A/N: Well, that was the fun summary of the story. Now for the serious plot-based version:
Link has been hunting convicts for nearly two years now in effort to bring peace back to Hyrule after the Twilight Invasion, however upon encountering an old friend from the resistance bearing dark news he swiftly returns to the castle. Someone is after the queen. Someone wants her dead. An amalgamation of paranormal horror, mystery, romance, comedy, suspense and thriller.
An amalgamation of paranormal horror, mystery, romance, comedy, suspense and thriller.
There will be a smut version which shall be posted on AO3.
Link fashioned himself a simple man. Even now, two years after he had been proclaimed the 'Hero of Twilight', and thereby been forced to officiate all the complications that accompanied such a lofty title, that long-established perception of himself hadn't altered.
His manner of being had not shifted. His thinking process remained straightforward and simply managed, although perhaps with a newfound aptitude for logic and problem solving that surpassed a grand majority of the populace.
In this, he had changed very little.
But changed he had, through the altered perception of the people.
Suddenly he was no longer the simple goat wrangler boy from Ordon. He'd become someone important. Someone with a reputation. A hero and a vigilante. Hope, and a scourge.
Today… he was the scourge.
Still as a gargoyle, Link waited. From his perch on an outcrop near the base of a deep ravine, he held a clear vantage of the mouth of a gaping tunnel where a steady output of water formed a creak. From maps and blueprints of grids, he knew that this was the exit of a large sewer system spanning beneath the city of Lynna.
Fingers curled around the grip of his sword in anticipation.
He had chosen this spot days before and felt comfortable concealed by the bracken and slanted trees. His cape, green for the occasion, offered the perfect camouflage in the dwindling light.
He took a tally of the hours he had been there and determined his vigil to be near its end.
As Link the Wrangler, he was easily dismissed. But as Link the Hero, he was never underestimated.
He was the queen's champion, second general of the Hyrulean army, and a threat to all enemies of the nation. If a mere farm boy could defeat not one, but two overpowered usurpers, then other less vilified foes would hardly prove a challenge.
Highly sensitive ears flicked as they picked up the telltale echoes of sloshing water.
He tightened his grip on his sword. Watching with avid interest as within moments a man poked his head out of the tunnel. A ruffled slim body followed. Expensive clothes soiled from his trek in the sewers.
The man looked around, face gaunt and sagging with worry, before he stepped fully out.
"Bloody Destler. If he had only burned the sodding papers like I told him-!"
The man shook out his robes, shivering slightly with chill.
"The dark one have him. I've had enough of this filthy country," the man spat in a huff. He rubbed his arms and surveyed the area, eyes passing briefly over Link's hiding spot.
"Now where is that blasted idiot! He should have been here waiting!"
Link felt the heady thrall of satisfaction of a wolf closing in on its prey.
Silent as a wraith, Link stood from his crouch, limbs tingling from having held his position for so long.
"Incompetents! Every single one of them! Where is that blasted Varne?"
"Your accomplice won't be coming," said Link in a steady voice.
Like a startled cat, the man jumped and spun, giving a sharp cry. His wild gaze fixed on Link, who calmly stepped out of the brush, his higher elevation making him tower over his quarry.
It didn't take long for recognition to set in and the man's expression swiftly morphed to that of fear. Link suspected that if he could still take wolf form he'd be able to smell it.
His prey knew who he was alright. It was almost pleasant to note that although the man had known he was being hunted, before now he hadn't realized who exactly it was doing the hunting. He hadn't known that it was Link himself. The Hero of Twilight, now knight of Hyrule, and queen's champion.
Link watched favorably as the man was overcome with shock. His mouth opening and closing as he made small panicky squawks.
Link spoke few words to his quarry, didn't mock or jeer. He was a silent predator, a noble wolf.
His prey snapped out of his fear-induced daze and staggered back, boots sloshing in the creak, hands held out before him in an allaying motion.
"I – I can explain. Please, Sir Link! I can explain!"
Link remained passive as he jumped down from his perch, landing in a crouch then standing tall before the snivelling man.
This man had been a lord. He had been born to privilege. His influence could have helped shaped the outcome of the war. It had. But now in any beneficial way.
Link observed the man, baffled.
How? How could anyone be so selfish as to want for more?
He gave his sword a twirl.
