time, too, was a great flow. Like a mighty river, it surged through the world, and we surged with it, swept away by the centuries.

I hurried past the strolling, murmuring priests and priestess, toward the back of the temple. I passed through a door, out into a great colonnade. To the north, behind the temple, stood another building clearly meant to be its companion. Within an enclosure lined with columns stood a cheerful, square building of the same limestone as the temple, shorter and wider so as not to overshadow its predecessor. The Temple Library.

It had been my mother’s most celebrated cause. Devoted as she was to all the gods, I think she loved Nayru the best. As her own gift to her beloved goddess of Wisdom, my mother had set out to build the greatest archive and center of scholarship Hyrule had ever known. She filled the Library’s halls with shelves and filled those with paeans to Nayru, copied from the capital’s older libraries and other archives all over the land. At the same time, she gathered scientific and mathematical treatises, books on anatomy and astronomy and ancient lore. She invited scholars of all disciplines to pool their knowledge. She was determined to make our city the greatest testament to the goddess there had ever been, a full gathering of our wisdom.  For my own part, I knew only that I loved the rustle of pages and the smell of old paper, and that the answer to any question I might ask could be found within.

I walked through the colonnade, through the doors ornamented with lapis lazuli. I loved being in that comfortable, square building with its red-carpeted floors and blue ceiling painted with golden stars, surrounded by books and scrolls kept in towering dark oak shelves. I knew there were well-kept basements, too, where more obscure volumes were readily found.  I made every excuse to visit that I could.

I often think of how my mother must have felt when the work was finally done. I am told that in those days she smiled often, and the color was high in her cheeks. That she loved to sit in her tower and look west, out over the Library and the Temple complex and all she had built for the goddess. It must have given her much comfort to see scholars hastening to her Library, pilgrims marveling at the restored Temple, and know she was beloved in the eyes of the gods. The memory of that has made my own trials a little easier to bear as well.

I wandered among the shelves for a while, pulling heavy tomes with titles like On Dreams, Prophecy, and Divine Will off the shelves. With some difficulty, I carried them in both arms, one after another, to one of the tall oaken desks. I set them down with thump after satisfying thump, pried open thick leather covers and heavy pages, and began to read.

Dreams, I read, had always been closely associated with the Goddess of Wisdom. While not all dreams held truth within them, many were thought to be signs from the gods, meant to reveal an important insight to the dreamer. Such dreams were often omens. Prophecies. Visions of things to come. It was vitally important, then, the scholars told me, to understand the difference between an ordinary dream and a dream sent by the gods. Many a historical or legendary figure had made a crucial decision based on the right interpretation of a dream sent at a critical moment.

Furthermore, because of their close association with the gods and with Wisdom, I read, members of the royal family were among the most likely to have prophetic dreams—and when they did, these dreams usually bore meaning not only for them, but for the entire country. It was the responsibility of Hyrule’s kings and queens, then, to use their knowledge of their dreams to keep their country safe and well. I felt a jolt in my stomach reading those words. Was that what the gods were asking of me? I leafed through lists of dream-symbols, but I knew what I would find. My dreams needed little interpretation. Darkness and light—it could hardly be clearer. I knew in the pit of my stomach that the darkness I’d seen over Hyrule was the work of that evil, leering man. And I thought the boy clad in green was meant to be the light unto that darkness. But did that mean the fear, the flight, everything— had been a vision of the future? That it would all come to pass? And if Hyrule was in danger, what was I supposed to do to protect it? The book didn’t have those answers.

I decided it was time to take it to Impa.

Impa was—how can I even describe Impa? Gods, I cannot put into words everything she meant to me. Nor can I begin to convey everything that she means to me now. Any portrait that I draw of her is bound to be marred by my poor skill. She deserves a better tribute than mine.

I’ll do my best all the same. Let me start with the facts, then. In my very earliest memories, Impa was already at my side. I do not recall ever having not known who she was. She was always there. Always reliable, present, unyielding, strong. Always Impa.

When it became clear to the king and queen that they were going to have a child, they sought a learned person from among their court and allies to look after the child. Cautious about dynastic strife, they did not intend to have many children—and indeed, I proved to be their only child. It was necessary, then, that their offspring not only be educated in the knowledge befitting a ruler and instructed in the ways of the court—but also watched and guarded at all times, kept safe from any threat that would cut short the royal line.  They considered the problem carefully, from what I understand. They needed one who was intelligent and educated, articulate, capable of being a stern taskmaster but also a nurturing force. They needed a skilled and intuitive warrior, able to defend their child from threat at a moment’s notice. And they needed someone who was absolutely, unflinchingly, unbreakably loyal.

They found Impa, and so I think they did very well in their search.

When I was young I knew very little about Impa’s life prior to meeting me. I only knew that she was warm and near and strong and kind. She was a tall, handsome woman, with a broad, wide-lipped face and sharp eyebrows that often narrowed in concern yet just as easily could melt into kindness. It is this face I remember hovering over me in my earliest memories, warm and welcoming in the light. Her hair, which she wore in a stubby ponytail, was silvery and fine, and her skin was the tan color of the Sheikah people. Indeed, Impa was the first Sheikah I ever met; from her I learned that there were different kinds of people in the world, that not all bodies were like my own.  

She paid little attention to personal adornment except to mark the underside of each eye with three silvery little marks, like tears or lashes. I rarely saw her face without them. They made her eyes resemble the eye-like glyph she often wore around her neck or on her garments; when I asked her about this she nodded and said the resemblance was intentional, but offered no more. She was strong and fit, too. I remember marveling at the thick knots of muscle in her shoulders and arms, and watching her training in the yard, relentlessly striking imaginary foes. Sometimes, when the two of us went on longer excursions outside the city walls, she wore light armor of silver and blue, and gauntlets and boots to match.

I understood very little, too, of the purpose Impa was meant to serve for me. I only knew that she was by my side in a way that no one else was. It was Impa who read stories to me, and listened to me when I could read stories aloud on my own; it was Impa who taught me about history and magic and time; it was Impa, not my mother, who first described to me the power of the gods in the world. It was Impa who played with me, who hugged me, who let me kiss her and reach up to touch the silver marks upon her face. I loved her very much. Yet it took me a very long time to realize that Impa was my bodyguard as well. When I was very young and feared monsters in the night, I remember being comforted by the knowledge that Impa was always nearby if I needed her. Only when I was older did I realize how true that really was. Only then did I understand the dagger that was always sheathed at her side.

Ten years old, and feeling myself rather grown, I went to find Impa and spill to her all my thoughts about dreams. Now that I was older I was allowed to go where I liked in the palace by myself, and to the Temple grounds right nearby. It was understood that some trusted member of the palace household would always keep me out of trouble. I had a suspicion, though, that Impa sometimes followed me at a distance all the same. I never caught her at it, but I rarely found her to be far away. They wanted to give me the feeling of autonomy, I suppose. Certainly she remained among my tutors, and was essential to my guard whenever we left town. I didn’t mind. I was glad to have her close at hand.

Sure enough, not a few moments after I began asking palace guards and cooks if they had seen her, Impa stepped out from around the corner, calm and serene as ever.

I told her everything. Everything I’d dreamed, everything I’d learned, poured out of me in one long, mad rush of speech.

She listened in the way she always did, without comment but with clear, unbroken attention, her eyes trained on me. When I had finished, she let out a long, slow, breath, her eyes closed.

“That is indeed concerning,” she said quietly. “Thank you for telling me.”

I bit my lip. “So do you think these dreams are important?”

She inclined her head. “Likely so. But I think you know that already. Else you would not have brought them to my attention. It is clear from the way you speak about them that they affected you deeply. Therefore I do not think they can be lightly ignored.”

I pressed on. “But—but do you think that first one, the one that felt so real—do you think it was a true prophecy? A vision of something to come?” I shivered as I said it.

Impa let out another long sigh. “It is very difficult to say. You are right that the gods give all of us knowledge of things to come, and your family most of all. Yet not everything they send us contains the seed of truth. Understanding comes slowly in these matters. I have always found it best to be patient. To listen, to watch and learn until the picture is complete. I will keep an eye out for danger. If it comes, then we will act, I promise you that.”

“But if this dream is a warning,” I insisted, “about some danger to Hyrule—”

She nodded. “Then it is our duty to listen to that warning and make sure no danger comes to pass.” Her eyes softened. “It is wise of you to be concerned, child. You do your family and your people a great kindness by it. Rest assured, I will take all you have said into account, and plan accordingly.”

“Thank you,” I said fervently, and hugged her. She hugged back.

As we pulled away, she clasped my shoulders and looked me in the eye. “Zelda—whatever happens, know that I will always make sure you are safe.”

“I do,” I said. And I did know. For I had seen her in the dream, felt my arms around her. Even there she had been with me.

From that day on, Impa stayed in view and hardly ever left my side.

It seemed I’d done what I could. At least Impa knew. For now, all we could do was keep an eye out for danger. So I watched, I waited, I listened, for even the slightest hint of the enemy I had seen in my dream. I knew Impa was doing the same. The moment we saw him on the horizon, we would warn everyone, and Hyrule would be saved.

You may imagine I found it disconcerting when, not three weeks later, he showed up as a guest in my own home.

Chapter Text

Fragment VII: Triptych

I staggered back when I saw him and nearly collapsed, but I managed to regain my composure. The man scarcely seemed to notice. He looked just as he had in the dream, down to the patterns on his dark clothes. In the bright light of our audience hall, his face was not perhaps so twisted, so alien, but there was an intensity to him all the same, a strange light that looked out from under his wild eyebrows. I hadn’t expected this at all. I’d only been told my family was to meet the representative of a distant power. So I’d been wrangled into my most ornamental gown for the occasion, and here I was with my mother and father beside me, who looked far more radiant and serene than I felt. The herald beside us read out our names and titles in his clear, thin voice. The man before us bowed deeply, with seeming humility, tipping his red head very nearly to the ground. Then the herald announced the name of our guest, and I at last knew who’d been haunting my nights.

Ganondorf Dragmire. That was his name. He was a powerful man among the Gerudo people, our subjects to the northwest. I didn’t understand the details, but the herald proclaimed he was now their king. He had come from the desert to renew our treaty of peace. Unlike other Gerudo before him, he wanted us to know that the Gerudo nation was our friend and ally. He would ensure that his people remained loyal to our empire.

This I understood to be a reference to the war. Years ago, before I was born, the Gerudo had risen up against us. There had been tension between the rocky Gorons and the river-people, the Zora, at that time—each possessed territory that the other claimed—and the Gerudo persuaded the Gorons to come down from their mountains and make a move. As our armies moved in to restore order, the Gerudo took advantage of the chaos to sweep in over the northwestern steppes, raiding every town in their path to take the land they saw as their own. It had been a difficult, bloody mess of a civil war, which my father had handled with no small skill. The exact instigators of the conflict were difficult to determine, as it seemed the leadership of the Gerudo had also been in question. The war was finally traced to a group of powerful women—for men were surpassingly rare among the Gerudo—whose clan had seized power from the others. With my father’s intervention, the ringleaders were summarily executed, and soon a new leader took their place. For the Gerudo had a strange, exotic tradition of making kings of the few men born among them. This clan of wild warrior women had spurned it, foolishly seizing control to make war on Hyrule. Now power was back in the hands of a king again, and all was as it should be. Or so I had been told. The man before us was that king. I had heard vague rumors about the King in the West for years. Now, here he was. A creature from a nightmare.

And yet he seemed the perfect picture of humility and contrition. He apologized for the hasty actions of the rougher women among his people. Such barbarities would not happen under his command. With many deep bows and careful gestures he assured us that he wanted the relationship between the Gerudo and Hylian people to be closer than ever before. His voice was soft; he wrung his hands with every syllable. He seemed harmless. I began to wonder if my dream had somehow misled me. Surely this man was not our enemy.

Then, for a moment—just a moment—his eyes glanced over mine. Something sharp and cold flickered in his face as he stared at me. And suddenly I remembered everything. That same ugly, creeping feeling stole over me: that I was a mere insect, pinned with iron, being inspected for my worth, to be thrown away if I did not meet his specifications. A sick feeling rose up from the pit of my stomach. I wanted to run away, but once again I was afraid, so afraid.

Then the moment passed: his gaze left me and the darkness melted back into his eyes, and he returned to spreading his hands wide and talking merrily about the wonders of his home country. But the veil was gone, now. I knew, beyond the slightest doubt: this man meant to do us harm.

I had to sit across from the man for the entirety of dinner, seated at our long banqueting table. It was not a pleasant experience. But not so bad as I feared; he took little interest in me. His conversation was for my parents and their politics alone. He regaled my father with tales of life among the warrior-women, and my mother with speculations about the relation between Gerudo and Hylian gods.

Then at last he was gone from our hall, gone to retire for the night among his companions, who were even now watering their horses in our stables and enjoying the finest accommodations our castle could provide. He was leaving us alone. For now.

After the man had left, I refused to depart from my father’s side, insisting I be given the chance to tell him what I knew. I tried to tell him how afraid I was of his new guest, how I was certain, down to the depths of my bones, that he meant only ill for Hyrule, that we should expel him and his courtiers from that castle at once.

My father listened with impatience and then shook his white beard furiously. His tangled white eyebrows bristled. He told me I was being a foolish child, to fear and hate a man I had never met. He was ashamed of me, that I would take one look at this man with his red hair and his dark skin and condemn him for his strange features and his alien customs. It was the height of embarrassment to him that his heir had not been raised better than to have such narrow, unthinking prejudices. He had me escorted off to bed at once, refusing to hear another word on the subject

Perhaps he was more right than I would like to admit. I was a child, and a fearful one; perhaps I was as terrified by the man’s strange appearance as by any premonition of his evils. But I knew my dream had told me the truth. I had to make them see it. But my mother and father paid no attention to a child’s half-garbled account of a dream. Nor did anyone else I tried to tell.

Save Impa.

When I found her the next day and told her that the Gerudo diplomat was the man I had seen in my dream, she nodded gravely. “I suspected as much from your description,” she told me. “I have not yet been able to determine what his intentions might be. But I fear his presence here bodes ill for us all.”

“You believe me, then,” I said with some relief. “My father thinks that he’s found some kind of peacemaker among the Gerudo—but Impa, that can’t be right. That man does not love peace.”

“I agree,” she said, frowning. “I have thought on the matter some. I have begun to wonder if we were not misinformed about the nature of the war. Consider: a strange power struggle occurs in the desert, which we in Hyrule know nothing about. Afterwards, this man emerges, telling us he is to be trusted. But notice how often he mentions that the opponents to his rule were the true enemies of Hyrule. Almost as if he were shifting the blame.”

I bit my lip. “What are you saying?”

“This Ganondorf may well be the one who really started the civil war.”

I didn’t know what to think. “If he was, could he really hide that fact from the rest of the kingdom?”

She nodded slowly. “Yes, if he were acting through other agents. If he set up certain women as figureheads, allowing them to take the blame for the war he began. After their execution, there would be a power vacuum, and he would have a chance to seize control outright. He could easily claim that any opponents to his new tyranny were partisans of the old regime. Those rogue tribes we have heard so much about. Innocent down to the last woman. It is only a guess, of course. But I have found no reason to believe otherwise.”

“Please,” I begged her. “Tell my father. He refuses to listen to anything I say.”

Impa sighed. “I am trying. Believe me, little one, I am trying. Your father can be of a stubborn temperament, I fear.” There were shadows under her eyes I hadn’t seen there before.

My heart sank. “I thought for sure he would listen to you.”

Impa grimaced. “I fear I have never been considered one of the king’s inner circle of advisors. I am trusted, yes. Whether that means I am listened to is another question. I was not hired as a strategist. I was called here to keep you safe. Right now most of the king’s advisors are telling him to keep Dragmire and his entourage here and court them for the best possible peace with the Gerudo. The desire for lasting stability is understandable. It is difficult to persuade anyone, least of all the king, that the Gerudo might mean us harm.”

“But they do,” I whispered.

She nodded. “I know they do, little one. I promise you, I will keep trying.”

I hugged her closely. She squeezed back. “Just promise me something, Zelda.”

“Of course,” I said. “What is it?”

There was something hard in her frame. “If we meet with a danger we cannot avert, Zelda, promise me that you will let me take you away from this place, away to safety.”

I bit my lip. “What about the castle? What about Hyrule?”

She fixed me with a gaze. “All is lost if you are lost, child. Above all else, we must remember that. Promise me you will stay safe. Promise to let me protect you.”

“I promise,” I said, after a moment. I didn’t want to leave Impa’s side. And I couldn’t imagine any safer place to be.

She exhaled. “Good. I have sworn to keep you safe at any cost, my child. I have promised that you will not be harmed on my watch. And I do not intend for a moment to break that promise. Not if the very skies should fall down upon us all.”

In the courtyard, the two of us held each other for a long time.

It seemed to me that we were on our own. No one else in the castle would help us save Hyrule. So we were the ones who had to deal with any crisis that might arise. We would have to find a way of stopping a dangerous warlord the moment he turned on us. I began to spend all my waking hours engrossed in research. I read all I could about rulers in the past who’d defended the kingdom and the omens they’d received from the gods. The weapons they’d found to strike against their enemies. I turned my whole mind to devising some sort of a plan.

Impa was willing to give me so much. The least I could do in return was to work every bit as hard as she was doing to make sure that I—and the whole kingdom with me—stayed out of harm’s way.

A new dream provided the answer. One night, having spent the day puzzling over confusing tomes, I slipped quickly into sleep. I dreamt, and saw hope. I dreamed of a forest I knew lay far to the south. Emerging from among the trees was a boy clothed all in green. I glimpsed his face, and knew him; knew, too, the blue light hovering around his head. A sword was at his side. I saw his path take him across the plains, and finally to a hilltop where, from that vantage point, he saw the capital coming into view on the horizon.

When I awoke I needed no interpreter to tell me what the dream meant. It was the boy I’d seen all those weeks ago. He was on his way. He was coming to help us challenge the Gerudo king. And he would be here soon.

I was determined to be ready.

After many long nights spent reading in the great Library and avoiding my parents’ awkward questions, I shared the fruits of my research with Impa. She shared hers, equally hard-won, with me. We compared notes, discussed what we did and didn’t understand. Together we hatched a plan. It was a strange plan, to be sure. But we thought it might just save us all. All we needed to do was wait for the boy adventurer from the dream to arrive.

And so another stranger came to town.

I remember waking up from another fitful sleep, slipping out of bed and thinking, is this the day? The dawn light was radiant, the sky clear and bright, its vastness a sign of Nayru’s benevolence. There were birds making merry songs outside, insects buzzing and swooping around, and the very grass seemed the greenest it had ever been—all signs of Farore’s vitality. Our best-loved gods were clearly on our side. And sure enough, after I slipped into the round courtyard that adjoined the meeting hall, Impa watching my back, and tried to catch another glimpse of my father’s meetings with the Gerudo king—

Footsteps behind me. I turned around. There he was.

I wasn’t ready to believe it at first. He looked so different in the light. Suddenly I distrusted my memory, wondered if the face I’d seen was really this boy’s, all sharp angles and blonde locks. His green tunic, stained with mud, no longer looked so emerald bright. Perhaps he was some other interloper. He shifted the shield on his back uneasily, touched the sword at his side. I blurted out something about how he got past the guards, asked him who he was. But in my heart I already knew.

A small blue light slipped out from beneath his green cap, swirled around his head once or twice, then whispered something in his ear in a tiny voice. That clinched it. The little light was a fairy. This, then, was the boy. A boy from the forest.

I glanced to where Impa had concealed herself in a nearby tree, sword in her hand. She gave a tiny nod. She obviously thought he was the right one. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have let him pass. I turned back to the boy, a thrill running through me. It was finally happening. I cleared my throat, apologized for my startled reaction. Then, somewhat shyly, I asked again who he was. But I meant it differently this time. For so long this boy with his sword and shield had been an image in my dreams and nothing more. I wanted to know who he really was. What brought a boy from the forest all the way to the capital? How had he become a brave adventurer?

Could he save us all?

And so our conversation began. In a halting voice, he told me that his name was Link. There was something about the name that I liked. It wasn’t an uncommon name, but it seemed familiar in a different way. There were heroes, I knew, in our history, by that name; perhaps he had been named for one of them. Yet that wasn’t quite it. There was a feeling there, too. It felt like greeting an old friend.

Link, I quickly found, wasn’t much used to conversation. He was much more of a listener than a talker. But my story could wait for a moment. With help from the little fairy, called Navi, who supplied information where his voice trailed off or faltered, I pieced together his tale.

He’d grown up in the forest among the Kokiri tribe, the little leaf-people who wander the forests to the south. I should have known—it explained his green cap and tunic. In fact, he told me proudly that he was a Kokiri. Somehow I didn’t think so. He had the long Hylian ears, and his face didn’t show any trace of that greenish pallor that threads its way through the Kokiri complexion. Besides, from what I’d read, the Kokiri never grow to look any older than about seven. This boy already looked about my age, maybe a little less. I suspected he was one of my people, raised among Kokiri for reasons unknown. But I didn’t say anything. He’d figure it out as he grew older.

Link, too, had experienced strange dreams, featuring darkness and danger and—he confessed somewhat shyly—a glimpse of my face. I blushed, myself, and he hurried on. He had gone to the spirit of the forest, the Great Deku Tree. The forest spirit, listening to his premonition of evil, had given him a sword and shield and a long-sought fairy companion, then enlisted his aid in destroying a monster sent to the forest by an evil king. A man called Ganondorf.

So his evil had spread elsewhere, too.

Link hurried over the next part, but I was impressed to hear that he’d learned monster-slaying so quickly under a tree and a fairy’s guidance. But it seemed like he didn’t want to talk much about it, so I let him go on.  Task done, the tree had sent him onward, to the capital of Hyrule. He was to see what he could learn about the darkness threatening all Hyrule, and do what he could to stop it. Thus his quest had sent him to the palace. And to me.

And, he admitted, he’d been very excited to meet the princess, because he thought she might be the one from his dream. And he’d been given something to show her—he reached into his pack, and I blurted out my guess before he could even show me:

The Emerald of the Kokiri! The Stone of the Forest!

Sure enough, he pulled from his satchel a dazzling green stone embraced by a swirl of gold filigree. Wordlessly, he passed it to me. A shiver ran through me as I turned it over in my hands. I’d suspected our green-robed visitor with a fairy at his side might come from the Kokiri, and soon in my researches I’d come across an illustration of that ancient artifact they held so dear. Centuries ago, Kokiri had forged it as a tribute to the goddess of the forests. There was no question it held great spiritual power. I was honored to even be in its presence. It was not the only artifact of its kind. Other tribes had tried their hand at similar tributes. It had been an age of great artistry and great reverence. 

I grinned madly as I felt the cool stone. It was time to unleash our plan.

I filled him in on what I knew of Ganondorf; the two of us strained at the window for a glimpse at him in the audience hall without being spotted ourselves. I told him about the dreams I’d had; mostly the ones about darkness and light. I was embarrassed to admit that I’d seen him in a dream myself, I guess. It sounded too corny, too childish, too much like a little girl’s fantasies. But I told him everything else I knew, and then Impa, to his very great surprise, stepped down from the trees. Together we told him how the three of us were going to stop Ganondorf.

It all hinged upon the stone he’d brought and something my mother had once taught me. But she would never have dreamed of me using it for anything like this.

About a year into my training, she’d called me and many of her most beloved priestesses to be part of a holy ritual at the Temple of Time. I understood I was there to learn. To witness and say nothing, so that I might one day perform in her stead. I was thrilled to be a part of it all the same. I squeezed into another embarrassing gown and followed her retinue of silk-robed priests and priestesses into the temple hall. One priest was clutching a small shape wrapped in cloth. Three priestesses were carrying strange relics that glowed in bright colors. There were men and women with lyres and drums, and several more carrying incense. A lit stick of incense was thrust into my hand, and I followed their group into the sanctuary.

At the end of the nave was a raised dais with a brightly-polished altar. My mother led the gathered priests to the altar and with a flourish of her blue, star-studded robe, indicated to three of them that they were to approach it. Carefully they placed their artifacts on its white surface. I saw the objects there, for we stood so all could see. I recognized one or two of them, and then I understood. They were relics of holy men and women who had been close to one of the goddesses. That aged spear was almost certainly the famed spear of Argethis, warrior-maid of the northern frontier and beloved of Din. The little object next to it was probably the sealstone of Rethu, the monk whose metaphysical ruminations I had struggled to understand in my studies. Nayru. And for Farore? I squinted. It looked like a small tree or shrub in a vase. Perhaps a cutting from a tree planted by one of our holy gardeners, long long ago.

The three stepped back, and another stepped forward. The old man who held the little parcel carefully removed the cloth from it. I realized it was a little blue instrument. An ocarina. The priest put the artifact to his lips and began to play.

So, too, did the gathered men and women, who took up their instruments and brought harmony to the tune. My mother closed her eyes, and in her bright, warbly voice, began to sing alongside the voice of the ocarina. It was an eerie tune, one that swept up and down, making me feel as if the sound was pulling on some strange place within me, unearthing something there. But the song had grandeur and built in strength, and echoed as if it was meant to be heard in that enormous hall. When I looked again at the relics, they were shining as if lit from within. Soon they were so bright I could scarcely look at them. As the last notes of the song rang through the air, there was a great grinding sound. I looked at the wall before us, and my jaw dropped. The wall had split in two and was pulling away beneath the great glyphs, revealing a room I had never seen before.

We followed my mother into the chamber, and I stared for a long time at what I saw within. In many ways the room was similar to the great chamber, with the same polished marble floors. But in the center of the room was a great stone dais, and in the center of the dais was a single, shining object:

A great sword embedded in the rock, its blade shining silver in the torchlight, its hilt as blue as a darkening sky.

My mother and the priests took up the song again, and within a few moments, something began to happen. Around the sword, and then all around the dais, a great white light shone, brighter and brighter, a column of light reaching up to the arches above. As I watched, the whiteness seemed to deepen somehow, as if I was not looking at a brilliance but looking onto a white space. Through that window I could see the faint outlines of people, buildings, trees, marble arches. I was certain I was looking onto some kind of other world.

Then, seven shapes, seemingly human, stepped forth into my view. And before I knew it, they were stepping out of the white light, one after another. Soon all had emerged fully, and the seven of them stood around the dais like sentinels. They seemed, at first, to be men in long, flowing robes, with glyphs I recognized as belonging to our kingdom and others. But there was something strange about them. Even as they moved out of the light, they remained a bright, warm white from head to hem, as if they were carrying the light with them. Then I saw what else was strange about them: their faces drifted just before their bodies. They had not faces but masks, masks of the faces of old men and women, calm, impassive, profoundly serene. Behind that mask, where the rest of the head was, there was only a smooth blankness. I shivered and hoped my mother knew what she was doing.

The one nearest to us, whose mask showed a thick, wiry white moustache much like my father’s, moved forward from the rest. Gliding over the ground, he stopped before my mother. Their eyes met. Then, slowly, he bowed before her, deeply and carefully. Without a moment’s pause, my mother bowed to him in turn.

I watched in awe. I had never seen my mother bow to anyone.

I didn’t understand, at the time, much of what had transpired, but later it was explained to me, by my mother and others, and I was made to repeat it until it was clear I understood. Here is what I learned in the days that followed:

When the people of Hyrule came down from the sky, they brought a great golden power with them—the great power whose symbol, the three golden triangles, has always been the emblem of our people.  It is something between a relic and the lingering power of the gods. Accounts differ as to whether it was a gift from the gods to the children of their creation, or simply a part of them left behind when they left the world, a residue of holy power from the place where their hands worked creation. It is known by many names, but we Hylians had always called it the Triforce. That much I knew. What was not generally known, however, was that the Royal Family of Hyrule knew exactly where it was kept.

There had been an age where the Royal Family had proudly displayed their relic to the world, happy to show they were blessed and beloved by the gods. But the greed of human beings had been too great. In the first few generations of the earthbound, war had torn apart the land. Civil war, invasion from other lands, and more. The promise of ultimate power was simply too enticing for many to resist. Hyrule threatened to break under the strain.

So, many centuries ago, the power had been hidden away. Thus I learned a secret: the cult of the goddess of Time started as a shrine, yes, but a shrine in the most ancient and august ruins of all, the ruins of a temple the gods themselves had brought to earth. And in that place, the power of the gods was so near that one could step into another world. A great sage, Rauru by name, through knowledge and study and prayer, opened a way to a Golden Land, sacred to the gods, and concealed the Triforce there. It had been he who’d overseen the shrine and the ruins’ transformation into a chapel to the goddess of time. A chapel, moreover, where the entrance to this sacred realm was sealed away from all but those who knew the magic of the royal family. The artifacts of each of the goddesses, and our holy song, had opened that way again.

Seven had been chosen. Seven wise and holy men and women to remain in that pure land and guard the power of the gods. Within that strange, luminous place, which reflected our own world as if in a dream, they watched over that holy power. I knew not how many centuries had passed for them in that place. In that time they had become something strange, not at all human, like spirits themselves, immortal and serene. But there was power in them, magic poured into them by the holy gods, given so they might keep us all safe. On the Seven Sages the world rested.

Guarded here, too, was a sister relic, one kept in our own realm. The builders of the temples had made it the link between our realm and the next. It stood right before me, and it gleamed as if it had been forged only yesterday.

The Master Sword. The holy sword that Hylia had forged for the first hero. The sword with which heroes had slain monsters since time immemorial. This chamber, where certain stones dated back to the first temple, was its sacred resting place. No vault, no chamber under lock and key, could be a better place to keep it.

When I had heard the whole story, I understood the passion on my mother’s face when she spoke to the leader of the Sages, why the tears had shone so brightly in her eyes. And I knew that she was trying to pass this joy, and this duty, onto me. I understood what this place meant to Hyrule, to all of us. What power it held.

I understood perhaps too well.

What exactly did I do? What was our plan? What did I unleash?

I let the boy break open the realm of the Sages and the gods.

It wasn’t his fault what happened. It was all mine. Of course, Impa agreed to it, too. But I don’t blame her. I never could. It was my responsibility to come up with a plan that would save us all. And she listened to what I told her. She was loyal to me to the end. But I failed her.

My plan failed us all.

As I said, Impa and I spent a long time researching, trying to find a way to deal with the threat the Gerudo king posed. We listened to every rumor, every whispered conversation about the movements of the Gerudo in Hyrule. What we learned was that the Gerudo were seeking relics. Holy relics of the gods. In every town with a shrine to one of the Trinity, Gerudo were muscling in, inquiring, not-so-politely, whether the Gerudo King might be permitted to add a local relic to his collection of holy treasures. And if they were refused, they were prepared to brandish their sabers and get even less polite. Sometimes they were run out of town. Sometimes they got what they wanted. And so the foreign king’s treasures were growing. And all this had escaped my father’s attention.

Most of all they seemed to be after the greatest, holiest treasures, the Spiritual Stones that had been forged in long-ago times by master craftsmen. Impa and I learned that both the Zora and Gorons, uncomfortable with Dragmire’s aggression, had turned him away. Link confirmed the same story. The Deku Tree had refused to grant the Emerald of the Kokiri to the king’s representatives. And not long after, monsters had come to the forest.

It was all too clear what the Gerudo king was doing. He was seeking powerful symbols of the gods.

He wanted to open a way to the Sacred Realm.

I put this together with the images from my dreams, and I thought I understood. A hero had been chosen by the gods: a boy from the Kokiri forest. He bore with him the Kokiri’s sacred stone. Farore would not let her relic pass into ordinary hands. There was a divine purpose to all this. There could be only one conclusion:

The gods had chosen this boy to stop Ganondorf Dragmire from accessing their holy power. And I, I was the mentor who had been given the insight to guide him on his path. With the relics of the gods, this hero would access our holy temple, and open a path to the Golden Land. There, he would use the power of the gods to stop Dragmire and restore safety and peace to all Hyrule.

Oh, I was so naïve.

This is what Impa and I told Link in the garden, for good or for ill:

You must go to the lands of the Gorons and the Zora. Bear to them this message, marked with the seal of Hyrule’s Royal House. Show them the Emerald you possess and persuade them to grant you their holy relics, for the good of the whole country. Knowing Dragmire as they do, they will not want to see his power grow. And a message from the Crown Princess will surely persuade. Once you have gathered the artifacts, come back here, and we will give you the holy instrument to open the way to the Golden Land. Speak with the Sages; surely they will let you use their holy power to vanquish evil. If not, then take the holy sword instead, and destroy the darkness with its blade, just as your ancestors did long ago.

O hero chosen by the gods, help us now.

Impa and I knew we couldn’t get my mother’s cherished relics from the royal vault. But if it was the will of the gods, others might be persuaded to lend theirs. The two of us were certain, with all the signs we’d received, that Link was specially blessed, that it was his destiny to stop the Gerudo threat. And so whatever we told him to do would surely save us. Perhaps there was a kind of arrogance in that, thinking that we knew the will of the gods. I know I, at least, was humbled for it.

I wonder, sometimes, if Impa lacked that arrogance. If she doubted whether we would succeed, but went along with the plan anyway. Because she knew there was nothing else that she could do.

Link agreed in an instant. The moment we told him what to do, he nodded and swore to carry it out. I marveled at him. His sincerity, his kindness, struck me to the bone, even then. He seemed an utterly different kind of person. I didn’t doubt that there was fear in him, that he knew this task would be very difficult to carry out. But he was determined to do it anyway. Because he knew it was right. He, too, wanted all Hyrule to be safe.

He trusted us completely.

Once he’d agreed to the plan, I’d intended to send him off. I thought I was going to say goodbye, to wish him well on his journey. But I didn’t want to. Not yet. And it seemed that he didn’t want to go. The two of us…well, we just kept talking. Sharing stories with each other while Impa and the little fairy watched from a distance. I told him all about life in the palace and growing up with my strange parents. About how Impa was always looking out for me. He listened with open-mouthed awe, told me he had never imagined such wealth and riches. In turn he answered all my questions about life in the forest. About the Kokiri and the forest spirit who had raised him. About the day he met the fairy Navi. About the autumn festivals, where all the Kokiri dance and sing, wearing robes of gold. It sounded very beautiful. I told him I would like to visit someday. We talked on and on as the day wore through and the sun drove her chariot down through the sky. It felt so natural to talk with Link like this, just like talking with Impa or one of the younger priestesses. Sitting beneath the young oak tree, it was easy to imagine that he’d been here with me all my life, and we were just enjoying ourselves in the shade of another day.

But finally the sun threatened to pass into the shadowy mountains, and we both knew it was time to say goodbye.

I hugged him. I don’t know if Impa thought it proper, but I did it anyway. He looked surprised for a moment and then hugged me back. I clasped his hand and made him promise to tell me everything that happened on his journey. He swore he would. Armed with the map and compass we had given him, Navi hovering at his side, he slipped out of the courtyard, no doubt to sneak out through the same set of back alleys and sewer tunnels by which he’d snuck in. Then he was gone.

I felt my heart sink to see him go, but my spirits rose again when I thought about what he was going to do. Surely he was bound to succeed, surely Impa and I had rightly read the will of the gods. I knew I was no hero, but I’d had the chance to meet this young hero and play the part of a guide in his story. And a friend. I’d hoped to find a way to avert the impending crisis. And look how well I’d succeeded!

Nothing could have prepared me for how wrong I was. For the enormity of what I’d done.

Chapter Text

Fragment VIII: Fall

Oh, it was great fun, thinking of Link on his journey in the days that followed. It almost made up for the fact that I couldn’t go on the adventure myself. I pictured him walking across grassy plains, up mountains, across rivers, swimming in the great lake of Hylia. I imagined his sword shining bright and his fairy companion at his side. I imagined I could hear the slice of his sword as he slew monsters. That I could feel the soles of his boots, trudging through the dirt, beneath my own feet.

If I could have gone with him—

Never mind. I had a job to do where I was.

Impa and I kept a close watch on the Gerudo ambassador and his retinue. As close as we dared. The foreign monarch himself appeared and disappeared as he pleased. It was clear that he and my father were engaged in a long-drawn out process of discussion, negotiation, punctuated by journeys throughout the countryside. Occasionally, too, the man would slip back to the desert to consult with his local governors. I knew what he was really seeking in his travels, even if my father didn’t. But something was slowly happening. Every time Dragmire returned, his talks with my father took him closer and closer to the heart of his palace. And his retinue, who now seemed to be a permanent embassy, began to feast and enjoy themselves and wander around the palace as they pleased.

All would be dealt with on Link’s return. In the meantime, there was one last thing I needed to do. I needed the holy instrument my mother had used to open the way.

I managed to persuade it from her before long. I found her at the temple library, paging through old volumes of Dinnish lore, trying to decide whether to make them a new course of research. She was bored. At first, she’d been charmed by the Gerudo ambassador and enjoyed his conversations as much as my father had, but as the talks had worn on, she’d lost interest. Her taste for religion rather than politics, perhaps. When I explained to her how much I wanted to learn the music of the Sages that she knew, her eyes lit up. She had a new project. She brought the ancient ocarina down from the vault, made me swear to take proper care of it. I swore, suitably awed by the responsibility. I didn’t tell her I’d be giving it to another person and teaching him how to use it. That would all sort itself out after our victory, no doubt.

So in those last few weeks, my mother set about the task of teaching me to play the holy melodies passed down by our ancestors. I think she leapt at the chance to ensure her child would be able to speak with the other world as she did, my education again assured. Every morning, then, were lessons with the priestesses, who showed me how to hold my fingers, taught me how an ocarina was different from the flute I’d learned to play when I was younger. In the afternoons, my mother would drop by for an hour and see how my practices were coming along. She would play the melodies on the ocarina and charge me to repeat them as accurately and precisely as possible. I often stumbled, but she didn’t seem perturbed. She would only tell me, again, and we would continue, over and over until I learned. I felt almost close to her in those days. It was nice to see her soft, small smile when I got it right, before the hour was up and she left again, in a trail of twirling fabric, to return to her beloved gods.

And in the meantime, I kept the ocarina very close to me indeed, in a little decorated black box which I kept on my desk. I would snap the case open, take the little blue instrument out from the velvet padding and turn it over in my hands. So small, and yet such an important thing. Sometimes I thought I could feel the magic our ancestors had placed within it. Warm in my hands. Flowing into me.

That was how I passed my days, then. Studying the songs of my ancestors. Avoiding the enemy who appeared and disappeared from our court. Conferring with Impa. Staring out the window and wondering how Link’s journey was coming along, if he had feasted in cavernous Goron halls, or swum in the waterfalls of the Zora. Waiting for him to return and save us all.

The days went by. I knew I shouldn’t be impatient. After all, it was a long journey, a massive quest. It was too much to expect that he’d pop up in the courtyard again a few days after I’d sent him out. No. I would wait. I went to the courtyard every day anyway, just in case.

Weeks went by. I was starting to get worried. I knew that I was being unreasonable. It would take a long

time for Link to return, no doubt, but he would in time. But I wasn’t sure how much time we had left. Every time the Gerudo king returned to our hall, he stayed longer and longer, and his retinue grew more and more brazen. And was it me, or were my mother and father looking paler these days, their eyes less and less focused, every time they went to meet with him? Could he be casting a spell— Gods, no. Surely not. No, when I talked to them they seemed fine, seemed perfectly normal. If a bit tired. No, it had to be my imagination, it had to be.

Still, I was afraid, and I prayed that Link would arrive soon.

Alone with Impa in a drawing room where I studied history and letters, I looked anxiously out the window, where a few Gerudo women were doing drills in the yard, waving their sabers about. Nervous they would see me, I snapped the curtains shut.

“You don’t suppose he’s hurt out there, do you?” I asked her, biting my lip. “That he got attacked on the road, and was injured or—or worse?”

“I do not know, my child,” said Impa gently. “We must assume the best.”

“But he’s taking so long—”

“Child, you knew it would be a long journey. That you would be asking quite a lot of a boy no older than yourself.”

“I know, I know,” I muttered. “It’s just—what if he can’t help us? What if our plan doesn’t work?”

“Then we will adapt,” Impa said simply. “Do not think I have not thought on the matter.”

“I’m just…I’m just scared, Impa,” I said, fighting back tears.

“I know, child,” she said kindly, putting an arm around me. “But do you trust me, child?”

“Yes,” I whispered.

“Then trust I will not let anything happen to you.”

When the end came, it seemed like an ordinary day. I woke up, read my books, listened and learned at the temple, practiced music with my mother and her delegates, leafed through old stories in my favorite collection, turned the ocarina over in my hands for a while, looking at it by candlelight, and went to bed. I didn’t know that the last ordinary day of my life had ended, and everything was going to change in the night.

Someone shook me awake. I was being tossed from side to side. I shook myself out of strange, heady dreams, dreams about—what? I couldn’t remember what was going on. Something about wandering through leafy courtyards, looking for something, someone, among the moss-encrusted stone walls. I opened my eyes and I didn’t know where I was, why there was a blaze of light shining in my eyes. As I blinked, bleary, in the dim room, I caught a glimpse of a face.

It was Impa. She’d lit the candle on my nightstand. She was still shaking me. “Zelda,” she repeated. “You have to get up. I am sorry. But you have to wake up. We have to go. Right now.”

I stared at her, then slid out of my bed. Impa snatched up the candle and began lighting others around the room, filling the room with the usual weak evening light. There was no moonlight. Only darkness in the sky and palace grounds lost in the black.

“What do you mean—” I mumbled. “What’s going on—?”

And then I heard it. Faint shouting, from far below. Somewhere in the palace. There were dull thuds and crashes I didn’t understand. Loud, unsettling bangs. The sounds of some sort of scuffle. Some of the shouts sounded like screams.

“Zelda,” Impa repeated. “Get your things. We need to go. We are in grave danger here.”

A hot, sick feeling ran through me as I stared up at her. “Is it…is it that man? That Ganondorf?”

“Yes,” she said simply.

Seeing my hesitation, she marched over to the corner of the room and picked up a large cloth bag in which I had once carried books from the temple library. “Place whatever you think you may need for the road in here. I will remind you if there is anything you have forgotten. We must be ready to leave in moments.”

I stared at the bag. All of my clothes wouldn’t even fit in there. I could scarcely think of what to pack for a long journey. I shook myself, trying to clear my head.

“But—but Impa, what about Link? He was going to stop the king’s plan—” I couldn’t bear to say it or think it. “He must be coming, he must be. He wouldn’t abandon us, he wouldn’t—”

“Child, I do not know if he is coming or not,” Impa said. “But his help will arrive far too late if he does. I am sorry, but we must leave. You have to stay safe.”

“But—”

“It was a good plan,” Impa whispered.  There was a deep sadness in her eyes. “I wish I could have made it work. For your sake. But we must go.” She thrust out the bag. “Now. Pack.”

Dazed, in silence, I threw things into the bag—clothes and books and a hairbrush and other items—without really knowing what I was doing. I stopped when the bag seemed full.

Impa nodded and turned, not even bothering to blow out the lights. “Follow me.”

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Out. Stay close to me and keep as silent as you can. We must get away from the palace without being seen. I have a friend at the stables. He can help us get away quickly.”

“But—“I swallowed hard. “But Impa, but—but what about my parents? We can’t leave them behind—”

Impa turned to me, her eyes wide and frightening. I had never seen her look so pained. “Zelda. I do not know what is happening downstairs. But we are in great danger if we stay here. There are men and women fighting down there. They do not mean to let us be. Another hour and they might find us here. Come.”

“But—”

“I can do nothing for the king and queen now, do you understand?” Impa cried. “They may be all right. They may not be. There is not anything I can do, now, to guard them. That is not my task. My task is to guard you. I can only pray that others will protect your mother and father as I am protecting you. If we tried to go to them now we would be killed. There is no time. No. Time. Come. Now. Please.”

I shook my head, my eyes wet. “I can’t!” I was struggling to breathe, to think. “I can’t leave them!”

Impa knelt down next to me. Her gaze pierced me to the bone, and her eyes were full of pain. “We have to do this, Zelda. Please. Please come with me. Hyrule cannot go on without you.  You are everything, you are the goddess, you are my duty. I swore to protect you. I would die here rather than break that promise. You said you would let me protect you. Please. Please. Let me do that now.”

I stared at her a long time, then took a long, choked breath. Slowly, I nodded. I turned to go. Then I whirled around. I grabbed the ocarina off the nightstand. Stuffed it in the bag. I could barely speak. “I’m— I’m ready now.”

We fled down the stairs, hid when light and footsteps and voices passed through the hallways, and slipped out into the night.

You know what happened. It all happened just as I had dreamed it. The flight, the rain, the horseback chase. Footsteps behind us and all we could do was to ride, to run.

Only now I knew what we were running from. And as I clung to Impa, a terror no dream could inflict followed behind us.

When we cleared the gates, though, I remembered something, and a surge of hope coursed through me. He was coming. He would be here. And out of the night, his clothes muddy and torn, but his face as kind as ever, came Link. He stared at us as we drew near, not quite understanding. A pang struck my heart. Of course he had tried. Gods bless him. He had tried so hard. But he had come just a moment too late.

The ocarina! I struggled with the bag, pulled the little instrument from it. We were going so fast, I had no idea if this would work. But with all the force I could muster, I threw the ocarina in his direction as we passed. There was a splash. It seemed to have landed in the moat. I grimaced.

But the man on horseback who rode after us saw nothing. Again he stopped before the boy in green. Again he reared up before him with a sneer.

But the boy stood firm.

And as we rode into the night, faster and faster, as I watched the towers of the capital, the place that had been my home for all my ten years, slip away into the muddy darkness, I began to wonder if we might have a chance after all.                                                                                                                       

I wish I could say that Link was able to protect the people Impa and I could not. But that would be a lie. I found out later—much later—that by the time Impa and I left my tower, my mother and father were already dead.

It had been a swift and bloody coup, neatly timed, perfectly executed. They told me my father had died at the table where he and Dragmire first broke bread. As my father signed the final peace accords, he and his councilors looked up to see they were surrounded by Dragmire’s warriors. He snarled and snatched up something to fight back. But the women hit him with spells, and he fell to the ground in pain. The Gerudo king finished putting his own signature on the parchment as all this happened around him. Then he walked over to the fallen man, seized him by the beard, and plunged a dagger through his heart.

Only those who surrendered survived to tell me about it.

As for my mother, they told me the Gerudo had posted soldiers at every gate to cut off her escape. They caught her at evening prayer and slashed her throat. Her blood spilled over the altar like one of her own sacrifices, and she died alone. The signs of her beloved gods were all around her, but they did not save her.

I believe the gods are good. But I have found they are not always kind.

Impa had been right. Assuming I would be asleep, the soldiers were on their way to my tower when we left, to strangle me in my sleep or leave a child-sized bloodstain in my bed. Then the royal bloodline would be gone, snuffed out like a candle flame. That was what they wanted. They were furious to find me gone. Very likely it was their torches we passed in the halls. Impa truly did save me. We had escaped within a hair’s breadth of time.

At the time I knew nothing of this. I knew only that I was tired, wet, cold, afraid for my parents, afraid for Link, yet hoping he might still, somehow, succeed in our plan. We were out on the plains, far, far away from home. Impa found some sticks and brush for firewood, used spells she knew to dry them out, and made a little warmth. We huddled around the fire, beneath a tree to keep some of the rain off our bodies. Finally the downpour began to stop, and the stars and moon slowly emerged from the cloudy sky. Impa found some leaves and dried them, too, to make a makeshift bed for me. She slept on the muddy ground.

I lay under the moonlight, staring into the fire and trying, against all sense, to fall asleep. Exhaustion was finally beginning to pull me toward sleep when a thought jerked me awake again.

He didn’t know the song.

Impa had taught him one of our royal melodies, but no one had taught him the song, the song I’d had to learn from my mother, the song of the Goddess of Time. Gods, I had to do something, he had to know that song or it would all fall apart—I tried to keep calm. There might still be a way.

I closed my eyes and tried to remember some magic that Impa had taught me a long time ago. It was a simple spell for communicating over long distances. Impa had made me practice until I could repeat a message back to her from across the castle grounds. The idea was the same, but I’d never tried anything like this. Could I really reach out to Link, miles away, wherever he was, and put the melody into his mind?

Well, I had to try, didn’t I?

I screwed up my face and tried to concentrate. Tried to feel Link’s presence, somewhere. Tried to remember what it had been like when he was with me. I thought I could see him, somewhere in the city. Crouching behind corners, hiding from the Gerudo soldiers. Making his way to the temple. But I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it. All the same, I imagined playing the ocarina for him, playing the song over and over, just like my mother had done for me, while Link practiced until he got it right. I thought about the melody again and again, mumbling the notes under my breath. I lost track of time as I repeated the song to myself like a mantra. At some point, exhaustion really did take hold of me, and I fell asleep.

I was dreaming, and I saw Link. He was standing before an altar, and as I watched I realized it was the altar at the Temple. His clothes were muddy and torn, but he seemed unharmed. Three radiant jewels were on the altar, sparkling crimson, azure, emerald. The deep-blue ocarina was clutched in his hands, and he was playing a song slowly, concentrating on getting the melody just right. He was succeeding beautifully. It was the right song. My song.

The doorway ground open, and Link stepped into the chamber beyond. He ascended the dais and took hold of the sword in its center. Slowly, and with much effort, he gripped the sword tightly and pulled it out of its pedestal. At last, breathing heavily, he raised it above his head, and I was struck by how small he seemed with the sword, how it dwarfed him, this relic blade made for a man, not a child. As he held it aloft, my vision filled with light.

And then Link was somewhere else, standing in a place where all was suffused with a golden glow, where marble pillars stood and fountains flowed. And in the center of everything was a light so bright that I wanted to turn my eyes away. But in its heart, I could just barely glimpse three triangles of gold.

Surrounding Link were a ring of white forms, drifting above the ground like veils. The ancient Sages. They bowed to him, and he bowed in turn, struggling to hold his sword upright.

But then—oh Gods—

A darkness intruded on that space without warning. It was sickening, it was a black splash of hatred and fear. It resolved itself into the form of a man with a black cloud of magic around his body. I knew that face, I knew that man, I knew that awful sneer.

Ganondorf Dragmire had followed Link into the Sacred Realm.

The Sages hung in shock, then flew about, seemingly in panic. Link gripped the sword and tried to stand and fight. But one of the Sages, who had been watching the boy closely, sent a bolt of light in his direction. Link’s legs seemed to give way beneath him, and he collapsed like a limp rag doll. The Sage took up the boy and the sword that had fallen from his hand and carried both in his arms. A glance passed between him and the other Sages. They understood what he hoped to do.

The Sage and his burden vanished as he flew to some place unknown. The other Sages stood between Dragmire and the Triforce. They formed a circle again, slowly closing in. The Gerudo king’s face showed nothing but contempt. From his scabbard, he drew a long, ugly blade.

They did not prevail.

They fought back, with magic and blades of their own, but he overcame them all. One by one they fell, cut down by his cruel sword. It was awful to see them fall. I wanted to weep. But when the last of them fell, brought down to the ground, her face a mask of suffering, something stranger happened. I felt—I felt her pain, as if I was the one being ripped open. And then somehow, she met my gaze. I saw her mask-face rise up to look at me, and when she died, she exploded in a burst of light. And the light rushed toward me, and I had a sense of something filling me, filling every pore in my body, something good, something holy, but in pain, seeking refuge. And I felt a presence in me that I could not name. And I recalled how when each of the other sages had died, light had streamed from them and sped off to some other place.

His path now clear, the man strode forward with a fiend’s grin stretched across his face. Calmly, easily, he reached out a hand to touch the golden relic.

It shattered the moment his hand brushed gold.

There was a terrible noise, like a mountain breaking, like a city being ripped from its foundations, and a million jagged golden fragments hung there for a moment, like dust in the sunlight. Then, with a tremendous roar, they flew in three completely different directions. A third of them seemed to go toward the man. But another third were rushing up toward me. And again, I felt something flow into me, but this time it was more terrible, more tremendous than anything I could have imagined. It did not feel like a presence or a face or a voice, but a force, a torrent like a great river plunging over a cliffside, except that it was plunging into me. It was not human, it was something alien, something as large as the sky, as large as the legendary ocean. I struggled with it, I kicked and wrestled with it for what seemed like an eternity. But finally, after the surge had gone on and on, it subsided. The entity seemed at rest within me. Not gone. But contained.

I felt—I felt a sense that I could understand anything, if I turned my mind to it for long enough. I felt in my bones that the world made sense, that it was ordered, that there was a plan. Everything fit together, everything had structure. Everything was a structure. The trees in relation to their roots and the earth and the sun and the air, the wheels of the stars in relation to the turning sky. Everything fit together. And I could see the whole shape of the Sacred Realm, feel how it was made in the image of Hyrule, but as beautiful as we could ever dream of it being. In that place, there was a temple, with a great magic around it, uncanny, impenetrable magic. A shield that could not be broken. And in the center of that temple, a Sage waited as Link slept. And outside the temple, the light faded away, and from where the evil man stood, darkness reached out tendrils like black smoke, and the beauty of that place twisted into something unrecognizable.

I saw all this, and the thing inside me twitched in frustration, because I could not make sense of it. I saw, and I did not understand.

But when I awoke, I knew I’d done something horribly, horribly wrong.

I woke to see Impa stirring a pot at the fire, which was somehow still burning. She pulled ingredients from a little satchel at her waist and sprinkled them in, herbs and crumbling powders. Something was cooking beneath the bubbling water. Rabbit, I soon learned. She’d gone and hunted one while I was still asleep. I could see the preparations over there on a stone.

During breakfast, in a halting voice, I told her everything I’d seen.

Impa nodded, in her slow, careful way, and told me she had had much the same dream. Everything that had happened from the moment Link stepped into the other world, she, too, had witnessed.

“So you think Dragmire—he entered and then he attacked—he killed—”

“Yes.”

I stared into the flames. “But—I don’t understand. He killed six of the Sages, then, I—I think I understand that. But that light, that came from the last Sage to die—what was that? Impa, I felt it enter me.” Indeed, I could feel it there still: a presence within me, something like a person smiling at me gently from a distance—something that had a face, but lingered just shy of a name.

“You are not the only one,” said Impa, chewing on a bit of gristle. “I, too, have a presence like that in me. Though it was the third death, not the last, that awoke it in me.”

“But what is it?”

“Simple,” said Impa, wiping grease off her hands. “You have a Sage in you.”

I could only gape. Impa shrugged. “Another way of saying it is that you are a Sage now, yourself. And I am as well. I suspected something like this might happen, but I did not expect to be chosen myself. You as a candidate I find less surprising.”

“That makes one of us,” I said weakly. “I was—was chosen? To be a Sage? Why me? I—I don’t even know what that means.”

Impa thought for a moment. “It is nothing more or less than the fact that the Sacred Realm is linked to ours by a very powerful spell. The seven Sages you know are those who wrote that spell, or their successors. They were charged with keeping and protecting that realm, linked as they were to its magic. Now, with six of them dead, the power, that charge, must pass to someone else. Likely their spirits would seek out those whose character was like theirs. Whom they would deem worthy successors. We seem to have been made the stewards of their realm.”

“Does that—does that mean we’ll become spirits like them?”

She shook her head. “Not likely. They chose to lengthen their lives in that realm so that they might remain guardians indefinitely. But even they were mortal, it seems.”

She leaned back. “I imagine that those who have been chosen as new Sages do not fully understand what has happened to them. It may be a long time before they are fully awakened. They may be difficult to find, as well. My suspicion is that the dying Sages cast a wide net. For I recall that among the old Sages there were people of many tribes and races. It would not surprise me if each chose to seek out members of their own people whom they deemed most worthy to hold the honor. Certainly the spirit in me seems familiar to me. Like a member of my own tribe.”

“What about that other light that touched me?” I said after a moment. “When the holy power…shattered. Or seemed to. That didn’t happen to you, did it?”

Impa shook her head. “No, but I witnessed it. My child…I believe that you have within you a part of the Triforce.”

I stared at her again. “Me?” I had only ever heard of sages and heroes even coming near such an artifact. But what else could have affected me so deeply, could be surging inside me even now?

A nod. “I believe that Ganondorf was not capable of using it as he thought he was. You have been taught, I know, that the Triforce is tied to the virtues of the three goddesses: Wisdom, Courage, and Power. From what I understand, balance is the key. One cannot touch it without one’s spirit being in balance between those virtues. Ganondorf’s spirit certainly was not. It fractured; he obtained Power only, which befits his nature. Now, I do not know who possesses Courage. But I believe the Triforce of Wisdom passed to you.

I shook my head vigorously. “No, that can’t be right, Impa. I’m—I’m not wise. I shouldn’t be the one to have that power. Why…why me?”

Impa looked askance. “It is right and fitting that a member of the Royal Family should hold the honor of bearing Wisdom.”

“But—” I hesitated. “But why me and not one of my parents? My father should have it, for his military tactics, maybe. Or my mother, she should have it. No one knows more about the gods than her.”

Impa’s face was lined with pain. “Little one, I—I think we must seriously consider that they may not be able to carry it. That they are not in this world any longer.”

I stared at her a long time. When next I spoke it was choking back tears. “I—I know. I don’t want it to be true, but—” Now I was weeping in earnest. After a while I recovered enough to speak again. “But don’t you see, Impa? I shouldn’t have the power of Wisdom. I’m not wise, I’m not, I’m not wise at all, I ruined everything—Impa, it’s my fault they’re dead—”

“Dear child, no—” Impa began.

“No,” I shouted, “it is, it is. Don’t you see, Impa? I told Link to open the door to the Sacred Realm. I let Ganondorf follow him, I let him kill the Sages— I let him get the Triforce of Power, if he hadn’t had that strength on his side, maybe my parents would still be alive right now—”

Impa stood up, shaking her head. “Not so. You do not know that what happened there has anything to do with their deaths. There were assassins in the halls, Zelda. Were you to have stopped them? Was that your responsibility? To charge at them with your bare fists? If it was anyone’s, it was mine. I failed to stop them. I could only save you. If I had been able to convince more souls of the danger I might have saved them, too. Blame me if you must. But please, do not blame yourself.”

I was quiet again. “Maybe you’re right, Impa, but—either way I just made everything worse. Ganondorf has Din’s might on his side now, doesn’t he? Isn’t he going to use that to hurt people? To put himself in power?”

I could tell by the lines on Impa’s face that she didn’t want to lie to me.

“So then, you see, Impa?” I insisted. “I didn’t help anyone. I just made it all worse than it would have been without me. Link’s stuck there, asleep, and I just made a monster even worse. And now all of Hyrule is going to suffer for what I did. I failed everyone.” I was crying again. “I’m not wise, I’m the biggest fool I know. I don’t know why the goddesses chose me. They’ve made a mistake. I’m just going to fail them again. I’m an idiot, I’m just a stupid kid.” Tears were splashing on my torn dress. “And I couldn’t save anybody.”

Impa knelt down next to me and held me tightly. She lifted my chin up so that I could meet her eyes.  “Listen to me, Zelda. I do not believe the gods make mistakes. If they chose for you to hold the power of Wisdom, it is because they see great wisdom in you. And I see it, too. You could not have known what would happen. It was beyond anything you or I could have expected. But you showed yourself wiser than anyone I know by seeing that Hyrule was in danger and striving to help it. You understood more than even your mother and father. Do you know how few ten-year-olds could come up with a plan like yours? We came so close to pulling it off, too. That it did not come to pass suggests not that you failed, but that there are forces at work here we do not understand. But we will learn of them, my child, and find out what we need to do next.”

She hugged me fiercely. “I cannot begin to tell you just how intelligent you are, how much you impress me every day with what you know. And if you do not wish to call that wisdom, then I understand. But it will grow into wisdom in time, I am sure of it. You will be a great leader and a great woman, and I know it will be true when they call you wise.”

I nodded, through sobs. I didn’t really believe her. But it meant so much to me that she cared. I hugged her back, held onto her like a drowning man clings to a raft. And while I let all the tears pour out of me, she gently stroked my hair, and she held me a long, long time.

Later, as the sun was going down, the two of us turned our attention to figuring out how things stood.

“I don’t understand what happened to Link,” I told her quietly. “Why would the Sage put him to sleep?”

“To keep him out of harm’s way,” said Impa.

“But—but why didn’t they let him fight?”

Impa sighed. “I fear that we may have put too much upon him. Perhaps the Sages saw what we did not: that a child would not have been able to fight back. Not against a man like Ganondorf. Not even with the strength of the gods behind him.”

I was quiet a long time. “How long do you think he will stay asleep, then?”

“Perhaps as long as it takes for the danger to pass.” She leaned back against a rock. “I do not believe the gods are finished with Link. I believe they have a plan for him. And when it is time, he will awaken.”

I thought about this. It reminded me of the story where the princess slept for a long time, waiting for a hero to wake her. Or maybe the story where the king slept under the mountain, ready for the day his country needed him.

“Impa,” I said. “What’s going to happen to Hyrule?”

Impa looked pained. “I do not know. I fear Ganondorf will claim it as his own. I would like to believe that the gods will strike him down before long. Perhaps Link will be part of their answer. But it may be a very long time before the rightful ruler is restored to the throne.” She fixed me with a gaze. “That makes it more important than ever that we keep you safe.”

“What do you mean?”

She watched me carefully. “Zelda, someone will need to rule.”

“You mean—you mean me?” I stammered. I’d known I was supposed to succeed my mother and father to the throne, but I’d imagined it taking place a long, long, time from now, when I was grown, an adult, and presumably knew what I was doing.

She nodded. “Hyrule will need you. We will all need you. To guide us back to peace, back to the proper way of the gods. Perhaps that is why the gods blessed you with the force of Wisdom. We will need the wisdom of a queen.”

A queen…my head was reeling. I tried to imagine myself sitting like my mother in her chapel, draped in a long gown, waiting for suitors. A hot, unpleasant feeling ran through me. It felt so alien, to think of myself like that. Not so much alien to be an adult, to be a ruler. But alien to be a ruler like my mother. To be a queen. At last reaching the culmination of princesshood, found in spooling out my lineage and waiting for a man to come and stand beside me. Nothing about it really felt right.

I bit my lip, and said, “I’ll do my best, I suppose. To help Hyrule.”

Impa nodded. “Good.” She looked out over the mountains, where the sky was darkening into a deep blue. “I have been thinking about how to keep you safe. I will not lie to you. We are in a dangerous situation. Ganondorf’s agents will surely be looking for you. And you are easily recognized. I myself might avoid their gaze, as I do not believe the Gerudo know who I am. But the Gerudo king knows you. He has seen your face. We must find a way of traveling without your face being seen.”

I watched her, uncertain. “What do you mean? You mean something like…a disguise?”

“Yes,” Impa said, after a long silence. “There are ways of hiding one’s face. But I was thinking of something a bit more substantial.” She hesitated. “Zelda, do you trust me?”

“Of course,” I told her. I trusted her now more than ever. How could it be otherwise?

She held up a hand. A flicker of light shone within it, and she studied it closely. “I know some magic that may help us. This is…knowledge the Sheikah hold dear. The Hylian people have never entirely approved of these kinds of spells. But…well, allow me to put it in this way. Would you be comfortable wearing a face different from your own? Or a body?”

And in that moment, the entire world shifted for me.

I stared at her, slack-jawed. “You have—you have magic that can change people’s shapes?”

“I do. But Zelda—I would not want to impose this upon you. If you do not wish to change your form, we can find another way.”

I shivered, and once again I didn’t know if I was excited or terrified by the idea. But it felt like something important was happening. “What kind of things could you turn me into?” I asked, in a very small voice. “Could you turn me into…a bird? What if I was a little bird instead of a person? Would that…would that help me hide from the Gerudo?”

She smiled. “It might, but I would rather you remained human. It would be easier for both of us, and I would not have to worry about you being attacked by hawks or wild beasts.” She paused. “What would be best would be for you to remain a human being, but to look very different from the way you do now. The less you resemble the princess of Hyrule, the safer you will be from being recognized.”

I thought a moment. And then—I don’t know the reason I said it, but I said it.

I don’t know if I was afraid, as a child might be, and trying to process my fear, or if I was excited, yearning for something, yearning to break free into some other part of myself, ready to fight anything and anyone that was in my way. I would like to say it was the latter. But I don’t know. I can’t reconstruct how I thought, back then. Too much time, too many second-guesses, sit in the way. I only can guess at what I really wanted then and tell the story of what I want now. I only know this: I said the words. I spoke, and Impa listened. I said:

“What if I was a boy?”

Chapter Text

Fragment IX: Malon

In the deepening evening, in a house lit by oil lamps and candlelight, a young man sat and ate beside a young woman and her father.

Not for the first time. Not only was it was the sort of gathering that happened a thousand times every year in the towns around this part of the country, as various young men tried to win the approval of various fathers, but this particular gathering of people had eaten together for the first time a month or so ago. And in the time since, the three had found that they quite enjoyed each other’s company. The farmer, the light shining off his balding pate, smiled the secret smile of one who’s come to the end of a long day, and passed around a plate of butter. The young woman, her red hair only glimpsed in the flicker of the candlelight, took the plate eagerly and prepared two buttered rolls. She handed one on a plate to the young man, who took it carefully and took a small, gentle bite of bread. She laughed at his delicate manners, and he grinned in spite of himself. The three were happy. The father was resting his eyes, the girl was teasing her companion, and the young man—

Well, the young man was me, and I was wondering, not for the first time, how I had been so lucky as to come into the company of these people. And if it could possibly last.

“You should have seen him looking after Vonna today, Dad,” said Malon, giving me a gentle nudge. “She’s on her feet again, and getting so much of her strength back already, and today he had her eating out of his hand. I’ve never seen someone get so close with a horse so quick. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he put her under some kind of magic love spell.” She winked. “You haven’t been hypnotizing our horses, have you, Mr. Sheik? If they all grew as healthy as this one, I couldn’t find it in my heart to blame you if you did.”

I smiled. “No, nothing like that. Just medicine and a little healing magic every day.”

“Good work and honest know-how,” declared Talon with a sage nod. “That’s all it takes. But that means you need the right man for the job. We’re lucky to have you here, boy.”

Malon turned to her father anxiously. “Dad, do you think Vonna might recover…you know, all the way? Do you think she might be suited for—for you know?” She bit her lip.

Her father sighed and rubbed his forehead. “That’s hard to say, to be sure. I’d be glad to have another horse we could offer them. ‘Least we could put off losing that other filly you’re so fond of. With our healer here, maybe Vonna will be ready in time.”

I looked at them curiously. Malon caught my gaze and began to fill me in. “For the castle,” she explained. “See, we’re known around here for breeding good horses. Back in the old days, we were always one of the ranches that the royal family used to rely on for their horses. For messengers, for carthorses, for royal steeds, anything really.” She looked wistful. “I remember going up to the capital with Dad when I was little to bring them our horses. Dad let me ride with him, and come with him when we met with the stable masters. And he put me up on his shoulders so I could see when the royal parade came by. It was so much fun. They were so beautiful, the old royal family. Shining in their white robes and jewels, all of them from the king down to the little princess, another little girl like me, but so much more beautiful. All of them riding together.”

I suddenly felt very strange, as if someone had opened up my head and looked straight into a memory.

“Ah, those were good days,” said Talon, leaning back in his chair. “That they were, indeed.”

Malon sighed. “Now…now it’s different, you see. I don’t know how to explain all of it, but…you know how it is. The new king wants horses, too, so after a while he sought us out, but…he’s not really so friendly as the old rulers. He always demands the prices be cheap and the horses be ready whenever he wants them. Not that we don’t appreciate the business, but still.”

“I understand,” I said. “It is not that you do not wish to be valued for your work, but you are frustrated with…this particular unpleasant customer.” By now we had all learned it was safe to criticize the current king around each other, but old habits of evasive language died hard.

Malon nodded. “I’m just worried, is all. Sometimes the king sees something he likes and he takes it. There was a mining town, not far from here. One day the king passed through, decided he liked their way of digging up iron. So he sent word to the capital. Not a month later, the mine head was run out of town and someone from the city put in charge. Now they treat their miners like dogs and barely pay them enough to eat. It’s not right. It’s not right at all.” She grimaced. “I’d just hate to see the king decide he wanted one of our horses. I’d rather let him buy and choose from a distance. At least then we’ve got some say in the matter.”

She turned to her father. “By the way, Dad, there was another letter for you from the stablemasters. I…I guess I couldn’t make out all the details, but it had their seal, and I know what they ask for. You have to write them back right away.”

“I’ll get to it soon, dear,” Talon promised.

She scowled. “Don’t put it off too long. Otherwise they might come looking.”

A number of thoughts occurred to me. “Does it bother you to have the king’s soldiers in town?” I asked gently. “I see them patrolling, here and there.”

She looked at me closely. “Well, like I said, I don’t like thinking of them coming and bothering us in the king’s name, but mostly they leave well enough alone.”

I tried again, wanting to understand. “Well, what I mean is—does it bother you to have Gerudo patrolling your town? I could imagine it being difficult.”

She shook her head slowly. “Absolutely not. Gerudo don’t bother us at all. Why—why do you ask, exactly?” With surprise, I noticed that something about her had stiffened.

Clearly I had gone wrong somewhere. “I am sorry,” I said, “I beg pardon if I’ve given offense. It’s just that—I was under the impression you disliked the Gerudo king.”

“That’s true,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean I have to hate them all, does it?” Both of them were watching me closely.

“True enough,” I conceded. “I suppose I am only wondering if you feel as other people do. I—I hear talk around town. People say many things in bars and taverns, and in their own homes, I suppose. The impression I get is that the Gerudo are…not well liked.”

“What do they say?” she asked quietly.

I winced. “Well…they say that the women strut about like kings and threaten the townspeople with their sabers. That they are coarse and crass and more like men than women should be. Or so other people would put it. Some even say they threaten men and force them into sex, treat them like toys or slaves. And other similar things that are even less worth repeating.”

She let out a long, slow sigh. “Yeah…that’s about what I’d have expected.” She looked over at her father, who gave it a little nod. “Well, most of that’s a load of manure, if you ask Dad and me. People say a lot of things without knowing what they’re talking about. Because of resentment and fear. It’s like this, see? You have this awful king and his foreign armies, and they come in and take over. So people are afraid of any Gerudo they see. Then on top of that, say a few of them are cruel bastards like he is. It doesn’t even have to be that many. Just one soldier who decides she can do whatever she wants. So there’s an incident. People remember it. Word gets around. And suddenly most folk think all Gerudo are evil vixens who want to steal men and set fire to the crops.”

She twisted a lock of her hair shyly. “But most of them aren’t like that, is the thing. I’ve talked to the soldiers stationed here, and they’re just...ordinary people, mostly. Just working women trying to do their jobs. One of them told me about growing up in the desert and seeing all this green for the first time. Another one talked to me about the fall breezes here, said she had a lover back home she missed, and wanted to go back to her when her time was up. Stuff like that. I guess they act a bit different from a lot of the women around here, but…that’s not so bad, is it? They’re not responsible for the war any more than some poor Goron soldier out on the front lines was responsible for the last one.”

“I wish I could grant the world as much charity as you do,” I said. “But when people live under harsh rule, they will grow to hate the agents of that ruler. That is the way of things. I cannot blame people for being afraid.”

She looked at me closely. “There’s more to it than that, isn’t there? The soldiers…they bother you, don’t they? Last time we went into town…you stiffened up whenever they passed by.”

Had it been that obvious? “Yes,” I admitted. “I suppose they do.” I looked down at the ground. “I am sorry, I do not mean to be prejudiced, I just—whenever I see those spears, I am afraid of what they might do.”

“Even if they haven’t done anything to you yet?”

“Their sisters have.” I was quiet for a moment. “I—when my family worked for the old king and queen, I lived in the palace. In the coup, I—I lost people I loved. Family. I lost them to Gerudo blades, and—it is hard, sometimes, not to blame the Gerudo for that.”

Malon was quiet, too. “I guess we have something in common, then,” she said gently. I looked up at her in surprise. She didn’t meet my eye, but stared off into the distance. “The losing, I guess. But also sometimes the blaming.” She offered no more.

Talon yawned and stretched. “You’re a good man, Sheik. Can’t rightly condemn you for mourning those you’ve lost. Can’t blame my neighbors, either. I just think it’s right to try and see beyond the gossip and rumors and suchlike. To catch a glimpse of what things look like from the Gerudo point of view.”

I watched him amble across the room. “Well—as it happens, I do know something of that. From what I gather, when the king took over, he portrayed it as an act of revenge. Indeed, he still talks of his conquest that way now.”

Talon nodded. “That’s right. You know the story?”

“Well, I as I understand it, the ancestors of the old royal family were less than kind to the Gerudo. A long time ago, the tribes were herders, out on the steppes, and the kings of those days—the ancestors of our rulers”— my ancestors, I wanted to say—“drove them out of the steppes and into the deserts. Rather brutally, I am told.” I frowned. “There are, I admit, deep crimes in Hyrule’s past. Our rulers have not always shown kindness along with strength.  Perhaps something like this was bound to happen eventually. Perhaps the sins of the children of Hylia were bound to catch up with them.”

And what part do you play in those sins?  I asked myself silently. And aren’t you passing over them as quickly as you can, so you don’t have to look them straight-on, and think about what brutality really looks like when it’s not just a word in an old history book?

“Anyway, I suppose it should hardly surprise us that Ganondorf could rally all the Gerudo around himself by promising revenge. I do not like the circumstances, but I understand how the Gerudo must feel.”

“Do you?” said Talon simply. “Think you understand all of them?” He laughed. “You’re a smart man, Sheik, but you’re making something simple out of something complicated. All, you said. All. What about the Gerudo who didn’t want revenge? Who didn’t want to follow a greedy bastard of a king to the Hylian throne?”

I blinked. “I was not aware there were such Gerudo.”

“Well, now you know,” Talon said. “Always good to get a little smarter. They were there all right, sure as sunrise. Sure, blood was spilled, and land was stolen by Hylians back in their great-great-great grandmothers’ time, that’s true. But sometimes you just want to move on. To think of the future. To raise your kids and live your life. And see if you can find a way of reckoning with old conquering Hyrule through peace and words, rather than spilling more blood. That’s what other Gerudo wanted, and they argued against Ganondorf something fierce. Even were willing to argue against their old tradition of kingship, because they didn’t think Ganondorf was fit to rule. They’d rather have had peace.”

“What happened to them?”

“Oh, some of them are still around,” he said. “Those who kept their heads down and shut up once the king secured his throne. Others fought, and, well—” A shadow crossed his face. “Some things you can’t fight.”

Malon quickly took up the thread of conversation. “Anyway, Sheik, you should try to get to know one or two of the Gerudo soldiers sometime. Don’t let the sabers scare you, I know some girls who’re very nice. I’ll introduce you if it helps.”

“Yes,” I said slowly. “That would be nice. You are right, of course. I’m afraid my experience with the Gerudo has been rather limited. As you point out, I have much to learn. But I would like to know more.”

Privately, I was wondering if it would be too risky. I could probably swallow my fear of Gerudo and their blades, but I needed to keep far away from their king. I hated the idea I might be foolish enough to be caught, all because I happened to talk to a soldier who happened to pass on the right information at the right time. I needed to be smarter than that. Breathe, I told myself. No one knows who you are here. It’s all right. No one’s even seen your face. And anyway, everyone in town already knows about the Sheikah healer. You already decided helping others was a risk worth taking. It won’t kill you to be kind to the soldiers, too. Probably.

Talon stretched again and ambled to the stair. “Don’t think we’re blaming you, Sheik. You’re a good man, I can tell. Most folks wouldn’t have listened to us this long, not when every day those spears and sabers remind them a usurper’s got his boot on their neck. Or they’d have thrown in their lot with the King of Evil already and turned us in for speaking of him by that name. You’re trying to learn, even when you don’t understand. That’s good. That’ll serve you well, all life long.”

He turned to his daughter. “Malon, honey, you don’t mind cleaning up, do you? I’m headed off to bed.”

“No,” she said, although there was a slight edge in her voice. “That’s fine.”

“Good, good,” said Talon absently. “I’ll see both of you fine folks come sunrise, then.” With that, he plodded upstairs.

Malon watched as he left. “He always does this,” she muttered when he had gone. “He takes every chance to slack off, especially to go to bed early. Sometimes he drinks, when he’s upstairs by himself. More than he should. He thinks I don’t notice, but I do.”

“Is everything all right?” I asked, concerned.

She made a noncommittal gesture. “It’s all right enough, I guess. He still gets up in the morning and milks the cows. And he doesn’t do it every night, I suppose. It’s just that he gets real sad when he starts thinking about the past.” She smiled softly. “Guess that’s like most people.”

I nodded. “I can’t say I don’t feel the same, quite often.”

“What…what keeps you going?” she asked. “When you do feel that way.”

I thought a moment. “That I want to be able to help people. If I can make something better for someone, it matters, even if it’s just a little light in the darkness.”

She nodded. “That sounds right. That’s you all over.” She swung her legs over the side of her chair. “Me too, I guess. I try to make this farm run right. That’s something I can do.”

“Yes. I can tell the farmhands have a great deal of respect for you.”

She grinned. “That’s because I know more than damn near anyone else here. I know all the animals, all their names and their quirks. I know what’s supposed to happen every moment of the day, from sun-up to sun-down, and if something’s not happening, I go find the person who’s supposed to be doing it and make sure it gets done. I pick up all Dad’s slack. He doesn’t mind, really. Even when I pester him about getting work done, I think he likes it. It gives him somebody to do the job for. Anyway, I’ve been learning how to run this place since I was real small, so you can believe I know what I’m doing.”

She looked at me for a moment. “Sheik, can I ask you about something?”

I wasn’t sure what she was about to ask. Thoughts flew through my head. A few deflections and half-truths rose to the forefront, just in case she touched on anything too dangerous. “Certainly,” I said carefully.

The words spilled out of her. “When you were a kid, you used to live up at the palace with all those other Sheikah, right? With your folks? Before the coup? That’s what you said, right? And you said once that you had lessons with a bunch of other Sheikah kids in the palace district, right? Well—what sort of stuff did you learn there?”

I pondered how best to answer. Thankfully I knew enough to be able to lie convincingly. This had been the key to my stories so far. I’d barely ever left the capitol as a child. I knew only stories of life at the palace. But I knew enough about the Sheikah there to know how to put a different spin on those tales.

“Many things,” I said. “History, theories of good government, our ancestral religion, the many names of the gods. How to have a good memory, so that these ideas would stay with us, that we might be able to call them up when needed. But also more tactile things. How to breathe, how to move, how to stay hidden. How to be self-reliant. How to act deliberately. How to pay attention, to the world and every one of its parts, and see the importance of the moment clearly. These are the skills we value.”

She hesitated. “Did you learn…did you learn writing? Reading and such?”

I nodded. “Of course. Many of the royal family’s tutors were Sheikah, after all. We young ones learned the same lessons, in part for our own sake and in part for theirs. Memory has always been our preferred art, of course. But writing lets one speak and listen to words cast across the ages—and that, too, is very dear to us. It supplements our other skills nicely.”

She looked down at her lap, twisted her hands. “Do you think you could teach me?”

I blinked. “Reading?”

“Yes,” she said. “I know a little, but—” Suddenly her words were a blur again. “Well, it’s only that I started when I was small, because there was a tutor there, who the palace had sent out to the provinces to go and teach folks, and when he came to town, my folks decided I should start learning, so I started making letters when I was six, but then—then everything went all sour, in all the ways I guess you know, but other ways, too. And so then the tutor wasn’t around anymore, and the new king didn’t sent out another one, and didn’t even seem like he wanted to, and I got—real, real rusty. I can still make out some words, important words, but there are a lot of things that confuse me. I try reading Dad’s letters sometimes, but it’s slow going, and confusing. And I can’t write my own sentences worth a damn. It’s always a mess and I never know where to put the marks. So I guess I was wondering if you could help me get better, so I can send letters and write messages and whatnot.”

I pondered this. “If your father’s literate, why doesn’t he teach you?”

She frowned. “It’s strange, isn’t it? For a while I thought he was going to. Right after the tutor left. Then after a while he stopped mentioning it. And whenever I’d ask him about it, he’d say he didn’t think it was that important, since most folks around here get by fine without reading, just trading goods and looking at the pictures on signs. Which is true, I guess. But I don’t want to be like most folks. I want to be able to do important things, like make sure everything goes right with the farm. And part of that’s learning to write letters.”

She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “If you want to know what I think…I think Dad isn’t ready for me to know as much as he does. I run so much around here—and it doesn’t bother him at all, he’s real proud, mostly—but I think he worries about me being grown up and not needing him anymore. If he still puts his name on all the documents, then he’s still keeping me from the hard parts, the scary parts that involve talking with the king’s agents. Which would be fine, but…”

She stamped her foot. “He doesn’t—get—things—done! He takes forever to write back, and he’s always sending back replies late, and always forgetting things, and when I find out I have to remind him. And that makes me scared, you know, that somebody from the castle’s going to come here and take things over. When they get tired of all the delays. So, if I can learn enough to help out, remind him of things when he forgets them, maybe even write a few letters myself, then maybe we’ll be okay.”

“You’re sure your father won’t be angry if I do teach you?” I said carefully. I knew I was only here by the man’s kind hospitality. I didn’t want to risk that, especially if it meant making a scene.

She shook her head. “It’s not like he’s keeping me from letters. He just doesn’t want to get around to it. Once I learn a little bit, I’ll show him what I’ve learned and how it’s useful. And he’ll be proud, you can bet on it. I just need a way to get started.”

“Well,” I said, “in that case, I would be happy to share what I know.” A part of me muttered, is this really safe, Sheik? But I ignored it. “We can start going over the syllabary whenever you like. Perhaps we could study whenever you have free afternoons. I also know other writing systems—the Gerudo script, and the old alphabet that some of the most ancient texts are written in. I could teach you any of those, if it pleases you.”

She grinned. “I want to learn everything I can. Reading Gerudo would be really something, wow. Ancient stuff might be a little beyond me, but I could give it a try.” She shook her head, tossed her auburn locks. “Let’s do it. Let’s start with the basics, but see how far we can get.”

I smiled back. “Then let’s find a time and a place.”                                                                                        

Malon was a good student, and within a few weeks her knowledge began to flourish. The lessons were soon just another part of what I did on the farm. Two sessions a week were easy enough to fit into my schedule when Leth and the mare needed me less and less with every passing day. I tended to their recovery, watched their progress back into health and strength, accelerated with a little healing magic. I taught the farmhand a program of exercises I knew that would lead toward recovery, and led the horse through a similar set. They gave me their thanks, each in their own way, and soon were walking around again, if slowly and carefully. It was good work. I made myself available to others at the farm, listened to their symptoms and diagnosed their maladies, proscribed medicines for their illnesses. I became known around the farm and around town as Talon’s in-house doctor. I enjoyed being able to help. But, truth be told, it was the time I spent with Malon that I looked forward to the most.

Malon made good on her promise to set aside free afternoons. Very good, in fact. I’d never seen anyone more deliberate with a schedule. For her it was an act of memory more than anything else—a day or two later she dragged me over to a wooden board hung up in the farmhouse with seven different symbols on it. But there was nothing written beneath: it was a mnemonic device only. They were the signs of local spirits or gods for whom the days of the week were named around here; I’d seen the like before. “See,” she’d say, jabbing at one of the signs, “On Tivv’s Day I always have to meet old lady Claybourne to trade for fabrics, but I can move selling the milk and cheeses to Thremm’s Day, which opens up Wose’s Day for us, a whole three hours in the afternoon…” She could rattle off the entire list of chores and tasks from sun-up to sun-down for each day. It was very impressive, and lightning fast. I quite enjoyed hearing her perform it.

So she made a schedule and kept it, informing me well in advance when she’d have to make exceptions. It was very different from most of my usual practices. With Leth, for instance, the time of our session ended up changing constantly. Not so with Malon. I always knew when and where I would find her.

I did other things around the farm as well. I pitched in with the chores, as often as I could. I answered questions about medicine and nature. After some consultation with Talon and Malon and a few of their close, trusted friends, I began leading prayer sessions as well. We gathered together on certain mornings and evenings and intoned prayers to the gods, practiced rituals, that hadn’t been known in town since the rise of the new king. Not that he’d been making a particular effort to stamp out the old rituals. Rather he just promoted his own, and they were…different. Paeans to Din in one of her most bloodthirsty aspects that most of the people here in the southern grasslands disliked. I disliked them, too. And so together we practiced religion as the old royal family had practiced it, with a few particularly Sheikah inflections. They remembered the beautiful hymns and prayers the old queen had written, looked back on them fondly, wistfully. And I…well, I knew something about that.

So that was my life on the ranch—helping wherever, whenever I could, in a variety of different capacities. Mostly, I just told people things I knew, and it seemed to help. And always, always, the days would come cycling back around to those afternoons with Malon, twice a week, in that bright, summer light with its long shadows.

We held our lessons outdoors, usually. After mucking out dingy, dark stalls, she preferred to spend her afternoons out in the sunlight. I couldn’t really blame her. So we met under the shade of one of her favorite apple trees, and she dug out the old slate tablet she used to practice letters on, along with some of her father’s old correspondence and some old books, and we began to pick up where her tutor had left off. I started by figuring out what she could do; once she began frowning at the page, it wasn’t difficult to see what she needed to learn. So we practiced together, and very soon, she was reading faster and faster. As I said, she was a quick study, attentive and very eager to learn. I loved seeing her eyes widen and her face light up whenever she realized she understood the page. Each type of text elicited a different reaction from her. With the old almanacs she would nod and say, “That sounds right,” as she listened to their accounts of weather conditions and crop blight. With her father’s old mail she would laugh and say things like, “So that’s what that was all about,” and lament that he hadn’t taken care of it sooner.

But what she loved most of all were the old storybooks. There was one that reminded me of the old book of tales I’d had as a child, though it didn’t have the tale of Tir and its binding was cracked leather, old and weary. Her mother and father had read to her from this book when she was very small, and so she’d grown up with a hundred tales of heroes slaying monsters and dragons in her head. She’d known these stories all her life, asked them to be told to her again and again. But until now, she’d never recognized them written down on the page. What had been told aloud, and then lost in the mists of memory, now became for her concrete and real, available to her anytime she wanted. She hugged the book to her chest one afternoon and promised to practice by reading every page. I enjoyed the tales, too. They brought me back to a gentler and simpler time.

The days passed. We reached the height of summer, and our shadows lingered a long time in the long, low sunlight. On one of our afternoons together, the two of us were out beneath the apple tree as always, reading from the old leather tome together. Malon pulled the book closer to her and pointed excitedly at the page. “Look, that’s the word behemoth, right? Be-he-moth.” She was right. She proceeded to read me the whole story from beginning to end as the sun grew lower in the sky. “…And so the prince took the dragon’s head home with him, knowing that the behemoth would never again rampage through the kingdom with its pestilential breath. He brought the creature’s skull back to the palace wizard, who used it to break the spell on his beloved and restore her to her true, human form. They were wed the next day, and the new king and queen lived happily together while their kingdom flourished. Indeed, all those with pure hearts, like the king and queen and their many beloved children, lived happily ever after.” She snapped the book shut. “That was right, wasn’t it? I read it all! The whole thing!”

“It was absolutely right,” I said, grinning from ear to ear. “You read very well. Frankly, at this point, I would say you’re fluent. Congratulations.”

She turned to me and without warning swept me up in a hug, squeezing tightly. I was caught off guard, but after a moment, I returned it just as tightly. She held me giddily. “Does this mean we can start doing other things? Like Gerudo script or ancient writing?”

“Sure,” I said, just as delighted. “Whatever you’d like to study. I warn you, other tongues can be much more challenging. But I’d be happy to teach them, if you’d like to learn.”

She pulled back and nearly threw herself into a sitting position against the back of the tree. She let her shoulder rest against mine. “Gods, I can’t believe it. I never would have thought I’d get so lucky. I can help Dad now. ‘Course I still don’t really know how important palace people write their sentences, but I think it’ll be easier now. Now that I’ve got the words. I can see how other folks write and do that.”

“Or just write down the sorts of things you’d say aloud,” I told her. “You have a wonderful way with words. Now all you have to do is put them on the page.”

She nodded. “I’m not real fancy, but I can talk a mean streak.” She was positively bubbling over with excitement. “Gods, Sheik, you don’t have any idea how much this means to me. It means I can do something around here to keep this place safe. And it means I can read all those old stories all over again anytime I like. I can go visit Prince Anasso and the dragon slayers like they’re family. It’s a danged miracle, if you ask me. You’re a miracle.”

I laughed. “I wouldn’t say that, but thank you.”

“But seriously, Sheik,” she said, turning to me. “It’s all because of you that I was able to get this far. I don’t know that there’s any other traveler who would have taken the time to teach some farm girl from the sticks. Thank you so much.”

I blushed. “As I say, I’m just happy to help.”

“It’s more than that, though,” she said. “You’re really something, you know that? I don’t know if you do. You’re like…you’re like magic, the way you just showed up here and started helping out. You helped Lem and Vonna, you help Dad, you help me. You teach us all about medicine and gods and letters, and you don’t ask for anything more than room and board. You even pitch in with the chores. And they say you’ve done good deeds in other towns before this one. You’re like a wandering sage, what with all your wisdom. Or a shining knight, seeking monsters to slay. I don’t know if you get how rare that is. Everybody goes around all suspicious, and you show up and remind us what goodness looks like. I feel like you might never know how good you are if nobody tells you. But it’s the truth. Forget Anasso. If anyone’s a hero, you are.”

I didn’t know what to say. “Thank you,” I finally mumbled. “You give me too much credit, but thank you.”

She was very near me now, looking into my eyes. Quietly she placed her hand on mine and clutched it. “I don’t mean to come off all strange. It’s just…I’m really glad you’re here.”

With some amazement I squeezed back. “I’m glad you’re here, too. Very glad.” And I was.

She reached out and brushed the pale wrappings round my face. “You have really nice eyes,” she said gently. “Do you really have to keep the rest of your face hidden, though? I bet you’re quite handsome.”

I blushed, although I didn’t know if she could tell. “It’s an old Sheikah style of dress. The medicine men of my tribe have often worn it. The wrappings prevent the spread of disease. And they help us as travelers, too. They protect against everything from mountain storms to desert sands.” For me, though, there were other reasons. I wondered if Malon could guess at any of them.

“But you don’t have to wear them, then?” she asked. “I mean, it’s okay for you to take them off sometimes? If you really want to? It wouldn’t be a violation of your religion or anything?”

I hesitated. “No, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“Then—could you show me?” she asked shyly. “I’d love to know what our healer actually looks like.”

I bit my lip beneath my shroud. For a moment, I was afraid. If she saw my face—if someone knew what I looked like—they might be able to trace the lines of my face, see the royal blood hidden beneath a Sheikah veil. They could put it together with their memories of the old rulers, they could guess at all my secrets. If she saw me—she would know, she would know everything, I would never be safe again, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t—

And then I looked over and saw Malon smiling at me. And I remembered who she was. And somehow, all my fear faded away.

And I thought to myself: If anyone deserves it, she does. Because when I was with her, I didn’t think about all my fears. I stopped worrying about how my past could catch up with me at any moment. I forgot to be afraid of all my secrets. She brought me back to the moment. She made me feel whole.

So I put my fear away, buried it back in the bottom of my heart, and watched Malon’s eyes for strength. Slowly, I began to unwind the cloth wrapping. I tore it away, dropped it quietly in my lap, and let her see my sharp chin, my thin face with its high cheekbones. My soft brown skin. Seeing her gasp of delight, I got brave. I reached up and unwound my turban as well. I let my red-blond, shaggy hair, grown a bit long of late, shine in the afternoon light, and revealed my slightly pointed, slightly jutting ears. I grinned nervously and toyed with the wrappings in my lap. Here I was. My whole face revealed. I couldn’t have felt more naked before her.

Malon was nearly speechless with delight. “Gods, you are handsome. And gosh—you’re so young. I mean, I knew you were, but—I really see it now. You must be about the same age as me, I think. I mean, I’m turning fifteen this year. You can’t be much older, right?”

“You’re right,” I said, still bashful. “I turned fifteen earlier this year.”

“Wow. Gosh. When were you born?”

“Near the end of winter,” I said, forgetting to lie. “My mother and father told me it was just before the warmth of spring returned.”

She grinned. “For me, it was late autumn. So I’m the fall and you’re the start of spring. In the same year. That’s great.”

“That was a good year, then,” I said, surprising myself.

She laughed. “You bet it was. Like a good vintage. They should all count themselves lucky to have grown us when they did.”

She was very close to me now, studying my face with wonder. I felt very warm and light-headed. Had she said handsome? I tried just to keep my eyes on her face, which was beautiful and oh so near, lit up by that big smile.

She reached out a hand again. “Is it all right if I—?” I nodded. Gently, her hand brushed my face. Her fingers slowly glided over my cheek, my chin. I hadn’t let anyone get this close to me in five years. Her touch lit me up like a flash of lightning.

“You really do look wonderful,” she said gently. “You look so brave. But also so kind. I guess you kind of remind me of a boy I knew when I was little. You could tell, just from the light in his eyes, that he was going to go out there and change the world somehow. You’ve got that same fire, even though you don’t carry a sword or any weapon or anything. Maybe that’s what we need right now, though. A man who goes around making the world better with knowledge. A hero. But a real one, not just from a storybook. A hero who heals.”

She put her other arm around me. I could see the light shining in her eyes, blue and big and bright. We held each other’s gaze for a long time. “I always wanted to meet a hero,” she whispered. She leaned in close.

And for a moment, I forgot everything. I forgot that I was on the run, forgot that the world had fallen apart and my life with it, forgot that I had ever been anyone other than this young man, in this beautiful place, in the presence of this beautiful person.

I kissed her. And she kissed me.

We kissed for a long time. Finally, she pulled away. She glanced at the setting sun for a moment, then clasped both my hands. She was still smiling at me. “I have to go for a little bit, okay? Not that I want to, but some of those knuckleheads don’t know how to count cows, and if there are any wandering outside after dark, it’ll be all kinds of trouble to get them back in the barn. I’ll see you at dinner, though, if you want to eat with us tonight. I…is that all right?” She looked at me anxiously.

“Oh,” I said, still dumbfounded. “Yes, of course. That’s what you’ve got to do. That’s fine.”

She gave me a quick peck on the cheek. “Then I’ll see you in a little while, Sheik. Thanks for being so wonderful. Enjoy the sunset.” 