"Why me!" The lord pleaded. "Out of everyone why did you have to come after me? There are others out there. People who have done things far worse than I have! Why target me!"
Link said as he prowled closer, "You're nothing special. Just another name on the list. Another criminal to track down. There were others before you, and others that will come after. We would have got to you eventually. It is simply your turn now."
Link saw the moment that realization swept over the man. His eyes rounded even further, he could hear the lord's heart pounding in his chest as he slumped with resignation.
He halted a few feet away from the lord at the edge of the creek. "Now… I advise you come quietly and accept your punishment with dignity. We have a cart waiting. And I suppose we'll have to-"
The lord turned and ran.
"Bloody hell-" Link rolled his eyes skyward. He hated when this happened. "Ashei?"
He started to jog after the lord keeping him well within sight.
"What did I tell you? This one would be a runner, yeah."
Link much preferred when they turned out to be a fighter. So far in the two years of his profession he'd only crossed blades with his quarry twice. Both occasions had been exhilarating, pitted against skilled swordsmen, a true test of his capacity. On one special occasion he had even fought an invigorating match with a Gerudo sorceress who had a penchant for electricity. He'd walked out of that one with second degree burns.
It was such a disappointment when they ran.
"He just passed the first mark. Rather nimble for an old man."
"Slow down a bit, yeah."
Link slowed his pace, allowing the lord to get ahead of him. Ashei liked to give her prey a sense of security before mercilessly bearing down on them and shredding their hopes into indistinguishable little shards. The heartless woman.
The further away his prey got, the less careful it seemed he had become. Under the presumption that he'd lost his pursuer a ways back, the lord's pace mellowed into a casual jaunt, navigating the forest more carefully and with a renewed arrogance.
Quiet muttering could be heard over the trickle of water. The lord once more whinging over his ill fortune.
"Foul country. Foul city! I knew coming to Lynna was a poor decision. It's all those idiots' fault. And Destler, that incompetent bastard. Should have never listened to him. This is all his fault."
Sleek as a keaton, Link followed. Only slightly irked that the lord seemed to give him too little credit to believe he'd lost him so swiftly.
His prey was tiring. As subtle as they were, Link could see the signs. A minute scruff of dirt, the occasional nudge of a fallen branch.
"Second mark," Link said under his breath.
"He's sure taking his time."
"He thinks I'm following the creak. I wager he's headed for that port town to escape by boat."
"Well, we'll see that he never makes it, yeah."
They had been hunting this particular man for about two months. He had tenacity to have eluded them for so long, that was for certain. All that time investigating, the inquiries, rooting through paperwork, and chasing from city to city, and finally they'd caught up to him. He didn't honestly think they'd let him get away, did he.
"I'm in position. The mongrel has no place to go, yeah."
Link gave a hum of affirmation and continued following the lord.
They were nearing the end of the ravine. Link knew from perusing the map that the trail would bottle-neck just before it led out. In hunting it would be a perfect place to strike down a deer.
Link hastened, advancing swiftly upon the lord.
This was no longer a chase. They were hemming him in and bringing him down.
All at once there was a cry from the lord ahead of him.
Link trod into view and saw that the lord had fallen back against a short rocky wall and was cowering under the tip of Ashei's sword as it nudged against the hollow of his throat.
Like him, Ashei wore light armor and a simple green cloak fastened around her shoulders. She bore down imperiously at the lord, eyes unmerciful and searing.
She flicked her gaze to Link when she saw him approaching, but swiftly narrowed it once more at the man.
"Well well, Count Emmet Banting," she drawled, sword tip nicking the lord's pale skin, brazenly playing on his fear.
The lord's eyes shot to Link then veered back to connect with Ashei's fiery orbs. His trembling increased.
"You don't understand! Neither of you do. It was all to help Hyrule. I was serving the queen!"
Link's nostrils flared and he brandished his own sword, before clashing it against the stone right next to Lord Banting's head, crossing it over Ashei's.
Lord Banting snapped his eyes shut, and whimpered pitifully.
Link was silently fuming.
How could he classify himself in the same category as the queen! How could he claim that he was serving her? She would have never condoned this!
Now with two sword licking at either side of his vulnerable throat, he was truly immobilized.
Ashei hid her smirk and went on.
"Lord Banting, you have been found guilty of the following crimes: embezzling and taking advantage of the populace in times of trial. Supporting the usurper, Zant, during the Twilight Invasion."