She squeezed my hand one more time and then dashed off, her red hair and her pink skirts swirling around her as she went. I watched her run off to the pastures in the distance.

I sat a long time and thought about what had just happened.

Without warning, reality returned to me. It washed over me in a crashing wave, cold and damp.

What had I done?

I leaned back against the tree and stared at the darkening sky. I hadn’t meant to fall for Malon. Gods, I hadn’t meant to stay very long in this town at all. I’d meant to help a few people who needed healing, take lodgings in a few different houses over the course of a few weeks, then move on. Just as I’d done in all the other towns before. But this one had somehow been different.

It wasn’t safe to do what I was doing. It wasn’t safe to stay in one place for any substantial length of time at all, much less get entangled with the locals. The king was still interested in finding the Sheikah who’d been close to the royal family. He’d slaughtered most of them—us, I supposed—when he’d set up his new regime, even if he’d left Sheikah from outside the capital alone. And here I’d gone telling all sorts of stories about the old ways. If word got around that I’d lived in the palace as a child, I might soon find myself rounded up as a political suspect. Even if I’d been all of ten at the time. Gods, why was I being so stupid?

And those were just the difficulties for Sheik. If somehow, someone figured out who I really was—if they put all the information together—gods, it was just a nightmare even imagining it. It would mean death for me. But on top of that, the end of all hope for Hyrule. It would mean I’d failed everyone once more. I couldn’t, I couldn’t let that happen again. Not because of my own damn foolishness.

I stared up at the greying blue. I had seen my place in the world. I knew how it all fit together, sensed every link between me and every other person in Hyrule. I could see the whole system of the world sprawling out around me like a spider’s web, and I knew, I knew, that what I’d done here could only lead to disaster. There were far too many things that could go wrong.

To think of Malon and her father winding up in some prison cell—starved or hurt or killed or run out of town, all because of me—Gods, no. Let that not happen.

And Talon’s words rang back to me. “If you hurt her...” he had said. Tangling with her father was asking for trouble. And yet, here I was, teaching her without his permission, leading her into a relationship doomed to fall apart. I was setting myself up for a confrontation with one of the few people in town who could draw serious attention to me with his anger. I was risking everything for this. It would be kinder to end things now, before this romance with Malon destroyed me. Before I hurt her.

And yet—I couldn’t. I couldn’t do that to her. I didn’t want to make her suffer. I didn’t want to hurt her. But I couldn’t see any way this could end without causing her pain. The web of possibilities closed around me like a hunter’s net. I was well and truly trapped. And in spite of that, in spite of everything I knew—

I wanted to see her again. I wanted to kiss her again. I wanted to keep falling in love; I wanted to clutch her tightly and never let go. I wanted to be the man she deserved. When I was her, I felt like I was real. Like I really was Sheik, and not just someone else pretending to be him. Because she made all of this, all this fear, all this sadness and solitude, go away. I couldn’t stop admiring her, wanting her, wanting to be with her for the rest of time. I couldn’t. I couldn’t.

I stayed there a long time, stuck in that web of my own making. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go on. I couldn’t go back. Every line I pulled seemed to lead to disaster. And the only anchor I’d ever had was now at the heart of all the threads that ensnared me.

Eventually, I got up, cold and miserable. On top of everything else, I could feel a change coming on. I scowled. Of all the timing—but at least I knew what to do.

Shivering, uncertain, and afraid, missing Malon terribly, I trudged my way back to my quarters, to address the only problem I knew how to solve, hoping to get by for one more night.

Chapter Text

Fragment X: Sheik

“Allow me to ask you just one more time. Are you certain that you want to do this?”

Impa’s voice rang out clearly in the moonlit night. “There is no shame in saying you would rather not, my child. If that is the case, we will find another way.”

I bit my lip. But then I shook my head, resolute. My heart was beating faster and faster. I wanted to follow that excitement wherever it led. “I think we should go ahead with the plan, Impa. It’s the best answer. Besides, I—I’m strong. I’m brave. I can do this. I want to do this for Hyrule.”

She nodded, very slowly. “I am proud to hear you say that.” She met my eyes. “Let us begin, then.”

Impa had me lie down upon a bed of grasses and leaves—the very same bed that I’d been using while we camped out here, though she added further grasses and leaves to make it more comfortable, murmuring to herself as she went. Once my head was propped up on a mossy pillow, Impa leaned over me with caution in her eyes.

“I must warn you…this will be strange. You must prepare yourself for some discomfort.”

“Will it hurt?” I asked anxiously.

“No,” she replied. “But that does not mean it is entirely pleasant. The first time one changes one’s own body is always the most difficult. The body’s natural magic has a tendency toward continuity. At first, it is reluctant to accept magic that asks it to change. With time, taking another form becomes easier, until one can change smoothly and comfortably. Flesh, form, matter—it is like clay. It needs to be worked somewhat until it can easily be molded into new shapes.”

She smiled. “Above all, don’t be afraid. Let your body get used to the idea that it can flow and change. Allow it your sympathies, and know that the strangeness you feel is only its way of growing and learning. Give it your kindness, rather than your anxiety.”

I nodded. I hadn’t expected it would be easy to shed one’s shape, anyway.

“I will begin when you are ready,” she said gently. “Breathe with me.”

I tried to keep my breathing steady, slowing down to match her slow, even breaths. It was difficult, with the excitement pounding in my chest, but I tried all the same. Finally, I said, “I’m ready, Impa.” I wasn’t sure if that was the truth.

Impa closed her eyes and began to whisper prayers in a tongue I did not understand. A glow seemed to surround her beyond the brightness of the moon-flooded night. She placed her hands together, then apart, and held them over my body. Without touching me, she moved her hands over my shoulders, up and down my arms, above my scrawny frame. All about, while continuing to whisper and chant strange words. She seemed to be off in some other realm. I shivered, but tried to lie still and breathe.

After a while of this, I became aware of a strange tingling in my skin. Gentle enough that at first I made little of it. But it grew stronger and stronger, like a warmth spreading up and down my body. From my heart to my head, and back again. From my navel to my toes. Up to the tips of my fingers, and then back to my shoulders. A great pulsing, as if I was an ocean and waves were lapping at all my shores. As Impa moved her hands over me, I realized that I felt it most wherever Impa’s hands hovered, and that the pulse, the rhythm I was feeling, was Impa’s own.

And then mere tingling and warmth melted into something altogether different. Impa was right. It was very strange. And very difficult to put into words. It’s hard to convey what it’s like to someone who hasn’t experienced it.

Put it this way: we are used to being solid creatures. Usually our flesh is stable. Our skin stirs, feeling someone’s touch, but the rest of us rarely stirs with it. To change, the whole body must flow like water itself. For the first time, I felt my whole body moving, inside and out. Nothing terribly frightening, just—rippling. Like the sea itself, swells rising and falling, over and over. I saw my dirty legs and toes shimmering as if I was looking through a heat haze. But it was no trick of the light—my body was actually flowing. Fluid as it had never been before. I tried to keep breathing, tried to keep my heart from pounding so terribly. But some part of me was thrilled, too. I’d never experienced anything like this.

As Impa concentrated on certain areas of my body, I began to feel as if she was indeed working me like clay. Parts of me seemed to swell and shrink. Even my vision seemed to go in and out of focus. A long time passed while Impa moved up and down, all over my body, her hands suspended inches away from my arms, my legs, my face, while my body rippled and pulsed underneath her. I lost track of how long we’d been there, under the moonlight, knew only that the moon was crossing the sky, that I could hear every cricket, every rustle of grass, beneath Impa’s comforting whispers. My mind drifted away, and I lost all sense of what was happening to me. Only the rhythm, the sense of the ebb and the flow remained.

Finally, Impa’s movements began to slow down. Half-asleep, I noticed as the feeling of flowing faded, returned to ordinary warmth, then ordinary tingling. The lightest pressure on my skin, like a breeze on a summer day. Impa pressed her hands together again, then whispered something else. She lifted up my head with her left hand and passed her right hand beneath. Where the side of her hand passed through my tangles, I could feel hair falling away beneath, as if it had been shorn. She laid my head back down again and smiled. “You can get up now, my child. We’re all finished.”

Weakly, I moved to push myself up from the ground and started to rub the dust from my eyes. Then I noticed something strange. My hand looked different. Was something covering it? No, but it was darker. Even in the moonlight, I could tell that the color of my skin was not the pale color I was used to, but a rich tan shade matching Impa’s own.

Impa helped me up. “Steady there.” I felt very strange, and not just from lying there for so long. Something felt subtly different. I looked back at where I had lain and saw scraps of golden curls. I rubbed my head in amazement and felt that my hair was shorter, especially in the back, which felt like it was barely there. Impa, bless her, had cut away the last remnant of that tedious long hair.

“Come with me,” she said simply. I took her hand and walked with her some distance away from our camp. Down the hill a way there was a pond, lately replenished by the recent downpour. Frogs croaked amongst the depths of its cattails and reeds. Moonlight glinted off its rippling surface. I walked with her, feeling strange all the while. My motion was…different, in a way I could not quite describe. Finally we reached the edge of the pond. Impa stilled the water with a wave of her hand. Its face became smooth as glass. She beckoned me to move forward. I went to the water and I looked into the mirror of its surface.

A boy I’d never seen before looked back at me.

It shouldn’t have been a face I knew, and yet there were features there I recognized as my own, too. It was as if I was staring into the face of a brother I’d never met. Lit up by moonlight, I saw the face of a Sheikah boy, with the rounded features and dark complexion of that tribe. His hair was a short-cropped blond fuzz. Even in this light, I caught the flash of crimson in his eyes. He blinked up at me. I realized I was blinking, too. His eyes widened in surprise. I could see him breathing, see his little gasp of breath as he took in the sight. I moved my head to the left. He moved, too. I moved to the right, and he moved again. I lifted a tan hand up to my face, and saw his tan fingers reflected back at me. Everything I did, he did.

Because he was me.

And when I knew that, I saw my face in his all over again, but now it was different, it meant even more. It was mine because it was his because it was mine. Maybe this was the face I was supposed to have, somehow. A face that someone had once planned for me before their plans had gone awry. I touched that face in wonder.

A shiver of excitement ran through me without warning. And then, without warning, another, a shaking, a trembling, up and down and all through my bones. And I realized this was the same excitement that had so often been a part of me, now cresting, breaking, reaching some kind of fulfilment. And once again I didn’t know if I was thrilled or afraid. But it felt like this had been meant to happen. I hugged myself tightly, felt my shoulders and ribs and knees and torso and every part of my body, over and over again. The boy in the pond fell to his knees, and I did, too, shaking. I was laughing, I think. I laughed and laughed until suddenly I felt myself weeping, heaving up something I hadn’t known was within me.

Impa came and sat beside me, and held me while I shook and wept and laughed, not understanding my own racing, desperate heart.

It was nearly impossible to fall asleep that night. I kept getting up to stare at my hands in the moonlight and wander around in the night. I wanted to feel my body moving, feel the different pace of my step, feel my joints flex and my body turn. To feel my own breath entering and leaving, and think about everything that had happened to me. Morning came, and I was at it again, running about, darting to and from Impa’s side. If I’d had the knack for it, I probably would have been turning cartwheels. Being different, moving different, feeling different—I couldn’t get enough of it.

I have to smile at my younger self’s excitement. The difference between my forms is so much…starker these days. Age makes of us what it will, and shapes children into men and women. Now I barely recognize myself sometimes, when I go from one shape to another. It’s a much more vivid change than I ever knew as a child.

All the same, I relished all I was given then. I think the heart of it is, I was simply thrilled to be another person. To wear a different face, to move about in a different body. For years I’d imagined and wondered about such an experience. Now I was living it, and it was even better than I’d dreamed.  No wonder I was running about. I felt so alive. Maybe more alive now than ever. After all, someone new had just been born.

That morning after my transformation, Impa finally managed to persuade me to sit still, and sat me down on a rock near the pond while she sat cross-legged under a tree. “Now, my child,” she said gently. “Listen to me for a time. I want to speak to you concerning your new form.” I stopped squirming and tried to show I was listening attentively.

Her voice was soft. “Do you know why I gave you the form of a Sheikah boy, in particular?”

I thought for a moment. “So that my disguise would be better?” There was something subtly different in the sound of my voice. It tickled in my throat strangely. “If I’m a Sheikah, like you,” I said shyly, “Then we can travel together and everyone will think we go together. No one will be looking for a Hylian girl.”

She nodded. “That is the first part of it. We will say that you are my nephew. I am certain we are not the only Sheikah to leave the palace. Ganondorf’s soldiers will likely have driven many away.”

She paused. “But there is another reason, as well. My child…I admit, on a personal level, it would please me very greatly to teach someone new the ways of our tribe.” There was a deep sadness in her voice. “I do not know if you know this, my child, but the Sheikah are dying out.”

“No,” I said, surprised. “I never thought— there were always a handful of Sheikah families and students up at the palace.”

“And not many anywhere else. It is a long story. But I hope tell it to you in time.” She bowed her head. “One day, there will not be any more of us in this world. I hope to keep our stories and our ways alive as long as I can. It would mean a great deal to me to have another child grow up knowing our teachings. To have another Sheikah among us, if only for a time. And it will help you pass as one of us to know our ways. You will be safe, hidden among us, until the time is right.”

“I do not ask this of you lightly, though, my child. I know it is not what you expected to learn, and I would not presume to dictate to you what you should do during this time of exile. It is your choice.”

“I would be honored,” I told her. “I want to learn everything I can, Impa.”

“I warn you, it will be difficult. There are many challenges in practicing Sheikah disciplines, especially when one starts training later in life.”

I nodded. “I understand. I will work hard, I promise.” I needed something to do, a task I could devote myself to instead of wondering when Link would awaken. And this sounded…well, it sounded to me like a way of making my Sheikah self more real. I couldn’t wait.

She smiled. “I know you will. I would not grant this to anyone, my dear child. We have always been reluctant to bring outsiders into our ways, for too often they misuse what they learn, and tell our stories falsely. You are different. I have known you all your life. I can trust that you will honor and respect our traditions. There is no one I would rather have become one of us.”

She paused. “We can begin your training today, if you like. First we must acquire supplies, of which we are sorely lacking. I have done some scouting around the hills. There is a small town not far from here. Now that you are properly disguised, we may visit it freely. But first, there is one more thing we must attend to.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

She stroked my forehead gently. “Your name. I cannot keep calling you Zelda if you are to stay hidden, my dear.”

That made sense. A shiver of excitement ran down my spine, though. I was getting a new name. “What will you call me?” I breathed.

She looked at me for a long time. “Sheik,” she said finally. “You will be called Sheik.”

“Sheik?” I asked, surprised.

She nodded. “Yes. As you know, it is part of the name of our tribe. But do you know what that that name means?”

I shook my head.

“It means, roughly, the Protectors. We are the people who protect. As we have long protected your family, as I have protected you.” She looked at me warmly. “You will be a protector, too. You have that kindness, that courage in you. That is the meaning of your name, and it is a good one. But when it is said the right way, it also means the one protected. For I would wish to protect you by making you one of us. You are both in one. You will be a great aid to the people of Hyrule one day. And at the same time, you are my dearest heart.”

She took a pinch of soil from the ground beneath her feet. “Normally we would do the naming ceremony when you were an infant, and the whole tribe would be present. In troubled circumstances, though, it is permitted to modify the ceremony. Lie there for a moment, and hold still.”

I held still while she placed a pinch of dirt on each of my knees. “For the earth,” she said reverently. “From which we all arise, and return to in body and form at our life’s end.”

She took a canteen from her belt, poured out a few drops of water she had collected. She let the droplets fall against my chest, then placed her fingers to the wet place where my heart was.  “For the waters, which nourish all we do, flow through us, and connect us back to the source.”

Finally, she took a few leaves from a nearby plant and rubbed them between her fingers until they formed a kind of powder. She sprinkled this above the center of my forehead, then blew it away with a puff of air. “For life and breath, which ask that we strive against danger and respect all that lives and breathes. That we give our attention and kindness to all living things.”

She clasped her hands together. “New child among us, I name you Sheik. I name you one of the Sheikah, of the Clan of Many Roads. I name your patron spirit the hawk, and I name your sacred color as blue. These are my sacred names, and I give them freely to you. Thus are you named among us.”

She opened her eyes and smiled. “We have done it. That is the ceremony. Now let us practice remembering your name. Hello, Sheik.”

“Hello, Impa,” I said, and smiled. I doubted I would forget.

She swept me up into a hug. “You are doing very well already, my child. My Sheik.” She looked at me a long time. “I…there was a time, once, when I thought I might have a child. That time passed, but…” Her eyes were shining. “I have always loved you as I might have loved that child. Forgive me. It is beyond my rank to say to you, but…seeing you like this, as one of my people, makes me feel that perhaps I was right to think of you as my own family. I hope that is all right—”

I hugged her more fiercely than ever. “I love you too, Impa. You’re my family, too. Don’t ever think any differently.”

After a moment, she hugged me back, just as fiercely.  “Thank you, Sheik.”

Before long we were off to town. Impa took my white nightgown and refurbished it into something more like a loincloth. It wasn’t ideal, but it would be good enough to get us into town to buy some other clothes. I grinned as I felt the breeze on my shoulders. No one had ever let me run around with this little clothing before. It was refreshing. I felt a little like a wild animal, a wolf-boy, as I hurried to keep up with Impa’s long strides.

It was easy enough to get the supplies we needed. Surprisingly easy, to tell the truth. The people in town, we gathered, knew that something had happened up at the palace, but had little idea about the current political situation. We passed whispered conversations relaying rumors, most of which were patently false. No one was looking for the princess yet. Let alone two Sheikah travelers.

Impa did the talking, asking around about more obscure items. There was a tailor in the poorer part of town who knew a little about Sheikah designs, and he searched around in his back rooms and found a child’s tunic Impa thought would suit me. I stood before the mirror and delighted in my appearance, enhanced by those blue and red patterns. I felt like I looked very sharp.

As we left the shop, I saw two Hylian girls, about my age, playing in the alleyway. One of them pointed at me and whispered to the other. She grinned and waved at me nervously.

I waved too, astonished. After a moment, I realized they thought I was handsome. I blushed as red as the diamond patterns in my tunic. But secretly I was oddly thrilled. I’d never imagined something like that could happen to me. I probably would have stayed and tried to talk to them, if not for Impa’s relentless footsteps. On we went, on to other shops and other purchases.

By the end of the day, we were well loaded up with supplies, and we left town as quickly as we had come. It quickly became clear to me that Impa intended to provide us with everything we needed to stay away from civilization and live out in the wilds as long as possible. I thought that made good sense: the less often we encountered people, the less likely we were to tangle with Gandondorf’s agents. But I soon learned there was more to it than that.

When we had returned to the wilderness and prepared a small camp, Impa sat me down on a rock and grinned at me in the firelight.

“Now, at last, it is truly time for your training to begin.”

Chapter Text

Fragment XI: Impa

This was the first lesson Impa taught the boy Sheik:

Once there was a young woman who had a strange and wonderful destiny. For she was born upon the earth and all her long life she lived upon the earth, while other men and women walked in the sky.

Her name was Impa, and her descendant in name and purpose stands before you.

The story of the goddess Hylia tells that when war broke out on the surface, the goddess swept up her human children and brought them to safety in the sky. That story is true, but the goddess did not bring everyone. Not even all the humans. Some, those fair-haired, fair-cheeked creatures who would later be called Hylians, went with the goddess.

We Sheikah chose to stay.

We were very different from the Hylians, who built forts and towers, towns with walls and fenced enclosures. The goddess spoke of lifting up the earth beneath these fixed places and bringing them into the sky. Of house and town and tower rising up above the clouds. We listened, and talked amongst ourselves, and concluded that this would not be right for us. For we were not settled people. We moved through the forests at our own pace, enjoying Farore’s blessings, and farmed only what we cared to, always ready to pull up our tents and move to other climes if the tribe thought it best. So we Sheikah spoke to the goddess Hylia and said: We do not need the sky to escape the war. We are clever and know how to avoid the monsters of the surface. Our place is here, among the trees, beneath the clouds, on this green earth where there are good things to be found. We do not wish to go.

Then I will not make you, said the goddess, before vanishing amongst her chosen children.

So we watched the great mounds of earth rise miraculously into the air and disappear amongst the clouds. Then we returned to living as we always had. War faded from the land, with the golden power hidden away. Many, many years passed, until only some among us remembered that we had cousins in the clouds. But a few kept that memory alive. One of them was a woman named Impa.

Born near the end of the era of war, Impa grew up as any Sheikah child might, loved her family and her tribe. She grew up knowing how to heal by magic and how to pitch a tent and how to kindle a blaze from the merest scraps of wood. She was happy. But one day, not long after she first became a woman, she began to have visions. Visions of a girl. Visions of a place in the sky.

It was clear to her that the world was changing, and that the power of the gods was at work in the land. She watched, with her brothers and sisters, as the great mounds of earth rose from Hyrule and disappeared into the sky. Just for a moment, she glimpsed the white goddess striding across the land, blazing with golden light, as she lifted up town and settlement and placed them in their heavenly sphere. And in a rush, Impa understood the signs she had been shown in her visions. The girl and the goddess were one and the same.

Impa talked a long time with the priests and elders of her tribe. They were uncertain what to make of the visions. For the Sheikah were not, then, beloved of Hylia. They knew her only as the protector of walled towns, those pale people who strode through paved streets. She was not yet the goddess the Sheikah called their own. But after a great deal of thought, the elders told Impa that these visions had to be important. The gods were asking some great task of her, and if her task was to seek Hylia, then the Sheikah would learn, through her, to understand this strange, radiant goddess.

So Impa learned to close her eyes and pay close attention to all her visions suggested to her. Every day, the fires of her devotion burned a little brighter in her heart. She spoke with every clan, learned all she could about the lore of days long past. And at last, she knew what task the great gods had set before her.

She would guard this girl, the reincarnation of the goddess Hylia, and she would prepare the way for the people of Hylia to come down from the sky.

I nodded. I’d heard this part before. But Impa wasn’t finished.

She began to see visions, too, of the Goddess of Time, and came to understand that time itself would loop itself around her like a thread through a needle. That she would encounter the girl not once, but twice. Once as a young woman. And once when she was very old. Had grown so old, indeed, that her long braid had curled around itself many times over, hidden beneath the pointed hood of her cloak.

When the people of Hylia had all disappeared, the white goddess called the native creatures of the land together to seal away the demons and their king, a foul shade born before the dawn of time. All gathered to cast the spell, each with their own kind of magic befitting their nature. Impa, too, heard the call. She found many wise magicians and elders from her tribe and led them there. For by this time, some had begun to listen to her, and believe themselves to be part of her quest. So there were Sheikah there too, that day. Never think that there weren’t. Just a few of us, true. But it mattered. There was Sheikah magic, too, powerful and uncanny magic, inside that seal.

That day Impa looked into the eyes of the goddess, and Hylia smiled, and said: I know you, and I will see you again soon. Then she disappeared in a flare of light, a bright pillar reaching all the way up to the heavens.

Impa understood what she had to do.

There was a place, far to the northwest, in a land which was slowly becoming desert, where a strange and alien people, themselves fading, had built a great temple to the goddess of Time. At its center: a gateway.

Following the guidance of her visions, Impa passed through the doors of time and found herself in a vast desert, in the heart of a ruined building. She made her way through the desert and headed south again, still following the guidance given to her by the gods. The landscape she traveled through was different and strange, beyond any world she knew. Only a careful study of the skies and the signs allowed her to pass through the wilderness.

 At the center of what is now called Hyrule, she found another ruined temple, and an old woman who seemed to know her quite well. They waited there, comfortable together, for the girl to arrive.

And when the girl arrived, Impa marveled at her, how shy she was at first, but how quickly  revealed as kind and eager, and fond of animals, especially birds, how she laughed often, and smiled often, and meant it, how a fire would light up in her eyes when she was worried about someone, how when she learned that there was an important task ahead of her, she put on a brave face and bit her lip and said she would do whatever was needed, because it was right—and yet for all of this, there was still something alien about her, an uncanny light from within that showed her as the goddess reborn. Impa marveled at how human she seemed, and yet divine. She marveled at how easy it was to love this child.

So Impa took the girl by the hand, and led her to the shrines the goddess had long ago left on earth, and kept her safe from monsters all along the way, and taught her all the signs she knew, the wisdom of her visions and of her clan, and helped her to remember the goddess she was. Before long, the girl’s friend had followed her to earth. He followed in their wake, and helped to thwart those who dreamed of bringing back the king of the demons. Together, they made the world safe for the people of the sky to return, and the boy and the girl went forth as guardians of the golden power and shepherds of their people.

Her first task done, Impa knew it was time to return to her own age and clime. She said goodbye to the sweet child, her holy goddess, knowing she would see her again one day.

Her second task was to wait until that day.

Impa returned to her people and met, one last time, with the sages amongst them. They confirmed that she understood the task now before her. Before leaving again, she said goodbye to those she loved and gathered the people of her clan around her. They sat around a fire, their shadows flickering on the sides of their tents, as she imparted her final message. She said:

A long, long, time from now, the people who left for the sky will walk on the earth again. They will return because the world has been made safe for them, and the golden power hidden among them is in the hands of those wise enough to guard it well.

Among them will walk a goddess in the shape of a girl, the great Hylia, made flesh and blood and bone, made to be among us. I know that we have not thought of Hylia as our goddess before. We have thought of her as the guardian of the settled people, the ones who took their walls and houses into the sky. But I tell you this: Hylia was never meant for one people alone. She was created for all of us, for all tribes and all kinds of creatures, to be the protector of this land we call our own. For where she walks, the trees grow tall and bear much fruit, the animals multiply and are fat and strong, the herbs grow in the underbrush, and the rivers teem with fish, and their water is pure and clean. I have seen a vision of a great gathering of people, many tribes and races together, under the daughters and sons of Hylia. A land that will prosper, from the forests to the fields. We, too, will have a place in that land, the land our cousins in the sky will shape and nurture.

When they come down from the sky, this goddess in girl form and the people of her tribe, they will need us. They will need our help. For so many years will have passed that the earth itself will seem strange to them. They will stumble, like birds fallen from the nest, to make sense of their surroundings. They will be in danger from the wild beasts and strange creatures that wander the land. They will not know what foods are safe to eat or how to swim across the rushing waters. Someone must protect them. Someone must act as their guide. Someone must be by the goddess’s side as she births a new world into being.

This is what I have done, in another time, in another age. I guarded the goddess and her companions and taught her how to live in this world. Now I give the same task to you. Remember that a long time from now, the sky people will need you. So you must begin to gather all your knowledge and keep it well, and when the people of Hylia come down from the sky, protect them and share all you know. And in the end, we will be one people after all, with two different stories, but the same land that we call home.

I go now to await their arrival. I will pray and observe and learn all I can to help them. I hope that you will do the same.

When Impa had finished speaking, the people whispered to each other and exchanged glances amongst themselves. They had never known someone who had such faith in Hylia, this bright goddess who had always seemed so strange to them. But they could not discount the trust their elders placed in Impa’s visions. Some of the Sheikah were skeptical, wondering if Hylia and their gods could truly be worshipped together. Many others listened closely, though. Some of them thought of their own visions and dreams, and recognized the work of the goddess in them. Some of them believed they could be part of a future land that would grow strong and prosper under the care of the gods. Some of them shared Impa’s faith, in the depths of their soul. They thought that one day, they might come to call the goddess Hylia their own, and watch over her children.

Impa left, then, to return to the temple in the center of the land. In this age it was no crumbling ruin but a bastion of solid stone, only just left behind. It was built on a great hill, from which one could see all the trees of the surrounding forest, and look beyond them to the vast southern plains and northern steppes. Impa walked into the temple, pushed its aging doors open. She sat in the center, before the dusty altar, and closed her eyes and tried to remember to breathe as she had learned. She thought about the goddess of Time, in whose house she dwelt, and slowly she began to feel time itself passing around her, flowing through her, loving her as its child. She learned to be an anchor there, a still point in the universe while the sun and moon and stars wheeled about overhead.

Each day, she would wake, splash water on her face in the nearby river, and forage for food in the forests. She learned quickly how to find the plants that were nutritious and not poisonous, how to set a snare for foxes and rabbits and cook them over a little fire in the clearing just outside the temple grounds. Each day, she would meditate for hours, and listen for the will of the gods. Each night, she would sleep in the niches and alcoves upon a bed of leaves, listening to the winds and the cries of distant animals. She learned how to make the temple a home. Time began to blur for her, one day turning into the next, a cycle of dreams and visions, ever onward.

It was not long until she had visitors. Young men and women of the Sheikah, at first members of her clan, soon many other clans, who had heard about the hermit-woman living in a temple in the forest, doing the will of the gods. Some had just come to gawk at her and see if the stories were true. Others had come to learn from her. They asked her many questions about Hylia and the prosperous land to come, built by Sheikah and sky-people together. She taught them how to breathe properly, how to meditate, how to find food in this forest, how to interpret visions sent by the gods. They sat with her in reflection, novices though they were, beneath the crumbling stones. When they left her and returned to their people, it was with a deep and abiding faith in her purpose. When they went forth from her, she knew that they would teach their clans what they had learned.

And so time flowed, a rushing river, ever onward, and Impa flowed with it. Generations of visitors came and went, daughters following their mothers, grandsons and granddaughters following after them, whole families coming in groups again and again, blurring into one another. Faces she half-remembered, saw with a new crease or a different light in the eyes. She taught them all, whatever they were able to learn. She learned that she was being thought of as the Sage of the Forest. She let them call her that, if they liked. Her hair had grown grey, and her braid grown longer and longer, each year another twist in its long tail.

She looked out on her forest from the great hill and saw trees growing and dying, rising and falling like the teeming of some great ocean. She saw moss running over the walls of her temple, heard the creaking and cracking of the stone all around her. She watched great slabs of rock fall from the roof and the walls, and let them rest where they were, content to have them be. For this, too, was what it meant to know and worship Time. She felt her own body changing, in an altogether different way than it had when she had become a woman, growing older and drying out, her skin wrinkling and changing, her muscles tiring from all the fights they had fought and the things she had done. She found it more difficult to hunt, but that was all right. She could survive on very little now. At a certain point, she found she had grown as small and thin as she would ever be, and took strength in it, as if she had burned away everything but the hard pit at the center of herself, left only with that which was necessary, only herself. She let her breath flow in and out, listened to the silence, taught all those who would learn from her, and flowed with the ebb and tide of the centuries.

And then, one day, after a long, long time had passed, and her braid had grown so long that she wore it coiled around her head, beneath the hood of her peaked cloak, after she had come to know Time more intimately and deeply than a lover, a different sort of pilgrim arrived. A young woman opened the ancient doors and looked around the crumbling ruins uncertainly. She was slender and handsome and strong, and she wore a short braid, with one or two knots in it. And then her eyes lit upon the old, old woman sitting before the altar, and widened in understanding. Impa met the young woman’s gaze and smiled.

They waited there, comfortable together, for the girl to arrive.  

And when the girl returned—when Zelda arrived for the first and second time—how marvelous it was that her name rose up again out of memory, across the centuries!—Impa took the astonished young woman into her arms and embraced her, praised her and told her how proud she was of all she would do, and all she had done.

So it was two of them, after all, who helped the girl understand who she was and prepare her for her destiny. And in time, after the girl and her guardian had departed, other visitors showed up at her doorstep. One of them was a young man clothed all in green, with a shield on his back and a sword at his side. With a smile, she sent him after his friend, and watched and waited as he slew the last remnant of the demon king, to make the world safe in her name.

And though the younger Sheikah never realized it, the older woman was there when the pieces of the sky began to sink back down to the earth, and the people of Hylia with them. By now, Impa’s usual visitors had drifted by to study and learn again. But this time, she sent them back with a message: the time she had spoken of all her life was finally at hand. The acolytes scurried home in shock and excitement.

She knew her waiting was almost done. She had to wait for only one thing more: for Zelda and her friend to return. When the two returned from their last struggle against the demon king and his allies, Impa heard them wondering if they would ever again see the young Sheikah guardian. That was when Impa revealed who she truly was. Astonished, they embraced her. She held them closely, and told them once more how proud of them she was. She told them again what was asked of them, that they build a strong and benevolent kingdom, that they be good shepherds of the land, that they bless their country and keep it well.

Then she leaned back, her task at last, at last, finished, and let the last breath flow out from her body.

And it is told that those who were there that day said that her body dissolved into golden light, as Impa went to take her place at the right hand of the gods.

Meanwhile, in camps and gathering places all across Hyrule, Impa’s faithful were spreading the news that their time was at hand. They arrived bearing her final words, her final instruction, the instruction she had always given:

Protect them.

And so it was. When the people of Hylia came down from the sky, they found a great number of people waiting for them: the better part of the Sheikah tribe, who had kept a vigil over the land all through their absence, who had listened to Impa’s testimony and grown strong in her faith, for year by year, student by student, they had spread her message to every clan and every corner of the land. They met the astonished sky-dwellers on the hill that would become the capital of Hyrule, and they said:

In the name of the goddess, we are here for you, and we will walk by your side.

*

The second lesson Impa taught me, not long after she told me the story of our tribe, was how to breathe.

“There are two kinds of attention,” said my guardian, sitting cross-legged by my side. The two of us were sitting before a stream, watching it ripple and surge over the round stones of the streambed. “The first Impa knew this very well, and taught it to her students. Now, what do you think these two kinds of attention might be?”

I rubbed my forehead. “I’m not sure,” I said slowly. “I only really know one kind of attention. It’s looking closely, I guess. At something like the trees, or this stream. Or like the flowers in the fields, knowing what they’re good for as herbs and medicines, that sort of thing. Knowing what’s really there. I think that must be a Sheikah skill. You always seemed to be good at that.”

Impa nodded. “Yes, that is the first kind. What in Eshviki, the language of our ancestors, is called aset olesh.”

I tried to figure it out. Impa had started to teach me some of this ancestral tongue. I was finding it slow going, but I knew some vocabulary. “Something about…eyes?”

She smiled. “Close. The Attention of Seeing. It is indeed performed with the eye. It is the attention of looking carefully. Distracted by our cares, our thoughts, it is easy to lose sight of where we are and what we need to do. This kind of attention asks us to look closely at the world. Once that is done, we can understand what the situation requires, and respond immediately, naturally, with what is really needed.” Her voice softened. “Take a moment, now, Sheik. Let your attention rest on what you see, and hear, and feel. Do not try to analyze it, but simply to see it clearly. Take stock of the moment and be with it.”

I nodded. We sat there in silence for a time. I glanced over at Impa; she was staring serenely at the water. I tried to focus again. It was difficult not to get distracted. Thoughts raced through my head. Feelings, too. I was still getting used to my body, and at this point its subtle differences felt distracting rather than novel.

I was supposed to be looking. All right. I made myself look at the stream. What was it doing? It was flowing. The water was rushing over the stones, all so round and smooth, and yet there was such a great variety to them, some light, some dark, some grey, some small, some large some speckled, some plain. The water rushed, and I heard the sound of its rushing, a soothing sound, but full of urgency and life. Like murmured conversation, like distant applause. Light—sunlight—was shining on the water, and it rippled as the stream did, flying apart into fragments and recombining again.

Beyond the water, I could see the other side of the banks, rich, brown, muddy earth stained with red moss. I could hear a rustling, and I realized it was the wind, stirring the leaves of the trees all along the bank, casting further shadows on the water. I could hear insects buzzing, the gentle rush of the wind past my ear, feel the grasses waving beside me and tickling my skin. And there were little plants all along the banks, with little heart-shaped leaves, and—

“Very good,” said Impa suddenly. “You have it. That is the first kind of attention. Seeing what is there. Focusing on the world around you, and being attuned to the needs of the moment. You are beginning to understand that, I think.”

I nodded weakly. I felt as if I’d just come up from underwater.

“The second kind of attention,” Impa said thoughtfully, “turns away from the world and toward oneself. We call it aset valesh. The Attention of Not-Seeing.”

“I don’t understand, Impa,” I said. “How can you pay attention without seeing?

“Simple,” said Impa. “You learn to breathe.” Seeing my confusion, she took my hand gently. “Close your eyes, little one, and tell me what you see.”

“Just blackness,” I said, feeling foolish.

“Indeed. Aset valesh means closing out the world to look at what remains unseen. Its goal is to turn the eye of awareness back on itself.  There are times when what you need to perceive clearly is not the world around you, but what lies within your own mind. So easily, the mind churns with thought, with all our worries and obsessions, that we lose sight of ourselves in the midst of that chaos. Listen closely to what I teach you, and no matter where you are, no matter how much your mind spins with anxiety, you will always have a way to come back to yourself again and be at peace.”

“Think of this stream. It is always moving, always churning and rippling so that what is reflected in its surface can only be seen in fragments, flickers of light at best. Now think instead of a still pool. As the wind dies down, the surface grows calmer, until the surface is like a clear pane of glass, so that we may perceive what is reflected there—such as the moon, or a dear Sheikah boy.” She squeezed my hand. “That is what we are doing here: we are asking the mind, always churning, to grow still like the pond’s waters, so that we can clearly see what lies within ourselves. It is a skill passed down from the first Impa herself, who was very good at it.”

I bit my lip. “How does it work?”

“Close your eyes again, my child,” Impa said kindly—for by now they had snapped open again—“and focus on your breathing. Listen to it for a time. Feel it flow in and out of your body. Do you notice how it stops and starts unevenly?” I did, and was finding it frustrating. “It churns with the same anxiety as your mind. Do not try to force it to change—simply let it be. Let it relax as it wishes to do, and soon it will flow more gently. Simply observe as you breathe in. And breathe out. In. Out.”

I tried to do as she said. I felt my breathing relaxing a little, but I was still full of distractions. “Impa, what exactly am I supposed to be doing here?”

“You are supposed to be breathing,” she said. “That is all you need do. For this kind of attention, there are only two things to observe: Your breath.  And yourself. Be patient, and let your mind cease looking for activity to turn to.”

“I keep getting distracted,” I said. “I don’t mean to be thinking so much, but suddenly a thought comes along again and I lose focus—”

“That is fine,” Impa said. “Remember, we are not trying to destroy your thoughts. Only to bring them to a state of rest. Thoughts will come and go. When they do, simply observe them, without judgement. Afterward, remember to return to your breath. That is the still point upon which your mind will rest. Now: breathe.”

I nodded, and tried again. Breathe in. Breathe out. I made myself focus on my breath. For a long time I just held that rhythm. In. Out.

Bit by bit, my breathing calmed and slowed. And when distracting thoughts flew through my mind, I did just as Impa said and observed them from a distance, without irritation, letting them float by like wisps of cloud in the wind. Soon I felt very calm and still. Perhaps I was breaking through to some other state of mind! Then I noticed I was thinking about my calmness and stillness, my state of mind. That wasn’t right. I returned my attention to my breathing. In. Out. In. Out.

Gradually, without really being fully aware of it, I fell deeper and deeper into the rhythm of my breathing. It was like the feeling I’d had under Impa’s spell: a flow, a pulse, back and forth, back and forth. Breathe in, and rise up. Breathe out, and sink down. As I let my thoughts drift away from me, one by one, I found myself closer and closer to the center of that motion. The thoughts dissolved into images. Images of Impa, images of the Impa in her story, images of my new face. Images of my mother and father. Suddenly I was hit with a wave of grief, and I sat there for a while, my eyes screwed up, shocked out of my reverie. But with gritted teeth I pushed past this image, this memory, too. If Impa said breathing could return me to a place of stillness, to myself, then I would breathe. I would breathe.

In. Out.

Slowly the stillness, the rhythm returned, and I fell deeper into it. There was only breath. There was only that flow, of the air, into me and out of me and through me. I felt it in my lungs, I flowed with it like a wave lapping against the shore. I was more feeling than thought, now. Simply this quiet peace. I couldn’t put words to it, and didn’t need to. There were no words right now. I was there.

I began to feel like I was flying. I drifted over something like a cloudbank, light and color that drifted and changed but congealed into no shape. And then—I passed through something. With a scattering of light I burst through some wall of smoke into a place where there was shape, and solidness, and clarity.

I was surrounded by blue. Blue walls, blue floors, blue light everywhere. Waterfalls poured down from alcoves above to turquoise platforms shimmering with dappled light, as if I was beneath the ocean. And in the center? A boy clothed all in green lay on a bier, a little blue shape curled up beside his shoulder. Beside the sleeping pair stood a figure whose face was a polished white mask, who was clothed all in golden light. He stood beside the boy, a silent guardian, watching him with kindness.

The vision faded. Slowly, I came back to myself, and realized where I was. I blinked up at Impa, rubbed my face with my still strangely dark hand.

“Did I do all right?” I asked.

“More than all right,” Impa said, beaming. “You found the way, Sheik. You found it. That is precisely what deep meditation looks like. You learned how to connect with that stillness within you, within all of us. I will tell you I am very impressed with your quick learning.”

“Impa, I—” I didn’t know how to explain it. “I saw something. After I was in that stillness, everything changed, and I—I think I had another vision. I saw Link again, just like before, sleeping in some kind of temple, with a Sage standing over him. I think it was some part of the Sacred Realm.”

Impa nodded. “That is not very surprising to me. Do not forget: as a Sage yourself, your spirit is tied to the very foundations of that holy realm. And the gods have also bestowed upon you the Triforce of Wisdom. I have long been wondering in what form that divine presence might manifest for you. Now my suspicions are confirmed. Many who mediate, like the first Impa, reach a state where they may receive such visions, but it is usually very difficult to achieve. I suspect the goddess of Wisdom herself is guiding your path, through dreams and visions. That is how she speaks to you.”

I stared at her. “Are you saying…Nayru herself is talking to me now?”

“In her own way,” said Impa gently. “What dwells within you is, after all, a part of her.”

“What did it mean, then?” I asked. “What is the goddess trying to tell me?”

Impa thought a moment. “Perhaps little at the moment. She showed you something you had seen before, but more clearly this time. Perhaps she seeks only to remind you of what is at stake. That Link will, in time, awaken. As much as you are enjoying being Sheik, do not forget about him. He will need you. He will need Zelda at his side.”

I blushed and mulled this over for a while. Impa had me figured out, and apparently, so did the goddess. I was having so much fun being Sheik that I was already losing sight of the reason for my transformation. I scowled at myself. I couldn’t let myself make another mistake. I needed to keep an eye on the larger picture. I had to get it right this time.

“Do you think there will be other visions?” I asked finally.

Impa fixed me in her gaze. “I do. And you must listen closely to them, and be ready to act on all that they tell you.”

“I will,” I told her firmly. “And I will be.”

I prayed that was the truth.

Chapter Text

Fragment XII. Flow

Not for the first time, I sat alone in a room, weighing my secrets.

I looked around at the cozy little shack a farmer and a farmer’s daughter had prepared for me. Or, well—prepared for Sheik. I hadn’t made much of an impact on the space. The walls were still mostly bare, although Malon had encouraged me to hang one of her calendar charts from a peg. Beneath it sat my satchel, with a few items taken out and placed gently beside it. Other than that, it looked much as it had when they ‘d prepared the space for me. A little table with a few candles upon it. A simple, if comfortable enough mattress with a few blankets for bedding. They’d given me most of what was here. They’d given me so much, and I—

Well. More than anything, I was a danger to them. And a liar.

I flung myself down on the mattress and stared at the roof-beams. I didn’t know what to do. I’d been avoiding my hosts for a day and a half now. I couldn’t pull it off any longer. The few farm workers I had spoken to were already beginning to ask me why I’d made myself so scarce. I didn’t have any kind of answer for them. Not one that I could let get back to Malon. But I didn’t know what else I could do. I wanted to stay here, I did, it was just—it was just—

If I did, I’d surely get them all killed.

I had to be strong. I had to have the wisdom everyone, even the gods, imagined I did. I had to know the right thing to do, even if I didn’t like doing it. I couldn’t be that foolish little child again.

I stared at the calendar Malon had given her Sheikah paramour. They’d see through me, anyway. Eventually. Sheik was a transparent fake. Just a story I’d been telling people, and somehow, they’d believed me. It wouldn’t last.

Stop it, I told myself. You know what this is. You know this feeling. It doesn’t have anything to do with being fake, or your fears.

This is the feeling you have when Zelda needs to come back.

I sat up on the bed and stared at my hands. They were thick, strong, dark hands, with little pale hairs on the knuckles. Sheik’s hands. I pulled off my wrappings and felt the stubble on my chin. That, too, was Sheik’s. My muscles were his. My red eyes and my dark skin were his. My whole body was his. The clothes, too. Garments for a young Sheikah man who’d never existed.

I was tired of all these things. The body, the clothes, and more. I was tired of running and hiding. I was tired of looking around my shoulder for someone trying to kill me. I wanted out. I wanted escape. Whether for those reasons, or because it was time for it again, I was feeling what I’d so often felt. In the way that came so naturally to me, the wheel of me was turning round to another self. The coin showing another face.

I’d found the idea that led to Sheik within the pages of fairy-stories. And when I grew up and became him, my adventures as a Sheikah so often maintained that magical quality. The fact that they were accompanied by such terror only added to that feeling—for what’s a heroic prince without monsters to slay?

But suddenly I remembered that sometimes, the prince fell into doubt and despair. Sometimes the way forward seemed impossible, and, locked up in some insidious dungeon, all the prince could do was weep, and think of home, and wonder if the dangers and the terrors had really been worth it.

That was me right now, I supposed. Locked up and stuck fast. Even if I wasn’t sure, at the moment, I really fit the model of heroic prince. I missed my parents. I wished I’d never been such a damn fool. I wished that Impa were here.

I took a deep breath in. My breathing was shallow. I couldn’t concentrate. Meditation didn’t seem to be working.

Enough delays. I knew there was only one answer to this feeling.

Escape. Turn the fairy tale inside out and go back to who I was before. Forget everything else. Submerge myself in the merely physical, in my own flesh. Let that affirmation, that magic, be enough to drown out the world for one moment longer.

I tore away the rest of my wrappings. Abandoned Sheikah clothes. Stripped down to a loincloth. That was a start, although my broad, flat chest, marked again by those light Sheikah hairs against the tan flesh, seemed very strange and alien to me. No matter. Soon it, too, would be torn away. The spell was already coming to my mind.

You did this yesterday, some part of me said. Do you really have to do it two days in a row?

Yes, I told myself insistently. Yes, I do. For Zelda’s sake. Now shut up.

I knew the words by heart. Sheikah words, with meanings I now knew. I whispered them under my breath, but still they echoed in the silence of the shack. I felt the energy, pulsing through me. It’s time, I told myself. Back again to the origin.

Here we go.

It was Impa who’d taught me this skill, too. About a month after I’d first become Sheik, Impa sat down with me in front of our campfire and suggested that I try returning to my old form. I asked her why. I watched her face flickering in the firelight, ghostlike.

“Do you remember what I said about shapeshifting magic?” she asked. “That the body has a natural tendency toward stasis?”

I nodded. She stirred embers with a long stick. “Well. As I said, the more you use such magic, the easier and quicker it becomes to change shape. Now, once again it has settled on a form—this time, Sheik’s. We want to wake it up again. We want to make it easy for you to change back to being Zelda whenever you need to. For we do not know at what hour Hyrule will have need of you. If we remind your body what it is like to change shape, it will become better and better at that task.”

She tilted her head and studied me. “Another part of it is the magic wrapped up in growth. If you remind your body of its original form every so often, then whenever you take it up again, it will remember to grow a little bit more. Visit your girl-shape every so often, and Zelda and Sheik will grow in tandem, quite naturally.”

I thought this over. If having to be Zelda occasionally was the price I had to pay for the fun I’d had being Sheik, then I could accept that. “All right. How often do I need to do this? Be Zelda, I mean?”

She looked thoughtful. “Not very often. An hour or so every month should suffice.”

“Does it have to be an hour?” I asked. “What if it was longer?”

She looked at me curiously. “Yes, that, too, would be all right. The change is the important thing.”

“All right,” I said. I studied my dark hands a moment. Oddly enough, I felt like I would enjoy being the Hylian girl again. It might almost be like a vacation. A vacation from Sheik and his training. Which had itself, truth be told, been a vacation from myself. “Let’s do it, Impa. Let’s do it tonight.”

And that first night, that time, it felt right. In a little while—not nearly so long as before, but long enough—I was Zelda again, pale and frail and a ten-year-old girl, shivering in strange Sheikah clothes. And it felt good. That night, I let myself forget about my Sheikah training and remember who I’d been before I ended up in disguise, in the wilderness, with Impa. Back when I lived in city walls. I let myself think of my mother and father, even talked about them with Impa. She told me things about them I’d never known, quirks and habits she’d noticed. We talked about me, when I was little. Things I’d done and said that I could barely remember. We shared stories until it was very late, until the moon was setting in the distance. We shared stories and reminisced, and were glad to be there, with each other. For that night, I was a girl with her guardian. A girl who fell asleep under the stars.

In the morning—back to being Sheik again. And truth be told, I stared at my small, pale hands a long time before agreeing to be changed back. And truth be told, when I was a boy again, I felt a little strange.

That was one of the best times, a warm gleam of a memory. I vividly remember others, though. We did not always choose the right moment to turn me back, you see. When we failed, it was a painful thing.

Once, when the sun was bright in the sky, and Impa and I had spent the afternoon practicing an old style of Sheikah martial arts, Impa reminded me that it had been some time since I’d last changed back. If our goal was to perform the spell every month, she pointed out, we were running out of time. Somehow or other, caught up in Sheikah training, we’d both forgotten it until now

I bit my lip, reluctant. I was perfectly happy just being Sheik at the moment. It had been such a good day. I was learning so much about the old arts, my stance was getting better, and I was learning to duck and weave around Impa’s practice staff-strikes. I’d won praise from Impa by remembering the names of several important medicinal flowers while we were out walking.  And when we’d visited a nearby town in the morning, I’d had a chance to talk with some of the local kids, including a few really pretty girls, introduce myself to them as Sheik, and impress them with my Sheikah learning and tales, before Impa dragged me off again. It was hard to think of a day when I’d been more Sheik. I swallowed hard. I didn’t want it to end.

But I told Impa yes anyway, thinking: if it’s the price I have to pay for getting to be Sheik…

The moment I sat up, changed, I knew something was wrong. I stared down at a strange pale girl-body, and a shock ran through me as if something had been stolen from me. My heart was pounding in the most awful way. I didn’t want to be this girl. Not now. She was someone else. Not me. I felt sick.

“I can’t do it, Impa,” I stammered. “I—I can’t. Please. Please change me back. You have to. You have to change me back.”

Impa looked deeply concerned. “I am sorry, little one. I did not wish to unsettle you. Please, if you can, try to stay like that for just a little while. For an hour. An hour, and no more. Then your body will have time to adjust. I am sorry to put you through this. Can you hold on, for just an hour’s time?”

“I—” I was breathing very shakily. “I don’t know. I can try. For just a little while.” Thoughts were racing through my head. I felt trapped. I felt like someone had me in a cage. Don’t make me go back, don’t make me go back—I grabbed onto Impa’s arm and held it tightly. She held me, too. I was crying a little, and didn’t know if I could ever explain to her why.

“Breathe with me,” said Impa after a moment. “Close your eyes and forget about the change, Sheik. Just shut out everything else and breathe with me.”

I nodded, wiping tears from my face, and I sat there with her, my eyes closed, feeling her chest rise and fall, my breathing falling into time with hers. I imagined that body away, pictured myself as Sheik again, and the waiting became less difficult.

After an hour had gone by, I insisted Impa change me back, and she made no objection. When I was a boy again, I felt myself all over, shivered a bit, lay down to sleep, and passed out in exhaustion and relief, dreaming uneasy dreams.

After that time, Impa and I learned to be much more careful with our timing. When the new month rolled around, Impa would ask me to answer honestly if I wished to be Zelda. And I would tell her the truth, and if I shook my head, no, Impa would say no more on it for a few days. Only if I felt excitement blazing up within me at the thought of being the Hylian girl again would she ready the spell. If the two of us listened closely to my instincts in this way, then it was always a blessed event, being Zelda, and I would curl up against Impa, a happy girl beneath the stars. We didn’t know why it worked. But we knew that it did. So I learned a little about myself, and I learned how to make my changes less frightening.

Why was I like this? It took me a long time to find the answer. But by fifteen I thought I understood, more or less. There is something in us that tells us who we are, how we think of ourselves. A feeling, buried deep within us, in the foundations of the mind. For most people, I imagine it is fairly static. At least when it comes to the feeling of being a man, or of being a woman.

For me, this feeling ebbs and flows like the tides.

I don’t pretend to fully understand it, but I have made some inroads over the years. Sometimes it seems like a thought, an idea, a memory, can send me in one direction or the other. There are times when it seems like a kind of game I am always playing with myself, asking: who am I, today? Or: who could I imagine myself to be? It occupies a very strange place between my will and my intuition. Sometimes I feel I am choosing to be one or the other; sometimes it feels more like this feeling is choosing me. All I know is that when I listen to these feelings, I know when it is right for me to be Zelda, and when it is right for me to be Sheik.

Even with the strange, spontaneous movements of my mind, I have found there is a larger rhythm to it. That there may be surges of intensity, but the larger picture is roughly cyclical. It is like this: some number of days will go by when I am certain that I am Sheik, and I was always meant to be Sheik, and I should never have been anything but Sheik, that Zelda was just a life I had when I was small. A few days. Perhaps a week. Perhaps less. And then another vague amount of time will pass, during which I am not quite so sure. When I feel that I am both, or neither, or would most love to spend my life playing with appearances, moving comfortably between the two.

And then some days will pass which are very difficult for me: when I need to be Zelda again, badly, desperately. When I miss that life I had, and the person I was, and wonder if I ever should have chosen anything different, if I was just a fool chasing a fairy tale. In those times—well, I do what I can to find myself a scrap of privacy, and I give myself the gift of being her again, and reflect on what that means. And indeed, sometimes I return to being her just because everything in Sheik’s life is frightening or exhausting, and I just need a way out, a way to be someone else. An escape. And then, once that time goes by, I will start thinking I could be both or either or neither again, and not too long after that, Sheik will surge up out of those depths once more, supremely confident in his existence. And so it goes, on and on.

Sometimes I think I am a great wheel, turning in the world, turning in my mind, like the cycle of the moon, like the cycle of the seasons.

It is a difficult compromise I live. I have committed myself to spending most of my time as Sheik. He was originally meant to be a disguise, after all. At first, this was wonderful. After spending so long confined to being only Zelda, it was a blessing to be otherwise, and I embraced it. But as the years went by, I began to miss her more and more. To wonder what it meant to be a girl, a woman. To want to find out if there was any of her left in me.

So I came to treasure my moments as her, secret though they had to be, and hold them close in my heart.

The spell took hold.

Impa’s advice had been right on the mark. By now, my body was quite used to the change. I’d gotten it down to only a few minutes. My ambition was to do it in only one.

Every part of me shimmered like water and reformed as I moved my hands up and down my body, letting the energy flow from the tips of my fingers into the rest of me. I didn’t need to give the spell much specific instruction. It was just a matter of reminding my body what it had been a month prior, coaxing it back into a familiar place. Sensations rippled through me as my body reformed. Usually, I was lying down for this, but for some reason I’d decided to sit up. That brought home the strangeness a bit more, especially in my upper body. I tried not to concentrate on the weird tinglings and aches and simply let the spell run its course.

In a moment, everything quieted down and the tingling ceased. I glanced down at the pale body below me. Yes, that was it, all right. As usual, I felt very squishy all of a sudden. As if someone had surrounded me with comfortable pillows, scraped away the roughness and hardness I’d become used to carrying. Not to say I didn’t have muscle, still—I hadn’t trained as Sheik for nothing—but it felt like my rough edges had been rounded out a bit.

I felt an immediate sense of relief. I was back. Or Zelda was, anyway. Some version of me. It felt nice. I half wanted to lie down and relax into my own softness, but I had other ideas.

I took a small bowl I’d been given, now filled with water, and carefully froze its surface over. The reflection made a decent enough mirror. I leaned over the vessel.

A face familiar and yet strange to me looked back at me. A sharp, angular face, with my own arching brows and distinct cheekbones. But a strangely pale face, with blue eyes and fuller lips than I was used to. Maybe a regal face, if you saw it in the right light.

So this was what the Crown Princess of Hyrule looked like these days. Interesting. I always felt strange seeing her again, like an acquaintance I’d run across for the first time in a while. I didn’t entirely know what to make of her. Sometimes I thought her face was gaunt and lopsided, other times I thought there might be some beauty in it.

But it was a woman’s face, and it was, at the moment, mine. And I was grateful for that. I wondered what Sheik would make of it, later. Probably the same thing Zelda thought of Sheik’s moments of self-assurance. A grudging appreciation. But he wasn’t needed here. He had to wait his turn.

As I moved to set the bowl back alongside my things, my arm brushed something soft and squishy beside it.

Ah, yes. Breasts.

I’d been scrupulously avoiding them up until now, trying not to make a big deal out of them. Now I let myself properly look. They seemed all right, as breasts went. Not big, not small, either. Maybe a little lopsided, or maybe I was imagining it. I didn’t know if there were any better criteria by which to judge them. It was nice to see them, anyway. I felt properly feminine. I held one of them in my hand, felt the weight of it. That was interesting. Amazing to be carrying a little weight, a little sack on my body. I didn’t even own a brassiere. Or a corset or anything of the sort. Interacting with them was enjoyable, admittedly. Okay, that, too, was strange. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be in this scenario. Was I the young man staring at the bosom of the girl across the way? Or was I the young woman, wondering why these simple body parts brought so much attention? Well—no one would be looking at me, either way. Maybe that was the answer.

I couldn’t blame myself for feeling odd about them. It wasn’t like they and I ever had time to get acquainted in the way of most women. I only ever saw them once a month. Still, they made me feel like Zelda.

I pulled my knees close to me and lay down on the bed properly. I looked at my whole body a while, prodded it in a few places, ran my hand along it once or twice. The curve of my hips. The slight turning inward of my sides. None of this was anything the young Zelda had really been familiar with. I didn’t really feel like her anymore. Someone else, who resembled her. Her sister, her cousin. Someone who remembered her, but wasn’t a kid anymore. Somehow, when I tried to draw a line between us, Sheik was in the way. This body spoke less of my past than my future. Which…I didn’t want to think about. Not right now.

And then, below…well, there were parts that were not anything like what Sheik was familiar with. When I was a child, I hadn’t made much of that difference, but now that I was older, well…I didn’t know how to feel about it, nor about the weird sensations that ran through me when I thought about bodies, including my own. It would be a lie to say Sheik didn’t think about other people, how attractive they were, wanting to be close to them…and sometimes other fantasies, other possibilities. I didn’t know what I wanted. Sheik didn’t either. I’d fooled around a little in the past, figured out where some of the pleasure centers were. But I didn’t feel right about it, sometimes. This weirdness about me, this coming and going of my different bodies—I didn’t want it to be all about lust. I wanted it to be about me. Thought it was easy to confuse the two, sometimes. Lust was a decent escape in itself. And I wouldn’t have said no to kisses, to more—never mind. This all was confusing enough without bringing sex into it.

I stared at the little cleft in me a while. The funny thing was…people made such a big deal out what was down there, but really it wasn’t all that important to how they saw me. It was everything else that persuaded them Sheik was a man: the muscles and the flat chest and the rough voice and more than anything, the clothes. And honestly, those meant more to me than a bit of flesh. If I left it as it was, and went back to being Sheik in all other respects, I doubted anyone would even notice. Probably not the greatest idea, though. It might prove distracting. Less for others than for me.

It might be interesting to use magic to mix the two…to try different things, odd combinations, and see what I most enjoyed. Not right now, though. Perhaps if privacy and ambiguity ever coincided.

Another thing—I’d never really dealt with the monthly cycle that I’d heard women—other women— talk about sometimes, when I was almost out of earshot. Though I supposed I’d replaced it with my own cycle, almost as regular. I didn’t know how on earth anyone dealt with it. Well, if I ever kept this form—or part of it—long enough, I’d just have to figure it out. Perhaps with Impa’s help. Gods, I was not looking forward to that conversation.

That brought me around again to thoughts of my future. Shit. I didn’t want to think about it, but here I was, dwelling on it again. Someday, if all went well, if I survived everything the gods flung at me, I’d have to take the throne. I’d need to be an heir again, a princess. A woman bearing heirs. That probably would mean the body I was in now would be mine for the rest of my life. I looked down again at this piece of flesh I called myself. I liked it well enough now. Right now it was nice. A comfort. But what about when I didn’t feel that way? What about when I wanted to escape from it, to be someone else, to be strong and solid and male, all the things I’d yearned for through my whole princess-ridden childhood?

What was going to happen to Sheik?

I talked to Impa about it, once. The future, and other things. It was quite the conversation. Half her words healed my heart like I didn’t know it could be healed, the other half shattered it back into fragments. It was that kind of a day.

I was Sheik, at the time. I was thirteen, and growing into something of a young man, possibly a little handsome, although kind of gangly and stringy, with a bit of fuzz upon my tan chin. My other self was growing in ways even more arcane. But I wasn’t thinking of her, then. Impa and I had just finished an incredible practice session. I’d dodged every one of her blows and dropped her flat on her back. My first real victory against her. When she lifted herself up from the ground again, she was beaming with pride.

Tired and sweaty in the summer sun, the two of us sat down on the grassy hill for a moment’s rest. Soon we found we were leaning against the hill and watching clouds go by.

“Your form was excellent today, Sheik,” Impa told me. “You have applied yourself to the stances with true discipline. Anyone watching your performance would say you were a true Sheikah.”

“Thank you, Impa,” I told her. “That means a lot to me.”

She looked at me for a long moment. “You remind me so much of the young men I grew up with. I remember watching them in their fire-dances, beautiful and strong. I wish there were more of them left to teach you their arts. As it is, we are far too scattered, clinging to whatever helps us earn a day’s coin. It is a shame. You would have looked wonderful among them, my son.”

I grinned at her, and she grinned back. After a moment, a strange concern came into her eyes. “Allow me to ask a question of you, if you will. Even if it is one to which I think I know the answer.”

I nodded and let her go ahead.

“Being Sheik…being a young man…it brings you a great deal of joy, does it not? That is how it seems to me.”

“Yes,” I said quietly. “Very much so.”

She stared off into the distance. “I am not surprised. For some time now, I have wondered if you might be what we call deveth-shekai.”

I thought carefully about the Eshviki syllables. “That means… ‘born twice,’ doesn’t it? Something like that? ‘Twice-Born?’

“Yes,” Impa murmured. “That is how we always said it in the Hylian tongue. It was convenient that no one outside the tribe knew what we meant by it.”

“I still don’t,” I admitted. “What does it mean?”

Impa sighed. “Oh, if the great sages of our tribe were still around, they could explain it so much better than I could. There were such masters of the deveth-shekai lore, once, and you would have learned it all from them. But as ever, we are far too few. I will try my best to make up for their absence.”

“It is one of our most ancient traditions, attested in even in the ancient legends. Every so often, a young person would come before the elders with a strange feeling, a kind of vision. That they were not meant to be a young woman, but a young man. Or: that they were not meant to be a young man, but a young woman.”

My jaw dropped. I don’t know if Impa noticed.

“At such a sign, the elders would declare a time of great celebration, for this meant that the clan was blessed by the gods. These young people would be at the center of it, for the gods were calling them to leave one way of life and step into another. With holy magic, we would help them shed their old bodies. And they would take on new forms, reborn by the will of the gods. That is why they were called Twice-Born. They have always been great sages and scholars, holy people, whose lives are consecrated to the gods. That is why they are so celebrated.”

Impa smiled. “I have seen the ceremony twice in my time. Both times there was feasting and color and music for days. One of my earliest clear memories is seeing the wise-woman Rivah in her ceremony, who was such a guide to me later, growing up. I remember how beautiful she was, her long hair at last unbound, her eyes painted with kohl. I remember she danced, and I wanted to dance like her. It was the first time I understood what it meant to be part of the tribe. The other ceremony was much later, for a young man I did not know very well, but the feasting and song was every bit as wonderful as I remembered.”

I was staring at her, stunned. “Impa, I—is this all the truth? This really happened?”

“Of course. I would not mislead you, my child.”

“You mean—” I was groping for words. “You mean that people who felt that way—there was—there was a place for them? No one was afraid of them? They were just—a kind of person? Called Twice-Born?”

“Indeed.”

“And people used magic to help them change? Just like you did for me?”

“Of course.”

I was sitting bolt upright by this time. “Impa, I—I—” I didn’t know what to say. I was trembling all over. “Impa, I—you mean they were really honored? They were revered?”

“My child,” said Impa very seriously, “the first Impa herself was among them.”

I stared at her, open-mouthed. “She—she was?”

“Yes,” said Impa. “That was part of why she was so greatly respected. When her visions came, you see, she had already shown she’d been specially chosen by the gods. She had already gone through a great change, and come out stronger for it. We needed someone like her to guide our path. And indeed, she proved herself time and again, a Twice-Born sage.”

“You never mentioned that,” I said faintly.

Impa looked uncertain. “I did not realize I had left that part of the story out. It is one of the things every child knows about Impa. I am afraid I must have taken it for granted.”

“I guess,” I said vaguely. Then, more accusingly: “Impa, why didn’t you tell me?”

“About the Impa of old?”

“No—” I waved a hand wildly about. “About this. About the Twice-Born. About our tribe. I—I never imagined people like that existed. Impa, I—” I swallowed hard. “I thought I was the only one.”

She looked pained. “I am sorry, child. I should have said something a long time ago. But I was not sure. So I waited, and watched, and tried to understand if what was true among some of our tribe was true for you.  I did not want to offend you with an impertinent suggestion.”

“Offend me—Impa, why would this offend me?”

She looked away. “I am afraid the Hylians have never looked very kindly on our magic. Particularly that magic that changes one’s form into another. We learned very early on not to discuss the background of the Twice-Born with them. When we explained their holy change, the Hylians reacted with…distaste. So we learned to speak no more of it, and they came to know the deveth-shekai only as wise elders and sages. I feared, growing up among the royal household…you might, too pick up that distaste. So I feared to speak wrongly, for what your reaction might be.”

“I wish you had,” I said. “If I’d known as a child, I would have felt so different, I—I wouldn’t have felt so alone. You shouldn’t have to be afraid to tell me things, if I’m going to miss something important. Please, just tell me.”

She nodded vaguely. “Well—I do not know what we could have done when you were small. Not in the Royal House. So perhaps it is better this way. This way you have had the chance to be Twice-Born as Sheik, in your own time, in your own place.”

“Yes,” I said fervently. Then I paused. “But Impa, the Twice-Born—you said their change was permanent? They were reborn by magic into a new form? Forever?”

“Yes.”

“They weren’t like me, then? Changing back and forth?”

“They did not have the same need as you do,” said Impa kindly, “to preserve your true form, a Hylian form—”

“That’s not what I mean, though,” I said carefully. “It’s not just that I am Zelda sometimes, it’s that…sometimes I want to be. Not now, obviously—right now I couldn’t be happier to be Sheik, but—then it all gets strange, and I feel like I’m someone different, a girl again, and that’s when I want to be one. I know it doesn’t make much sense, but—but I really do feel like that.”

I watched her closely. “I mean, you know this, Impa. You know that sometimes I want to change back, and sometimes if I do it feels awful, it feels like the worst thing in the world, but other times it feels like exactly what I need. And you’ve always listened to me when I say that. I know it’s strange, but I’m always moving back and forth. I…I flow, like water. Like breath. And if I just listen to that, it makes sense.” I stared at her nervously. “Can a person be in between male and female? Or both? Is that usual for people who are…Twice-Born?”

Impa looked thoughtful. “I do not know of anyone in the old stories who was that way, but that does not mean it did not happen. I am limited, and my knowledge is scant. Certainly the old Sheikah sorcerers took many forms, and appeared to people however they wished. So it could well be done.”

“Then—am I still Twice-Born? What am I?”

“Simply yourself, my child,” said Impa. “No one should decide that but you. If you think you are Twice-Born, then I think it is a wonderful thing to understand, and you should hold fast to it, for it is yours. But I think you are right. It is not quite the same. It would not do to hold the ceremony for you, to cast your old name to the fire. Zelda is still with you, a part of you, even when you do not wear her face.”

She sighed. “Perhaps it is for the best. Perhaps the gods meant for you to be this way. For you cannot stay Sheik forever.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, hesitating.

“Child.” Impa’s gaze was fierce, but kind. “When the usurper is slain, someone will still have to rule the kingdom. As I have told you, you are the best candidate we have. Your people will need you. And they will need a Hylian queen.”

“Couldn’t I—” I said in a small voice. “If I can’t be a Sheikah, couldn’t I be a Hylian man? A king?”

She shook her head. “No, I am afraid not. For the blood of the goddess is not passed through men. It is passed from mother to daughter, according to the creators’ rites of birth and begetting. You will need to bear an heir, and restore the line that brings Hyrule peace and prosperity.”

“What about Sheik?” I mumbled.

Impa looked out at the forests. “I think you are meant to be Sheik right now. His time and place are here. I think, perhaps, the gods granted you this yearning to be reborn so that you might help the world without revealing your other face, and learn about the Sheikah, and grant healing to those you meet in a time of turmoil. I do not think the young man you are now is meant for the throne. I think that is something Zelda must do. To rule, and restore the harmony.”

“What if I don’t want to?” I said quietly. Then, suddenly fierce: “What if I don’t take the throne?”

“My child,” said Impa sternly, “this is your task. It is not given to you to simply turn away from it, any more than any of us can turn from the things we are asked by the gods.”

I stared at the ground. “I don’t think I can be that person. I don’t think I can be a queen like my mother. I don’t think I can do any of those things, bear heirs or dress in gowns or—or stop being Sheik.”

“I know it is difficult,” said Impa gently. “I wish it were otherwise. But we cannot always have the things we want. Sometimes duty or necessity comes first. The people of Hyrule. This good and growing land, which suffers so terribly under a tyrant’s yoke.”

She twisted her garment in her lap. “Child, I—I once wanted many things. When I was young, I had many ideas about what I wanted my life to be. But I could not have predicted my future. I wanted to be a great warrior, I wanted to become a champion archer, I wanted to travel beyond the western mountains. But I had to put many of those things aside to take up my true task: protecting you. I do not regret it. I could not have known how fulfilling it would be. That I would be called to it, just as the first Impa was called to the first Zelda. It has been a good life, and I have been happy. But it has involved giving up many things. That is the nature of life. That is the nature of giving, of the gods. Do not be afraid. Life will unfold for you, even if you cannot have all you hoped for. And you will be the source of so much good.”

I looked at her a long time. “I hear what you’re saying, Impa,” I said weakly. “But I don’t—I don’t know if I can do that. I don’t know if I’m strong enough for that. I don’t know if—if I’m good enough.”

“I know it is hard to believe, but you are, my dear child,” said Impa. “Have faith. That strength will come to you in time. We do not have to think any more upon it now. The throne is still a long way from where we rest. For now, simply be Sheik. When it is time—when the gods call on you—I know you will face your future with grace.”

I stared at the clouds a long time, and Impa let me be, to watch them in silence.

I couldn’t think of anything to say.

And here I was, two years on, at age fifteen, staring at the walls, still without the slightest answer. I still had no idea how to face my future.

I curled up and laid my head on my knees again, and stared at the shack, flickering in the candlelight. I couldn’t find escape, wherever I turned. Sheik didn’t know what to do about his problems. Neither did Zelda. The two of us were stuck here. Walling off the world, trying to put off dealing with it for one more day. Well and truly trapped.

But then—

There was a knock at the door. After a moment, I heard a halting voice come through the crack in the frame. I knew that voice.

It was Malon.

Chapter Text

Fragment XIII. Impa (Revisited)

The last story Impa told me was the hardest for her to tell.

I was thirteen, and growing even taller. Earlier that day, Impa had taught me how to set a broken bone. We’d found ourselves in a small mountain village, far to the northwest, and were earning a bit of bread by showing ourselves useful as healers and herbalists. We had to be careful about Gerudo patrols in this part of the country, but they rarely spent much time in these tiny cliffside towns, whose people scraped by through trading goods and mining the gemstones found in the rock around here. The old man whose wife had begged our service was overjoyed to find healers willing to set it for a night’s meal and a night’s stay. Now he would not be out of commission; soon he could return to scrambling over rocks and chipping gems from the sheer cliff face, providing some measure of sustenance to his family. He watched from his bedside with amusement as I watched Impa work and followed in her shadow, the young healer learning from the elder.

That night, as we sat up beside their hearth, the family long since having departed for their own narrow bedchambers, I asked Impa about a rumor I’d heard in town.

“Impa, remember when we were talking to those tall old shopkeepers? The ones who sold us linen and fabrics and thread, and had to stoop to pass under the archways into their own back rooms?”

“Yes,” she said simply.

“Well, the old woman looked at my clothes and noticed I was Sheikah,” I said. “When you were in the back rooms, talking to the old man about fabrics. And she told me there was a Sheikah elder living not far from here! She said he lives in a hermitage he built himself, up in the mountains, and meditates on the ice and snow. But he still takes visitors sometimes, and teaches them about his techniques and his visions. Just like Impa of old in her temple. Impa, we could go visit him! I could learn from another member of our tribe. We both could! Imagine what he might have to say. He might teach me about ancient Sheikah magic! Impa, we should go!”

Impa stiffened. “I do not think that would be a good idea. Our excursion into the mountains was primarily meant to show you the local herbs. The elder probably wishes to be left alone, and I do not want to distract you at a critical moment in your training.”

“Distract me? Impa, it would be part of my training! I don’t know why you won’t even consider it.”

Impa shook her head vigorously. “You are not ready for what he might teach you. Here, I can keep you safe. I can teach you slowly and carefully, so that you are not lead astray by dangerous knowledge. Please. Let me guide your path.”

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about at all,” I snapped. “Are you jealous of him? Is it that you want me to be your student instead of his?”

She snorted. “Hardly.”

“Then why?” I demanded. “Why do you never let me learn from other Sheikah? Only from you? We never try to meet up with any elders. As soon as you hear they might be nearby, you turn and lead me the other way. Once or twice, when we stayed with Sheikah friends of yours, I thought I might learn something new from them. But they were just farmers, really. We did some prayers with them, but they didn’t teach me anything about magic or our people, and we just left in a few days. I don’t understand it. I thought you missed the tribe, the ceremonies—”

“The ceremonies are gone,” she snapped. “The tribe is broken. You would not find it; we are all scattered like this, Sheik. We are all on our own. And I will not risk the safety of those of us who hide from the Usurper.”

“But you haven’t even tried to find elders I could learn from,” I pleaded. “We haven’t even gone to Kakariko, where they say some of the Sheikah from the palace fled. Why don’t you want me to connect with our people?” I stared sullenly at the ground. “Is it…is it because I’m not a real Sheikah?”

Impa looked startled. “I—No, not at all. Sheik, I am sorry. I never meant for you to feel that way. If I did not think you should be part of the tribe, I would not have brought you into it.” She was very quiet for a moment. “The truth is, I feel safer when I can teach you myself. For I fear what our elders know. I fear what we are capable of. Truth be told, I am afraid of our people.”

I stared at her. “But we are so small, and weak, and scattered. What harm could we do? To anyone?”

“What we did once,” she murmured. She was quiet for a long time. “Perhaps it is time I told you that story. I think I was afraid of you hearing it from someone else. From an elder, perhaps. It seemed better to me that I tell you myself. But I kept putting it off, lest you think less of us. Of your people. I am ashamed of it myself. If I tell you—try to be kind to us, and remember our loyal service since.”

“Of course,” I whispered. “Please—tell me.”

Closing her eyes, Impa began to speak.

Did you think the story of our tribe ended when the goddess’s children came down out of the sky?

Would that it had, and a shadow never passed between us.

We Sheikah and Hylians were strange to each other from the start. The Hylians stood gawking on the holy mount at the trees and the ruined temple and the little creatures of the forest scurrying every which way. They touched the moss and the soil with curious hands and stared nervously at how far above them the sky loomed, and how far away the horizon was, how big the earth was, how great and terrible its reach. When our tribe approached them, they marveled at our dark skin, our intricately patterned fabrics, our long braids and leather crafts. They stared when we bowed to their leaders, the incarnation of the goddess and her protector, and they had to be told the story of Impa all over again. They were astonished at the dirt on our shoes, the paint on our faces, the way we moved through the trees like squirrels, the way we knew every stream in the forest and could name all its creatures.

We did not find these things strange. They were only natural. We were too busy marveling at the Hylians. At their pale faces and their light hair and eyes. The brightly-colored feathers of the mighty birds they rode, upon whose backs they had sailed down out of the clouds. The equally bright colors of their fabrics, red and green and purple and gold, shining and shimmering, which had never known dirt, never known any hazard but the wind and the rain. We watched how they moved so lightly over the earth, like wisps of cloud barely there, how they leaned back and forth as they walked as if keeping their weight balanced, how disappointed they seemed when they encountered no edge of the earth they might fall from. How afraid they were, beyond all reason, when they met little creatures of the forest, snakes and insects and rabbits, and had to be persuaded that these animals would not harm them. They were a peculiar people to us at first. Well do we remember this in story and song.

But we had come to offer our service to them. To their goddess-girl Hylia, most of all. They seemed surprised to find us there, offering it, and talked amongst themselves, perhaps uncertain whether they should accept help from us strangers, perhaps embarrassed to be thought the blessed children of a goddess. But their leaders came forth after a little while and told us that they would be honored to have our help, for they needed guidance in this strange forest and on this strange earth.

Many truths about that first meeting are lost to time. But it is said that our leaders shook hands, there, on that great hill, and called each other long-lost family.

I wonder, sometimes, if Impa and the gods expected us to grow back together into one people. If so, they were disappointed. Like two species cut off from each other by the changing earth and sea, made to live on two separate islands or on two sides of a great mountain range, we had changed, growing different horns and claws, our colors changed, to the point where we could not recognize ourselves in the other enough to be easily reconciled.

The Hylians declared that they would build a great city on the holy hill. We watched in amazement as they quarried stone and leveled trees, reshaping the land to suit their aims, combined local materials with remnants of the sky-cities. We who preferred to live in the wilds flitted in and out of their towns, staring at their walls with child-like curiosity. The Hylians had strange ideas about men and women that we did not quite understand, and after we could not explain our own to them, we fell silent. We found marriage with them very difficult, as their ceremonies were very different and required them to live paired together in houses, cutting them off from the wild land. It was difficult, too, to raise children of a shared lineage, for they traced descent down long lines through the mother, while we did not see a bloodline as important, so long as a child was properly pledged to a particular clan and joined to its history.

Our words were strange to each other, full of odd syllables and pronunciations that tripped us up whenever we tried to communicate, for our tongues had long ago begun to diverge. We ate very different things, and disturbed each other with every meal. For our dietary code forbid eating any beast of the hoof, pronouncing it unholy, while the sky people had brought hoofed creatures with them into the sky, raised them in farms, and feasted on their meat. We happily ate whatever we could find in the wilderness, delighting in insects glazed in honey, while the sky people found this disgusting, deeply unnerved by the little crawling creatures. Meanwhile, their code forbade them to eat any winged, flying creature—so close were they to the large raptors they cherished—and so they were deeply disturbed when they first observed us shooting kestrals and hawks down from the trees. They cleared large areas of land to plant wheat and other crops, and asked us why we did not farm, concerned it spoke of some deep laziness that we did not bother to toil in the fields. How could we explain to them that it seemed lazy to us not to bother to learn the language of the forest but to plant the same herbs in every land, heedless of their proper place?

No, we could not become one people. There was too much in the way.

And yet, we did not become enemies, either, but companions and friends. The Hylians built their great towns, and we stayed on the outskirts, in the places they left alone, in the wilderness, on the frontier. But we visited their towns and spoke with them and learned about their settled lives, and some of us tried living there for ourselves and became quite familiar with city-dwelling. Meanwhile, some of them came out to the wilderness and visited our travelling camps, learned to be rangers and explorers in their own fashion.

Those of us who were strong in the faith of Hylia pledged their service to the family that would become the Royal Family of Hyrule, knowing Hylia’s power would make this new country of Hyrule a blessed land, both in the forests and the fields. We agreed to be guides and aides, so long as we were not cut off from our lives in the wilderness. And so the great Sheikah clans arranged that their children, as they grew up, would divide their time between the wilderness and the city, learning from their own clan part of the year, while serving as protectors of the royal family of Hyrule for another part. A great flow of our children took place, in and out of the cities, away from the tribe and back again. We dwelt with the Hylians and among them and though we were still strange to them, we tried to share what we knew.

In time, we Sheikah found a distinct place for ourselves in the cities of the Hylians:

We became scholars.

Few among the Hylians were not concerned with the business of agriculture. They toiled in the fields; they spent long hours devising irrigation methods, cycles of rotation, noting the season and the harvest. Even the kings and queens, occupied as they were with the concerns of their country, made it their business to observe the harvests and oversee the sowing and planting, that they might take a small tithe from each farm so as to provide for the inhabitants of their cities and have a store of grain in times of crisis.

We Sheikah had no such concerns. We lived off the benevolence of nature. But we were also called to the cities to serve the children of Hylia. We found that the kings and queens and their extended family did not need all of us to serve as bodyguards—a few were more than enough. So the rest of us sought some other way to serve and to make a living in the cities. We found we had time enough and leisure to study, to teach, and to learn. It seemed to us fitting to make knowledge our gift to Hyrule, for after all, Impa had implored us to give our knowledge to Hylia’s children. So we built schools in the cities and devised new traditions of learning around campfires in the wilderness. We listened to the Hylians’ own account of their descent and added it to the story of our tribe. We took all known creation stories and set them down in their infinite variety so that future generations might know all that we knew. We taught our children to memorize long stretches of these epics, encouraged each child to find a different kind of knowledge to make their specialty. We talked with each other in the forests, on the plains, and in the polished halls of the capital’s libraries, trying to sort through the conflicts among several different accounts, and figure out what was true.

We became the historians of Hyrule.

Soon the children of Hylia were used to seeing Sheikah scholars passing through their streets, carrying scrolls, opening maps, debating philosophy, chronicling the names of the gods. Though we had our own beliefs about the gods, we were soon trusted as experts on holy matters and keepers of holy writ. It was thought we could keep the Hylians’ faith as well as our own, preserve the stories of all the peoples of Hyrule. We learned other skills, became geometers, mathematicians, architects (we who never dwelt in what we built!), became students of the world, of science and nature, trying to deepen our knowledge, to understand. The rulers of Hyrule praised our efforts, giving us titles and wealth, proclaiming us royal scholars, and the people of Hyrule called us wise men and holy women. Though we were not one people, we were happy together in the life we had found.

It was good, but it was also our undoing.

This next part of the story is not often told, though you will still today find many, especially among the Sheikah, who can be persuaded to tell it.

Once, centuries ago, not so long ago that it was not recorded in the annals of history, yet not so recently that there are any alive now who were there to recall it, there lived a young man named Mivash who had a great and terrible destiny. For above anything else in the world, he craved power.

It shames me to tell you that he was one of our own.

Little is known about who he really was. Even his true name is lost to us, for he took the title Mivash, meaning “the great one,” and bade all his followers call him by that name. Such was his arrogance. But what is clear from every account is that he began as a Sheikah scholar, a researcher in the ivory halls of the Hylian archives, studying the gods, studying ancient magic, and studying power. One day he looked at the Hylian Royal Family and saw that they could be the key to the power he craved. He realized that their source of magic and might was at his fingertips, if he only took it for himself.

Have you guessed it, my child? Yes. He coveted the Triforce.

It seems unthinkable now, but in those days the Royal Family did not keep the Triforce hidden away in another realm but boasted of it proudly, making no secret of the golden power by which the gods had granted them authority, emblazoning every banner and tapestry with its insignia. All throughout the land knew it was hidden in the castle somewhere, under heavy guard.

Though possessed of powerful magic, Mivash did not believe he would be able to take the golden relic on his own. Instead he sought followers who shared in his ambitions, and found them in the very libraries and archways of the capital.

You may have heard that once there were dark interlopers possessed of devious magic, who threatened the Triforcce and necessitated that it be hidden away. They were our people, Sheik. They were Sheikah, every one of them.

Mivash travelled throughout Hyrule and spoke to the Sheikah, to his clan, and to many other clans, spreading his message, a dark mirror of Impa, and said:

Why do we kneel and grovel at the feet of the Hylians? They do not understand our ways, nor do they respect them. They extract harsh promises of us and force us to do as they say. Why must we owe them loyalty? For the sake of a goddess from ancient myths? For the sake of a priestess who made sweeping promises in an age long past? Why must we, a proud and independent people, lick the boots of this so-called king and queen? Why must we leave our tents and live in the cold, foul cities they have created? Why must we serve, like animals, like fools?

If you stand with me, I shall teach you all I have learned about magic, the magic which is ours by right, and the power of the gods, which can be ours for the taking. Together, we will overthrow these false masters, and make a world where the Sheikah are not merely shadows of the Hylians, but can truly shine.

And they listened. Not all, but many, far too many. There are clans whose names are only known now from old tales. The Clan of Silence. Of the Delvers. Of the Shed Skin. All these were swayed by his silver words, vanishing into his shadow. Day by day, Mivash undid all Impa had done. And before long, he had an army. Other Sheikah scholars, his colleagues and friends, joined him to add their knowledge and art to his campaign. Together they unearthed and perfected the foulest magic, magic from the dawn of time, magic that had last been practiced when Impa was young, magic that changes the user in body and mind, not for the better—magic that corrupts all who are near it into something monstrous and feral. Such was Mivash, such were his followers. Only a few clans stayed loyal. Only a few clans did not turn against Hylia’s children.

And so the King and Queen of Hyrule found themselves embroiled in a war with their own protectors. Sheikah armies clashed with Hylian legions, and among those few who remained in the palace, nobody knew who to trust. Spies were lurking behind every pillar. Before long, the Interlopers made their move. The king and queen were assassinated by hidden spies, Sheikah who pretended to be bodyguards and aides but were secretly turncoats. Only their children, their heirs, escaped the slaughter by a hair’s breadth.

We who were meant to be the Protectors had become the Betrayers.

Mivash and his followers would have laid their hands on the Triforce within the day, and reshaped the world to suit their image, were it not for the intervention of the gods.

The great spirits of the land, those who protect light and beauty and harmony in Hyrule, showed themselves to the people of Hyrule. They refused to let the foul shadows of the Interlopers’ magic corrupt the world the goddesses had built. They cornered Mivash and his loyalists and offered them an ultimatum: death or exile. There was another world, another realm, which the gods offered to the rebels. They would be forever barred from Hyrule and its golden power. But they would be free to shape this new world however they liked with their terrible magic—even if it would always be a shadow of Hyrule, and they would live forever in twilight.

Some chose death in the face of such powerful forces. Most, Mivash included, took the offer. They stepped through a great gate and walked into another world, never again to see the green hills of Hyrule, never again to think of the goddess Hylia.

I believe they and their descendants are there still, living by that foul magic, eternal apostates in their own private hell.

And though the artifacts of their terrible sorcery were sealed and hidden away, though the spirits of light, before fading back into the sunlight, swore they had rounded up every follower who bore a trace of that dark magic, we Sheikah who had been loyal knew one thing, above all else:

The people of Hyrule could never trust us again.

You asked me, once, about the meaning of our insignia, the symbol of our people. The Sheikah eye, always depicted with three lashes and a single teardrop. I told you that the eye represents attention, awareness, a skill at the heart of all our teachings. I told you that the three lashes represent the three creator-gods and the triune nature of their creation. Yet I would not tell you then what the teardrop stood for, no matter how much you asked me. Now you will understand. It was not always there, Sheik, though you will see it in paintings and sketches of our ancestors, even Impa, for it stains all our memories of her achievement. It was added within recorded history. We who remained added it to represent our grief. For it reminds us of how our love for Hylia was betrayed and how a rift was opened between us and the Hylians. But it also reminds us of how many of us we lost.

With shock, I realized there were tears in Impa’s eyes. “We were so few, Sheik,” she whispered. “After the exiles left. There were so few of us still in Hyrule. Most of the tribe went with Mivash. They believed in his lies. Only a small handful of clans did not. Only we remembered Impa, remembered our purpose. We have been few, and scattered, ever since.”

She took a deep, shuddering breath. “But not so few as we are today. That came later. That came because we tried to prove our loyalty.”

“Impa, I—” I didn’t know what to say. “I’m so sorry.”

“You need make no apologies to me,” Impa said. “If you will forgive the nod to your ancestry—it is we Sheikah who must make apologies to you. We killed your family and tried to extinguish the last heir, just as the Gerudo did in their coup, the same foolish story over again, all for treasure and power. There can be no forgiveness for that.”

“Impa,” I whispered, “You don’t need forgiveness—you didn’t kill anyone. You’ve done the opposite of that. You’ve protected me my entire life. You’ve never been anything but loyal.”

Impa stared into the hearth. “If that is so, it is because I have labored all my life to keep from going down that dark path. I have had to learn to place Impa’s cause above all else. As I said, we have all had to prove our loyalty. I hope I have done well.”

“What do you mean?” I asked carefully.

Impa ran a hand through her silver hair. “I would give my life for you, dear child. And many of us have. There is more I can tell, if you wish.” She took a deep breath before continuing.

When the War of the Interlopers was done, the regents of the Royal Family blamed the Sheikah, as well they might. They knew those of us who remained were loyal, but they could not shake the suspicion that opposition might still be hiding among us. So they changed the laws and rules surrounding the Sheikah. Once we had possessed privilege, prestige, power for all that we knew. Now those privileges were taken away, curtailed to all but the most basic. We were no longer a tribe of sorcerers, but of bookkeepers and occasional guards, and little more. Hylians, more and more, began to fill the ranks of the great libraries. We were so few, we could not object. We were asked to spend more and more time in the city, away from the tribe, under careful observation. The people forgot our crimes and we became no more than a strange relic of the past, an obscure, antiquated race. But every so often, a member of the Royal Family or the elite would pass one of us in the palace halls, and we would see the fear and suspicion in their eyes. They knew what we had done. And they were watching.

Impa stared into the distance. “As my clan taught me, the only way to win their respect was to prove to them that we were still loyal. That is what we have done, ever since, even unto the end of our own lives. We were most respected as soldiers. There, the chain of command could keep us in place, safely under the eye of the commanders. We fought hard, with our own deliberate and practiced martial skill, and we were praised for it. Those of us who made it back were hailed and often hired as palace bodyguards. That is how we redeemed ourselves. We threw ourselves into every war the kingdom fought. Wars of conquest. Wars of heroic defense. Wars undertaken in greed. All of them. That was how we kept the Hylians’ fears at bay.”

“It worked, up until a point.” She sighed. “I am afraid that the war we fought in your lifetime will be our last. It has ended us for good.”

Impa closed her eyes. “We shed life after life in the wars. Our numbers dwindled, until our clans were small, and withdrawn. Until five clans became four, and then three. Three were left when I was a girl. And yet, we refused to quit fighting for our country. For Hyrule. So we continued to do as we had always done.”

You surely do not remember the most recent Civil War. You were only an infant, after all, when it ended. But when it started, years before you were born, there was great fear all throughout the land that Hyrule, facing rebellion on two fronts, was about to tear itself apart. I remember the frightened whispers in the marketplace. The lurking dread. We were afraid death would sweep through the land. We did not know there was worse to come. I tell you, there was almost as much fear then as there is now.

When I was a little older than you are now, a girl of seventeen, growing up around the old village of Kakariko, where some Sheikah clans had built a settlement in the hopes that it would win them the respect of their rulers, I wanted to do something myself to put those fears to rest.

My family was among those who did not settle and farm, but drifted in and out of the odd Sheikah town, hunting and gathering for many months of the year, dwelling in town only during the hard winter months. It was a strange system, but it worked. And as the last remnants of the Clan of Many Roads, we thought it only natural to spend our lives travelling from town to wilderness and back again.

Most of us knew someone who had fought. My uncles, my cousins, my grandmother all had stories to tell about serving on Hyrule’s border patrol, or putting down rebellions on the frontier. Many spoke wistfully of brothers and sisters who were no longer with the clan of the living, who had given their lives for Hyrule. I grew up with these stories dancing in my mind like dreams, singing in my ears like birdsong. I thirsted for action, for combat, for glory. I wanted to feel the rush of adrenaline, to be out there on the battlefield, taking life, guarding the lives of Hyrule’s people. I practiced my skills with the sword, the dagger, the bow, dreaming of being one of the greatest warriors anyone had ever known.

When the civil war broke out, I was seventeen. My cousins and siblings were all signing up to put their lives on the line for their beloved country. As battle dragged on, I turned nineteen, old enough to fight alongside them. I was certain I would taste battle by the start of summer.  But the gods had other plans for me.

Impa smiled, a sweet, sad smile. “There was a young man named Aisham. He was handsome and strong, skilled in all sorts of arts. He spun among the fire-dancers, beautiful and glowing, dazzling the women with his marvelous tricks. He dazzled me, too.”

One day, after the celebration, I brought him fruit I had gathered from the quam-tree, thinking he might be thirsty. He smiled at me, and we began talking, and from that day, I was the most dazzled of all. We fell in love quickly, and wasted no time in living and loving together, sharing our passion and our mutual dreams. When we wed, bound together in ceremony and song, I thought it was so that we might go off into battle alongside one another, fighting back-to-back, our enemies brought down by twin dagger strikes, armies of rebels laid waste before us. That was the way we dreamed.

But before summer arrived, a month before we were to report to the capital for duty, I discovered I was with child.

Aisham and I talked a long time, in hushed voices, in the darkness of our tent. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted a life with him, and I wanted to bear his child. I wanted a world for the two of us together. But I had never expected it so soon, and I could not go into battle with the life of a child at stake. Finally we spoke to the elders, and they told us what they deemed best: that I stay with the tribe, and bear the child. When I realized it meant I could not go to war, at least not for another year’s time, that I would never taste battle-frenzy, never know blood on my blade, I broke down and wept for a long time. Aisham held me until all my tears had gone.