"Spying! I was spying on him for Hyrule!"
Ashei pushed her face closer and pressed on.
"Evidence collected within the past few years suggests otherwise, yeah," she said snidely, face contorting in a look that was pure malignant.
"Say I were to believe you. Spying on the enemy may have been your intention at first, but obviously it evolved into something much more sinister. More lucrative. Did you honestly think you could get away with selling human lives?"
And just like that, all the colour abruptly drained from Lord Banting's face.
"How did – How did you-"
Ashei bared her teeth. "Paperwork leaves a trail. You might have destroyed your documents of most of the… transactions," she spat the last word in unveiled disgust. "But we were able to find copies from the other end, labeling you as a supplier. It took us a while to get past the pseudonyms, and poorly constructed cyphers, but once we found your secret holding, it was a simple matter to trace everything back to you, yeah."
A hopeless expression crossed Banting's face then.
Link half expected him to start bartering with them like most of the other convicts. No such thing happened, as soon enough, once the realization set in that he was caught with no way out, Banting straightened his spine and looked squarely into his captors' eyes, presenting one last show of proud arrogance.
His sudden apathy angered Ashei and she growled in his face.
"At first you supplied children to the usurper so he could mold them into obedient citizens. A mindless Hylian army. But once he was cast out, you found you had grown fond of the trade, and the rupees that came with it, and so delivered children to societies' most decrepit to be purchased and used however they saw fit. You may have been careful not to leave a trail in Hyrule, but you became sloppy when you started to expand your disgusting business to other nations. I've never met a man who could sink so low, yeah. Seventy three boys and forty young girls are still unaccounted for. Do you know how many lives you've ruined for your selfish gain?!"
Link's gut clenched, remembering being horrified at the numbers. Those could have been Talo and Malo. Those missing children could have been Beth, Collin, and Ilia. He hadn't considered what had been intended for them when they'd been kidnapped by King Bulblin and his hordes. At the time he had only been certain of two things: his rage and his vow to bring them back.
Link saw that Ashei's blade was digging too deeply when Banting cringed and red swelled on his neck.
Link's rebuke tore her from her maddened haze and brought her attention to the blood now trickling down their captive's neck.
Ashei displayed an overwhelming level of control when she lowered her blade and turned away. She wiped the blood off contemptuously on her cloak, keeping her eyes trained away from the prisoner, holding back her temper.
Link himself was also finding it difficult to keep check of his own anger. Banting's straight face was about to drive him over the edge. He didn't look one bit remorseful. Upset that he'd been caught and that he wasn't able to execute his escape maybe, but nothing when Ashei had spoken of the children. Nothing to indicate that he cared for those lives he'd destroyed.
"In the name of her majesty, Queen Zelda, you are to be taken into custody and executed for your misdeeds," Link intoned darkly. "May the Divine Three have mercy on your soul, for Hyrule most certainly will not."
He was a simple man, and therefore it was easy to accept that this man deserved a simple fate.
"Sir Link, Dame Ashei, it is good to have you back."
Link nodded at the warden and dismounted from Epona. He was sweltering from the confines of his cloak and eager to find some shade.
Beside him, Ashei dismounted as well, wiping the sweat out of her eyes and wearing a deep scowl.
"Goddesses, I hate this place, yeah."
Link had to agree. What he wouldn't do to never have to see the Arbiter's Grounds again.
Curiously, he swept his gaze over the landscape, noting that it was just as dry and cheerless as he remembered it being when they left it two months ago. Construction was still underway, as evidenced by the scaffolding and workers running about. Link also counted more guards than before, as well as more dwellings. Overall it bore an orderly appearance. Silently he marveled at how efficient the place had become since an overseer had been assigned.
Link's eyes then scrutinized the enormous sandstone structure of the temple, its long spires piercing the heavens, while the coliseum at the apex stood imperiously over the battlements.
Once overrun by moblins and phantoms, the historic edifice had since been purged of any malignant spirits by the Sheikah, Impaz. Now it was used as it had intentionally been meant to. As a place of justice, whereupon to pass judgement on the criminals of Hyrule. It was Hyrule's most secure prison for convicts.
He understood the necessity of such a place. But the death surrounding it had always unsettled him. He was glad that Queen Zelda had ordered all torture devices to be removed and no longer abided.
Link stared at the structure a bit forlornly. It was also the last place he'd seen Midna.
Two years ago Midna had departed for the Twilight Realm to reclaim her kingdom and in parting, had broken the only bridge between their worlds. The Mirror of Twilight was nothing but dust shards now, scattered on the wind throughout the vast reaches of the dessert.
He remembered standing frozen after the deed was done. He remembered wondering why, and not being able to understand her reasoning. There had to have been another way. They could have made it work between the two realms. It wasn't inevitable that they'd constantly bring danger to the other. However, he hadn't even been given the chance to argue. Midna had made the decision on her own, and grudgingly, he respected it, despite the protests roaring in his mind.
He was a sentimental man, and so his reasons for hating the desert and these grounds were tied to his personal value of the place. Unlike Ashei, who simply despised the desert because of the heat and overbearing sun. She had been brought up in cold climates and so her body was not as accustomed to temperatures above freezing.
Archer, the overseer, walked with them through the gates and towards the stables. "Another successful hunt, I gather."
He indicated to a large sac, trussed over the saddle of Ashei's horse.
Ashei looked at the sac and stopped walking.
"Ah, I almost forgot, yeah."
With no indication of remorse, she grabbed a fistful of the sac and yanked it down with a harsh tug, kicking up sand as it landed at her feet.
Archer looked a bit unsettled at the action, and jumped when a disoriented moan emitted from it.
Ashei scoffed and petted her horse's snout. "Poor Diavir was suffering under all that weight, yeah."
With a flick of his wrist, Archer had six of his men gather up the prisoner to take to the cells in the catacombs.
He then turned to the two knights. "I'll needs statements from both of you, as per usual. He must have been an elusive mark to have taken so long to capture."
Ashei snorted. "More so irritating. He led us all around Labrynna and some parts of Hytopia, yeah. We caught him just as he was about to switch continents."
Link was jostled as Epona nuzzled her nose against his pouch, searching for treats. She'd been travelling the desert on sparse rations and was understandably hungry for something tastier than dried carrots and grains. He shoved her away from his pouch and delved his hand in it. After sifting around for a bit, he finally found was he was looking for. A ripe apple that he'd been saving for himself for the end of their trip.
Sighing, he offered the fruit to her and she eagerly ate from his hand. He ignored the tug of his stomach as it growled in lament and instantly decided that his next stop would be the mess hall.
Link listened as Ashei recounted in a concise manner the events of their journey.
It was normal for Ashei to do the talking for them. The first time Archer had tried to engage Link in conversation it had been so awkwardly one-sided Link had avoided the man for days afterwards. Archer hadn't given up though, and continuously approached Link whenever they came by to drop off another criminal. Even with his numerous attempts, Archer could never get a sentence out of Link that was more than a few words long, and eventually he came to realize that Link was simply a naturally silent person and perhaps a bit shy when it came to social interactions.
Link didn't mind anymore when he spoke to him, as long as he wasn't expected to give long replies back.
Archer raised his eyebrows, clearly impressed by Ashei's tale. Once she was done, he stroked his short trim beard in fascination. "I wonder, if he had sailed to another continent, would you have followed after him then?"
"He was our mark, yeah," Ashei quipped succinctly. "We would not have returned until the queen's justice was served."
Link noticed how her jaw clenched slightly, but did not remark upon it.
Archer nodded and continued to follow them as they went to water their horses.
After making sure that Epona was settled in, Link leaned against a stable post and opened his canteen, taking short swigs of water to wet his throat. His body urged him to gulp it down, but he knew from experience that drinking too fast in this kind of heat would only leave him with a stomach ache.
"That's another success to you both." Archer nodded proudly at them. "By Din, I swear that half the men and women here were one's that you brought to custody. I'll be sure to put this forth to the Arbiter."
Link slowly lowered his canteen and wiped his mouth.
The Arbiter, huh.
As the highest ranked warden in the grounds, the Arbiter was essentially the judge and was the final power that determined the fate of the criminals brought to him.
He'd be hypocritical if he said he despised that sort of power. How many times had Link extinguished another's life? How many times had he himself employed that power and made his own decisions as to whether someone lived or died? Not recently, and hopefully, not anytime soon. It was different slaying someone in the midst of battle, but it was another thing entirely to kill someone while they were helpless. Even in the face of the law.