Later, he promised me he would slay twice as many for me, that every time he cut down Goron or Gerudo, he would think of me and I would be with him in spirit, guiding his blade. And he promised me that he would be home by the next summer, when the sun was high in the sky. I promised I would meditate on my task, and come up with an inspired name for the child, and that by the time he returned, there would be a new son or daughter, celebrated in song by the Clan of Many Roads, there to greet him with a smiling face.

Neither of our hopes came to pass.

Impa was staring at the walls. She looked tired, more tired than I’d ever seen her, this woman of restless energy now hollow-cheeked and worn. “Neither of them made it to summer,” she said finally. “I lost the child. Or the child was lost. To this day, I do not know whether I should blame myself for it. Whether I could have done something—something else, something that would have saved his life. All I know is that not three weeks after I had settled on a name, I woke up with blood everywhere and horror in my heart. And I buried little Veshi, who would have been our little Hawk, with the help of my brother and mother, who were weeping beside me. And even in the horror of the moment, even as it was happening to me, even as the soil darkened my hair and clothes, I remember feeling numb, and wondering, more than anything: How was I going to tell Aisham?”

“But he never made it home.”

Almost no one did. Sheikah from all over the country, from every remaining clan, had thrown themselves into service, volunteering in droves to fight for Hyrule. It was so long since there had been a true war in Hyrule, and everyone dreamed of proving themselves to god and king. Fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters had filled out Hyrule’s ranks, as thirsty for glory as I was.  They might well have made it home, were it not for how the course of the war turned.

At first, it seemed like the war might be short, and our blessings many. But the Gerudo and Goron rebels were merciless when we tried to take the fight to their own country. They hid among mountain crags and sandy dunes and outwitted us with devious strategies that picked off our troops, day by day, ground us down to despair. Finally the King rode up to us on his white horse, banners bearing his sign, the scarlet dragon, blazing behind him, and told us that there was only one option left to us. A final charge. We would divide into two groups, push into the desert and the hills, and overwhelm the enemy with sheer numbers. Many of us would die, but in the end we would storm the enemy fortress, and the civil war would be ended. Our deaths would return peace to Hyrule.

And the king chose the Sheikah contingent to lead the attack.

Impa watched the flames quietly. “He was right. It ended the war. But no army of Hyrule had ever known such losses. Hylians, Zora, others—despite their losses, they were not changed by the war. We Sheikah were. We bore the brunt of the deaths. It was Sheikah who laid down their lives to storm the palaces of the Gerudo, whose bodies fell in the mountains and lie buried in the canyons to this day. When we who had stayed at home heard what had happened, it sounded impossible. But it was so. Only a fraction of the Sheikah who went off to war returned home again, and they returned home deeply changed. I was not the only one who’d been naïve. None of us knew until that day that the cost of war is not borne by those who give their lives. It is borne by those who survive, and live through the suffering of losing all those who die in glory.”

“The Sheikah who survive today are the elders and children and the wounded, those who were too sick to serve, those who had obligations elsewhere. Them, and a few who returned home, having seen everyone around them cut down in a shower of blood. That is why we are broken. That is why the tribes and clans will soon be no more. We gave our lives. And in the end, we gave our tribe. That is how our story will end.”

Impa stared out the window, watching flurries of snow twist and change, descending through the frigid air. “As for myself, I lived in a kind of haze for a year or two.  Then, one day, the fog cleared enough for me to think: I cannot go on like this. I knew I needed something, anything, to give me a purpose. So at last I came out of my tent and began to converse with the other members of my grieving tribe once more. I talked a long time with my family, with the elders, who now outnumbered the young people of our clan. I had lost my taste for war, but not for serving Hyrule. I wanted some way to help this country, to help protect it as all those I had loved and lost had done.

“Someone put me in touch with the teachers I had known when I studied in the capital as a young woman, and they, in turn, put me in touch with the King and Queen of Hyrule. I learned they were looking for someone to be a nursemaid to their infant child. Who could be both a tutor and a protector. I presented myself to them, told them all I knew of martial art and all I had learned of the history of Hyrule. And the white-haired king and the radiant queen listened closely to all I told them I could do.”

She turned to me and smiled. “And when they presented their heir to me, I looked down into your eyes, and a warmth stirred in me that I had not known in a long time. And I thought: Yes, I could love this child.”

“I have tried to do right by you ever since. To be both your teacher and your guardian, to keep you safe from all the evils of this world. I could never have foreseen all that would befall us, and I have had to make many difficult decisions. I am not sure I always chose rightly. But in the end, I hope I have done right by you. I hope you will forgive me for my failures, and our ancestors for theirs. I have tried to make up for their sins, in whatever small, fleeting way I can. I do not know if I have succeeded. But I hope so. And above all, I am glad to have known you. I love you, my child, and I will always be by your side should you need me.”

I was crying now, myself, wiping tears from my eyes. I felt rather embarrassed about it. “Impa—Impa, I love you, too. Of course you’re forgiven. There’s nothing to forgive—you’ve done everything right. I couldn’t have asked for anyone more perfect. I—I’m so sorry you had to go through—everything, all of it. It wasn’t right that you had to suffer.”

I took a deep breath and wiped my face before continuing. “My father—my own father was the king fighting that war. It wasn’t right of him to make you suffer like that. How could he ask that of the Sheikah? How could he ask that of anyone? He had no right.”

“Do not think I am complaining, my child,” said Impa softly. “I do not blame him, nor do I blame the gods. To pay the cost of our past, we Sheikah wanted to give ourselves to Hyrule in battle. It is not surprising that we did so. Even unto the extinction of our race. It is fitting, in its way. It is what we wanted, even at that steep price. It is only that none of us knew how painful it would be to bear it. But I accept that pain even as I feel it twist in me. I do not regret my life. It brought me to you.”

“I know,” I choked, “but Impa, it still isn’t fair—that you should have to pay that cost. You shouldn’t have to die in droves for my stupid blood, for something people you never even met did centuries and centuries ago. My family shouldn’t have ever asked it of you. All that pain, all that dying—no one should be asked to bear that. By anyone.”

Impa looked away. “I think we all would have borne it, and gladly, just to believe, for a while, that the darkness that lived in Mivash and his followers would never rise up in us again like a curse.”

I shook my head. “But I don’t think you’re cursed, Impa. You’ve never been anything but kind and brave and beautiful and wise, and I love you for it, I love you so much, and nobody should fear you or blame you for anything, because you’re good, Impa, I’ve never known anyone else so good.”

“Oh, child,” said Impa wistfully. “You are so kind to say that. But the past marks us whether we like it or not.”

“Then—” I suddenly stood up, defiant. “Then this is what I think about the past. I think that the Sheikah who chose not to rebel, who stayed behind, aren’t a cursed people, but a blessed one. That they were the true heirs of the ancient Impa, and could only be the ancestors of a brave and wonderful people, like my Impa, and that’s what made the Sheikah so brave and good for all these years. And I think, back then, one of my ancestors was afraid of you, some king or another, and he lied to you about who you were, because he wanted you to be afraid of yourselves, and he persuaded the world, but it was a lie this whole time, Impa, this whole time.” I kicked at the crumbling side of the hearth. “And I don’t know if I have the power, but if my family told that lie, then I’m going to stop telling it.” I wheeled around to face her. “I release you, Impa. The Sheikah don’t owe anything to anyone. Any debt that you could have had has been paid a thousand times in my own lifetime. That’s what I believe, and that’s what I’m going to tell everyone, if I ever make it to the throne.”

Impa hugged me tightly. “Oh, child, I do not know if what you say is true, but—” She leaned back, and I saw that there were tears in her eyes. “I cannot tell you how much it means to me, to all who are left of our tribe, to hear it said. Thank you.” I hugged her back, just as tightly.

After a while, I said, in a small voice: “I guess, for all my talk about being a true Sheikah, I don’t seem much like one now, do I? Talking about my Hylian family and lineage and all.”

Impa turned her head to the side and looked at me a while. “To my mind,” she said firmly, “you have shown yourself as a Sheikah now than ever.”

“Really?” I asked, uncertain.

“Yes,” she said simply. “Kindness. Courage. Helping others see themselves in a brighter light. Devotion to a good cause, to those who have given you goodness. Love. These are all the things that Impa believed in. You have learned about these values in your training, under Sheikah guidance, practiced them, and made them a part of yourself. That is what makes you and I who we are. That is what makes us Sheikah.”

She smiled. “You are growing into a kind and brave young man. A young man any of the people of my clan would have been proud of. And I have no doubt that wherever you go in your life to come, no matter who you are, you will carry that goodness with you, and make Hyrule a better land for your presence. I am certain of it.”

“And, you know, I think you are right,” she said, settling back down into a corner near the fire. “It is time you broadened your knowledge under other tutors than myself. I alone can only teach you so much.” She winked. “Whatever praise you may have for my merits. Let us go, then, and visit the elder on the mountainside. Let us see what he can tell you about our magic and our people. You deserve to know your heritage. The good and the bad of it alike. And it is truly yours, Sheik. That is the message I will give to you. You are Sheikah, and you deserve to know what that means and who you are.”

“You really mean it, Impa?” I asked, with undisguised delight.

“I do, my child,” she said. “You were quite right. You saw it before I did. At times—at times I think you are far wiser than I.”

Before we drifted off to sleep, I heard Impa whisper one thing more in the flickering firelight. “Perhaps—perhaps for there to be a child who is both Sheikah and Hylian, for us to know such a child, might be the gods’ way of offering forgiveness.” I didn’t know whether she was saying it to herself or to me, but I smiled all the same in the long shadows.

We slept.

Chapter Text

Fragment XIV: Stay

A young woman sat alone in a shack, more or less naked, her eyes widening in surprise to hear the voice of another young woman she knew very well coming through the door.

I scrambled backwards and instinctively reached for some blankets to cover myself. Then I remembered that the door was locked. Well. This was going well.

“Sheik?” asked Malon’s voice uncertainly. She knocked again, three times. “Are you in there?” I didn’t respond, although some part of me wanted to. But I knew my voice would sound different. I didn’t know how to answer her.

“It’s me,” she said, after a moment. “You know, Malon?” Silence for a moment. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you or anything, it’s just that…I haven’t seen you around at all. Not at meals or outside or anywhere. So I guess I was wondering if you were here.” Silence again.

“I mean…I guess I’m a little worried about you, you know? I guess I shouldn’t be, since some of the hands said they’ve seen you around, here and there. Getting water from the well. Gathering herbs in the hills. So you’re probably fine. But I haven’t seen you at all. Neither has Dad. And I just want to think you’re all right.”

She was quiet for a long time, to the point where I wondered if she’d slipped away without my hearing her footsteps.

“Did—did I do something wrong?” she asked finally, very quietly. “It’s only that I thought you and I were going to have dinner together again, and you never came. I waited for you a long time, until the sun had set, and Dad had gone to bed. And still, I was there, thinking—he’s just been delayed. He’ll be here soon. Until finally I had to go to bed, too. And I spent the whole night staring at the ceiling, wondering what had gone wrong. I spent half the night wondering if something had happened to you. And I spent the other half wondering if I’d done something to scare you away. And honestly I didn’t know which one was worse. When I got up and heard from the hands that you were all right, I was left with just thinking I’d screwed up somehow.” She paused. “Anyway, that hurt. That hurt a lot, and I don’t mind you knowing it.”

“Only it doesn’t make any sense to me, because…” She seemed to steady herself with a breath. “Because I thought the other day, when we—when we kissed, that you liked me, I mean, really liked me, and I don’t know why you would have kissed me if you didn’t want to, and I don’t know why you would want to kiss me if you didn’t like me. Unless—unless you were just pretending, because you didn’t want to say no. That’s probably it, isn’t it?” I was shocked to realize she was stifling a sob. “That’d be typical old me. Never knowing when to keep her damn mouth shut. Just a stupid bossy girl, just like I was as a kid. Just that bossy bitch, which is what some of the hands call me when they think I can’t hear them. It’d be just like her to rope a man and make him her slave. Just like her bloody mother. That’s what they’ll say. Only—” her voice broke slightly— “Gods, I hope that isn’t true, because I was really—really hoping that I wasn’t making you do anything, that there was a boy out there who could really, actually like me. And I don’t want it to be that I was just imagining things. But I probably was.”

I slumped against the wall. How could I have made her feel this way? Gods, I wanted to answer her. But I couldn’t.

There was another pause. “Oh, damn, damn, damn,” she cried. “I forgot. You have your Sheikah rituals. You need privacy. That’s why we gave you the bloody shack in the first place. I’m a godsdamned fool. I’ve probably just interrupted you at your meditations or something. I’m an idiot, I’ll go—I’ll go and leave you alone—” I heard her shifting her weight to go.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t take it any longer. “Wait!” I cried out, unable to stop myself. Some part of me, aware that I really shouldn’t be doing this, attempted to disguise my voice. The result was decidedly mixed. My cry came out in a very strange, throaty rasp. It didn’t really sound like a woman’s voice, but it didn’t sound much like Sheik, either.

Malon stopped. “Sheik? Are you sick?” There was the faintest hint of relief in her voice.

“Yes,” I improvised. “Sort of. I can’t talk right now. Because of the ritual.”

“A Sheikah ritual?”

“Yes,” I rasped in that weird voice. It was technically true, if you took a very broad notion of deveth-shekai ceremonies.  “But—I want to talk.” I surprised myself saying it. But I pressed on. “Tomorrow morning.”

Malon was quiet for a moment. “Fine. Tomorrow morning. Come to the stables. You know I’ll be there.”

“All right,” I whispered hoarsely.

“You’d better show up this time, healer boy,” she said wryly. “Or I’ll barge on you next time, ritual or not.”

“Understood,” I rasped. “Thank you.”

“All right,” she said. She let out a slow, shaky sigh. “I’ll see you then.” After a moment, I heard her footsteps as she made her way back to the farmhouse.

I stared at the door as if she was still on the other side of it. Part of me said, run. Run far away from all of this and stay safe. Keep her safe.

But all I was doing was hurting her. I owed her an answer. Some kind of answer.

All right, I said to the gods, defeated. I felt exhausted. You win. I’ll take action. I looked down at my all-too-feminine body. I still had to figure out what that action would be.

I sat up straight, crossed my legs, rested my hands on my knees. Closed my eyes.

Listen to the silence.

Breathe.

I meditated a long time, hoping for a vision from the goddess of wisdom. Nothing came to me. It wasn’t going to be that easy. But when I opened my eyes again, my thoughts came more clearly, and I thought I understood what I had to do.

I had to tell her it wasn’t her fault. I had to help her understand that I was a danger to her. And then?

Then I would have to leave.

That was the only way.

When I woke up the next morning, I washed my face in the now-thawed basin. Then I whispered the incantation and changed myself back into Sheik. I put his garments back on, and stood outside in the chilly morning air, now thoroughly disguised, and thought about what I was going to say and do. It wasn’t going to be easy.

Those couple of nights as Zelda had been enough. Or nearly so. Some burden of my spirit had been lifted, for a little while. Not that I didn’t wish I could stay as her for a while longer, locked away from the world. But Sheik had things he had to do. I could pretend to be him again, until it was true. I was good at that game by now.

I walked down to the stables, where, true to her word, I saw a red-haired girl at work in the midst of the stalls. She bit her lip as she saw me approaching. I couldn’t tell whether she was happy to see me. That made sense. I wasn’t sure how to feel, either. I gave an awkward little wave. She returned it, still staring at me as if she didn’t know what to make of me.

“Hi,” I said lamely, not really knowing how to start.

“Hi,” she said. “You wanted to talk?”

“Um. Yes,” I said. “Yes, I—I—” I stopped and started several times, tripping over my words. “Malon, first of all, I—I wanted to say I’m sorry.”

“Okay,” she said, looking interested.

“When I…disappeared on you, I—didn’t realize it would make you feel so awful. I never meant for that to happen.”

Malon smiled grimly. “Well, what did you think was going to happen? It’s not fun being stood up, Sheik. People tend to feel bad about it. I don’t know what you expected.”                    

“I—I suppose I wasn’t really thinking,” I admitted.

“Okay,” said Malon. “But—why is my question. I mean, I thought you were really mad at me or something, Sheik. That was the only reason I could think why you would disappear on Dad and me like that, after things were going so well the other day. If that’s not it, I don’t get what’s going on.”

“It’s not anything like that,” I mumbled. “It’s, well—” I swallowed hard. “Malon, I—I really do like you. I mean just what I said the other day. I think you’re wonderful. It’s just that I realized, after we kissed—and I didn’t know what to do, so I just locked myself away because I wasn’t sure how to tell you—that the two of us can’t be together. Not because I don’t want to be with you—I do, I do—but because it’s too dangerous.”

Malon’s eyes widened. “Dangerous?”

“Yes,” I said. “Malon—some very awful people want me dead. Or they want me captured and tortured. I’m not sure which is worse. But—” And here I dropped my voice almost to a whisper— “If someone finds out that I’m here—finds out who I really am and what I’ve done—you and your father could be in huge danger. Everyone here could be in danger. All of Hyrule could be in danger. And I don’t want to risk that. I don’t want you getting hurt. So please, believe me when I say that I never meant to hurt you. I’m trying to protect you and this place.”

“Why are they looking for you?” she whispered, sounding awed. “What do they think you could do? Or what have you done?”

“I can’t tell you that,” I said simply. “If you knew—your life would be in so much more danger. Someone might come looking for me and find you instead. If they knew you knew something, anything about me—they’d take you away from here and hurt you to find out what you knew. So—please. I can’t tell you anything.”

I looked down at my boots. “And—that’s why I’m leaving. Today, I think. I should have set out much longer ago, back when Leth first started walking again. I can’t stay here any longer. I’m putting you all in danger by being here. So I have to go, as soon as possible. I’m leaving. I guess this is goodbye. I’m sorry. I wish it could have been different. But I have to go deal with what my fate has in store for me. I wish you better luck with yours.”

There was a long pause, as Malon stared at me for a while, saying nothing. Then she frowned. She lifted up the shovel she was carrying, stared at its tip, where an ugly substance was clinging. She pointed it at me, almost accusingly. “You see this, Sheik?”

“Yes—?” I said, suddenly confused.

“What is it?”

“It’s—it’s a shovel?”

“Right,” she said grimly. She thrust it down into the ground. “You know what I’m doing with it?”

“You’re…mucking out the stables, I suppose?”

“Exactly,” said Malon with satisfaction. She stared me straight in the eye. “So believe me, Sheik, when I tell you that I know a steaming load of horseshit when I come across one.”

I gaped at her, lost for words.

“You’re telling me that you’re just going to leave?” Malon demanded. “Without saying anything more about why? You’re just going to drop me, drop my family and my farm like a rotten apple and leave us wondering if we did something to offend you?”

“I told you, you didn’t—”

“How can I believe you?” she hissed. “You’ve given me no reason to think that stuff about being a wanted man isn’t just an excuse to get out of here. I mean, what am I supposed to think? You just rattle all that stuff off like a list and don’t answer any of my questions! I know the girls down in the valley. I know what the boys in their lives put them through. Young men who get bored with their young women, especially wanderers who don’t want to get attached to anybody—well, they’re pretty good at coming up with excuses to leave.”

That hurt. “I’m not—I’m not making excuses,” I insisted. “I swear.”

“Sure seems like it. I mean, it’s obvious you’re giving me a speech you already came up with. You’re just saying things to get me to go away—or things you only feel like you have to say out of some vague sense of responsibility. You don’t act like you really want to stay.”

“I do!” I said. “I—I wish I could stay. But if my staying is going to put you in danger, then what am I supposed to do?” I bit my lip. “Spend the rest of my life wondering if I’m going to wake up and find you gone, kidnapped or killed?”

“No,” she said. “Look, I want to believe you’re telling me the truth, but—if there really is something—you could start by telling me what I’m actually in danger from. So I can make my own decisions about how to protect myself from it. If you let me in on what you’re running from—well, I could help you, I could hide you. We could run from it together, if we had to.” There was a pleading look in her eyes.

I shook my head. “Too risky. Someone might find out that you know. And then they might—they might hurt you to find out more.”

Malon scowled. “Is that what you really think? Or is it just that you don’t think I can keep a secret?”

“What?” I stammered. “No, it’s just—it’s just too dangerous for anyone but me to know.”

“Gods, listen to yourself,” she said. “You act like you’re damn royalty, so special, the most important person in the world. Now I’m wondering if you’re not afraid for me. You’re just afraid for yourself. Maybe you think if someone got to know you, learned anything about you, they’d betray you to your enemies. That’s real selfish. It isn’t much better than the boys who don’t want to be tied down to anything, in my opinion.”

“No—it’s not like that—” I insisted. But there was something in what she said that rang true. Gods, I was so afraid of being found out. And I didn’t know if I could trust anyone. Even—even her. I tried to think straight. “Malon—it’s not just me. I have to keep secrets for a reason. If anyone else found out what I know—people could die. All of Hyrule could be in worse trouble than it is.”

“Then tell me—” Malon cried. “So I can help! Don’t you think I care about Hyrule?” She lowered her voice carefully.  “I’m not dumb, Sheik. I know that Hyrule’s in rotten shape. I know everyone’s afraid, everyone’s suffering under him. You’re not the only one who’s lost someone to him. My father and I have, too. We know what that feels like. We have our secrets too, Sheik, things we don’t tell most folk.

We know how to keep them. If there’s anyone who knows what you’re going through, it’s us. We could help you, if you’d just trust us. Can’t we fight for Hyrule, too? Or is it only Sheikah gentry who get to be loyal, not peasant girls? Don’t you think we care? Don’t you think if my father or I were captured, we’d fight tooth and nail to protect anybody who’s important to us?” There were tears brimming in her eyes. “Don’t you think we’d be willing to die for what’s right?”

“I—” I didn’t know what to say. “That’s not fair of me to ask of you. I—I have my own responsibility to uphold. I can’t drag other people into my own problems. As a Sheikah, I was taught to be self-sufficient. It’s not right for me to put you in harm’s way because I don’t know how to do what the gods ask of me.”

Malon looked at me closely. “See, that’s a noble thing to say. You say it because you’re a good person, Sheik. I meant what I said, when I told you that. But you’re trying to be a hero all on your own. Thing is, real heroes always have help. They always have people who care about them.”

“I’m not a hero!” I said angrily. “I’ve only ever met one person who could ever be called a hero in my life, and he wasn’t able to help anyone. Neither was I. But I have to make up for that. I’m not trying to be a brave warrior or anything. Life isn’t like a story—all I’m trying to do is make up for the mistakes I’ve made. I owe that to everyone.”

“But don’t you see,” Malon insisted, “stories have so much truth in them. Because even in the real world, there are people who are like the heroes in stories, who are brave and good, and try to help people. And you’re exactly like that, I see it now. I know you don’t want to hear it, but trying to make up for your own mistakes is a really heroic thing to do. I mean, people aren’t like that, Sheik. Not most people. They don’t care so much about their mistakes. So I was wrong. You’re not making excuses. You’re trying to set things right. But you won’t let anyone else help you do it, and that’s not fair, that’s not right.”

She was getting teary-eyed again. “I just—it sounds like you have an amazing story, like you’re part of something really important, and—if I could help at all—if I could just be part of it in the tiniest way—I’ll know I’ve done something right. All these stories, all my life, and I finally meet somebody who’s like a brave hero, like a handsome prince, and he really is noble and self-sacrificing and all that—but he won’t let anybody in. He won’t let me be part of the story. I’ve waited, all my life, for an adventure—and it’s not going to happen. Never ever. I’m just going to be stuck here, on this damn farm, and it’s just going to pass me by again.” For a moment it looked like she was going to burst into tears.

“Malon, I—” I massaged my forehead. “Malon, this isn’t fun. I guess when all this started, when I was very small, there were parts that seemed like an adventure, but—” I could feel myself losing my grip. “It’s not fun when you’re running for your life, when you’re always looking around your shoulder to see if there’s someone with a dagger behind you, when the people you love are gone, when they’re dead because you weren’t able to protect them, when everyone you meet could kill you, when anything you say to anyone could be the reason someone else dies—” I was shaking. “This isn’t being a hero, this isn’t what a hero does! This is just being afraid. And I—I never stop being afraid. No matter how hard I try to be safe—I know I’m never going to get it right, and Malon, I—I don’t know what to do. I never know what to do. Every move is a wrong choice.”

Malon took my trembling hand and squeezed it. After a moment, she reached out to give me a hug. After a moment, I took it, and hugged her tightly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve been really selfish, too, thinking only about what I want. I’m sorry for what I said before. You have every reason to be scared. It’s not selfish of you to want to be safe.”

“No, no—” I shook my head. “You’re right. I’ve been afraid of people for a long time. I’ve even been afraid of you, and—and that’s not fair. But it’s not just about saving my own skin. Malon, I—I made a mistake a long time ago. A big one. And even though everyone thinks I’m wise, I’m not. I never know the right thing to do. I’m—I’m terrified of what I have to do. It’s too important to trust to me. I’m just so scared of making another mistake again. Of hurting everyone I know, just like I did before.”

“How could one mistake do all that?” Malon whispered.

“Because—” I looked around to see if anyone was listening. “Because if I hadn’t made it, Hyrule wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Malon’s eyes were very wide. “Sheik, whatever it is, whatever secrets you have, I’ll listen. I won’t think you’re a bad person, I promise. No matter what it is.”

She held my hand tightly. “But I won’t make you. I’m sorry, I don’t want to force you into anything. I don’t want to be that person. I just want you to know you can trust me. And I really like you, and think you’re great, and still will, no matter what you tell me. And I really want you to stay around, because it’s really nice having you here. So I hope you won’t go, just because you’re afraid of what could happen. And if you need someone to listen, I can do that. Even if it’s not me, I feel like you should talk to someone. Because you can’t keep all this bottled up inside you forever.”

I held her a moment, just breathing. In. Out.

“You’re right,” I said finally. “I should tell you. Someone should hear it. I’ll tell you. As much as I can tell. But—” I looked around. There were workmen all around the stables. They seemed too far away to have really been listening, but I wasn’t sure. “I can’t do it here.”

She nodded. “Right. Too open. Well—” She looked down the stalls to the open door. “You have a place with lots of privacy, I know. We could go there.”

I looked at her shovel. “You’re sure you want to leave your work early?”

“Yes,” she said firmly. “Some shit gets shoveled sooner or later. Some shit doesn’t. This is more important.”

Hand in hand, we walked up to the shack together, with Malon squeezing my hand tightly, as if afraid I would melt away into the air if she let me go.

We slipped easily into the shack. No one else noticed us much. As soon as I closed the door, Malon sat herself down on the mattress and looked up at me expectantly. “So—”

“Wait,” I said. There were precautions I could take, should take, instead of wasting my energy on useless worry. I murmured a few spells under my breath, cast the energy out through my fingers. “There,” I said. “One of these should muffle all sound, just on the off chance someone’s listening at the door. If there is anyone there—that’s what the other spell’s for. It should let me know immediately.”

“Wow,” said Malon. “That’s pretty darned neat.”

I blushed. “Thank you.”

I sat down beside her. “I don’t know if I can tell you everything, Malon,” I said. “But I can tell you what I did wrong, and what I’m trying to do now to make up for it. I can tell you why people are after me, and how I’m trying to help Hyrule. I can tell you the story of my mistake.”

“Tell me,” she said quietly.

So I told her the story. I told her almost everything. All but one last secret buried in the pit of my heart. The one that had always been, would always be, the hardest to tell.

I didn’t tell her the story of Zelda. I told her the story of Sheik.

I felt guilty about not telling her my real name, who I really was. But somehow I couldn’t make myself say the words. Not because I was afraid of being found out. I felt like I could trust her now. Because I didn’t want how she felt about me to change. She loved Sheik, this young man from the wilderness. He was the one she knew. I didn’t know how she’d feel about Zelda, a princess, born of privilege, who’d she’d known as a symbol more than a person. Who was a woman. Most of all, I didn’t know how she would feel about that. I remembered what Impa had said about the Hylians’ discomfort with the Twice-Born. She might feel the same way.

And besides, she was Sheik’s, not mine. This love was his. I was still pretending to be him, but soon I would be him again. I owed him his own life. His own story.

So I didn’t say anything about princesses or transformations or the deveth-shekai. I told her the story of Sheik’s family, who were influential at the palace, back in the old days. Of growing up moving ever back and forth between city aristocracy and tribal ceremony. Of growing up Sheikah. It wasn’t much different from the tale I’d always told.

But I told her everything that had happened to me. Just as if it had happened to Sheik. I told her about strange dreams and realizing that something terrible was going to happen to Hyrule. I told her how I went to my aunt, Impa, who was closely connected to the royal family, and conspired with her on a plan to protect them, and with them, all of Hyrule. I told her about my vision of a hero. I told her a little about Link. What kind of a person he was, what we hoped he could do. How with him, we planned to open the Sacred Realm to take the power to stop Ganondorf.

And here my voice started shaking—how we failed utterly, worse than failed. How my plan ended up leading him right to the power we meant to protect, and handing him all of Hyrule. I told her how I had to escape in the night with my aunt, while the royal family had their throats cut out on the marble floors. I told her how my parents had died trying to protect them. And I told her the truth about how it felt to learn that my father and mother had died while I fled, and I couldn’t save them.

I told her a little about the strange magic of the Sacred Realm, and what had happened to Link. How he was in some sort of stasis, sleeping until the time when he could wield the sword to protect Hyrule. I told her how I didn’t know what it meant, or why the gods had wanted this path for him, for the world. I told her that I had been given the magic of a Sage, and didn’t know why, while the last of the old Sages watched over Link’s slumber.

After that I had to improvise a bit more. But most of what I said was the truth. I told her I’d traveled with my aunt for a long time, visiting the last of the Sheikah, learning their magic, learning about my tribe. I told her that Impa and I were part of a secret group whose goal was to fight against Hyrule’s oppression and restore the rightful ruler to the throne. I told her that our group believed the princess Zelda was still alive and in hiding somewhere, though only a few knew where. I told her that we were waiting for Link to awaken, and that we would join with him and Zelda to take back Hyrule when the time was right. I told her about my years of wandering, trying to help people as best I could, while I waited for that right time. I told her how Ganondorf persecuted the Sheikah who had been close to the royal family, and sought the leaders of the rebel campaign, so I’d spent all my travels doubly afraid for my life. And how I knew, deep down, that everything Hyrule was suffering now was because of what I’d done.

Malon listened to all of it, wide-eyed, not once interrupting. When it was done, and I collapsed against the wall, overwhelmed by the telling, she reached over and put her arms around me.

“First of all, I thought you needed another hug,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said.

She squeezed harder. “That one’s for little Sheik. No kid should have to go through all that.”

After a while, she sat up. “Sheik, thank you for telling me,” she said. “I really, really mean that. You didn’t have to. Thank you for trusting me. It means a lot.”

“You were right,” I admitted. “I needed someone to hear it.”

“It sounds like you’ve had a hell of a life,” said Malon, leaning back. “You’ve been part of some amazing things. But it’s been really hard for you, too. I get that now. That whole time, I was thinking: that shouldn’t have happened to you.”

“Yes,” I said bitterly. “I should have done better, I should have come up with a different plan—I should have saved them—”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said firmly. “Sheik—what happened wasn’t your fault.

I stared at her. “I don’t understand. Of course it’s my fault. I messed up. I failed.”

“Sheik,” she said gently. “You were ten years old. You were a little kid. When I was ten I was still playing in the mud, not trying to save the world. You must have been real, real smart to even be thinking about dictators and politics and the gods.”

“I had to, though,” I said. “I had those visions. I had to take responsibility. But I ended up making everything worse.”

“I don’t think you did, though,” she insisted. “I mean, you didn’t make the coup happen. Ganondorf was obviously planning it for a long time. Hyrule fell because he’s an evil man who figured out how to seize power, not because of anything you did. You didn’t hurt anyone. It’s all on him.”

“But I couldn’t stop him—”

“You shouldn’t have had to!” she insisted. “You were a kid going up against a real clever adult. There wasn’t going to be anything you could do. I mean, would you ask one of the little kids here in town to go stop a bunch of mercenaries? Would that be fair?”

“No,” I admitted. “But I definitely made things worse, Malon. I had the idea to open up the Sacred Realm. That ruined everything. He followed Link in, and slaughtered all the sages. Link fell into some kind of enchanted sleep. And Ganondorf took the Triforce of Power—which made him an even more powerful wizard than he already is, made him so powerful nobody could stop him. All of that happened because of me.”

“I don’t think so,” she said carefully. “Let’s look at the facts. Now, I don’t pretend to understand the Sacred Realm at all, but Ganondorf obviously knew about it. He wanted what was in there. Once he’d taken the throne, he could have intimidated the royal magicians, or the queen or something, and made them tell him how to get in. As for your friend Link—gods, he reminds me of a kid I knew once—I don’t really know why he’s there asleep, but that’s obviously something the gods and the sages wanted. So that also would have happened, whatever you did. All of these things were happening all around you, and you tried to make them better, even as a little kid, even not knowing everything you were up against. That’s not your failure, Sheik. That’s the world’s. You did everything you could.”

She was smiling at me, a sad, soft smile. “You talk about yourself like you were some big fool, but you were really smart. You were the smartest little boy I can imagine. But you were human, too. You couldn’t fight fate. That’s okay. It wasn’t your fault; the world threw you a really raw deal. You were ten. No one should have asked you to save the world. That’s what I mean when I say all that shouldn’t have happened to you. It didn’t even really have anything to do with you. You tried really, really hard. Just like you always do. You don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”

I nodded, slowly. She was right. Gods. She was right. I realized I was crying, thick wet sobs. “Thank you,” I choked out. She squeezed my hand, and she held me for a long while.

A little later, the two of us were leaning against the wall together, and she turned to me. “I guess it isn’t hard to imagine how you might get the feeling it was your fault. When you’re a kid, everything seems like it has something to do with you. When something bad happens, it’s easy to blame yourself.” She paused. “You know, I felt like that, after my mother died. I felt like it was my fault. That took a long time to go away.”

“Really?” I asked.

She nodded. “Yeah. It’s hard to explain, exactly, but…” She trailed off. “Sheik,” she said finally, “can I tell you something? Something my father and I don’t tell most people? I kind of talked you into telling me your secret, so I want to tell you something secret about me. I think that would be fair. I guess it’s not that a lot of people don’t know about it already…but whenever someone new comes to town, like you, we don’t talk about it. We keep it from anybody who doesn’t need to know, like the hired hands and whatnot, and we try to ignore it when people say ignorant things. But I was keeping it secret from you, so now I want to tell it to you. Does that make sense? Can I tell you the secret? And will you not tell anyone who doesn’t know, just like I’m going to do with your secret?”

“I would be honored,” I said, moved. “I’ll gladly keep your confidence.”

She nodded vaguely. “Well—I’ll start by saying the big thing, right away.” She looked up at me, her eyes large and bright. “Sheik—my mother was a Gerudo.”

“Oh,” I said. And then, in a different voice: “Oh.”

“Yeah, exactly,” said Malon, with a little smirk. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: that explains a lot. All those earlier conversations.”

“Yes, it does,” I said. “Malon, I—I’m so sorry. I said some very ignorant things—”

“Nah, you weren’t that bad,” she said, with a wave of her hand. “You were just asking about the dumb things folks in town say. Not like you believed them. But yes, if you’re wondering, my dad and I take insults about Gerudo women a little more personally than most folks.”

She looked suddenly anxious. “But I don’t want to scare you off, Sheik. I don’t want you to think I’d betray you to the Usurper or anything like that. You’ve got to believe me, I don’t have a damn speck of loyalty to that bastard.”

“I do believe you,” I said sincerely. “It would hardly be fair to condemn you for your distant relations, anyway. My own people would be condemned, by that measure. Our ancestors have not been without sin.”

She nodded. “But it’s not like I don’t care a lot about the Gerudo. The people, I mean. The desert tribe, not the conquering army. And I really wish folks didn’t see those two as the same thing.” She looked wistful. “It’s like Dad said, I guess. Not all the Gerudo went along with Ganondorf’s rebellions. Some of them fought against him. They failed.” She took a deep breath. “One of them was my mother. She fought. That’s why I’m proud of her.”

“If it would help,” I said, “tell me. And I will listen.”

She nodded. “Her name was Kaviya. That means peacemaker in the Gerudo language, I think. Least, that’s what she always told me.”

“That sounds right,” I said, thinking of the limited amount I knew.

Malon sat on the bed, her legs crossed, her arms folded. “I remember her as being very tall and beautiful. At least a good six feet. What some people would call statuesque, I guess, except that’s not fair, she wasn’t anything like a statue. She was so full of life. More like a tree in autumn, or a wild deer running by. She moved like no one else I ever knew. Naturally, easily, like a dancer or a fencer. Long, long red hair, swishing around her wherever she went. Even when she had it up in a ponytail, it was still so, so long. I remember wanting my hair to be that long. I get the color from her, which you probably could have guessed. Her skin was much darker than mine, though only a little darker than my father when he’d tanned from a summer of working in the fields. She wasn’t like any of the other women in town. She dressed pretty ordinary, but she had the most beautiful jewelry, golden filigree with garnets and emeralds set in it. A necklace, a hairpin, a few bracelets. She told me she’d once owned much more, but she had to leave it behind when she left the desert. She told me such stories of her home, after she’d finished reading me tales of Hylian heroes and knights. I remember thinking there weren’t any other mothers around like her. And for a while, that made me real happy.”

“She and Dad loved to tell the story of how she came here, how they met. I know there are a few Gerudo families scattered through Hyrule who’ve lived here for generations, minding their own business, not really thinking of the desert as their country anymore. She wasn’t one of those. She was a desert girl, like most of the Gerudo who come through as guards these days. She loved her homeland and was proud of it. She knew the stories about Gerudo having lived on the steppes, a long time ago, but she told me she couldn’t imagine not having grown up around the oasis, riding proudly through the desert, taking solace in the cool water and the cool shade of their tents. She loved the desert sunset, and the time afterward, when the stars came out, and the cool breezes passed through, and millions of stars passed overhead, dizzying and beautiful. She tried to count them all, and settled for learning the constellations, and all their names. She taught me them all at one point, but it’s been a while, and sometimes I get them mixed up.”

“But she loved to travel, too. So, the story is, she was born and raised as part of the Water Clan, which tends to the finding and cultivating of oases. That gave her the surname Meshmir, but she didn’t use it much around here. She did her mandatory warrior training, which all the clans make their teenagers go through, and she loved it, but she found what she loved more was music. She played the flute, and the zither, and the lyre, and she sang, too. Everyone praised her, said she was honey-tongued and other wonderful things. She became the woman everyone wanted at their starlit festivals, to play beautiful strains and rhythms while the dancers twirled their ribbons and veils around the fire. Eventually, she fell in with a band of musicians, who had heard there was money to be made in the East, in the South, playing Gerudo music for the paler people who ruled their country, the people of Hyrule. Some of them had visited the plains, found that both tavernkeepers and lords marveled at their foreign songs. She listened to their stories until her head was spinning with visions of the beauty of Hyrule Castle, of the lakes of the Zora, of the green and fertile fields, rolling on and on, of forests as wide as the desert. So she packed up her instruments and her things, kissed her mothers and sisters goodbye, and squeezed herself into a caravan with three other musicians, all wearing radiant colors, to find out what the South had to offer her.”

“Well, it was quite a bit more difficult than she had first imagined, to make a living travelling from town to town, collecting coins for their music and paying their way to supper, and the winds that blew through the endless green trees were frighteningly cold, and it was difficult to keep the mud and the mire from getting all over the beautiful clothes, but she managed all right. One of their musicians dropped out and returned home; a year later two others came to join them instead, so that was all right. Sometimes the listeners were stingy, sometimes they were kind. It wasn’t rare that people found themselves moved and stirred by her music, pressed gold coins into her hands to thank her for the strange and wonderful sounds. She played at the houses of local lords, and even for the aristocrats in the capital, though she never had the chance to meet the royal family. She was happy.”

“One day, the caravan travelled further down the plains than it had ever gone before, nearly to the deep forests of the South. Bet you can guess what happened next. That’s right, Gerudo strangers came to town. Our town, Elon. Folk were mostly curious about them, not knowing much about the Gerudo. They got invited to play in the local taverns, especially as nearby towns had praised their music, and were very well received. They decided to linger a little while, played at a few local festivals and gatherings as well as the taverns. One young man loved listening to Kaviya play the lyre. Every Sai’s Day evening, he would go down the hill to hear her songs, and she soon came to recognize the youth who always smiled at her in the firelight. His name was Talon.”

“Yup, that was my dad, sure enough. He was a lot skinnier then, he says, and he only had a little moustache that was just growing in. Hard for me to imagine. But he soon started talking with her after the music was done, or in between sessions. He answered all her questions about life in the south of Hyrule; she told him a million stories about her desert home. They dreamed together of each other in the firelight. Soon they were seeing each other more than once a week. He told her about his family, which wasn’t anything special necessarily. But his father was a prominent rancher who was leaving him a lot of land, and he’d figured out how to manage it well enough. Folks in town looked to his family for work and for crops and for meat, and the folks up in the capital thought their horses were reliable and fast. She found she loved being on the ranch, riding the horses which reminded her so much of her own, helping tend the green, green fields. So when the rest of her caravan told her they were leaving town to seek new towns and new audiences, and to visit the capital one more time before returning home, she told them: I want to stay. For a little while longer. They looked at each other and said: We’ll come back in a year. We’ll see you then.”

“And when they came back, a year later, she told them: I think I’m going to be here for a long time.”

“My father told her he couldn’t offer her much, except life on the farm. She told him she didn’t have much either but love and music. They both decided that would be enough. She became a very familiar sight in the taverns, singing old Gerudo ballads and telling tales. She sold some of her jewelry and clothes, leaving a few that she wore at the taverns for show. On the farm, she stopped dressing in the Gerudo way and started wearing long dresses—which were warmer, for one thing—but she never could resist a bracelet here or there. They were married in midsummer, and danced under the moon. Some whispered about the landed man’s son marrying a strange foreign woman, but most people got used to her pretty quickly. She became their local bard, and when they listened to her music, watched her move, they imagined themselves transported to beautiful, far-off lands. She and my father were very happy.”

“The war made everything different.”

“Suddenly folk were talking about Gerudo now, and not for good reasons. They’d joined together with the Goron—who some folks called savage mountain ogres—to rebel against Hyrule’s crown. My mother sent letters to her folks, who wrote back that this all had to do with strange leaders, rising clans, who they didn’t understand. My mother didn’t understand it, either. She was happy to live in Hyrule. Loved the land in all its variety, loved all the stories it had to tell. But suddenly townspeople looked at her and saw a frightening foreignness instead of a beautiful dream. Some still listened to her music, but there was tension in the air. She learned to play Hylian songs, too, learned all the local ballads, to make herself fit in better. But it wasn’t enough for some.”

“So she decided she was going off to war. Not for the Gerudo. But for Hyrule.”

“She tied her hair up in a tight knot and kissed my tearful father goodbye. She rode up to the recruiting station near the capital, and told the officers: I’m against the rebel clans. I want to be a part of Hyrule. I want to fight with you. They were skeptical, but she told them secrets, unashamed, about the lay of the land and the weak points of the country. Some would say she sold her people out, I guess. Seems like the opposite to me, but what do I know? Anyway, after that, they let her fight with them. She dressed up in Hylian armor like any recruit and fought with the flat Hylian blade. She killed more than a few Gerudo who spat in her face, and Gorons, who quailed against the smashing power of her mace.”

“But she wasn’t away for very long. She visited Elon when she could. And not long after one of these visits, she returned to the ranch for good. She’d been dismissed on grounds of infirmity, because she was pregnant with me. So she was home for good, and my father was real happy.”

“And a lot of the folks who’d been suspicious of her changed their tune. Not all, but some. She fought, they said. She’s a real Hyrulian. All through the time she was pregnant with me, she played songs for the men in the bars going off to war, and returning home wounded. And not a few thanked her for her music.”

Malon shifted uncomfortably. “That leads us to the end of the war, and the time I was born, I guess. And my whole part in the story.”

She bit her lip. “I don’t know. It’s like this, I guess. I only knew how things were after the war. When my mother had fought and come back home. When all those stories of life in the ranks, the funny habits of her fellow soldiers, were just that to me, stories. Everything was settled and done. She was my mother, strange and beautiful and strong, and she’d been a hero, and now she’d come back home to be my mother, and we were all happy. Nobody told me then about things like fear, and divided loyalties, and prejudice. I didn’t know that there was any tension in her life. I didn’t know she worried about how the people she once knew would see her. The arguments that happened whenever she returned to the desert.”

“What I didn’t know was that she was still getting anger from both sides. Some Gerudo back home, who’d believed in the rebellion, despised her. And to some townsfolk, she would never be anything more than a foreigner, from a traitorous people governed by mad women. I don’t know how she stood it. I guess she had the people that she liked and loved. People here in town. And while she’d lost a lot of old friends, most of her family back home supported her, advised her to take the Hylian side in the war. So she hung onto her loved ones, I guess. She sure poured a lot of love into me.” She sighed. “I don’t know if I did so well in returning the favor.”

“I never knew anything was wrong until I was about eight. I was playing with a group of kids in town. I don’t even remember who, at this point. Some friends I’d made, ‘cause I’d impressed them with the fact that I not only knew about horses, I got to take care of them on the farm. We were running around the alleyways, kicking a ball around. ”

“There was this kid. I don’t think he stayed around—I think his folks wandered from town to town looking for work, and he was gone by the next year. Otherwise I think I’d still know him today. But he had this sort of smirking face, with a shock of short black hair that stuck straight up from his head. I remember I was beating him at our game, kicking the ball further than he could, passing it off to other kids who were on my side so they could kick it into the upturned basket we’d set at the far end of the alley as a goal. I was a good runner—still am. So whenever he thought he was going to get a point, I’d steal the ball from him and send it back to my side of the alley. He didn’t like that one bit, and he got madder and madder.”

“As we were putting back the baskets, getting ready to go, he turned to me, and in the smuggest possible way, he told me of course he’d known I’d win, because I was a freak and a cheat. I was so surprised, I just stared at him. That was when he started telling me what he thought of my mother. He told me his pa—who in his eyes knew everything—said that Gerudo were ugly, musclebound freaks. Too tall, too strong. Women who were too much like men. And everyone—he said it again, everyone—knew that my mother only lived here in town because she was a witch. Because she cast a spell on my father to get his land and his money. Because that’s the only way ugly Gerudo find their husbands, through their magic spells. That meant I was a freak, too, a witch’s daughter, and so of course no wonder I could win—I was cheating by being a freak and by being a witch myself. In just a few sentences, he managed to make my winning seem like the worst thing in the world. I sputtered and tried to argue with him, but he’d already run off.”

“The worst part is, he wasn’t the only one who said those things. I started hearing other kids say they were afraid of my mother, started noticing how people talked about Gerudo as weird witches, ugly foreigners who ruined good womanhood. Even adults I was supposed to respect, like shopkeepers and tanners and carpenters. I felt sicker and sicker about it. I didn’t know how to talk to my folks about it. I didn’t know how to feel about my own mother anymore. I didn’t really believe she’d put my father under a magic spell, but all the same, I wasn’t all the way sure who she was and what she could do. I didn’t know where she fit in town, or in my life.”

“So, like a little shit, I started avoiding her. For about a week I didn’t spend any time with her or talk to her much at all. I didn’t let her read me stories or do up my hair. Maybe she sensed something was up, I don’t know. Maybe she knew the sort of things I was hearing, had figured it might happen eventually. She never said anything about it. Maybe she thought it was better for me to process it on my own.”

“But for a little while, I remember wishing that my mother would go away, or that I didn’t have to think about her anymore.”

“A few weeks later, I woke up around midnight and snuck downstairs to get a drink from the well, when I overheard my folks talking around the table. They didn’t see me.”

“I only pieced together what they were talking about later, but I realized that they were both scared. My mother was saying that she couldn’t stay here and do nothing. She had to go off and stop what was happening. She’d fought before. Now she had to fight for what mattered. My father was arguing with her, telling her he just got her back from the last war. She told him she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she didn’t try to stop what was happening. She couldn’t stay here knowing she was a coward.”

“I didn’t know it at the time, but she’d gotten letters from her folks about how bad things had gotten back home in the desert. The clans were fighting over who would be the new leaders. Most of the elders had been executed by the Hylian king because of the previous rebellion. Those who wanted to live in peace were becoming outnumbered. A new leader was rising under the Fire Clan. A young man who wanted to restart the war, and sought to claim his right to be king.”

“My mother was going to join her sisters to fight the armies of Ganondorf Dragmire.”

“Once I realized that she was talking about leaving the farm, leaving me, to risk her life again, something flipped inside me and I knew I’d been wrong, so wrong. I shouldn’t have listened to that boy. I had a mother, and she was wonderful, and I didn’t want to lose her. I knew she was leaving because I’d wished for it. Because I’d run away and hid from her. I’d made her think I didn’t need her, didn’t love her anymore. So she was going away. That was what made sense in my head at the time. And I didn’t know how to tell anyone about it. Not my father. Not her.”

“I followed her everywhere for a while, begged her to sing me songs and tell me stories again. And she did, happily. But at the same time, she was packing her things, whispering to my father, sharpening her sword. I watched it happen and I couldn’t do anything about it. And when she told me she was going away for a while, to visit her family, I thought that I’d failed. I hadn’t loved her enough. But I smiled and nodded when she told me she’d be back soon. And when my father told me she wanted to return as soon as she possibly could, as soon as her task in the desert was done. I thought, maybe, maybe, if I did everything right, it would be true.”

She stared up at me, wiped her eyes. “Of course it wasn’t. You knew that. She never came home. And I thought it was all my fault.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Malon,” I said gently. “It wasn’t at all your fault.”

“I know,” she said shakily. “It took me a long time to learn that. I didn’t know what was going on. Of course she loved me. Of course I loved her. People are idiots. Especially ignorant kids. But I wish—I wish it had happened differently.”

She trembled a little. “You don’t think, though—you don’t think that when I was avoiding her, she started to think I didn’t need her? That she loved me, but it was easier to let go, now? That she started thinking about doing other things than raising a child?”

“No,” I said firmly. “Malon, I don’t think there’s anything anyone could have done to stop her from fighting that war.”

“You’re right,” she said, crying. “You’re right.” And she clung to me fiercely, like an anchor, as if to save herself from being swept away by a ferocious tide.

“Truth is, I’m proud of her,” she said after a while. “She tried to stop that bastard from coming to power. She gave her life for her people. Even if she failed, she—she died with integrity, you know? She honored Hyrule, and she honored the Gerudo. She fought to protect them, and she fought to protect me and Dad back on the farm, and she did it twice over.”

“Definitely,” I said, holding her tightly.

“I wish I could do something like that,” she said. “She never taught me to fight, or how to use the sword. I’d go off and slay monsters, fight the king in her honor if I could.”

“War is an ugly, painful business,” I said slowly. “Even if you’re fighting for what’s right. Perhaps she wanted to spare you from it.”

“Yeah.”

“Besides—” I was thinking about the Sheikah, and all they’d suffered in the name of war. “Sometimes there are other ways to fight for what you believe in. You help people around here. You make sure the farm works. You make it a good place in an ugly time. You practiced reading and writing so you could help keep it out of the Usurper’s clutches. That’s all important. That’s all good that you do.”

“That’s fair enough,” she said. “She would have wanted—she would have wanted me to care for this place. She loved it as much as Dad and I do.”

She shook herself, wiped her eyes one last time. “Well, that’s all I’ve got in me to think on that right now. I don’t know if I’ve ever told anyone all that, Sheik. I owe you a lot for listening.”

“Not at all,” I said. “You listened to me. And showed me I wasn’t as big of a fool as I thought I was.”

She laughed. “Yeah, that was a real nice trade, wasn’t it? Like a good milk cow for a few barrels of apples. Very tidy.”

She straightened up. For a moment, she was quiet, her eyes lingering toward the locked door. “Well,” she said finally, “we’ve done right by each other now. I’m glad. I guess I won’t try to keep you much longer, Sheik. I know you’ve got important things to do. Saving Hyrule and all that. Plenty of people out there need healing. Since you’re leaving today, you should go, before it gets too dark.”

I looked at her for a while, thought about where I’d been, and what I needed to do. What I wanted, when the weight of the world wasn’t on my shoulders alone. “Actually,” I said slowly, “I think I’d like to stay here. For a little while longer.”

Her eyes lit up. “You know, I was kind of hoping you’d say something like that,” she said, grinning madly. She leaned over and kissed me, forceful and fierce and passionate. I kissed her back. And this time, the kiss lasted for a long, long, long time.

After a while, she smiled at me, put her cheek against mine. “While I’m taking a day off of work,” she whispered in my ear, “why don’t I stay for a while longer, too? Here, I mean. With you. How about we both stay for a while?”

“Malon,” I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever known a better idea.”

So we did.

Chapter Text

Fragment XV: Visions

I wish I could leave it there.

I wish I could fade out from that moment and let you think that we dissolved into happiness together, that cares never again troubled the two of us. But that would be lying.

Even then, I knew the story had to continue.

The truth, I thought once, as I curled around Malon’s warm shape, was that I was hiding from my story for a little while. From the tale of Zelda. Once upon a time, a young princess waited in disguise for a hero to awaken. And when he did, they would save the world together. That was the story the gods, Impa, my family, would have wanted me to tell. The story of a maiden who waited.

Well, I’d grown tired of the waiting. It had been a long time since I’d seen Link, and almost as long since I’d understood what I was supposed to be doing. So I’d slipped away. Somehow I’d stumbled into another story: once upon a time, a young man came to town and fell in love with the girl he met there. It was no small miracle that I’d found this story. But I knew I’d have to return to the other tale eventually. And I didn’t know how this one might end. I had a task, when Link returned. So did he. And the gods were not about to let me forget it.

Why else these visions? Why else did the gods show me so many images and scenes I didn’t understand, in dreams, in meditation? They were trying to tell me something.

I’d been waiting a long time. The first year, I didn’t think much on Link’s slumber. I imagined I’d see him coming over the hills to meet me by the next summer’s warm sun. It was as if he’d turned around the corner only a moment ago. But as the years went on and on, the path ahead seemed less clear. I threw myself into Sheikah training, into being Sheik. I fell in love with who I could be. But more and more, Sheik’s story began to seem like the real one, and Zelda’s tale only a memory. I began to wonder if Link would ever return.

And yet, the dreams, the visions—they didn’t cease. And over and over, the same image: Link sleeping on a bier in a palace of blue light. Each time looking a little older, a little stronger.

Impa and I had talked at great length about what it might mean. Perhaps the recurring image was to remind me of my task, of Hyrule’s fate, lest I lose sight of it during my time as Sheik. But also, it might be a clue. Perhaps Link slept so that he could grow strong. That he could face the Usurper not as a boy, but a young man, in the fullness of his strength.

Which meant that his time could be drawing near. I shivered.  The gods were of course known for doing things in threes. But three years had come and gone. That suggested another number. Sevens were considered powerful in the lore of the goddess of Time. Seven days to a holy week. Seven years of fortune or famine.

Perhaps, then: seven years of sleeping. And for me, seven years of waiting.

My time as Sheik was growing close to six years. In another year, then, I might well see Link awakened at last.

And this tale would be over.

I kissed the back of Malon’s head, buried my face in her long red hair. She stirred against me, smiling faintly. The two of us had done a lot of kissing over the last few months. We’d tried a few things together neither of us had done before, in fun, in play, in love. Mostly involving kissing, though not always on the mouth. We’d taken off some clothing, but been too shy for anything below the belt. Maybe one day. Right now it seemed safer not to go there, for a variety of reasons. (Not the least of which: I did not want to do anything to complicate dynastic succession.) Some shy fumbling, some sweetness found in touch—that seemed enough for the two of us at fifteen.

My body was warm and close against hers. We’d both stripped away our upper garments. My brown skin pressed against her paler body, my brown arms wrapped around her tanned arms. The closeness of this touch had been part of the reason we’d slipped out of our clothes. But I also saw that for Malon, when she lifted up her white blouse with a nervous grin, it wasn’t just about feeling something, but sharing something. She wanted me to see her as she was. To be here, with another person, revealed as human and real beneath the fabrics.

I wanted to give her that, and I wanted to share that intimacy with her. I knew, though, it wasn’t a fair trade. She’d shown herself as she really was, and I—the Sheikah youth she saw was only part of me. But I couldn’t share who I really was. It would be too much. It would change everything.

So I lay with her as Sheik, the blonde hairs on my flat, dark chest rubbing against her pale, smooth back, where I’d made the acquaintance of a number of charming freckles. I could feel farmer’s muscle in her arms and shoulders. But it was a woman’s muscle. Different from what I had. Nothing right now covered her breasts, and sometimes she’d granted me another intimacy, through that touch. And I’d marveled at how different her body was from the only other woman’s body I knew, in its size, in its shape, in its details. And yet, not unfamiliar. Looking at her there, curled up beside me, comfortable now, I wondered what I was really feeling. Was it just that she was beautiful to me? That I wanted her, loved her, wanted my lust fulfilled like other young men did? Or was it that she reminded me of something I wanted for myself? Sometimes I watched her with something like envy. The way she moved on the farm, swished and turned in her long skirts and dresses—often I wanted to move like that, to wear such finery. But I also wanted to press close to her, shower her in kisses, and never let go. It was confusing. So often these days I didn’t know which one I was, man or woman, Zelda or Sheik.  I only knew that when I saw her, a tongue of flame flared up in my chest, and my heart pounded like thunder.

Love was something to do, while I waited. Or it was a reason in itself. I didn’t know anymore.

Sometimes I thought I understood the first Impa better now. I, too, had made a study of the goddess of time. I, too, had been asked to be patient by forces I couldn’t control. I waited and I fasted and I meditated and I went through each of my days and I tried to listen. And little by little, I thought the goddess began to reveal herself to me in the visions I was given.

The goddess of Time was the goddess of Wisdom. That had been one of my mother’s tenets. And it seemed to me that she’d been right. I still carried the Triforce of Wisdom within me, after all, though I hadn’t told Malon about it, only my status as a Sage. Sometimes I could hear both those powers echoing within me. The Sage-force was easier to bear, nudging me only with the memory of a land of light. But meanwhile Wisdom loomed huge within me, a vast, uncanny presence beyond my understanding. It whispered to me of connections I hadn’t made myself, of potential and possibilities. I wasn’t quite as afraid of it as I’d once been; I’d was trying to accept Malon’s insistence that I was not a failure or fool. But still, I didn’t quite feel worthy of it. Perhaps it didn’t indicate anything about me, but had simply been granted to a precocious and thoughtful child. Or to the one who would need it, to rebuild a dynasty whittled down to its last heir. But sometimes I still felt its immense presence, all around me, overwhelming, and I wondered: was this your way of giving yourself to me, Nayru? Is this what it’s like to look into the eyes of a god?

Some of the visions I’d had seemed to be communication, of a sort. Messages. And though I didn’t know if I was using its power effectively, I thought it had been Wisdom itself that had helped me figure out what they meant. I’d had a lot of time to think and to refine my ideas over the years.

The first thing I’d learned, which I felt absolutely sure of by now:

Time was breaking apart.

Well. Not in any way the goddess hadn’t intended. But that didn’t keep it from being astonishing.

Time was a flow, like the flow within me, like the flow of a great river. If there was one principle that unified all Nayru’s aspects, that was it. The flow of the sea, the flow of the sky. Everything in its proper rhythm. The flow of thought. The flow of mind. Perhaps that was why I had been chosen. Flow and rhythm. The first Impa had learned to feel that flow. Now I was learning, too. And I felt it flowing around me. And…being changed by me.

If time was a river, then, like a river, it could split, and surge off into different streams, different channels, when it needed to. As my visions fell more and more into patterns, as I learned to sense how time and its goddess moved, I realized that such a split was happening in my time. Even within my very life. There were forks in the river of history, and on each side of the split lay different Hyrules. In this time where even royal rule itself seemed in question, Hyrule was breaking into many futures, each with their own fate. In one world, I might win over Ganondorf, and rule. In another, perhaps I would die before ever reaching the throne.

I didn’t know what was causing it; I suspected the influence of the gods. I suspected powerful magic. I suspected that this era of crisis would define Hyrule, that the people and circumstances that would shape the future would emerge from it, changed by the nature of the reckoning.

After many years of meditation and thought, I began to think that there were two splits in the river of time, dividing the world into three great branches. Three Hyrule, three tales unfolding. That I knew of, at least. I didn’t know when, exactly, these splits occurred, but sometimes it seemed to me that one had already happened, before my time or in my childhood, while another was still to come, and I would have to meet it with grace.

The question, then, was how to sort through the glimpses, the fragments of images and ideas, and place them into this timeline, into some context that made sense.

These are some of the things I saw:

I saw Hyrule Castle as it had been when I was young, saw my father, with high-flying banners, leading an army off to war, in armor splashed with red, and my mother sacrificing goats, whispering prayers for his safe return—

I saw my mother and father with maps all around them, drawing the new borders of our land while I slept, a babe wrapped up in Impa’s arms—

I saw a young woman of wiry build, with a tan face and dark lashes, with a single knot tied in her braid, climbing over rocks and pushing her way past branches until she stood before a temple in the middle of the forest. I saw the enormous eye emblazoned on her garments, saw her go into the ruined temple and saw her eyes widen at what she saw there—

I saw a different young woman who looked something like me, something like my mother, standing next to a man clothed in green, examining the stones of a ruined temple, marking them on charts, imagining what they might build together on this great hill, now cleared of trees—

I saw a place of impossible, eerie light, like the world caught in an eternal sunset, red light shining from nowhere I could see over buildings of impossible shape and bizarre design, black towers covered in line after line of blue inscriptions and formulas and signs. And I saw people there who looked like no people I had ever seen, with faces the color of ash, and dark swirling patterns weaving their way through their skin. I saw some of them twist and change shape as they moved, as if a body to them was only one way of being in the world. I saw them dancing in that half-dusk and dipping in and out of each other’s shadows in song. I saw the eyes that glowed and stared from their cloaks and their walls and their designs.

And I saw that same twilight covering the land I knew, sweeping over Hyrule like conquest. I saw a man at the head of it, in piscine armor and a tattered black cloak leading an army of twisted creatures with ravening faces and twitching tentacles and the hands of men, and I saw how even the castle of my childhood disappeared under that light. But I saw a wolf moving through that other light, and wherever his paws touched the earth, the twilight faded away and the light of the sun returned—

I saw people who looked like Hylians, except their ears were stubby and round, or like Gerudo or Sheikah, save that some were a little paler. I saw them, men and women of many kinds, all tanned in the sun, load cargo into great ships and sail off into endless blue water. I saw an archipelago, a scattering of islands in an unending blue, a vast expanse that resembled the ocean we in our landlocked country only knew of by travelers’ tales. Some of the islands looked a little like mountain peaks I had seen in my travels. I saw a raven-haired woman standing on the deck of a ship, peering out at the stars through a telescope, her fingers often toying with her golden, triangular necklace, while a little girl with short blonde hair, her daughter, listened to the gulls cry at her side.

And when I tried to understand where this world, this ocean, had come from, I saw storm clouds, and unrelenting rain, and people climbing great hills in the storm with packs on their backs, and endless water, filling up the low places, flooding the dark and the deep—

I saw a figure on a battlefield, and though I strained for a clearer glimpse, I could not tell if this figure was a man or a woman. Neither, perhaps? Both? The figure was tall, and well-muscled, and clad in shining silver armor, and had close-cropped blonde hair, not even a fuzz, just a faint outline on the scalp. They were covered with the dirt and sweat of the battlefield, and dark stains that might be the blood of a fallen foe, and there were lines of deep thought etched on that face. They bore a massive shield, upon which was the image of an hawk, all in gold. And that same hawk appeared in banners flying high in the sky before and behind them, and I was reminded of my father, who had made his symbol a red dragon, and carried that image in every battle he fought.

In the great warrior’s other hand, lightning crackled, and there was a gleam in their eye that spoke of magic. But I also saw the sword in the scabbard at the warrior’s side. And beside that figure stood one I knew well. Impa. Impa stood beside the warrior, looking much as she did the last time I saw her, and the two of them seemed to talk as if making plans or trading advice. I saw Impa blow a great horn, and I saw the warrior, this Hawk, mount a white horse and raise a great battle cry. I saw the armies, the cavalry and the foot-soldiers around and behind join in that cry, and mount horses and wave their banners high. And I saw the golden warrior lead a great charge, down a green hill, to where the foe was regrouping, saw the army charge right into a great crowd of what looked like Gerudo soldiers. And I saw the ramparts of Hyrule Castle in the distance, and I realized: that warrior, that warrior was me—

I saw Link leaving the forest, fairy at his side, making his way through the streets of the capital, and stepping into the garden where a girl in violet waited to meet him. They spoke, and he left with a purpose in his stride, and then—something shimmered, and he was back, but it was all different. He spoke to the girl, and this time the two of them appeared before the king, my father, and his eyes widened, as if he heard words he had never expected, revelations he could not believe. I saw the boy and the girl celebrating in the garden, hugging each other with relief—

I saw Gerudo riding on tawny horses over the green steppes of the north, sounding flutes and horns with joy—

I saw an empty desert, its oases abandoned, the ruins of a great temple fading under mountains of sand. I saw a harsh wind blowing dusty dunes as scrawny creatures, sand-goblins, picked over the remains, looking for sustenance—

I saw a man in dark leather being executed, a blade of white light about to pierce him and run him through—

I saw a monster, like a boar in human shape, rising up over stone ruins, lit by a flash of lightning—

I saw a blond young man and a blonde young woman laughing with each other in a tavern, bringing their glasses together and joining along with the crowd singing the lute-player’s song—

But through all the images, though I searched and searched, I never saw any sign of Sheik.

Sheik’s world was my own. And perhaps only my own. And perhaps, even here, he would disappear once his story was done.

The rest of it was difficult to make sense of. I recognized the first Impa and images from my own past; I thought the strange visions of other lands represented Hyrule, things Hyrule might be or become in a future time, for reasons the gods alone knew. I thought I knew the man being executed, knew the monster in the flash of white. But I could not fit it all together. I could not give the order or the sequence. I could not tell the stories.

But I could tell the story of Link. I saw him grown, fighting monsters, grappling with that boar-creature.  I saw him riding on horseback across the long plains of Hyrule. I saw him befriending Gorons and standing with Zora at his side. And over and over again, I saw him sleeping, growing older each day, his eyelids fluttering as if he meant to wake up. This much I knew:

Soon, he would awaken, and the world would tremble as he slew the Usurper and restored justice to Hyrule.

At least, in one future. I hoped it would be mine. I feared it would not be. I feared I would instead see him slain.

In either case, at the very least, I would have the chance to see him and speak with him on his return.

I told Malon about some of these things, during our long afternoons together. After our initial flush of enthusiasm, she’d returned to scheduling her chores deliberately, and she insisted, too, on getting back to languages, on time to study the Gerudo script and vocabulary. But now she also scheduled time for us. For this place, for sharing love, and sharing words, and sharing warmth as the year turned toward winter. Though I hadn’t told her about the Triforce of Wisdom, only that I was a Sage, I told her about my visions. She listened, awed. She admitted she didn’t understand the other worlds much either, nor what splits or folds in the flow of time would bring them into being, but she thought it would be marvelous to visit them. Breathless, she imagined us as sailors on that endless sea, catching the wind together to unknown shores. I smiled. It was a lovely image.

“As for your friend Link,” she told me, “You and your aunt are probably right about him. I bet the gods want him to build up his strength. So he can save Hyrule once he’s grown. It’s a real damn shame we all have to wait so long, though.”

I smiled weakly. “I am used to it. I can wait a little longer.”

“And then—and then when he does—” She bit her lip. “You’ll have to go and help him, won’t you? Because he’ll of course be part of your secret rebellion. ”

“Yes,” I said, staring off into the distance. “I will very much be needed. I think I will be an aide to him somehow. An ally. A guide.”

She nodded, slowly, as if resigned. “You miss him a lot, don’t you?”

I nodded. “Yes. I wish the gods had not asked that so long a time pass between our meetings.”

“He sounds very brave,” Malon said. “Like you.”

I had to laugh. “Of the two of us, he is far more the brave storybook hero you’re always imagining. When I was still an ignorant child, he was already slaying monsters. The way he moved with a sword, it was as if he’d been born to carry one. And yet he was always so nervous when he spoke, as if he didn’t know how to make the words line up right. There was always something different about him. He was not like the common folk. He never had a moment’s hesitation about what needed to be done. He had incredible courage.”

Malon nodded. “I knew somebody like that once. I think I mentioned him at one point. When I was little, I was in the capital with Dad. He’d dozed off somewhere while making a delivery, of course. Well, while I was waiting, I ran into this boy. His clothes were faded and torn, and he carried a little sword with him wherever he went. And he told me he was on some kind of mission for the good of all Hyrule. He was very insistent that he was going to help stop some evil and save the day. I gave him directions to our farm, and later he came by, stayed the night, played with the horses a bit. One of them in particular really fell in love with him. I liked him a lot, too. I loved hearing his stories. I liked the fire burning in his eyes. I really believed him when he said that he was going to save everyone and be a hero.”

For a moment, I wondered: could it be? Then: no, surely not. It would be impossible.

“I never saw him again,” she said sadly. “I guess he failed. Sad to say, he was right about the darkness coming. But he couldn’t stop it. I guess that’s what happens to most people on a quest like that. I’m glad he tried, though. I really admired him.”

“That was my friend as well,” I said. “For a long time I thought he’d failed. Or…or I’d failed him.” I stared into the distance. “But maybe he can still have a chance to fight. To win. I’ll be glad to help him if it means I can see him again.”

Malon was quiet a long time. Then: “Sheik…did you love him?”

“Yes,” I said cautiously. “Because he was good, and kind.”

“No, no,” she said. “I mean, did you really love him? I mean, love love?”

I stared at the walls a long time. I didn’t know what the right answer was. But I felt like I owed her honesty. “I don’t know. Maybe,” I said finally. “Yes, yes, I think so. It was a long time ago, though.”

Malon said nothing, only listened.

“I wish I’d had more time to know him. I only saw him in snatches. A few hours of conversation on one day. A glimpse. But it changed my life. I was so glad I’d met him. I felt like I could talk with him forever. I thought he could save the world. Yes, I— I would say I loved him. In however brief a time I knew him. Because he was kind to me when I needed kindness. Maybe most of all because of what he represented for me.”

“What was that?”

“Freedom,” I said finally. “Or: adventure.”

Malon nodded, satisfied. “I understand that, for sure. Well, don’t worry, Sheik, I’m not at all like some folks who’ll judge you harshly for it.”

“For failing him?”

“No, no—for—you know—” She was blushing. “Sometimes folks are weird about love when it’s between two boys or two men.”

“Oh,” I said. It had never occurred to me to take that into account. “Right. Well, thank you. May the gods spare us all the gossip of townfolk, to be sure.”

She nodded eagerly. “I guess I see it a little different from some folks. When I was little, my mom told me all these stories about life in the desert. About her people. And, you know, it’s almost all women out there, among the Gerudo. One man every three generations, if you can imagine it. So, half of them go out travelling, looking for Hylian boyfriends, but the other half stay home and fall in love with each other. It makes sense, really, if you think about it. Mom told me stories about girls she’d known who were in love, women who’d been betrothed to each other. She even said she’d loved another young woman herself, once, but they’d drifted apart long before she met my father. When I first heard about it, I was surprised, but after I thought about it a little while, it seemed a pretty natural idea.  I’d have tried that kind of love myself, if it weren’t for the way townsfolk carry on and gossip.”

“Well,” I said, not sure what this meant for us, “that’s very good of you. I’m glad it doesn’t bother you.” Somehow I still doubted she’d approve of Zelda. I changed the subject in a hurry. “Anyway, it’s been a long time since I knew him, Malon. Don’t worry about him. The only one I want to be with is you.”

She laughed. “Oh, I’m not jealous! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with loving more than one person, anyway.”

“You don’t?”

“Yeah!” She shrugged. “I love a lot of people in my life. I love my dad, and I love my horses, and I love you, all in different ways. They don’t cancel each other out.”

“But what about romantic love?” I asked. “Could you really love two people, that way, and not turn them into rivals to each other?”

“Sure,” she said. “Because you’d love them for different reasons. Because every person’s different.”

I thought about this. “Wouldn’t they get jealous of each other?”

She shook her head. “Not if they really liked each other, and were good friends, too. That way they’d be happy for each other, whatever happened. They’d cheer each other on, you know? They’d be celebrate each other’s accomplishments in love.”

“Then why don’t people do that more often?” I asked, amused. “Why don’t people, for instance, marry more than one person?”

She grinned. “Just because it’s too much of a hassle to keep track of who owns what and whose kids are whose. But you could make it work, you could. Face it, it’s just a matter of logistics. If you were really committed, you could absolutely do it. I bet I could. I’m pretty good at keeping track of the activities of large groups of people, you know. All I’d have to do is just make another schedule.”

I laughed. “I like that. But I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s just you and me in here.”

“I know,” she said, smiling. “But I like to be prepared.”

We kissed for a little while. “Sheik?” she said finally.

“Yes?”

She held me tightly. “I’m really glad you decided to stay through the winter. Dad is so happy to have to still here and leading worship and healing folks around town who need it—and I am, too.”

“I’m glad, too.”

Her body was soft and warm in mine. “I hope you can stay a real long time.”

I stroked her hair. “Me, too.”

What neither of us said, as we curled up against each other, was that it couldn’t last forever, and both of us knew it. One day, I would have to leave. When Link and Hyrule needed me. Whenever that day fell.

Still, we put the world and all it asked of us from our minds for a long time. For many months, we shared our time in closeness, in conversation, in warmth. We huddled through the winter snows and saw the first sunlight of spring. We were together.

Until one day, a letter arrived.

Chapter Text

Fragment XVI: Seek

There were seven of us there, sitting around the fire. Some of us were old, some of us were young. Some of us were women, some of us were men. At least one of us was pretty certain about being both. All of us were Sheikah.

I looked around. I was the youngest of our group, having turned fourteen that spring. Yet the older people around our summer flame nodded at me with distinct respect, and listened carefully when I spoke. It was not an easy feeling, to be so regarded. I was growing taller and stronger more quickly than ever. My voice was deeper now, and my face more square. I was beginning to feel the responsibilities of adulthood, of my future life in particular. For these people knew who I was, even if they didn’t speak my name aloud. They were looking to me to lead— if not now, then in the not-too-distant future. They took my presence here very seriously. I wanted to be worthy of them. I wanted to be serious, too. Unfortunately I often didn’t know what to say. So I tried to listen to the others, and look thoughtful, and learn.

One man in particular, a small, wrinkled figure, leaned forward with some effort to speak. “I honor all of you who have spoken thus far,” he said, in his steady, aged voice. “I believe we are now agreed in purpose. Though the details will shift, I think we have now chosen the path we wish to take.” There were nods and murmurs of assent.

That was Elder Gaisham. Impa had brought me here, to the crumbling village of Kakariko, to meet with him and train with him. Ever since Impa’s promise to let me train with other Sheikah elders, it had been a whirlwind of travel, a year or so of following rumors and Impa’s memories to seek out those who were willing to teach the old Sheikah ways.

Elder Zasha, the Old Woman of the Lake, as they called her, had taught me Sheikah music by the shores of Lake Hylia. From her I learned melodies passed down from Impa’s era to ours, reawakened my memory of learning to play the flute and the ocarina. I learned to master Sheikah modes of harmony, which were offset from the Hylian and required an alternate system of notation. By the end of my time with her, I had crafted a lyre of my own from turtle-shell and sandalwood, with woven silk cords. Now I knew how to play ancient hymns and modern ballads alike.

Oisamal, the first sage we had met in the frozen mountains, taught me methods of purification and fasting to clear the mind, passed down among the men of his clan. Elder Venneh, who had lived in the outskirts of the capital for years, surviving off the detritus she gathered, hid us from Gerudo patrols and taught us tricks of stealth that let us pass unseen before any roving eye. And here, in this place, Elder Gaisham had taught me magic that only a few Sheikah could claim, heady, ancestral stuff. The intense meditation practices required to handle it had nearly broken me. And there were many others. All throughout our journey, Impa sat alongside me, closed her eyes, and listened carefully to the elders’ instructions. For we were passing beyond the limits of her knowledge. She was learning, too.

Not all agreed to teach us. One or two turned us away, not wanting to be entangled in worldly politics again, or, despairing of any future for the Sheikah, taking solace in their own meditative solitude. Most, though, when they saw me, heard a little about our plans, met with us readily and eagerly. Some of them began to speak to us about the Hyrule of days gone by, how the royal family might be restored, how the Usurper’s grip might be broken. They showed us the way to other elders and asked us to carry messages to them. Messages, often enough, of news, of troop movements, of tactics, of the new king’s weaknesses. As time went on, I realized these connections were nothing new. There had always been a covert resistance movement, a society of those who remembered the old dynasty and despised the Usurper’s rule. We were merely discovering it for ourselves, coming to take our place within it. And they had great hopes for us. For me.

Thus our gathering in Kakariko: an assembly of like-minded thinkers who represented the Sheikah tribe’s last members, its hope for the restoration of the Royal Family. Not all who believed in the cause could make it, hindered by age or the difficulty of travel, but they were certainly represented. Through their allies, they would have a say in what was decided here. In the end, seven of us led the council, and talked long into the night after other interested parties had gone.

Kakariko, I now understood, was the closest thing the Sheikah had to a central meeting place. Once, the tribe had wandered, clan by clan, through the wilderness, but this odd village had become home for those of us who wanted to settle in Hylian fashion, or to huddle up against the long winter. People like Impa’s family. When the Gerudo took over, and the new king began to persecute the Sheikah living in the capital, most of them fled here, refugees. Exiles. There were more Sheikah here than I had ever seen in one place.

And yet, most of the people who lived here were not Sheikah, but Hylian.

Once, this place had been no mere town, but something like a Sheikah city. There were large neighborhoods, especially in the northern part of town, across the river, where mud-brick houses stood unused, their windows empty. As we walked into town, past pale villagers tilling fields, planting beets and carrots in the sun, Impa told me that the streets here had once been even emptier. When she left for the capital, Kakariko had been an utter ghost town, stripped of most of its population in a few years’ time. Houses crumbled without their occupants, and foragers searched through the remains.

One of Impa’s goals, when I was small, had been to remedy this. After consultation with the village’s remaining elders, she went before my father and asked that Kakariko be opened up to Hyrule’s poor. There was mineral wealth there, and good land, and houses already built, for those who needed them. The king agreed, thinking it a fine idea, and sent the news out through Hyrule. Soon poor men and women flocked to Kakariko to eke out a living there, and brought the town back to life. The few Sheikah who still lived there bowed their heads and watched their town change, their stories and traditions fading under the gossip of new townsfolk. But they accepted that fate. At least there was a town again. At least Kakariko, in its sleepy way, was alive.

That had been a long time ago. Now Kakariko was living through another crisis as Hyrule itself fell into decline. The people struggled to get wheat and staple crops to come forth from the land; the rivers grew shallow and irrigation difficult. It seemed there were never enough people here to do the work needed to survive, even with the influx of palace Sheikah. I watched tired people with lined faces labor in the fields, wiping sweat on their brows. We were living in a difficult time.

In this weary but familiar settlement, the remaining Sheikah of Hyrule had gathered, bringing a few hundred of us together, a crowd enough to fill the square, if not the town. A few Hylians drifted by to watch the gathering, curious, but quickly returned to their work. Our council of seven spoke about Hyrule, talked about our plan to restore the royal family to the throne. I mumbled a few things; Impa spoke longer, more eloquently. Brown faces in the crowd nodded and made shouts of agreement. Voices were heard from the crowd, voices of the last of the Sheikah, and we tried to consult all present to figure out the course our people should take. But we did not reveal who I was. We knew that our success would lie in keeping secrets.

Now the crowd had dispersed, and the seven of us were left around our fire, talking into the night, to figure out how to put the hopes and yearnings of the last of the Sheikah people into action.  

Elder Gaisham led the proceedings. He was the most respected elder here in town. With his wisdom and his familiarity with eighty years of Kakariko’s history, he had become something like an unofficial mayor. All of us trusted his judgment. He was holding what remained of us together.

He nodded slowly as we assented to the plan we had hashed out over the last few hours. “Friends, I must give honor to the venerable Impa for joining us here. What she brings here brings hope to us all. Before, we doubted that Hyrule would survive. But now, it seems we might effect a real restoration of the holy rulers. I am grateful to you for returning to your hometown, Impa. I hope it has in some measure lived up to your memory of childhood here.”

“Much has changed since I last lived here, Elder,” Impa said. “Yet the hospitality and kindness I have received on my return has shown me that the spirit of Kakariko I know lives as surely as ever.”

He nodded again. “That is well. I remember you as a small child. You have repaid our community for its care in your raising, and done it great honor. The honor I know you always wished to give, you have given not only for us, but for our entire country. For you were instrumental in protecting and hiding the heir who offers hope for our future.”

He looked around the circle. “I speak carefully, and I know that you will speak carefully, too.  Tonight I also give honor to one who has been diligent in learning the ancient ways. Whose attentive eye is a Sheikah eye, whose breath is our breath. Who, in himself, is the cause of so much hope. For we of this council know that this young man’s fate is tied to that of the princess Zelda. You and I all know exactly how closely his life and hers are linked. He lives to protect her now.” There were nods of understanding.

He fixed me with a beady glance. “What say you, then, young Sheik? When the gods give us their sign, when the sleeping hero wakes, will you give yourself to restoring the Princess Zelda to the throne?”

“Y-yes,” I said, trying not to show my nervousness. “For I, too, would see Hyrule restored. And I believe that the Princess Zelda would…would call herself deeply honored by the Sheikah people for their role in that restoration. She would honor them in turn. For protecting her, and guiding her path.”

Elder Gaisham smiled. “Well put, young one. For that is indeed our concern. Most of us are old, elders who could not fight in the last war. Only a few of the young escaped those deaths, and many who did have been cut down by the Usurper. There will not be a next generation of our people. Not one that can survive. It will be people like Sheik who carry our history into the future, and like Sheik, they will have to do so without the presence of the tribe. We ask that you remember us, when we are gone.”

“I will, Elder.”

“And I ask of all of us that we give ourselves to this heir. If we are a dying people, let us die in honor. Let us give the last of our breath, the last of our heartbeats on earth, to ensure that what the first Impa gave her life for is not irreparably broken. That the people with the blood of the goddess again guide and shepherd this beautiful land. What began with the goddess will end with the goddess. It will be a fitting end to our tale.” There were shouts of agreement.

“And tonight, let us give honor to the goddess herself, sweet Hylia, who now, more than ever…truly walks among us.” Heads turned. Everyone was watching me. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I made a reverent gesture with my palms and bowed to the circle, very slightly. Smiles broke out around me, and one by one, they bowed to me very deeply in return. Even Impa bowed to me.

“Then we are agreed,” said Elder Gaisham finally. “The youth who sits before us will go into caivath, and return to us when caivath is done, at the gods’ sign. He will see and be seen. He will change and be changed. He will heal and be healed. By his wandering footstep, he will carry out the will of the gods.”

“Elder—” said a younger man with dark hair, sitting a few places away from me in the circle. That was Rivant. He was a kind man, I knew, a farmer in town with a young child. “I am still not sure this is wise. All hangs upon the safety of this youth. Would it not be better to keep him here under our protection? I could teach him the ways of the plow, I could teach him the history of our town—”

“And I will tell you again,” Gaisham said gently, “he is safer outside our town than in it. If he stays, rumor will only grow about him among our people. Someone might catch him out on some minor point of tradition, see through the story of his upbringing. When the next Gerudo regiment sweeps through the area, it would take only one spy to reveal the secret. Better that he be far away from the tribe. Out there, in the world, he is anonymous. He will be one more travelling Sheikah. As long as he does not venture into the capital, as long as he does not admit a link to the royal family, he will stay away from Ganondorf’s interest. Shifting his position, wandering as our ancestors did, has kept him safe so far. I have trained this youth, my friend. I have seen his abilities and his potential. I know that Wisdom itself and the power of a Sage guide his steps. I know he is deveth-shekai, sent by the gods to honor us and to walk among us. I have a deep faith that the gods will bring him back safely to us. And I know that Impa will protect him, as she has always done.”

“Besides, it would not be befitting for one of our own to neglect caivath. For every youth among us has sought the wisdom of the wilds, learnt what it means to be Sheikah by their travels.”

“Even—even this youth, Elder?”

“Even this youth, yes. For I tell you, he is as Sheikah as any of us.”

“Very well, Elder,” said Rivant, sounding resigned. “I withdraw my concern.”

He nodded. “Very good. Are we agreed, then? Sheik will go into caivath, and return to town when he has faded from the mind of the common people, when his presence here is needed?” He looked around the circle, watching the nods. “So it is. We will meet again tomorrow evening. But Sheik will not be among us. He will be gone by morning. Let us be adjourned.”

He rose slowly, bracing himself on his walking-stick. The others scattered and began to drift off to their respective homes. “Impa, it is time. I would be grateful if you would tell Sheik about our precautions and what he is to expect. Thank you for all your service.”

“And you, Elder,” said Impa with great reverence.

He nodded and trudged off. Once all had cleared, leaving us alone with the fire, Impa turned to me. “I imagine you have questions, my child.”

“I still don’t really understand caivath,” I admitted. “What it entails.”

She nodded. “You know the word, though, I think.”

“Yes,” I said, “but Impa—it just means ‘circle.’ ”

She nodded again. “That is exactly what caivath is. It is a kind of pilgrimage we all take in our youth. We leave tribe and clan, for a year or perhaps longer, and make a journey on our own to seek what wisdom can be found in the world. We learn to live in the wilderness as Impa did, learn how to survive. We see this land and all its wealth. Our departure and return marks a great circle, and, so, too, do we tread a circle in our own minds, from understanding to ignorance to new insight. In the old days, it used to be done after one’s education in the capital, but before one chose to become a scholar there. For you, as for so many others, it will be the passage into manhood.”

“All right,” I said. “I think I can handle that. When are we leaving?”

Impa’s brows creased. “My child…I am afraid I will not be going with you.”

“You’re not?” I asked, astonished.

“No. There is work I must do here.” She bit her lip. “I hope to convince the elders to open this town to further refugees. Not just Sheikah, but all those who have been torn from their homes under this brutal king. Just as I did once before, I hope to make Kakariko a place of sanctuary for those who need it, and help it to prosper and grow, even after we Sheikah are gone. So I must stay.”

She ran a hand through her silvery hair. “Beyond that—caivath is, after all, meant to be a journey undertaken alone.”

I stared at her. “But—some of the council acted as if you would be coming with me.”

“Yes. They feared you would not be able to travel safely alone. I persuaded them I would keep you safe. But I have thought a great deal on the matter. It would not be right for me to travel with you. I believe I have found a way to keep you safe without walking at your side. I have told no one except Elder Gaisham, but he has come to think my method will work.”

She pressed a small cloth-wrapped bundle into my hand. “For you.” I opened it, and found a small, smooth stone with the Sheikah glyph carved into its face. She held up another just like it. “These are gesh stones. A long time ago, when we filled the libraries and halls of the capital, we used to use them to share secrets amongst each other. Each stone is connected to one other, signaled by the small glyph on its back. Originally, one whispered into them, but that will not work over long distances. If one concentrates, though, one can easily get a sense of where the other stone is in Hyrule, how far distant, what landmarks it nears. Try it.”

I concentrated, clutching the stone, and saw an image of Kakariko, nestled in its foothills, felt the mountains rising up above it to the north.

“Furthermore,” said Impa, “this is a specially made stone. When it is broken, it taps into the link between the two stones and casts a spell. If you are in danger, if for any reason at all you need to escape, simply break the stone. I know you know how to do that with but a word of a spell. If you break the stone, it will exhaust you of a great deal of magic, so it should not be done lightly—but, wherever you are in Hyrule, it will immediately bring you to my side.”

I stared at the stone. “Impa, I—I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I’m ready to travel on my own. I don’t know if I’m good enough to survive out there.”

“You are, my child,” she said. “I have seen it. I know for a fact that you are ready. Why do you think I have been testing your martial skill every afternoon while we have been here in town? You won every match, I might add. Why do you think I had you chart our course to Kakariko? Why do you think I had you survey the landscape, put you in charge of gathering herbs and hunting for the last few weeks? It was to see for myself that you were ready to survive on your own.”

I thought it over. “I—I’m just not sure, Impa, I—isn’t this still a huge risk, for all of you? Just as Rivant said? To trust me, your heir, the one on whom everything rests, not to get himself killed out there in the wilderness somewhere?”

“It is a gamble, to be sure,” Impa said. “But I have great faith in you. You do not realize how deeply you are blessed by the gods. You have the blood of the goddess, the Triforce of Wisdom, and the power of a Sage in you. I have faith, then, that the gods watch your steps and will keep you from harm. And I have faith in you.”

I swallowed. “I will try my best. I—Impa, I’m just afraid. I don’t think I really am wise. I’m going to screw up again. Just as I did before.”

“That was a long time ago,” she said gently, “and you are wiser now. You know how to stay safe. Keep your secrets. Do not take unnecessary risks. Stay far away from the godsforsaken capital. If you attend to all these things, I think you will be all right.”

I nodded stiffly. “I won’t let you down. I promise.”

“I know you won’t,” she said kindly. “Oh, Sheik. I know you are afraid. I know it would feel easier for you if I went with you. But that, I think, would be contrary to the intention of caivath. And…it would be not kind of me. I do not mean to burden you with solitude, but give it to you as a gift.”

“A gift?” I asked, not understanding.

“Yes, I—” She paused, struggling for words. “Sheik, I know those men and women, for all their veiled words, were constantly hinting at your true identity. At what you will have to do after all is done, and the kind of person you will have to be. That cannot have been easy for you. I know it does not please you to have to take up your mother’s station. But I know also that it must be done.”

“I know,” I said, as always not wanting to think about it.

Her eyes were shining. “Sheik, I love you, and if I could change what the gods asked of you—I would. If I could undo the history of your blood, make someone else heir, and give you a life far away from all that, I would. If I could give you the life you deserve, a life where you could be deveth-shekai, truly, where you could be a sorcerer in a tower, always changing forms with the freedom of the wind, I would find that tower and that magic for you. But I do not believe that can be done. And deep down, I think that you would not see Hyrule sink into misery under an unjust Usurper, or collapse into chaos with no order and no queen. I know you would not see the power of the goddess leave this land, would not see famine overtake the fields and plague take the lives of its people, as they have done under this evil king. I know, that whatever else is true about you, you would not turn away from Hyrule.”

I didn’t answer, but we both knew she was right.

“So,” she said—“if I cannot give that freedom to you—” She wiped her eyes, smiling. “I can give you Sheik, for a time. I can give you a caivath that is truly yours. A chance to travel, on your own, to see the world. To come into a sense of your own skills, and live by your own devices. To be Sheik before all the world, without any questions or hesitation, without your old nursemaid standing over your shoulder, reminding you of times past. To be the young man I know you have always wanted to be. You will be him, and you will be Sheikah, and you will honor us all. You will not be able to be Sheik forever, but you will be him for as long as your journey takes, you will go out and seek him and find out what he means, and you will come to understand who you are and who you have always been, and nothing, not even the throne, not the gods themselves, will ever, ever be able to take that away from you.”

Wiping away tears myself, I fell into her arms. “Thank you, Impa,” I said at last. “You do me so much, so much honor by your faith in me.”

“My son,” she said, smiling, “It is not difficult. You have honored me your entire life, and you honor me now. And in the time to come, you will honor us all. Thank you.”

We stayed there a long time, and I held her as a son holds his mother before he goes off to war.

In the morning, by dawn’s first hazy light, she stood beside me. “You have everything?”

I checked every pocket in my satchel, listed off all their contents until she was satisfied. She nodded vaguely. We stood together in the chill, and watched the first sliver of sun crest over distant peaks.

“You will be a healer,” she said finally. “I have taught you all I ever learned of medicine, all the skills I studied in my youth, and all I learned to keep you healthy and safe. Hyrule is suffering, Sheik. It needs people who will heal it. Cure pestilence, mend wounds, set every broken bone straight. One day, you will set the whole world right. Help them, my son, in your travels. Wherever you see hurt—give them your aid.”

“I will, Impa,” I promised.

“You will,” she said, firmly. She looked very tired. “It’s time, my son. Go now, and be Sheik. Explore everything you can. Find good places where you can take shelter and solace, where you can listen to people and come to insights you could not have found elsewhere. Learn all there is to learn about Hyrule and the goddess’s people. And when you are Zelda again, remember everything Sheik knew. And then…come back to me, when the gods give us the sign. Will you do that for me?”

“I will,” I said.

I hugged her fiercely one last time, and set off down the great hill from Kakariko. Before me, the northern plains of Hyrule stretched out in the distance. I could see Lake Hylia and the river that fed into it shining like mirrors near the horizon. My confidence began to grow. I know this place, I told myself. I’ve learned how to follow its trails. Impa taught me everything I’ll need to know. I found us our path into these hills, and I’ll find my way back again. This is my land. This is my home.

I looked back once, when I was at the foot of the hill. I saw Impa, a tiny figure at the top of the hill. She was clutching her stone tightly in one hand. And I thought she was smiling.

I walked ever onward, in the direction of the rising sun.

Chapter Text

Fragment XVII: Go

When the day came, I wasn’t ready for it. I’d known I wouldn’t be.

It was summer again. We’d passed a full year together, huddled through the cold, snowy days and long nights until the world returned to color and life. I saw the snow melt away with Malon at my side, saw how she woke the place up again, piece by piece, how she hired new workers and mobilized the year-round hands, made sure every seed was sown and every animal thriving, and brought the whole farm back to life. I helped out with the renewed chores, but more than anything, I watched and admired her at work. We watched the first spring rains pass through outside as we celebrated my sixteenth birthday with food and song, went out and walked in the sunshine the next day to stroll through hyacinths and lilies and forget-me-nots flourishing among the shining puddles. And then the heat again under the blazing sun, and I watched Malon as she worked, and she watched me with a smile.

It was good, and yet when I lay down to sleep—whether curled around Malon or alone in my privacy—I couldn’t stop my heart from pounding in the dark when I remembered it was all going to have to end.

Breathe, I told myself. Breathe.