It was all for the sake of Hyrule. He wasn't too adverse to the hunting part of his job, but bringing in the convicts and having to deal with the whole judiciary system was something he wouldn't mind overlooking.
Sighing, Link relinquished Epona's reigns to one of the stable hands and went to write his statement.
Late in the evening Link was hovering beneath one of the arches of the coliseum, watching the proceedings below.
Usually whenever they finished a job Ashei would always press them into leaving right away. She couldn't stand the dessert, and was unwilling to spend more time than they needed to there.
And as was routine, Link was always quick to oppose her, and somehow he would manage to persuade her to remain an extra few days. Long enough to witness the very end of it.
There was a steady rise of voices as Lord Banting was led to the center of the coliseum, bound and surrounded on all sides by soldiers and statesmen. The Arbiter, his Honor, Lord Albion, stood ten paces away, hands clasped behind his back with his considerable heavy robes dragging over the flagstone floor.
The trial had been held the day before, and after being provided the evidence of his crimes, the Arbiter had declared him guilty. There would be no chance for him to plead mercy or to appeal for a lighter sentence. The interrogators had wrung out all they could about his dealings, and with nothing left, it was time for him to be executed.
Another faction of investigators would be issued with the task of locating and recovering the missing children. For now, Link and Ashei had completed their part.
The Arbiter stepped back, and one of the mages took his place. Banting was held still as the mage placed a glowing hand on his brow. It would be a quick and painless death. A spike of power shot through the brain and it was done.
Lord Banting's body slumped and four pallbearers carried him over to lie upon an altar, where a priest and priestess would recite hymns to lay his soul to rest so that he would not return as a dark spirit.
It was at that point that Link turned to leave. He'd seen what he had to, and it was enough.
This always baffled Ashei. To be honest, Link wasn't so sure himself why he was always determined to watch, but he supposed that witnessing their sentence to the very last moment brought him a sense of closure. Or maybe it was his own silent code of honor that compelled him to stay.
He often wondered how he could even pity them. They were criminals of the worst variety and deserved his every disdain. But it didn't mean he wished any suffering upon them. It proved to be a small relief to him that those who were executed were at least granted swift deaths, and the ones who were simply imprisoned were not tortured or maimed, as they would have been in the past.
That was the difference in Zelda's regime compared to her ancestors'. In the days of the old kings and queens, Lord Banting would have been shown no honor on his execution. He would have either been sucked through the Mirror of Twilight or have had a prolonged, agonizing death. He'd receive no respectful burial either. His body would have been tossed in a pit with the rest, his soul doomed to dwell in agony for eternity.
He knew this because he had faced those ghosts of the past. Had slain their reanimated corpses until their limbs were dusted and they couldn't rise again. The Arbiter's Ground had been a haunted, sorrowful place. It still was.
But Zelda saw to it that everyone, no matter how despicable a person they were, were given sanctification.
He wondered… what sort of ruler had Midna become.
He paused in the shadow of the columns, and looked down at the coliseum, eyes instinctively drawn toward the vacant frame where the Mirror of Twilight once stood.
He had no regrets. His and Midna's time together was brief, but it had been fulfilling, and resulted in both of them changing in ways they otherwise wouldn't have. He was glad to have met Midna, and he was glad that she had her kingdom back. But still, a large part of him wished that somehow he might be able to see her again someday.
Just once more…
The statesmen had begun filtering out of the auditorium.
Disliking the idea of anyone seeing him and stopping to chat, Link made his way down to the stables, where Ashei was impatiently waiting for him so they could leave.
By midmorning of their second day on their journey back to Castle Town they'd finally made it out of the dessert and had traversed the path spanning the south side of Lake Hylia and were now riding through the southern fields of Hyrule. In less than four hours they would reach their destination, and Link barely noticed the time passing, preoccupied as he was, deeply immersed in his thoughts.
He could tell that Ashei was dying for a bar. She always became irascible after visiting the desert, and the only way for her to cope was by drowning herself in a few meads and some rambunctious company.
On the other hand, he just wanted to check in with the captain and begin their next assignment. And perhaps, if they had the time, he could go visit Zelda in the interim.
It had been a while since he'd seen her. He hadn't been keeping up a regular correspondence with her because he'd been busy, but she'd always made certain to send him letters via hawk or postman, whichever could deliver to him, and he was always happy to receive them.