Things were going well for all of us. Malon had long since showed her father that she could read old storybooks and formal letters with equal ease. And he, she told me, had nodded, and said it was right enterprising of the two of us to have undertaken a project like that. It hadn’t bothered him one bit. Although he was still holding out on letting her help with his correspondence, just yet, but he’d get there. Now she was showing him all the progress she’d made in Gerudo script, and the language itself through conversations with the local guards. He watched her swirling calligraphy and then hugged her fiercely. Her mother, he said, would be real proud of her. She was all smiles, that day.

Now she was teaching me things. Music, mostly. I’d fixed up my old lyre, which had been banged up a bit in my travels, and made sure its strings were in tune. She’d dug out her mother’s from a stack of crates somewhere, wrapped gently in paper and buried in cushions. Lately we’d been playing together. She played for me all of her mother’s old Hylian ballads and Gerudo love songs, songs she’d been taught and songs the town remembered. I played for her some of the Sheikah songs I’d learned from Elder Zasha, and a song I’d written on my own while wandering the Hylian plains. It was a simple, repetitive melody, but I’d poured into it all my feelings about the war, the Sheikah, Link, everyone I’d lost, all of my hopes and wishes for Hyrule. Malon seemed to understand, because she nodded fiercely when she heard it, as if she knew everything I’d wanted to say.

Today—

That day—

We were playing together. On her lyre, she was strumming a melody, based on one of her mother’s favorite ballads, but extended outward into infinite variations. She was singing and humming along, with a few words here, a few ahs and hmmms there. I was filling in a harmony on my turtle-shell lyre, adding my own variations, improvising chords and echoes to keep up with her. The challenge of it only added to the pleasure. Sometimes I sang the words, sometimes she did. Sometimes she’d tease me by strumming far too fast, and then we’d both break off and laugh at each other for a while. Sometimes we got so lost in the music that we played on and on for hours, losing track of the world. There wasn’t a point to the music we were making, necessarily. It was just playing together. Having fun.

A cool breeze blew by us as we sat on the great hill overlooking town and played our songs. We leaned against each other and looked at the tiny houses, the tiny people, the little bits of smoke coming from fires below. I wondered if our voices and instruments could carry all that way, if the people down there heard our song. I saw the taverns where her mother had played, all the shops and houses where Malon traded milk and leather and eggs, a few guardswomen patrolling lazily below. I’d come to know these places. I’d come to love them. I saw the same girl’s face in every street and every stone.

After a while, she leaned against me and closed her eyes, still strumming, but listening, losing herself in our shared music. Sometimes, in a moment of silence, she put down her lyre and squeezed my hand. And I squeezed back.

As the afternoon grew late and the shadows long, I heard footsteps behind us. I turned first. It was the young farmhand, Leth, walking carefully, but healed and whole.

“Begging your pardon, folks, I don’t mean to interrupt anything,” he said. “But up at the barn, ma’am, they’re wondering if you mean to help patch the roof and round up the cows before supper.”

She sat bolt upright. “It’s that late already? Sorry, Leth, I don’t usually lose track of time like this. I’ll be there.”

He smiled. “No trouble, ma’am. Just asking.”

“I have to go,” she said, hugging me. “I’ll see you soon, all right?” She gave me a sly grin. “Don’t go disappearing on me, now.”

I grinned. It had become our joke between us. “I won’t. Don’t you disappear on me, either!”

“Never,” she said. And then she was off, in a whirl of skirts and color.

Leth stayed. “I meant to thank you again, sir, for patching me up last summer.”

“Of course,” I said.

“And…” He looked nervous. “There’s one more thing, sir. Something I wanted to tell you specifically.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

“There’s a letter for you, sir,” Leth said simply. “Up at the house. A courier came by, said he was told you’d be somewhere in these parts. The envelope’s old, fancy-looking paper, and the seal on it’s an odd eye like the one you wear. Don’t know what it’s about, but it sure seems important.”

I stared at him. My heart was pounding in my chest. “Thank you, Leth. I’ll go take a look.”

It wasn’t hard to find. In the back of the farmhouse there was a little room with an oaken desk, with ink and pen and a few waxy candlesticks set on a stand. Talon’s writing desk, though I’d seen Malon here much more lately. There was a little shelf next to it, stuffed full of envelopes, a makeshift mail slot. Sticking out of the pile was a little brownish envelope. Its seal was a little red blob of wax, pressed with the weeping Sheikah eye. I turned it over, recognizing the spindly, angular handwriting:

To Be Given to the Sheikah Healer of the South,

Or Those With Whom He Has Lodgings

Somewhere in the Vicinity of Elon Creek

Impa.

I slit the envelope open with a knife and collapsed in a nearby chair. I unfolded the old paper and squinted at it in the light.

My dear friend,

I hope you are well, and your travels have led you to wonderful and exciting places. I hope that you have had the chance to do some good for people who needed it. We think of you often here.

I write to tell you of important news. The time you and I have been waiting for is at hand. Everything has aligned for us to begin the project we have been planning for some time. We need you here, as soon as you can make the journey.

At long last, I have received a sign.

You recall our friend, so vital to this enterprise? A youth about your age? How he departed the country for a time, and we were uncertain as to when he would return? Recently I have met a traveler from that other land who knows our young friend, and tells me that he plans to return to Hyrule very soon. He is a most interesting man. Older than I, much older, white-bearded, and of a most sagacious disposition. I was quite surprised to meet him, but it turned out he had been looking for a group like ours for some time. He appeared all of a sudden—he employs a most unusual mode of travel, which lets him fly quickly about the land. I am sure you will be interested in seeing it.

His name is Rauru. And he assures me, that though there are many in this land who make a living through dark deeds, he works always with the light.

You will me most interested in meeting him, I think. The things he could tell you about magic and history alone! More important, though, is his offer of aid. He and I have begun to plan together with our other friends, relying on his new insights. Sheik, he has told me precisely when our friend will return from his long journey.

It will be exactly seven years to the day he departed Hyrule.

This gives us a limited, but not unreasonable amount of time to make things ready for him. To have a plan that will see him through his trials. Rauru suggests recruiting other friends—he was once part of an association, you see, with seven members, and he thinks that with your and my help we can make it seven members again—and finding the temples by which these new recruits can deepen their faith and their strength to the level of Rauru’s. But who exactly we are looking for remains obscure even to him. We will need to do research, and unite all our magic in the task of finding the right people. As well, we will need to learn about the obstacles in our way—particularly the monsters now dwelling in these lands, which I suspect are there to hinder our friend’s efforts.

As we have discussed before, our friend will need a guide who can travel freely, who knows the lay of the land and how to survive in the wilderness. You are well-suited to that task. I envision you laying a path for him, guiding his steps, if not walking alongside him. Show him where he needs to go, and ensure that he gets there safely. Teach him what he needs to know. That is what we will need of you in our efforts to come. If we are successful, we will of course turn our attention to what comes next. But it all starts now, with our planning together. That is why we need you here.

I have followed the news of your travels with some interest, using my own methods, but also rumor and hearsay. It sounds as if your healing aid has been greatly appreciated, particularly in the west and south. They say you are well-liked and well-respected. I am glad. I have noticed that for some time you have stayed in one place. I am not surprised. I suspected that you would find a town or a territory which called to you and became a kind of home. It is important, I think, even as you travel, to come to know some places very deeply. I imagine you have learned many things from being where you are. I am looking forward to hearing about it, about all your travels.

I hate to call on you like this, and ask you to step away from what is surely a comfortable place to be, among friends and companions. I am sure you have been happy here. But it is time. Well do both of us know that all things end, even the good. I hope this time was enough.

Now a different task stands before us, and together we will meet it, you and Rauru and I, and all our dear friends. With your help, I think we will be able to achieve something very great. I cannot begin to thank you for all you’ve done and will do.

Do not worry about writing back. I passed this letter through a Sheikah elder who lives in the southwest, who wrote me that he knew a courier who could get it to you. Just come as soon as you can. It will be good to see you again. I have missed you terribly.

Your friend,

Impa

I leaned back against the chair and stared at the roof-beams.

So it was over.

I’d known it was coming someday, but it still hurt. I found myself wishing I’d had more time. Absurd. I’d been lucky enough to stay here a whole year. Surely I’d been more than blessed. And yet—I wished Malon and I could have had longer. Longer to grow to know each other. Longer to be together. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want to go.

There was no getting around it this time, though. This time I really had to leave. Unless I wanted the Usurper to remain on the throne.

No. No more. If there was one good thing to come out of this, it was that I would finally be able to do something about him. Assuming Link and I survived the confrontation, Ganondorf’s days in power were numbered. Impa had the measure of me right. I wanted to take back Hyrule. I didn’t really want the throne myself. But I’d be damned if I let the tyrant who murdered my family hang onto it for any longer. If someone was going to take up the crown to oppose him, it might as well be me.  

Maybe, just maybe, all of us together could take the bastard down.

But that meant leaving. It meant walking away from Elon and putting this chapter of my life behind me. It meant telling Malon I was going, for good this time. It meant hurting her deeply.

I didn’t know if I had that strength.

I sat and stared at the dimly-lit walls a long time. I didn’t know what to do. I doubted the gods would grant me any spectacular insight. This was a human problem. The problem I’d never been able to solve. I had to have something to tell Malon. Something that made sense. Or some way of sparing her the pain. I turned the problem over and over again in my mind, still finding no answers.

At dinner that night, Malon noticed my awkward silences and hesitations. “Hey, is everything all right?” she whispered, as her father made his way upstairs to bed. “Because it seems like something’s wrong.”

I bit my lip, not knowing what to say.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked gently.

“Not now,” I mumbled. “I need time. But—yes, later.”

“All right,” she said, hugging me. We talked of other things for a while before we parted, each of us to our own bed.

The next morning, I blinked at the ceiling and remembered that I still hadn’t done a damn thing to solve my problem. And I needed to leave, I needed to get going before we were out of time. Shit.

I wished I’d talked with Malon. But I doubted that she could help me find my way out of this conundrum. Not when her feelings were at the heart of it.

I thought for a while. There was one other person around here I trusted not to give my secrets away. Maybe, if I couldn’t talk to Malon, I could talk to someone else.

I found Talon around the back of the chicken coop. He was snoozing in the shade, hands folded, hat pulled down over his head. A full basket of eggs sat beside him. I gently shook his shoulder to wake him up.

“Whazzat?” he mumbled. He blinked. “Oh, it’s you, Sheik. ‘Fraid you caught me sleeping on the job again. What can I do for you?”

“I wanted to talk to you about something,” I said slowly. “It’s about Malon.”

He pushed himself upright, sat up cross-legged and looked me in the eye. “All right. Go on, then.”

“Well—” Suddenly I didn’t know where to begin. “Well, first of all, your daughter and I, you see—I guess we’ve been seeing a lot of each other.” I realized I was blushing. “I hope that’s all right with you, sir. I would hate to abuse your hospitality.”

He laughed. “Hell, Sheik, you think I didn’t know? You two are always sneaking off together. It’s all right, boy, I don’t object. You’re a good pair. You balance each other out.”

I blinked. “Really? I—I thought you might not approve.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Well, because you told me that you would throw me out,” I said nervously. “If I hurt her, that is.”

He looked at me oddly. “Dating her’s not hurting her, boy. Matter of fact, she’s been happier this last year with you around than she’s been for ages.” He shook his head. “I think you take me a little too seriously. That little speech wasn’t meant for you. Least, not you once I figured out you’re a trustworthy sort. There’s cruel, hard men out there, Sheik. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t one of them.” His face darkened. “You weren’t here for the boy who promised Malon presents and things, then jumped town as soon as he found a coach to take him to the capital. You never heard about Bevi Cartwright here in town, whose lover left her pregnant and alone ten years or so back, then came barging in drunk out of nowhere years later, waving his fists, demanding to take that little boy away with him. That’s the sort of man I was talking about. You, you’re a decent sort.”

I looked down at the ground. “I just—I’m not sure if I’m as good of a man as you say I am. I have—I have a task I have to do. And—and I’m afraid I’m going to hurt Malon after all by doing it. I mean, really hurt her.”

He twitched his fluffy mustache. “Well,” he said after a while, “Tell me about that.”

So I told him. I told him I was one of the people working to achieve the dream of Hyrule restored. I told him that I’d have to leave, very soon, to see it done. And that I wouldn’t be able to come back. That I was torn between my promise to my Sheikah allies and my promise to Malon. That I didn’t know how to make the right choice.

He listened without saying much. Finally, he sighed, wiping his thinning brow. “Sheik—a lot of folks have wrestled with this question, every time there’s been a war to fight. Don’t ask me about it. A damn old fool like me doesn’t know the answer. It’s always hard to choose. Some would say it’s better you stay. Some would say it’s better you go. It’s your own choice, not mine. It has to do with what you think is right.”

“I can’t—I can’t leave her,” I said. “But I can’t stay. I—I can’t make that choice.” My voice was trembling. “What—what should I do?”

He stared at me, wide-eyed. “Sheik, I can’t make that choice for you. Don’t—don’t ask that of me. It isn’t fair, not in the least. Sheik, I don’t know the answer. You have to make that choice yourself. You signed up to make it a long time ago. Back when you told your friends you were willing to fight.”

“But if you were to offer an opinion—just to tell me what you think—”

“What do I think?” he said, waving a hand. “I think I wouldn’t think much of you for running away and leaving Malon without a reason you left, that’s one thing.”

I winced. “I was hoping you might be able to tell her for me—”

He shook his head. “No way. Not doing. You signed up to help these folks? Of your own accord? Well, that gives you the responsibility of justifying their cause. You think it’s worth doing, then tell the people who matter. Go and stand by the fact that you’re doing it.”

He stared off into space for a long time. “The other thing I think,” he said finally, “is that you might try to stay. You might try to forget all the promises you’ve made. The things you want to fight for. And maybe you could forget, for a little while. But every day, you’d feel this little pain twisting in you. Getting worse and worse all the time. Because you weren’t out there doing what you knew was right. No one could blame you for leaving, then. Not if—not if the choice was poisoning yourself with guilt or doing something right. And—and—I know Malon and I could forgive you for leaving, then. But it would still hurt. It would still hurt for a long, long time. That’s about what you’re facing. That’s the nature of it, and there’s no escaping it.”

He forced himself upright, rubbing his eyes. “All I can tell you, Sheik, is that if you’re going to go, Malon deserves an honest answer from you about why you’re doing it. At the very least, I hope she knows about your cause.”

“She does,” I said. “I did tell her.”

 “Then just talk to her, Sheik. Don’t try to get out of it. Just tell her what’s being asked of you, and trust her to understand. She’ll listen. She always does. You may not like what she has to say, but she’ll hear you out.”

He seemed to brace himself against the wall. “That’s all a fat old fool like me knows, Sheik. I don’t know what answers you’re looking for.” He paused. “I’m glad you told me, though. It’s brave of you to take a stand. If you do leave, it’ll be a real shame not having you around for cures and prayers. We’ve all been glad to have you here.”

He clapped me on the shoulder. “You’re a good man, Sheik. A real smart fellow. I want you to know I’ve been glad of everything you’ve done. Don’t mess it up now. Do right by Malon. She deserves it. That’s all I’m asking of you.”

He started away. Then he turned back to me. “If you do see that pig of a king,” he said, “give him a piece of our mind from down here in Elon, won’t you? From both of us.” He winked, and ambled away.

I watched him trudge back up the hill and out of sight. All right. I’d talk to her. And trust her to help me understand what the right choice was.

I found her in the stables again, and we slipped off to the shack together once more. I sat down on the mattress with her again. She watched me, looking very serious.

“Malon,” I began. “I got a letter yesterday.”

I told her everything that was in it. I told her I’d probably soon be meeting an ancient Sage. I told her that we were going to take back Hyrule. I told her that I was going to be helping Link and guiding his path. I told her there wasn’t much time.

But when I tried to tell her it meant that I’d have to go—I stopped. I couldn’t say the words.

But she was nodding sadly, as she had through the whole thing. “Well,” she said, “we knew this was going to happen eventually.” She gave me a weak smile. “At least we had a good long time, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. I tried to smile, too. “It’s been nice. It’s been really, really nice.”

“It has,” she said firmly. “I’m glad to have met you, Sheik. I really am.”

I couldn’t leave it there. I couldn’t hear this now. I couldn’t let it be over. “This doesn’t have to be the end,” I blurted out.

She didn’t say anything. She just watched me, blinking slowly.

“What I mean is,” I said, “I’ll come back. I promise I’ll come back for you when it’s all over. I’ll fight and win, and then—then it’ll be over. And we can be together.” I knew I was lying, but gods, how badly I wanted it to be true.

She watched me. “You’ll come back?”

“Yes,” I said, hesitating. “In a year or so. I’ll come back and it’ll be like nothing ever happened. You’ll see.” If I could just keep from seeing that pain in her eyes—from hurting her with a goodbye—

She nodded, the tiniest fraction.  I tried to encourage her. “It’ll be just like the song, you know?” I said weakly. “Just like the old story. Just like we sang together.” And I started to sing:

“Avia, my true love, wait here for me,

For the horizon is calling, still calls for me,

Avia, my true love, I’m needed in war—”

“Shut up,” she said, so suddenly and furiously I fell silent, shocked. Her face was full of pain. “Don’t you dare,” she spat. “Don’t you dare try to use that song on me. You don’t have any clue, you don’t have the first goddamn idea what it means. You’re not making me wait for you to die, too. You can’t sit here and say these things to me, you—”

Suddenly she broke off, shocked by her own outburst. Then she was crying.

“Sheik,” she said after a moment, wiping tears from her eyes, “I can tell when you’re lying.”

“Oh,” I said. It was all I could say.

“Sheik,” she said, looking very tired, “I know you’re not coming back. I think I understood that a long time ago, all right? I listened to the way you talked about the cause, the war you were going to fight in, and I thought: at least I get to have him for a little while. That’s what I thought. So you’re not surprising me at all.”

“I’m sorry,” I said weakly.

She went on. “I know there’s a good chance of you dying out there. I mean, this is the Usurper we’re talking about, isn’t it? This is what you’ve wanted your whole life. A cause to throw yourself at. To redeem yourself. I get that, I really do. But I don’t think you’re coming back even if you do make it through. There’s something else they—your people, I mean—want you to do. Isn’t that right? Please. Answer me honestly. I mean it.”

“You’re right,” said, bowing my head.

She looked at me impatiently, awaiting more explanation. I struggled for a moment, remembered an idea I’d come up with in the past. “They want me stationed permanently at the palace,” I admitted. “They want me to be the princess’s bodyguard for the rest of my life. I don’t think I’ll be able to come back.”

She nodded slowly. “Well,” she said fiercely, “you might have told me that months ago.” Then she was crying again. I didn’t know what to say.

“It’s not like I don’t wish you could stay,” she said after a while, “but don’t lie to me and say you’re coming back. That’s why that song’s such a lie.”

I stared at her, surprised. “I thought you loved that song.”

“Oh, gods, I do and I don’t,” she muttered. “Most of the time I love it. But sometimes, I hear it in the taverns, and I really hate it, Sheik. Because there’s a lie in it.”

“Why?”

“Because.” Her gaze was fierce. “Not everyone comes back.”

She looked at me sadly. “Everyone thinks they’re Avia and Erito. That’s the kind of story they want to be in. The one where the brave husband goes off to war, and even though his wife worries about him, it’s all right, because he comes back home at the end of the war, maybe with a broken leg, but mostly all right, mostly whole. Well, what if that doesn’t happen? What if Erito doesn’t make it back home again? Because I can promise you, there’s a lot of wives out there who never see their husbands again after they go off to war. People die in war. That’s what it’s about. Killing lots of people. And we’re supposed to ignore that, we’re supposed to act like it’s okay. But it’s not okay. They don’t come home again. They don’t come back.”

“No,” I said quietly, thinking of the Sheikah. “You’re right. They don’t come back.”

She was crying again. “Nobody ever came back for me. They promised they would. But they never did. They died out there, Sheik. My mother. My friend from the forest. Even though they lied and promised they’d come back again. I won’t let you do that to me again.”

I felt awful. “Malon, I—I’m sure they only wanted to spare your feelings. I’m sure they didn’t meant to hurt you.”

“Gods above, Sheik, don’t you think I know that?” she cried. “But that’s what happened. It hurt worse because of the lie.” She stared off into the distance. “You can’t just make people wait for you. It isn’t fair. It’s easy to sacrifice yourself. It’s damn near impossible to wait. When you’re waiting, you have this horrible black knot in you, and it gets tighter and tighter. Until one day you find out you’ve been waiting to hear about a death, and then that knot bursts inside you and sends something foul all through your heart. I—I know that’s what happened to my dad.”

She stared at the walls for a long time. “She wrote the song, you know. I don’t know if you guessed.” She gave me another weak smile. “My mother. That’s who. That’s why I can’t hate it entirely. It had a good purpose. It was a love song for him. For my father.”

I blinked, suddenly understanding.

“She wrote it when she was going off to war for the first time. In the civil war. She wrote it like a promise. Saying: I’ll come back to you again, my love. I’ll come back.” She rubbed at her eyes. “The first time, she was right. She did come back. She came back to have me, and the war ended by the time I said my first words, and we were a family, happy, just like the end of any love story. And people fell in love with the song, Sheik. It meant so much to them. Because they had the same feeling. They’d been all twisted up with fear, but then it was suddenly all right, because the war was over and survivors were coming back home again. So they started singing it in every tavern from here to the capital. They wanted to believe in that happy ending.”

“But I don’t know if I can,” she said, very quietly. “Because she didn’t come back the next time. She left, and I heard her singing the song to him, which meant: wait for me. And I saw him nod, his eyes full of tears, which meant: I will. And you know my father, Sheik. Of course he’d wait for her. He loved her like nothing else, like sunlight, like spring, he loved her with his whole heart bursting with it. And he waited. And he waited. And she never came back. You didn’t see him when he found out she’d died. You didn’t see the way he wept. Something broke in him, Sheik. The only thing he has any energy for now is me. He lost so much of himself, waiting for her. And that’s not right to do to a person.”

She was silent a moment. “And I guess I don’t want that to happen to me. I don’t want to be one of the girls in the stories who’s always waiting for her war hero to come home. It happens to women most of all. I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing you would notice. Men usually don’t.”

I started to say something in protest, then thought better of it.

“It’s just—there are so many stories about women who wait. I know so many girls who were so happy to get married and then for one reason or another their husbands never came home, and they had to turn into grown women raising babies alone, and everybody smiles as if that’s how life should be. But it’s not fair. There’s even a story about a sailor who left for a ten-year war and spent ten more years getting back home again. And they praise him and they praise his wife for her faithfulness. But you know what the truth is? He spent nine years of that trip sleeping with goddesses and spirits, and didn’t give two shits about how his wife would have felt. While she had to beat off every suitor with a stick to even equal the glory he got for free. How is that fair?” She fell quiet again. “Everybody always thinks about Erito, promising he’ll come home again. They never remember the part where Avia’s begging him not to leave.”

She looked at me closely. “Maybe you understand a little, Sheik. I mean, that’s what happened between you and Link. You loved him. You were just getting to know him. And then suddenly the gods decide that you have to wait for him for, what, seven years, while he sleeps? You could have spent all that time learning about each other, becoming friends. Instead you’ve had to wait for all this time, worrying and wondering and feeling like you did something wrong. As if you’re not entitled to have your own life in the meantime. It’s not right for anyone to expect you to pick up exactly where you left off. You’ve become a different person. I’m sure he has, too. To make you wait—to make you hold that hurt, that loneliness in your heart, for all these years—that isn’t fair at all.”

I thought about it for a while. “You’re right,” I said. “It isn’t fair. But I still want to see him again all the same. I still want to help him. Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” she said, very quietly.

I ran a hand through my hair. “Malon—you’re right. Of course you’re right. But—what is anyone supposed to do? Sometimes, there are reasons to risk your life, even when people care about you. There are reasons to go off to war. There are reasons to challenge a king. You know? Link believed in them. I do, too. And I know that if you run away from them, you’re every bit as much a coward as when you run away from love. And I don’t think I can run away from them now.”

“I know,” she said. “Don’t you think I know?” She was silent a while. “And I know I’m not being fair to her, or the song. There’s real sadness in that song, too. It’s not just about a happy ending.”

 “It’s not just the happy people who sing it in the taverns,” I said, understanding. “It’s men and women with tears in their eyes, remembering someone who isn’t there to sing it with them.”

“Yeah,” she said. She looked down at her hands. “Maybe she understood that, when she wrote Avia’s part of the song. Maybe she did know what war was like. And maybe…when she sang it to him, it was an apology, too. For what might happen. For leaving and dying. And maybe—maybe he knows that.”

She sighed. “Sheik, I—I don’t blame Mom, and I don’t blame you, either. I just want you to know how I feel. I just can’t live like that, waiting. And I don’t want you to lie to me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I promise I won’t.”

She looked at me closely. “I just wonder if—if you’ll be happier when you’re with Link again. Don’t—don’t think I’m jealous of him. It’s just that I think you’ll be happier, traveling out there with a hero, than stuck on this farm with me. I’m not like him, Sheik. I don’t know what it’s like to go on adventures or be brave. I’m just a girl on a farm. That’s all. I’m nothing special.”

“Malon,” I said, struggling for words. “It’s not like that at all. Knowing you’s been the biggest adventure I’ve ever had.”

“No flattery, all right?” she said, blushing.

“No,” I insisted. “I really mean that. Before I met you, it was all running and fear and worry. Meeting you—it’s what’s made it worthwhile. Leaving my home. Being the person I am.” I was wiping my eyes, too, now. “You made it matter.”

She leaned over and planted a kiss on my cheek. Slowly she stroked my hand. “That means a lot, Sheik.” she said. “I just wish you didn’t have to go.”

“Me, too,” I said. I was quiet a long time. “Malon, I want to promise you something.”

“No promises,” she said quietly. “Please.”

“This is a different promise than what you’re thinking of,” I said. “Hear me out.”

“All right,” she said slowly.

“I promise you, Malon,” I said slowly, “That I won’t make you wait for me. That after I leave this place, you don’t owe me anything. Not a single bit of guilt or loyalty. And it’s okay if you love someone else, in the future. Because it’ll be a different love, with a different person. And it’ll be good. And I want you to know I’ve loved every minute I’ve spent with you, and you’re an amazing person, more amazing than you even know, and you’ve made my time as a traveling healer so incredible. And I’m so grateful you let me stay here for a while. And I promise that whatever happens, that’s how I’ll think of you for the rest of time. As a wonderful person that I’m so glad I met. Who deserves happiness and wonderful people in her life. And who doesn’t owe me a damn thing, not a damn moment of waiting.”

She was crying again, but this time she was smiling through the tears. “Gods, Sheik,” she said, punching me lightly on the arm. “Now I’m really going to miss you.” She looked at me quietly. “I want the same thing for you, too, you know. If you want—if you want to be with Link after me, you should. I mean it. I promise I won’t be jealous. I think you should show him how much you care about him.”

I blushed. “Well—it’s been a long time. It will be a while before we really get to know each other again—I’ll not sure if it’s possible—”

“No, no!” she insisted. “It’d be great. You’d be an amazing pair. I can just imagine it: the two of you slaying monsters and kissing on the side. You should absolutely go for it.”

“You’re giving me romantic advice, now?” I said, grinning.

“Yes,” she said, beaming. “Kiss that boy, or I’ll be so disappointed.”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll do it. But only for you.”

We grinned at each other in the fading light.

Then Malon twisted the hem of her dress. “I know you have to go, Sheik,” she said. “But will you stay with me one more night?”

I nodded. “Yes. I’ll—I’ll leave in the morning.”

“All right,” she said, drawing me closer. “One more night, then.”

And we made the most of our time.

In the cool morning, with the sun making us squint in the east, Malon and I walked out onto the edge of her property. Beyond lay rolling green hills and dottings of towns—and far to the north, I could just barely make out a city built on a great hill, surrounded by fields. The capital.

Malon squeezed me fiercely. “I thought I was ready,” she admitted. “I knew it was going to be hard, but gods! I didn’t know it’d be this hard.”

“I wish I could make it easier,” I said. “I’d take you with me on my adventure, you know, if I could.”

“I know,” she said. “But I’ve got my own work here. I have to protect this place.” She bit her lip. “I’m a little worried, Sheik. I meant to tell you. One of the hands visited the capital a while back, and now he’s started acting different. I think he’s sending messages back and forth with somebody in the administration. I think the king might be interested in the horses. I don’t know what’s going to happen once you’re gone.”

I looked at her closely, frowning. “I’ll keep an ear out,” I told her. “If I hear there’s any trouble, I’ll try to send my friend your way. And if you or your father really need to leave town—you can always go to Kakariko. There are people there you can trust.”

She punched my arm lightly. “I appreciate that. But no more promises, remember? And no waiting.”

“All right. No promises. No waiting.” I watched her for a moment. “Anyway, you’re good at letter-writing now. If the king takes an interest, you’ll distract him or hold him off somehow, I’m sure.”

She nodded, slowly. “You’re right. I can do this. I’ll start handling Dad’s letters. I know how to do that now. I’ll keep everything running all smooth, and I won’t give the king any excuse to muscle in.”

“Besides,” I told her, “you’ve always secretly run this farm anyway. Whatever happens, so long as you’re here, I know the animals and workers will be treated well.”

“Damn right,” she said proudly. “You can count on me for that. That’s not even a promise to you. That’s a promise to myself.”

We watched the rising sun for a while. “This is it, then,” she said finally. “I’m going to miss you like hell. Stay safe out there, all right? I know you’re not coming back, but I hope you make it through this okay.”

“Me, too,” I said. “I want you to be well, I want you to be happy, I—I can’t even tell you all the things I want for you.”

“Then don’t tell me,” she said, and kissed me.

We held the kiss for a long, long time. I don’t know if we put into it everything we meant to say, everything we felt. But we came close.

Finally, we parted. “Goodbye, Sheik,” said Malon, wiping a tear from her eye. “Thank you for everything.”

“You, too, Malon,” I whispered. “Goodbye, and thank you for everything. For this whole adventure.” She nodded.

I started to walk, then—hesitating—turned to look at her one last time.

“Go on, now,” she said, pointing out into the distance. She was smiling. “Go save the world.”

I walked on into the north, the sun rising beside me, and, looking back, kept catching glimpses of Malon, sometimes waving fiercely, sometimes rubbing her eyes. I kept waving back, until she’d disappeared around one of the rolling hills.

I wiped tears from my own eyes then.

When I see you, Impa, I thought, I’ll tell you all about it, just like you asked. My whole adventure.

What was the question you asked me? Was it enough?

Yes. That’ll be my answer.

It was enough.

I walked on into another story, knowing old friends were waiting for me around the next bend.

I walked on.

Chapter Text

Fragment XVIII: Link

He came back.

We’re getting close to the end, now. Back to the cage in which I sit. Back to the need for escape. But I don’t want to talk about that just yet. I want to talk about Link.

He came back.

That’s the most important thing.

Somehow all those years of waiting and wondering, all the plans I hatched with Impa and Rauru—who turned out to be more of a spirit than a man, showing himself in visions and guises—everything we learned and planned in that time before the moment of awakening—none of it prepared me to see Link standing alive and whole before me.

I waited in the Temple of Time on what Rauru said was the appointed day. Seven years to the day Link had stepped into the light and disappeared. Where I made my fatal mistake. I knew I’d been told not to blame myself. But as I thought about Link in the months leading up to the encounter, I remembered how I’d led him to this place. I felt like I owed him some sort of apology. Whatever my reasons, it hadn’t been wise to meddle with time. When I saw him, I would have to make amends.

I waited, trying to steady my breath. My heart was pounding. None of this seemed real.

But out of the light he stepped, looking seven years older, in green forest clothes much like the ones he’d worn when I last saw him, the blade of evil’s bane in his hands, a shield with Hyrule’s crest strapped to his back, and a blue fairy whirring about at his shoulder.

The lines in his face had filled out and changed, his features more set and square, if still angular. His shoulders had broadened, and I could sense muscle beneath his tunic. He moved with purposeful, even strides. There was a beauty to his strength I hadn’t even imagined.

He rubbed his forehead, glanced at his flying companion, and stared around the temple as if in a daze. He looked down at himself, stared at his strong hands, turned them over in—shock? Wonder? I couldn’t tell.

Of course, I thought. He hasn’t spent this whole time waiting. The last thing he remembers is falling asleep. Seven years ago.

I knew Rauru had briefed him when he woke in the Sacred Realm. But—Gods. It had to be one hell of a rude awakening.

Well, it wasn’t going to get any easier from here. We had to get him up to speed as soon as possible. Time to introduce myself.

I stepped out from behind a marble pillar. “I've been waiting for you, Hero of Time,” I said.  I spoke slowly, so that my voice wouldn’t show my nervousness. “I am Sheik. Survivor of the Sheikah.”

I’d decided not to show him my true face just yet.

Impa had suggested I reveal my secret to Link, to win his trust by reminding him of who we’d been together. But I decided against it. For now. There would be time for the truth later, if we all survived.

I knew my time as Sheik was drawing short, whatever our chances. I didn’t want it to be over yet. I didn’t want Link to think of Sheik merely as a disguise, I suppose. I wanted Link, of all people, to know Sheik as a real person. I wanted him to see me, see him. I wanted Sheik so desperately to be real, for a little while longer. So an idea took root in me and grew. Would it be possible to win Link’s trust all over again? If we met as different people, could we again become friends? I didn’t know, but I wanted to try.

Link, meet Sheik.

I think he was a little in awe of me. The feeling was mutual. The fact of him being there—standing, fidgeting, blinking, breathing—it was hard to believe it was happening. It was like having him back from the dead. He, in turn, seemed to regard me as some kind of sage. Which I supposed I was. He listened closely to all my instructions, for I told him where he might find the new Sages who would help break Ganondorf’s power. I told him to travel through deep forests, up a great mountain, under a vast lake, and across desert sands. I told him a Kokiri girl he knew was the first Sage to awaken. I told him that together, with his help, we would take back our country from the Usurper. He listened very seriously, as he always did. I didn’t know if he trusted me yet. But he met my eyes several times and nodded, as if to say: I won’t disappoint you.

There. I’d said everything. I turned away. Suddenly, he took a step towards me. He reached out a hand—to take mine? To grasp my shoulder? To have the comfort of any human touch, after such a long time alone? I didn’t know. But I flinched. I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready. I held up a hand. “I will see you again, soon, Link,” I told him. “Don’t worry. I will be with you.”

Then, in a flash of magic and Sheikah art, I disappeared from his sight.

From a nearby rooftop, well hidden, I watched him slip through the dark streets of the occupied capital. I watched until I was sure he’d made it past the king’s monsters on their daily patrol. Hyrule was a different place now. Its people were different, too. He was surely learning that already. I hoped he and I could survive it together.

That was how we saw each other at first. Only in fleeting moments. Glimpses. I couldn’t bring myself to try for anything more. I watched over him like a spirit as he made his journey, guarding, helping, protecting. I’d scout the road ahead of him, unseen, and keep an eye out for any obstacles in his path. If there were dangers he couldn’t deal with on his own, I’d try to send him down a different road, or lend him my strength against a foe. He’d catch a glimpse of me, darting away through the trees, and know who it was who’d sent a well-timed arrow at an enemy neck only moments ago.

He saw me more clearly at our destinations, at the towns and temples where the Sages dwelled. There, I’d step into the light for a while. And I became, not for the first time, his teacher. I taught him music. I taught him songs and spells I’d learned from Rauru, spells to open a path to the temples and clear away Ganondorf’s curses. I advised him of local conditions and told him all that he needed to know to fight his way to the heart of each sanctum. I never once doubted that I’d see him emerge at the end of the day, clothes worn, tired but exultant. He never once disappointed me. Sometimes I talked to him of what I’d learned about the flow of time, hinted at our past friendship. But afterward, when he took a step closer, when he tried to ask me more about who I was—I couldn’t tell him. Not yet. I’d depart.

That’s how it was for some time. But one morning, while he was heading south from the land of the Zora, whom the king had plundered and cursed for their resistance, I stepped over the crest of a hill and discovered there were enemies on the horizon. An army heading our way. They were here for Link. I knew he couldn’t deal with them alone.

I slipped into his camp before the sun had crept much further into the sky. I gently shook him awake, amazed that after his long rest he still needed sleep at all. He awoke to see me standing beside him. “Sheik?” he asked, bleary-eyed.

“The king’s forces are searching for you,” I told him. “They are almost upon you. I have dealt with this kind of patrol before. I know how to slip past them. But you will need magic and stealth on your side. Come with me, and I will keep you from being seen.”

He hesitated—then nodded. He stretched out his hand. Surprising myself, I took it. We shook hands, then began to pack up his camp and disguise the traces of his fire. From that moment on, we were working together. I listened carefully for the sounds of our enemies’ approach, observed the signs of safe passage. Link took my advice without question. I guided Link around hanging cliffs, bracing his steps, led him through hidden valleys, shielded him from sight with magic. Within a few days, it was clear that the troop had moved past us, riding on to the north, while we were circling back around to the center of Hyrule. By now we had begun to feel like a team, he and the fairy and I. I lingered in his camp, even once we thought the danger had passed. I wasn’t ready to leave. Perhaps they’d return. Perhaps he’d still need me.

One night, after the little blue fairy had fallen asleep, Link turned to me with a question. “Sheik, why do you work so hard to help me?” he asked.

I stirred the cooking-pot idly. It was empty. We’d long since put out the fire to avoid being spotted. Fortunately it was a warm night. In the darkness, I could just barely glimpse his face under the light of a thin moon. “You and I have the same goal,” I said finally. “We both want to restore Hyrule.”

He shook his head. “It’s not just that. You seem to really—I don’t know, care about me, specifically. What happens to me.”

“You’re our hope.”

“Even still…” He trailed off. “You look out for me. It means a lot. I’ve never had the chance to thank you before. I wish I knew what I’d done to deserve that kind of loyalty.”

“You’re a good man,” I said. “A kind one. We believe in you.”

He winced, as if he wasn’t entirely sure about what he heard. “It’s a lot to ask of you, that you give up everything else to follow me around and keep me safe.”

I stared into the darkness. “It’s something I’ve learned from my people, I suppose. Devotion to a task.”

He shifted uneasily. “I don’t know anything about you, Sheik, even after all this time. Where did you come from? You never speak of yourself.”

“No, I suppose I don’t,” I said slowly.

“I’d hear your stories,” he said shyly. “If you want to tell them.”

I looked at him a long time. “All right,” I said finally.

I told him stories about Sheik’s childhood. Many of the same stories I’d told Malon and others over the years. All fictions, of course, but there was something in them that was true about Sheik. True of me. He was a good listener, leaning in closer and closer to hear. He told me a few stories about growing up in the forest. I’d already heard them, but I pretended I hadn’t. My delight at hearing them again was genuine. As the night wore on, we found ourselves sitting next to each other under the stars.

“I don’t know if I’m the right person for this,” he said, after a while. “People say I’ve been chosen, but I don’t know if they’re right. I just do what I have to. I just fight—I just fight for Hyrule because I don’t know how to do anything else. You know?”

I nodded. “I do. That’s me, as well.” A comfortable silence passed between us. We were very near each other, now, dark outlines against the stars. After a moment, I reached up and unwound the wrappings from my face, dropped them on the ground. He wouldn’t see me clearly, now, not in this darkness. He wouldn’t recognize my face.

I leaned closer, catching a tiny glint of moonlight in his eyes. They were looking into mine. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I didn’t know how Link would feel, if he’d have a typical Hylian attitude towards this kind of desire. But I wanted to give something a chance to happen all the same.

To my surprise, it happened. Link leaned over and kissed me. I blinked, then returned the kiss.

His arms were wrapping around me. I wanted to sink into them for a long time. He seemed to pause—then, with a sigh he pulled me over himself, until the two of us were kissing on the ground together, our bodies warm and pressed together and near.

We enjoyed ourselves that night.

“Link,” I said, after a long time had passed. I wasn’t sure if he was still awake. He stirred next to me, rolled over to meet my eye. “You said you were looking for a horse?” I asked after a moment. He nodded.

I’d been thinking. There’d been a feeling growing in me—not quite of guilt, not quite of disloyalty exactly, but more a sense that there was something I could do, needed to do. I wanted to give her something. If I was going to be gone—gone for good—I wanted to give Malon a hero. A real hero.

“There’s a ranch in a little town called Elon,” I told him. “Down in the south of Hyrule. Their horses are strong and swift and good-natured. That’s why they used to supply the royal family with their horses, back in the day. You should go there. A young woman and her father run the place. She’s…she’s good, and kind. She’ll give you a place to stay, if you need it, and a good swift steed.”

He nodded. “I know the place.”

“Tell her—tell her I sent you,” I said, voice shaky. He nodded, as if trying to understand.

“And Link—” I didn’t know how to say it. “If she’s in trouble, there—if something’s gone wrong—can you look out for her? Can you keep her safe?”

He nods. “I will.”

“Thank you,” I said, and passed into a comfortable sleep.

In the morning, I slipped away before he woke. I didn’t know how he’d take my absence. But as I watched from a distance, I thought I saw him smiling. He knew he’d see me again. He packed up his things and set out, heading south.

A few weeks later, I saw him riding north again on the back of a handsome chestnut mare. I thought I recognized the steed as Epona, Malon’s best-loved horse. I smiled, and readied one of Rauru’s travel spells to help me follow in their wake.

In our meetings after that, Link greeted me as a friend. No matter how many times I appeared and disappeared on him, he seemed content to wait. I didn’t know how to approach the subject of the two of us again, but it didn’t matter. We were a team now. Together we wrestled with a shadow-beast from the bad old Sheikah days—buried beneath Kakariko, of all places—and sealed it away again with Impa’s aid. I saw Impa talking with Link afterward, promising to lend him her power as a Sage. Together we fought our way through the desert to find a Sage among the Gerudo, storming their great fortress together, with my arrows flying above and his blade flying down below. We fought and worked together as one.

As word of Link’s success travelled, his legend grew, until I heard people talking of him in the marketplaces in hushed excitement. Perhaps he might truly be able to challenge the Usurper. And I thought another legend grew beside his. Mine. The story of Sheik, his mysterious mentor and guide.

At last, we’d done what we set out to do. We had our Sages. We had our plan—to use our combined power to seal the Usurper in the Sacred Realm he so coveted. We would cut the false regime off at the head, and watch it crumble. Link slipped back into the capital in the dead of night, avoiding the now-teeming horde out to take his life. He snuck into the palace district and stepped into the Temple of Time. I was there waiting for him.

And now for my own part of the plan.

I’d thought and thought a long time. I’d decided I was finally ready. Link had met Sheik. He’d seen me as I could be. As a friend, as a brave young man fighting by his side. A hero like him. He’d known and loved that person. No matter what happened now, there was no chance of Sheik being forgotten. It was time to tell him the whole truth, then. It was time for him and Zelda to meet again. I prayed, I prayed, it would make sense to him. I prayed that when he saw me, he’d understand.

And Zelda was ready to return. She was leaping, surging forth within me. I wanted to be freed of all the weight of those seven years, of all the illusions, and be his friend in the garden again, one more time. And I knew this was what Zelda had to do, in a world where Link and Zelda took back the throne. Even though I also knew it meant the death of Sheik. So I decided to make it glorious for him. To be as beautiful and as radiant as I’d ever imagined I could be. To return with a bang. In that moment, I hoped, he’d understand the whole tale of Sheik and Zelda. Every part of me.

On that day, as the two of us stood in the Temple once more, I spoke to him of the Triforce. I told him how it had split during Ganon’s invasion. I pointed to the sign, glowing on the back of his hand, that he bore the Triforce of Courage. Then I grinned, and showed him the Triforce of Wisdom glowing on mine.

“The holder of the Triforce of Wisdom,” I told him, “is the seventh of the Sages. And her domain is Time.”

And in that moment, I did it. I cast the spell, just as I’d been practicing. A great light shone in the temple, and in that light, I changed. My body swirled and shifted, as it had every month for seven years. My features changed; my body rounded out and took on a softer, familiar form. My clothes rippled and changed—this had been the hardest trick to learn—into a long violet gown, the gown of an heir of Hylia. I tore away my turban and let my hair, now grown long, fly free. Amidst a swirl of dust and light, which wrapped around me like a welcoming embrace, I stepped back into my old self. Zelda, the Princess of Hyrule, stood in the Temple, fully revealed.

It had exactly the desired reaction. Link’s jaw dropped.

Smiling shyly, I told him the real story of the last seven years. I told him of the need to live in disguise. I told him I wanted him to know who I’d been in those seven years, before I met him as Zelda. I begged his forgiveness, for the mistake I’d made all those years ago, for leaving him trapped in the Sacred Realm. The gentle look he gave me showed that he’d long ago forgiven me.

I taught him one more thing—the last of Rauru’s spells, a way to craft arrows of light that would pierce through the Usurper’s shadows and give us the chance to end his evil. He took them, wordless, still staring, stunned, grateful. We turned to leave this place, so that we might challenge our enemy at the castle. Then—

Fool that I was!

Then, without warning, one of the chandeliers in the rafters above shimmered and changed. It seemed, for a moment, to resemble a great eye blinking. And it was staring straight at me.

Pillars of magic, cold as ice, suddenly rose up around me. They resolved themselves into a crystalline structure, staining the world around me a bright fuchsia. Link’s shocked face was rippled and distorted on the other side of that icy glass. I pounded at the walls, but it did no good. The crystal rose up in the air as I bit back frustration and tears.

In the excitement of the moment, in the thrill of revealing my true identity to Link, I’d been sloppy. I’d forgotten to check my surroundings for traces of Ganondorf’s magic. Here, in the one place where he had reason to suspect I’d be. I’d walked right into a trap.

And in that space, a loud and terrible voice was heard, its Gerudo accent thick. It was mocking us, mocking me.  I knew that voice. I knew that man. And as my surroundings disappeared, I heard him taunting Link, telling him that if he wanted to free me, he would come to the castle, and challenge him man to man. But the voice laughed. For the speaker felt sure that in the confrontation to come, Link would fall, and the king would have all three pieces of the Triforce in his possession at long last.

When the world returned, I saw the owner of that voice standing before me, peering lazily at me through the crystal shell.

Damn it, damn it, damn it all!

I slumped against the walls of my prison. Was this how it was to be from now on? Was I never again going to be anything more than a prize and a pawn? A tool for this king to win his game against a hero? Was I back to being a maiden locked in a tower? Never again to be an actor in my own right? Never again to be taken seriously? My heart was pounding in my chest. No. Not again, please—

I expected Ganondorf to stare into me with that cruel eye, to give me some mocking victory speech. But he said nothing, only glanced over me once or twice and went back to what he was doing, puttering around with some spell or another. He seemed satisfied with his work.

A long time passed. I looked around, saw that we were in the upper story’s throne room, though it was hard to tell from the moss that now covered the walls. I watched him work. Seeing him now, he wasn’t as wild and frightening of a man as I’d once thought. He was a little older, a little-better dressed, a little better-groomed. He seemed utterly uninterested in mocking or interrogating me. Perhaps he knew he had what he wanted in his reach. Perhaps for him that was enough. Hours went by.

Finally, I spoke. “I want to ask you something,” I said. He regarded me coolly, calmly. A flicker of his eye toward me.

I gritted my teeth. “Why are you bothering with all this?” I asked him. “Why all this maiden-in-a-tower-stuff? I know you’re baiting Link so you’ll end up with the Triforce. That’s not what I mean. I mean, why do you even want the Triforce at this point? You have everything you ever wanted. You’ve achieved your revenge on Hyrule, and then some. The whole country bows to you. The people live in fear of you. Why bother seeking the power of the gods? What could you possibly have left to want?”

“I don’t really feel the need to explain myself to you,” he said, expressionless. His voice had the musical lilt and rhythm of the Gerudo tongue. Without his spells, he didn’t sound so monstrous and terrifying. He just sounded like an ordinary man.

After a moment, he turned to look out a long stained-glass window. “I would break the world,” he said quietly. “That is what I would do with the power of the gods.”

I stared. “Why?”

“This world is…ugly,” he said, with disgust in his voice. “There are flaws in its making. Terrible, ugly flaws, painful to look at. Few others see them, but they sicken me. I will destroy the world as it is, and replace it with something better. Purer. It will not be missed.”

“And what kind of world would you create?” I asked, wide-eyed.

He snorted. “One that suits my design.” Something dark and malevolent flickered in his eyes. Something ancient, and terribly hungry.

“A world of demons, no doubt,” I spat. “Of monsters.”

“Let me ask you something, princess,” he said suddenly, turning to me. He leaned close to the wall of the crystal, his features swirling in its glass. “Do you truly think this world is worth saving?”

“What? Yes, of course,” I stammered.

“Really? What has it ever done for you?” He gestured at the crumbling walls. “Do you see this place? It was built on men’s power, for men. A most ugly kind of place to live in. I doubt you were ever happy here. They bound you Hylian women up in a story. Called you goddesses so you could pretend they’d given you strength. But really, it meant imprisonment, living shut up in a box, in a castle, so that you might one day turn your womb to continuing their line. I imagine those rules never satisfied you. I imagine you were always chafing against them. Am I wrong?”

I didn’t know how to respond. “I’ve seen you in your Sheikah guise, you know,” he mused. “I commend you for eluding me for seven years, all by hiding in plain sight. The Sheikah warrior was always one of my greatest foes. Now I know why. You fight beautifully and admirably. You were never meant to be among the Hylians, Zelda. They don’t deserve you. You would have been perfect among my people, a whirl of swirling blades, a warrior, a woman of power and grace.” His gaze darkened. “This is not a world in which such a woman can thrive. This is not a world where my people can thrive. It is a world where Hylian armies drive the people of the steppes into desert exile. Where a king and queen extract only what they deem most useful from their Sheikah servants. Where Hylian soldiers brutalize my sisters, running them through with blades and with their own flesh. It is a worthless, mad world, ruled over by blind gods who make unreasonable demands and false promises. It is as worthless to you as it is to me.”

He turned back to his spells. “If you think to restore the old throne, beware: it will trap you. You will be yet another Zelda living out the same tedious story told by idiot gods. It will not honor your loyalty. You know how they will tell this story: a maiden waits, stuck in a tower by a wicked king. Already this ugly world imprisons you in that same old tale you despise. You don’t owe it your loyalty. You would do better to do as I do, and seek an end to it instead.” He paused. “There. You have your answer. Heed me or remain ignorant, whatever you desire. It makes little difference to me.” With that, he swept from the room. I heard him descending the stairs. I had no idea when he’d return.

I slumped against the walls of the crystal, already missing Sheik terribly, itching to get out and do something, itching to be anyone other than this princess again.

I wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake.

For a while I stared at the crumbling walls, not knowing what to do. My heart was pounding. I was terrified of what might happen next. I didn’t know what the right choice was anymore. I didn’t know what I was fighting to save. Maybe Ganondorf was right. Maybe I was never going to escape this tale. Maybe I should have stayed Sheik.

Don’t be afraid, some part of me said. It seemed familiar. Like a face I’d first seen in reflected moonlight. You can do this. You’ve faced trouble before—

But never so badly as this—

But you can face it now. You know what to do.

I did know. I tried to steady my nerves. Okay.

Breathe.

Breathe.

In. Out.

In.

Out.

When I finally opened my eyes again, it was with renewed purpose and understanding.

*

We’ve come full circle, now. Back to the here and the now.

I’ve had a long time to think in here. A long time to wait. I’ve been turning the pieces of my life over in my hands, and I think I’m starting to understand.

For a long time I didn’t know how to answer the Usurper’s questions. He pointed out all the unfairness and injustice I’ve noticed all my life. Every limitation I’ve felt. Everything I knew the laws and rules of Hyrule could take away from me, if I wore the crown. And hearing it, I didn’t know what I was fighting for anymore.

I think I know now.

Ganondorf was right about one thing: the world is unfair. It’s brutally unfair. It’s full of false tales, narrow minds, stories that try to constrain your possibilities, hold back all the things you could be. And the gods who made it ask things of you that no mortal being could ever hope to achieve.

But that doesn’t mean I’d see it brought to an end.

You see, Ganondorf made it sound like there were only ever two options. Either you live by the stories Hyrule tells about itself, about who you are and what you mean, or you reject them utterly, as worthless, as evil. Either you stay the princess, or you throw off her chains and become a hero. You’re only ever Zelda. Or you’re only ever Sheik.

I think there’s another way.

I went back and forth in my mind a long time. First, I’d think: Sheik is who I am and who I’m meant to be, and I’m a fool for ever going back to Zelda, Zelda whose life is built on duty, on chains. I should reject her world utterly, tear it to the ground. And then I’d remember Impa. I’d remember what she gave her whole life for, what her family taught her. What Hylia meant to her. What she and this country meant to me. So then I’d think: maybe Sheik was just a lie. Maybe I owe it to Hyrule to think he was never real. Maybe he was just something I dreamed up, out of some sick thrill, out of some desire to escape the life the gods asked of me. Maybe he never existed.

I didn’t have the answer. So I turned to the silence. I turned within myself.

And I asked: Were you real, Sheik? Did you really exist?

And I turned over the fragments of myself for an answer. And the answer I found was:

Yes.

Yes, a thousand times, yes. He did. He really did.

Sheik was real. I know that now.

Once upon a time, a young man left the palace in which he’d been born and raised, and went out into the wilderness with his teacher, and learned about all he could be. He trained hard. He studied all there was to know of nature, of magic, of healing, of his people’s history.  And then he went out to heal the world, and give it these gifts. He helped people and he made their lives a little better in a dark time, and he fell in love, and he helped a young woman take care of the people and animals she loved, and when his friend, the hero, returned, he was there to meet him. So that together they might learn how to turn back the darkness and save the world. That was how the young man spent his seven years.

That was how I spent my seven years, my time of waiting.

For I was Sheik, and no matter what happens, that will always be true.

And if Sheik’s end is the ascension of Zelda—if he has to give his life, his time in the sun, so that Zelda can be queen—I’ll take it. I’m wiping my eyes now, but I’ll take it. Because that’s what he—I—always promised. That he’d give his life, everything he had, to make things better for Hyrule. Even if he never walks in this world again, he lived in it, a living, breathing human being who people knew, who people loved, who people respected. He had his time in the light. The people told legends about him, and thanked him for his aid. He had his own story.

And that’s what the Usurper doesn’t get. What you can’t understand, Ganondorf Dragmire. That there’s a third way, neither destroying the world nor ignoring its shortcomings. The third way is to change it. The third way is to wrestle with the world until it gives you what you want. Because that’s all the gods are ever asking from us. They tell us: this is what’s needed. What will you do? And each of us, every single one of us, has a different answer. Bit by bit, we make a world better than the one our ancestors gave us. We retell false stories and figure out how to make them more true. That’s the real work, the hard, difficult work that lies beyond easy platitudes about the world. It’s making a space for yourself within it. That’s what I intend to do.

And I know, now, that however someone else might tell this story—imprisoned maidens and all—the real story goes out beyond all those limitations. The real story is something larger and truer than fits within the margins of an old storybook. The real story is the huge, amazing truth of my life, the story that I tell myself. I’m so grateful to have had that life. Everything Sheik did—I’m so grateful to have been a part of it.

And I know something now, something I didn’t know before. That none of this was ever a mistake. Because as I looked back on my life, I saw another vision. I saw Link and myself talking in the garden. And I asked the gods: Why did all of this happen to the two of us? What was the reason for that seven-year wait, the years spent searching for myself, living out my strange story?

And they answered.

I saw the boy Link go into the Temple of Time. Only it was different, now. Because when the darkness entered into the Sacred Realm, I saw the ancient Sages flinch, uncertain what to do. And I saw Link grip the huge sword tightly in his small hands.

And instead of falling asleep, instead of being carried away, Link charged at Ganondorf Dragmire, as if to deal him a mighty blow—

And fell, with a strike of the flat of Dragmire’s blade—struggled to lift the sword, collapsed again—

And in another moment, choked out his last as the Usurper ran him through.

That was the first split in time.

That was how the story went, the first time. Link tried to challenge Ganondorf. But he fell. He was too young to wield the blade, and so he fell, a bloodstained boy who could have been a hero, slain by a man who would not hesitate to kill a child.

And I could see how everything proceeded inexorably from that moment—how instead of going into hiding and waiting for Link to return, I became the leading figure of a resistance, because I knew our only hero had been slain—

Instead of an occupation, Hyrule had another civil war. In that other world, an androgynous warrior, that Golden Hawk, fought the armies of Ganondorf to recover the throne, with Impa fighting alongside. Me. That was who I was in that place and that time.

And there, too, the new Sages were found, and imprisoned Ganondorf in the Sacred Realm, only there after a long and brutal imprisoning war, that left Hyrule exhausted and in decline—

That was what the Zelda who took back the throne knew.

I’d thought the gods had blamed me for sending Link into their realm. Instead they just wanted to create a Hyrule in which he survived. In which I was spared that particular pain.

So the gods split the world by telling the Sages not to let Link fight. By putting him to sleep and into a breach in time, on the other side of which lay a different Hyrule. A choice that for me, meant seven years of waiting.

This time, Link would be able to overcome Ganondorf. This time, we would take back the throne by subterfuge and stealth. This time, there would be a different ending.

None of this was ever, ever a mistake.

Knowing that, I’m laughing and weeping and shaking. Malon was right. It had all been far, far beyond anything I could have understood. And it means that the gods granted me what I wanted:

The chance to be Sheik, really and truly. And, at the same time, the chance to see my friend again, and be with him.

I’ll take it.

I’ve studied Ganondorf’s spell very carefully. It’s good. Very intricate. Beautifully made. He knows his art. But I see flaws in its design. I’ve been a student of magic for many years now. I learned under wizened old Sheikah masters, and I researched the magic Hylia taught her children. I studied ancient spells so profound and powerful they had to be locked away. I know how this spell works and what it does.

If I wanted to, I could reach inside his lattice of forces and pick it apart. I could dissolve the spell with a few gestures and words, now that I’ve figured it out. I could roam the castle at my leisure.

But I have a better idea. Link is coming. I sense him in this very castle. No doubt he’s grappling with Ganondorf’s forces below. No doubt Ganondorf will return here in moments for the final confrontation, to guard me as his prize, to take Link as the last piece he needs for his design. Rather than slip away, and risk a new, more effective imprisonment, I’m going to hide in plain sight.

Ganondorf’s spent the last few hours laying spells for himself. Spells to guard himself from Link’s blows, to make himself an invincible god. I’m busy tearing them apart. Reaching out through a little hole in my cell and ruining his perfectly-laid sigils and signs. By the time he realizes what I’ve done, it’ll already be too late. He’ll be far weaker now. And when his back is turned to me—when Link has his full attention—I’ll reach through this flimsy cage and hit him with the full force of everything I’ve got. We’ll bring him down together, Link.

I’m always with you.

There are spells, too, in the walls, the ceiling, throughout the crumbling castle. I suspect Ganondorf means to bring the whole castle down on top of us. If he does, well—I’m good at charting a course. I’ll find us a way out before it all comes down.

And as for what lies waiting for us, down in the courtyard? The monster I’ve seen in visions, the massive boar snorting and snarling in the flash of lightning? The demon that’s dwelt within him all this time?

I don’t know exactly how it’ll happen. But one way or another, that creature will be slain. And we’ll do it together.

I hear the other Sages calling to me. The Sacred Realm is so near now. I can almost see that chamber where Link slept, see those pillars of stone. We’ll drag Ganondorf in there, all seven of us, and lock whatever evil god lies within him away for good.

For all the people I love. For Impa. For Malon. For Hyrule.

I hear footsteps.

It’s time.

Chapter Text

Fragment XIX: Connect

The deed is done. The beast has been slain.

And Link is gone.

The Queen of Hyrule stands alone in the ruins of her marble hall.

I wander about this place. It’s in shambles; the grandeur of our ancestors reduced to rubble. For the most part. Some part of it survives. Many of the central rooms remain intact, ceiling and all. The Library and the Temple of Time were hit by some debris, but escaped major damage. We’ve all spent the last few weeks clearing away the rubble.

There’s an old audience hall that’s mostly undamaged. For now, it’s become the de facto seat of government. Old members of the elite have flocked back into the capital for the chance to be part of the administration again. They’ve dragged in chairs and tables to make the room into a kind of office space. I’ve seen some of them scribbling letters on the marble benches. They all bow to me when I come near. I’m still nowhere near used to it. One of the old guest bedrooms has become my quarters; an old corridor’s become my throne room. The hope is that over time, once the immediate problems have been sorted out, we’ll be able to rebuild this place into something like a castle again, the old rooms and walls buried in the new.

Hyrule is coming back to itself, if slowly.

Bit by bit, we’re trying to undo all of Ganondorf’s ruinous decisions. For a man ostensibly concerned with the prosperity of his people, he was astonishingly blasé about the actual functions of government. To hear the locals tell it, the capital was an absolute hellhole while he ruled, a decaying city policed by skeletons, shrieking clay men, and other monsters. I believe the stories; I saw what it was like. Meanwhile Dragmire holed himself up in the castle, amusing himself, toying with magic, and jotting down notes for his own self-worshipping religion, while roads fell apart, waterways collapsed, and piracy, official and otherwise, held many towns in its grip. We’re trying to bring things back to some semblance of order. For all the problems, the mood’s optimistic. People seem inspired, excited, relieved, now that a daughter of Hylia’s back on the throne.

I’m consulted on everything from agriculture to aqueducts. Mostly I nod and turn to my advisors. People who’ve had the education in these subjects I missed. One of them usually goes strolling off with the petitioner to reassure them about their concerns. A few of our old friends from Kakariko are lending a hand here and there, those hardy enough to make the trip south. Impa, of course, is right up there in the administration, keeping everything organized. I frequently find myself relying on her expertise and good sense.  She keeps me sane, in the midst of every new crisis.

I have to remind myself we’re making progress. But it’s hard. There’s so much that’s asked of me now, every single day. I wish Link were here.

The news spread quickly after our victory. That Ganondorf was nowhere to be found in this world, that the Sages of Hyrule had sealed him away. That the loose network of Gerudo elders who’d aided Ganondorf in his coup and brought him into power was crumbling rapidly without his charisma, that Hylians were flooding back into the capital, that people were reuniting with their families and loved ones. That Zelda of the Shadows, the heir of Hyrule, had emerged from hiding and engineered the victory.

The people wanted to see me. They wanted to hear my voice.

I spoke to them, the day of my coronation, in my scarlet gown, the crown shifting uncomfortably on my head. Someone had found an old park suitable for a gathering, built up a platform on which I might stand. I was led by the hand up the steps. I was crowned, to roaring cheers. Finally, I was brought to the front of the platform. Before me stood thousands and thousands of people, filling the park, stretching impossibly far, a mass of human faces and other faces, bodies pressing against each other, roaring for me, shouting my name, my mother’s name, the name written in my blood and my history. They pressed forward to the edge of the barrier, reaching out hands as if to touch me, as if to stroke my gown, my face. They wept when I came before them, shook when I opened my mouth to speak.

It was all a bit much.

I spoke to them. I don’t know if what I said was right, but I tried my best, having practiced a long time in front of a mirror. I told them how glad I was to be back in the capital, to see the Usurper slain and the old line restored. I told them that we’d been blessed by the gods, for they’d sent a great hero to us, who had aided me at every step. I told them he’d come to us from a different age, out of time. That now that his work in Hyrule was done, he’d returned to the place he came from. But we would always honor and revere him in our stories, in our histories, in our songs. Our Hero of Time.

It was all true. Except for the most important thing.

I told them some of what we hoped to do to restore order and bring prosperity back to Hyrule.  I told them I heard their concerns, about famines, about water shortages, about brigandry rampant in the countryside. I told them we would soon make things right. My voice, magically amplified, echoed across the park. I heard their cheers, their oohs and ahhs, as the roar of one vast living creature. They seemed to take solace in what I said.

Now for the hard part. I’d had long and difficult discussions with my advisors about these issues. We’d argued long into the night. But I was determined to have my own way. There were things I had to set right.

Slowly, carefully, remembering to breathe, I told the people that I would be restoring the ancestral lands of the Gerudo.

As a way of honoring those who’d helped us against Ganondorf’s regime, as a way of securing lasting peace between our two peoples, the Gerudo would be allowed to return to the northwestern steppes and make new settlements there. There was space enough for everyone out on that great expanse if we honored their ancestral claim. Furthermore, we would not be renewing our exploitative gold-mining operations. From now on, we would trade fairly with the Gerudo for their gold, as equals.

There were some shocked faces and harsh whispers in the crowd as I made the announcement—though not nearly so many as I’d feared. Some surely thought we were bowing to the wishes of enemies who’d all too recently been our overlords. And it would be difficult to persuade those who lived on the steppes to make peace with the Gerudo who’d so recently been invaders among them. But I saw many slow nods, too. The people of Hyrule saw the wisdom of it. It was a political consideration as much as a moral one. We needed the new leaders of the Gerudo as real allies and friends. The best way to do this was to honor the ties they’d already made to the rest of Hyrule.

It seemed the right move. Across the country, Gerudo elders and soldiers alike were repudiating Ganondorf. Apparently, his reign hadn’t been the prosperous renewal they’d hoped for, either, but a constant, paranoid military crusade that ate up the lives of their people. Once they’d called him Ganondorf, which meant something like “he who tends the fires.” Now they were speaking of him as a demon who’d stolen the life of their tribe, and calling him something else, in anger and contempt:

Ganon. Meaning “the wildfire.” A blaze burnt out of control.

So we shared an anger at the old regime. The Gerudo seemed to be on our side now, most of them. We would honor our agreements. Gods willing, they would honor theirs. We would be one country again, united not by conquest, but by honor and respect.  It might be a new peace, a real and prosperous era.  One could only hope.

Anyway, I knew at least one person who would be happy about it.

The other thing I announced, standing before the people of Hyrule, was that I wanted to honor the Sheikah.

The Sheikah had hidden me, protected me, I told them. They had fought for the salvation of all Hyrule, and deserved nothing less than royal honors. But they were a race on the verge of disappearing. In a few generations, their people and their way of life would be no more.

So I proposed to build a great library and museum of the Sheikah. Where their heroism and bravery would be remembered for all time. Where their stories, their mythology, their history, could be preserved for all future generations. The place would tell of the shadows in their history, yes, but also their light. It would honor them as they truly were: the saviors, past and present, of Hyrule. The devoted of Hylia. The people who protected and saved us all.

There were roars and cheers of approval. There was no doubt about the Sheikah among those gathered there. All wanted to hail them as heroes who’d made this day possible. As I ended my speech in a great call for unity throughout Hyrule, I looked at Impa, standing beside me.

She was smiling, and there were tears in her eyes.

It’s been a month or so since then. Now I have to keep my promises. The work lies before me. The work of bringing these things, the new Hyrule I want to create, into being. It’s hard, sometimes. I’m locked away from it all, in here. I only hear the reports and rumors. I never see Hyrule itself. I rarely see the people who are suffering. I only hear their stories.

And as I walk these ruined halls alone, I feel so far away from it all. Once again I’m stuck, pinned like an insect in the center of Hyrule. Once again I can’t escape my blood, my name, my destiny. Have I really journeyed through these seven years only to arrive back at the same place and the same set of limits?

If I could only—

No. Quiet. I know I can’t. My life is different now, Sheik. You’re dead. I can’t bring you back.

Even when I have to get away from it all, when I leave my advisors and slip away to my quarters for a bit of blessed silence and time alone, even when the words of transformation are on my tongue and lips—

I don’t let myself say them. I never cast the spell.

I already made that choice, I tell myself stubbornly. I didn’t make it for myself. I made it for Link.

Link who isn’t here, who can’t help me now, who—who was more than I ever knew, who deserved a happy ending, even if there wasn’t going to be one for me.

All of which is to say—I understand Link now, in a way I didn’t before. I know what Link never told anyone, never told me. Until the last possible moment.

We were standing in the ruins of the castle. The beast that had been Ganondorf, been Ganon, was slain, pierced by my arrows and Link’s blade. Its blood had stained the cobblestones, and its body had crumbled into ash, which blew away in the wind. The storm clouds swirling around the castle had parted, the rain had stopped, and sunlight was shining on us, banishing the grey. There was a great silence as we stood together in the new warmth. The world had been saved. Hyrule was free again. All was well.

Link stood a long time, staring at the place where the beast had been. Stared at the sunlight, stared down at a bloodstained tunic, at weary limbs, stared out at the world, at the Hyrule we’d saved.

And then Link collapsed onto a fallen pillar, and very quietly began to cry.

It took me a long time to figure out what was wrong.  I asked Link question after question, confused. Had we missed something? Wasn’t this a victory to celebrate? Link didn’t answer. Then there was a shake of the head. That wasn’t it.

I listened to my friend slowly search for the right words. “It’s just that…when it was all over, I thought it would make sense…I thought it would feel right…” Link swallowed hard. “I thought I would be happy.”

I watched, trying to understand.

“I know I did something good, something right, and I’m glad about that, but—it wasn’t an answer. I thought it would be, but it wasn’t. I was looking for something, and—I thought it was victory, but—it wasn’t. I still haven’t found it.”

Link stared at the cobblestones. “Zelda, did you ever wish—that everything hadn’t been so strange for us two? That we hadn’t had to have that seven years come between us?”

“Yes,” I said. “Many times.”

Link nodded weakly. “I felt like that the moment I got here, to this Hyrule. I mean, the moment I woke up. Like it was all wrong somehow.” Fingers ran through dirty blonde hair. “I went to sleep as a child. And then I woke up, and I was grown, sixteen years old, grown up, and—I felt like a different person, like while I’d slept I’d learned how to be an adult mentally, I guess, but I never learned how to be one in the flesh. I woke up and my body was older and harder and hairier, all broad-shouldered and muscled and handsome-faced, and it just felt—wrong. I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t want it.” Another shiver. “But I knew I had a job to do, so I just tried to accept it, and get on with what I had to do. And I thought, maybe if I do it all right, it’ll feel right. Like it was meant to be.”

“Oh, Link,” I said quietly. “I wish I’d known. I’m so sorry.”

Another pause. “I guess I thought for a while it was because of the Kokiri. No one ever expects them to grow up, so maybe I wasn’t ready for it when I did. When it turned out I wasn’t a Kokiri after all. But—more and more I don’t think that’s it. It’s not that I grew up, it’s that I feel like—I grew up wrong somehow. Like, the wrong sort of person. Like reading a story and seeing it come to the wrong ending.” Link leaned back and stared at the skies.  “I don’t know how I’m supposed to live in this Hyrule. I don’t even know what I’m looking for. But I feel like I’m not supposed to be here. This is the wrong ending.”

I looked at Link a long time. “When you were younger, Link,” I said slowly, “did you ever feel like you wanted to be somebody different? Not yourself?”

Link looked at me with hungry eyes. “Yes.”

I was quiet, listening to the silence. How can it be, I wondered, that you can know somebody for so long, and never know the most important thing about them? The thing you could have talked about. The thing you have in common. I’d made Link into a symbol, the incarnation of dashing heroism. Strength and bravery. All the things I wanted to be. All the things I thought a young man was. But perhaps the real story, the one locked inside Link, was something else all along.  

“If you could be different,” I asked, “what would you be like?”

Link blinked. “I—I don’t know. Nobody’s ever asked me that before.” Another pause. Then, with trembling lips: “I guess I’d want to be more like you. The way you looked, when you transformed back into yourself, from when you were Sheik. You were so—so amazing. Beauty and grace flowing into you. All color and light. I’d—I’d want to be something like that. Does that even make sense?”

And I understood. “Yes,” I said simply. “Yes, it absolutely does.”

I didn’t speak to Link of Sheikah rituals or deveth-shekai. I probably should have. But at the time, all I was thinking was: what can I do to make this right?

And I knew the answer.

I’d brought a child, a friend, into the wrong future. Now my friend wanted to turn back the years. To go back to before. I could make that happen. The power of a Sage was still roaring and surging within me. And Zelda’s domain was Time.

The Temple of Time is more than just a place. It’s a gate. A gate into that which suffuses all time, that which is all times and none of them. A gate Link had passed through, to save the world. A gate which the Goddess will open, if you’ve come to know her, if you’ve met Time and learned her grace. I knew she would do this for me. I knew I would do this for Link.

Even if it meant saying goodbye.

“I can send you back,” I explained. “I can take you back seven years, so you’re a child again. You can grow up whatever way you like. You can have a different ending.”

Link looked at me with wide eyes. “Oh, Zelda—that’s really possible? You would—you’d do that for me?”

I smiled weakly. “I dragged you into all this. I have to make it up to you somehow.” I struggled for words. “This place—it isn’t your Hyrule, it’s mine. This isn’t your home. Your home is back there, in that other Hyrule. Where you can regain your lost time. Where you can be the way you’re supposed to be.”

Link wiped away tears. “All right. Gods, I’ll miss you, though. You’ve been an amazing friend.”

“I’m going to miss you even more,” I said. “But it’s not goodbye for you, not really. I’ll be there.” I was thinking of a courtyard, a garden where we first met. “You’ll see me again, have the chance to tell me all your stories. It’ll be a new start for me, too.”

And I saw that Zelda there, and I didn’t know whether that Zelda would ever learn what it meant to be Sheik, but—I didn’t want her to have to watch her friend die. I wanted her to have a different ending, too.

“Link,” I said, “listen closely. I know how the coup happened. I know everything that Ganondorf did to seize power. Where his people were, how they made their move. When you go back, tell me. Tell my father. I think—I think if they know the truth, if they see Ganondorf for what he is, things’ll turn out differently.”

Over the next little while, I told Link everything I knew. And Link listened closely, and repeated it all back to me until I was satisfied. “You’ve got it, Link.” I smiled despite my teary eyes. “You’re going to make a better world.”

I know they succeeded, Link and I. That was the second split in time. The third version of the story. In that world, there was no war, and Hyrule Castle still stands, and the King of Evil never seized power. All he dreamed of was cut short. I’ve seen him at his execution, before the blade, kneeling on a slab of stone.

The gods took the story of what happened to Link and made a better world for me, for Hyrule. I chose to make an even better one for Link. For both of us. Wasn’t that what I’d always sworn? To make a better world?

And as I spoke to Link, I remembered another vision I’d seen. I thought it, too, was part of this third Hyrule. Remembering it, I thought I knew a little about what would happen next. After it was all over.

I’d seen a blond young man and a blonde young woman laughing with each other in a tavern, bringing their glasses together and joining along with the crowd singing the lute-player’s song—

Only the boy wasn’t Link. And the girl wasn’t me.

The young Hylian man’s unfamiliar to me. But I know that Hylian girl. She’s smiling, grinning, laughing boldly, bravely, with someone who loves her. The people greet her at the tavern. They know her. She sings a triumphant song, and she’s happy. Her long blonde hair’s in two beautiful braids, coming down over her shoulders. She wears long boots and a green cloak. Her eyes are bright and blue, and there’s a fire in them that gleams whenever she smiles. There’s courage in her laughter, in her song.

She’s happy. She’s found the right ending.

“Thank you, Link,” I said, wiping away tears. “Thank you for everything.”

I could feel the power of the Sages surging within me again. Rauru, Impa, and all the rest were there with me. I could hear the goddess singing. She was opening the way for me.

Link and I stood in a blue sky. There was light all around us, so much light—

Link was holding both my hands, smiling. We watched each other, in the light. Then, without another word, I kissed her.

We moved the world together, for a moment. All of time spun around us there, the still point at the center of all the Hyrules that ever were. Then I felt her fading, slipping away into that light. She hugged me closely, one last time.

“Goodbye,” I whispered, holding tight to that embrace. Oh, goodbye, Link, I thought, good luck, and all my love—

And then she was gone, and I stood alone in the ruins.

I walk past the makeshift hallways, the ruined corridors, missing her. Knowing why I did what I did. I couldn’t give that life, that happy ending, to Sheik. But I could give it to you, Link. I could give it to you.

Some part of me wishes that I could have followed her. No, I tell it. I don’t live in that world. That wasn’t my ending.

What is your ending, then?

To serve Hyrule. To be Zelda, to be the heir, to bear and to rule.

Is that enough for you?

It has to be, I tell myself. It has to be.

Sheik thrashes and twitches within me. He wants to be real, again. He wants to be. He wants to be for Hyrule the person he was for Link. I want to be. I want to be him. I want to be the young man who was Link’s friend.  

But I can’t. That time is over. Sheik’s story is over. He wasn’t in any of the other worlds I saw. I don’t know if he existed anywhere but this one. He was a product of circumstance. A face I chose to wear, once upon a time. No more. There’s too much else that’s asked of me, now. He can’t be any more than a ghost from my past.

I force him back down. No, Sheik, no—

I make it to my quarters, disheartened and in a foul mood. Not for the first time.  I try to concentrate on my work, turn my attention to what needs doing.

There are letters piled up on my desk. Impa brings them to me. Hundreds arrive at the capital each week. Impa usually passes most of them on to advisors who can deal with their concerns better than I can. But some require personal attention from me.

I sort through them, irritable. Then one catches my eye. I stare at it for a long time.

It’s a small white envelope, with a friendly seal. I recognize the seal, the smiling cow that’s the emblem of a particular farm, far to the south. I even recognize the paper. Most of all I recognize the handwriting, the blocky letters, from a hand which I guided, saw practicing in the shade of a tree in the summer breeze.

To Her Majesty The Queen of Hyrule, Zelda of the Shadows:

Some Important Thoughts and Questions and Offers, Somewhat Concerning the Stables,

Which This Particular Farmer Hopes You Will Show a Keen Interest In.

For the Eyes of the Queen Only! Very Important!!!

It’s Malon’s.

Calm down, I tell myself. She doesn’t know it’s you. You should have known this would happen eventually. Her family worked with the palace at one point, remember? She’s just renewing that connection.

I tear the letter open. The first few lines are just as I expect, written in Malon’s steady hand.

Your Majesty,

Greetings and many congratulations on the coronation. We are all very honored here to have you as our new ruler and we feel very confident that your reign will be glorious and prosperous indeed.

I am not sure if you remember this, seeing as it was a long time ago, but before that old Usurper came to power, Lon Lon Ranch worked very closely with the Royal Family in providing swift horses for messengers, strong carthorses, horses for the royal processions, and horses for recreation. My father was very honored by your father’s patronage, and it’s my hope that you will choose to do business with us again now that you have regained the throne and restored the good name of Hyrule.

If you are interested, here is an exhaustive retelling of the history of our farm and our horse’s pedigrees:

The page is covered with tiny print, with diagram after diagram of horse ancestry charts. I flip through idly. It seems rather dull. Gods, but it’s disheartening to think this farm, this family, doesn’t know me as anything other than a patron to be wooed. I reach the end of the charts and move onto the next written page. Then I stop. I stare at the page for a long time, to be sure I’m reading what I think I’m reading.

Whew, what a bunch of stupid words! That’s got rid of them, then. See, I was a little afraid someone else might be reading your mail. Just in case, I tried to bore them so much they’d give up reading before they got to what I actually wanted to say. Hopefully I didn’t bore you too much as well. I really hope you’re still reading at this point and it’s just you and me on this page. If you’re reading this I guess it probably is.

Hi.

There’s a lot I could say here to start off, but why don’t I just get the most important thing out of the way first?

I figured it out. Maybe you guessed that!

I mean, I’m pretty sure I figured it out. Maybe I’m wrong, and all this is going to confuse some Zelda lady who doesn’t know anything about this, but I don’t think so, and even if that was the case, I’m pretty sure the new queen isn’t the type to go chopping people’s heads off, so what have I got to lose really. But I’m pretty sure I know who I’m talking to.

Hi, Sheik.

I missed you.

I bet you’re wondering how I figured it out. Can’t say for sure exactly. Sometimes you get these feelings. You know, intuition. But I was at your coronation. I don’t know if you saw me there, in the crowd. Probably not. But I was there, all right. I wasn’t going to miss the Royal Family coming back to the throne, no sir. And I watched you give your speech. I really admired what you said there. Some folks won’t like to hear it, because they can’t give up on old grudges, but you did right. You did the right thing for my mom’s cousins and sisters and aunts, by giving the Gerudo their old land back. It was real good of you to care so much. It means a lot. And I think it’s the right choice for Hyrule.

Anyway, I was watching you give your speech, and something just clicked within me. I saw the way you moved. The way you spoke with your hands, little movements that I’d only ever seen one other person do in just that way. The sound of your voice, even, and the shape of your face, here and there. The way you spoke, with all that reverence, about the Sheikah. I was trying to place it all, and when I got it, when it came to me where I knew all that from, I nearly fell over onto a Zora soldier, I was so surprised. But it made sense. You were the right age. Sheik knew all kinds of interesting magic.

When I looked back at you again, it was so obvious suddenly. I couldn’t see you, up on stage in that crown, as anyone but Sheik. Sheik seen in a little bit of a different light.

It probably helps that I’m one of only a few people to have seen your face both ways.

Well, I was just bowled over, I can tell you. One of the first things I thought was: Oh my gods, I’ve kissed a princess. Then I thought: maybe I’ve kissed a prince. Shit. Gods have mercy on me. Either way, it was a damn neat thing to learn about myself all of a sudden. You really did bring me quite an adventure, you scoundrel.

I thought I should write to you. You can work all those horse deals out with your aides and folks at some point, it’s something we’d want for the farm but it’s not really what’s important right now. I wanted to write, because I wanted to let you know I was all right, if I could, and I wanted to tell you something.

It’s okay that you didn’t tell me.

I know, I know, I was always bugging you to tell me everything. But you told me a hell of a lot, and it meant a lot to me. Some things, though, are really, really hard to tell. And looking back, I’m pretty sure you were scared about what I might say if I knew. That makes sense. It’s a scary thing to tell. You didn’t want me to think less of you for it. I get that.

I want you to know that I would have thought it was all right. I might have been a little surprised, and maybe teased you a bit for being royalty, but I wouldn’t have been mad at you or run away or anything like that. I probably would have thought it was pretty neat. And as for your being a girl—well, you know where I come from, you know my mother. I wouldn’t have been against giving something new a try. But you didn’t know for sure how I’d respond, then. So I understand why you didn’t tell me.

It’s funny, though, I still feel like I know you real well. It’s only one fact has changed. But everything else you told me about your life, everything you told me about growing up, about your friend Link—I’m pretty sure that was all true. You just said it had happened to Sheik instead of Zelda.

Maybe that’s true, too.

Cause I could tell you loved being Sheik. You loved being that person. You loved being a young man who could help people. You loved strength and courage, all those things you thought Link had but you didn’t. (You were wrong, by the way. You had them in spades.) You loved being a mysterious stranger for me, and you loved growing closer, what we did together as boy and girl. You loved being a part of the Sheikah tribe, telling me all about your tribe’s heritage.

I kind of think what a person loves makes them who they are. And maybe some people are meant to wear a lot of different faces, maybe even be both man and woman at different times. Maybe that’s what magic is for, to give us chances like that. So I don’t think there was anything false about everything you told me. You were Sheik. When you talked to me, you told stories about your life. And it was all true. And I got to be part of it.

I’m really, really glad I did.

You’re probably wondering what I’ve been up to. It’s been pretty wild here. But then, I guess it’s been pretty wild for you, too, huh? I can’t imagine.

Well, things were hectic not long after you left. The old bastard of a king took over the farm in the way he does. He used that farmhand Ingo to do it. Put him under some magic mind spell. Dad had to leave town for a while—he ended up hiding out in Kakariko, just like you suggested. Meanwhile I stayed, to take care of the animals and make sure they were being treated all right. Ingo scared me, but he was mostly a puppet, operating without much brain. I figured out how to work around him. Still, I was real scared for a time. I didn’t know if things were going to be all right.

Then a friend arrived.

I know you sent him my way, Sheik. That’s another reason I was thinking of you. This young man in a green tunic walked into the farm one day. Once he realized what was going on, he challenged Ingo, and before you knew it, he’d knocked Ganondorf’s mind control right out of his head and turned him back to who he’d been before it all went wrong. Okay, okay, maybe it wasn’t quite that easy. There might have been a few fireworks, too. At one point I thought the barn was going to burn down. But it all turned out well in the end, I swear.

Anyway, Dad came home, shaken but okay, and things were all right again.

And here’s the kicker, Sheik. I knew him. The hero, I mean.

You want to know something amazing? Something we’re going to have to slap our own foreheads for not realizing earlier?

I’m pretty sure you and I had the exact same friend growing up. See, you told me all about your friend, Link. And I told you about the boy I’d known with a quest, who visited the farm when I was younger. But I wish I’d told you more! Because if I’d mentioned the green clothes, the little blue fairy who traveled with him—I remember calling him “fairy boy”—you probably would have known exactly who I was talking about.

How’s that for coincidence? Life is really something sometimes, isn’t it, Sheik?

He stayed with me a while, too. I don’t know if you wanted to know that, but you probably expected it. But it was nice, even though he couldn’t stay as long as you did. It was amazing to see him again. I mean, I was stunned that he was still alive. We talked about you, sometimes, Sheik. We both agreed that you were a really spectacular kind of person. One who didn’t know how remarkable he was.

Link was like that, too. Kind. Not aware of his own kindness. Full of secrets. You had a lot in common, I think. There was a lot he kept bottled up inside of him, too. I wish I’d had more of a chance to talk with him about it. Even when he was happy, there was always this tension in the way he moved. Like he was still looking for something he hadn’t found. Like he found it strange to be who he was. I saw that from you, too, a little. Not as much. I listened to what you said about him going back to another time. I don’t know what that really means, exactly, but I hope he found what he was looking for. I hope you’ve found it, too.

I’m just really grateful to have had the chance to know you both. I always wondered if I’d ever meet a hero. Instead I got to meet two. You both changed my life. You really did.

All of which is to say, I guess:

I know your life must be really strange right now, more than ever, and I know that you’re probably as busy as a person can be, with all sorts of responsibilities getting Hyrule started again, and I know that we said no waiting or trying to be loyal, but—

I know you. I know it’s easy for you to get wrapped up inside your own head, in what you have to do, and think that you have to be some kind of perfect Sage. And I just want you to remember that you’re really wonderful and good, and you’re doing a good job—

And you can be a human being, too. You can go after what you want, even while you’re helping others. I think the gods understand that, even when they ask a lot of us. I think we’re put here to find a way forward according to our sense of what’s right. I think that’s what we have to do. I want you to remember that you’re really, really good.

You saved Hyrule. And you were really kind to me. Thank you.

I kept my promise, Sheik. I didn’t wait for you. I didn’t sit by the window, I went out and I lived and I had a good time and I met someone else, who was warm and kind, a friend to both of us, and it was really, really good. But now he’s gone and that time’s over. And now I want to see what’s next. And so I’m writing to an old friend who I haven’t seen in a while, who taught me so many things, who changed my life, wondering if, in this new stage of our lives, the two of us might find a way to reconnect.

You don’t have to do anything, Sheik. You don’t even have to write back. But—if you’d be interested, too—I’d really like to see you again, somehow.

Either of you. Both of you. All of you.

I’d love that.

I’m rooting for you. Take care of yourself, whoever you are at the moment, and wherever you find yourself roaming.

Your friend, who sends her best wishes and her love,

Malon

I look at Malon’s letter a long time. I read it over and over again, thinking carefully about every word. Then I put it down, and stare off into the distance.

And I think: maybe she’s right. Maybe in life, yes, you have your duty. But you also have your choices, too. Maybe that’s the space where life lives. Maybe the gods want us to make those choices. Maybe that’s how they make the world.

And I think: this is a new Hyrule. I don’t know what lies in its future. All I have are visions of an ocean, of a deluge. Signs that suggest the gods will transform it into something different from anything it’s ever been. Maybe I, too, have a role in deciding what that Hyrule’s going to be. I’ve been given a lot of power. I’ve been asked to rebuild the world. Maybe I get a say in what the new rules are, and what kind of life it’s possible to lead.

And I feel something familiar rising within me, and this time I don’t try to keep it silent. And I think: maybe Sheik’s story doesn’t have to end. Maybe Sheik’s not just the name of a time in my life that’s over and done. Maybe it’s a name for something that’s still true of me. Will be true until the day I die.

Maybe Sheik is my name, every bit as much as Zelda.

Maybe it’s possible to be one person, and have two names.

Maybe I am Sheik, and always will be.

Maybe I have a choice.

And I remember the vision of the girl Link. And I remember that there was another person beside her. A young Hylian man I didn’t know. And I think back on that youth. I try to picture his face. And my eyes widen as I realize:

I know who he is.

And though he probably doesn’t call himself Sheik, he’s still me. And I’m still him.

And the vision is a vision of my friend and myself, Link and I, laughing together, just as I hoped we would, and I know that whoever I am, however my story goes, there are things that are always true about me, and they always find a way to make themselves known. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And maybe my story, too, can have that kind of happiness in it.

I pick up my pen, and I begin to write back.

Chapter Text

Fragment XX: Epilogue

In the Kingdom of Hyrule, there is peace.

And though the Usurper left the country in turmoil for seven years, though the fields were bare and bitter under his rule, they are coming back to life, a little greener and a little brighter each day, because Zelda, the true heir of the Royal Family, a true daughter of Hylia, sits on the throne.

And there is justice in the land, and Zelda makes peace between the different peoples of Hyrule, hearing every claim, honoring every tribe. The Gerudo sound triumphant horns as they race across the steppes, while their Hylian neighbors weave cloth to trade for ornaments of fine, thread-spun gold. The last of the Sheikah stand in honor, and their memory is revered, and the Gorons and the Zora respect each other’s borders, no longer making war.

The Queen is bright and beautiful and strong, and those who see her speak of the fire that shines in her, the light of courage in her eyes. One day, she will bear an heir, she says. But it is not that time yet. She is young. All agree there is plenty of time.

But there are others in the land who shine just as bright as her.

There is, of course, the Sheikah elder Impa, the guardian of Kakariko Village, who helped so many refugees find shelter during the years of crisis, who was instrumental in taking back the throne. She stands always at the Queen’s right side. And some have claimed to see a spirit at the Queen’s other shoulder, sometimes a white-haired man, sometimes a bird in flight, and they say that the ancient Sage Rauru watches over her. And, of course, no one can forget the Hero of Time, sent by the gods, who slew Ganon’s army of monsters and released Hyrule from its chains. Though his time among mortals is gone, even now his image adorns the walls of the new castle, and his name is set down in the annals of the ages.

But there are two more we should mention.

There is a young man, the Queen’s age, who is always honored in her halls. A Sheikah, perhaps the last of his tribe, the only one known of his generation. He is a quiet man, a gentle and thoughtful man. He dresses in the garb of the old Sheikah healers, wrapped in shrouds, and keeps his secrets. It is known that he was active in the years of crisis, that he aided the Hero of Time and sheltered Zelda herself from danger. That he had sworn he would give his life, if needed, to help her bring Ganon’s reign to an end. Some speculate that he is the real power behind the throne.

They say that in the time before Zelda’s return, he was a healer, traveling throughout the land of Hyrule, curing diseases, patching wounds, setting all that was broken right. Many throughout the country tell stories of how they met him, how he bound a broken leg for them or eased a terrible pain. In the south, especially, the townsfolk speak in hushed voices of how he passed through their towns, searching for ancient Sheikah magic to defeat the Usurper, healing and helping as he went.

He returned, not long ago, from wherever he had been hiding, and began his healing practice again, much as he had before. He walks through the streets of the capital, listens to the cries of the sick, the hungry, the destitute, the wounded and brings them healing aid. He brings food to the hungry, and health to the injured and ill. He lends aid to those without work or home and finds them employment with the castle and the new administration, in building or measuring or cooking or whatever they can do. A visit from him, they say, is like a blessing from the gods.

And sometimes he is seen in the wilderness, in the small towns and settlements, healing all those wounded and made ill by Ganon’s negligence. When there is famine, he sends word to the capital; when there is drought, he ensures that clean water is brought where it is needed. They say the Queen uses the Sheikah youth now as her agent, as her eye on the ground, to see all that she cannot see from inside castle walls. Together, the ruler and her agent seek to heal all the scars left by misrule, to fix all that is broken in Hyrule. It is a sign of their combined skill that the people have great faith they will succeed.

And there is another who often travels with the Sheikah youth. A young woman, with vivid red hair and a pale, freckled face. They say she is often seen up at the capital, advising the Queen on matters of agriculture and husbandry, delighting her with good humor and sound insight. They say she brings out the Queen’s smiles. For the red-haired woman, they say, is a skillful farmer, who runs a great ranch, far down in the south, where the wheat grows high and strong, and animals of all kinds rove in the fields. They say she runs it with her old father, who’s held the land for generations, who labors alongside her, tireless despite his age, beaming with pride. They say that all her workers respect her immensely, as a woman to trust, who they would follow anywhere as surely as soldiers into battle.

They say that she’s brilliant at organizing people, that the Queen’s system of record-keeping and scheduling is based on her own. They say her family fills the royal stables with horses, swift and strong and well-bred, just as they have for generations. They say the Usurper once coveted these horses for his own, but one look from her and one wave of her pitchfork sent his agents running in the opposite direction.

They say she visits the capital often, these days, to look after her horses, but also to keep the Queen well informed about life and agriculture in the provinces. And—to visit one she loves.

For the red-haired woman and the Sheikah youth are close companions. Together they sit and talk in the audience halls, wander the corridors still left from the old palace, visit the great library built by the last Queen, and gaze in awe at all the temples of the old palace district, most of all the Temple of Time. When the Sheikah youth goes out into the city to heal, she often goes with him, lending him her insight, helping soothe those who are in pain. They have become as familiar a sight as the fountain in the old marketplace. And when he travels out into the provinces, she travels with him. Sometimes they travel far to the north, where Gerudo and Hylian villagers are even now learning to live alongside one another, and help ease discussions and negotiations between the two, acting as peacemakers. Sometimes they travel down south to the young woman’s farm, and work together on the summer harvest, while the Sheikah youth visits old acquaintances and sees to it that the people of that town are well and thrive. Sometimes they travel further south and visit a forest, where, it is said, a friend of theirs lived as a child, many years ago.

In the fields, in the towns, in the wilderness, in the cobbled streets of the capital, one can see the two of them talking and laughing, and singing songs, and leaning close to share secrets and sweet affections.

And in those places, in the long shadows of the summer, one can see them walking together, hands clasped tightly, arms intertwined, enjoying the breeze together, watching the sunset, looking into a future together, a future without end.