Their relationship since the Twilight Invasion had only grown over the years. It was inevitable that something would bud between them after they'd done battle together and after he'd saved her country from peril and despair. More than that, it was their entwined fates that bound them. The Triforce marks on their hands was permanent proof of that.
"You should probably turn left here, yeah."
Ashei's snappish comment brought him out of his musings and bade him look to the left.
The field was interspersed with trees, becoming denser the further out his eyes focussed until they formed the clusters of a large magnanimous forest. Faron woods, and beyond them, Ordon.
Link stared puzzled at the scenery.
Why would Ashei want him to go back to Ordon? It was neither harvest season nor festive time.
"Ah," he remarked as comprehension dawned. "You need a break."
Ashei scowled, but made no protest. "It's just this last case, yeah. I've seen some gruesome things, but what we've uncovered with Banting." She huffed, fists clenching around Diavir's reigns. "Just go home. See your girl. We've been gone for a while. She must be missing you, yeah."
Pools of red rose in his cheeks as Link stammered. "It's not like that between us," he snapped defensively.
Ashei had the gall to smirk and roll her eyes. "Yeah, we all know. Rusl's always lamenting that he'll never get to see you settle down and spawn your own pack of insufferable offspring. Foolish man. Acts as if he's your father, yeah."
He shrugged, unconcerned. "He just wants me to be as happy as he and Uli are."
"Of course he does. That's what any family man would say, yeah."
Link was accustomed to her acerbic remarks and snide comments, so was overall unruffled by it.
Despite her sourness on the subject, Link knew for a fact that she was perfectly happy with her current relationship with Shad. He also knew better that to rib her about it, as most likely it would end with one of them planted with their face in the dirt. Her solution to dealing with insults and arguments were to methodically beat the other person into the ground. Usually the beating transpired with a bout of fisticuffs, but swords could be used depending on her temperament.
Ashei gave him a hard shove, almost knocking him off of Epona. "Go visit your village, yeah. Contact me when you recover from the thrashing Uli's bound to give you for being gone so long. They all probably think you're dead."
Link cringed. More than likely it was Ilia who was liable to strangle him for that. He'd never been gone from Ordon for more than a span of a few weeks. But two months…
He was irrefutably doomed.
That was one confrontation he wanted to avoid. Although there was the problem that the longer he stayed away the more time her anger would have to fester. There was no choice but to face this head on, as soon as possible. He'd have to quickly come up with an offering to give her. Maybe that would allay her fury.
"Right," he assented, flicking Epona's reigns and reluctantly steering her south. "We'll correspond the usual way?"
Ashei grinned a sign of triumph. It seemed that she'd really wanted that break.
"Of course, yeah."
She gave her right earlobe a tap where it hosted a stunning blue stud. On her other ear rested its twin, both baubles glinting in the sunlight, a lighter shade of blue from his own pair of earrings.
Crafted from the same precious stones that formed the rare gossip stones, they had been beyond fortunate to receive them as a gift from a travelling wizard. The wizard himself had been no one of consideration, incapable of any remarkable feats of magic, but the valuables he had been carting around within the deep confines of his robes had all been genuine.
Using them as a method of communication had proved to be an invaluable means of coordinating their efforts during their hunts.
"I expect you to be up to par in two weeks, yeah."
Link the rib in stride and sent her a mischievous gleam. He called back, loud enough for her to hear. "Send Shad my regards, yeah."
He laughed as a stream of expletives escaped her mouth.
"It's not funny to imitate me, yeah!"
Link gave her a brief wave then with a great 'hiyah!' kicked Epona's flanks and sent them soaring.
They galloped across the fields, and he revelled in the speed and the wind lashing at his hair and cloak, flaring it behind him.
Intrinsically he knew that no horse alive could match Epona's pace. Not even Ganondorf's enormous black charger had been outclassed. And at the time Epona had been carrying the weight of two riders. Her vitality amazed him. Even though she'd been trained as a young filly to carry out the work of a dray horse, as soon as he'd needed her too, practically overnight she'd reformed into a fierce warhorse. As if she'd been born for it. As if anything else had been a waste of her potential.
He was unsurprised when they breached the tree line of Faron woods within only half an hour.
He breathed in the fresh scent of the forest and admired the cast of light that filtered in through the canopy, illuminating the leaves in bright shades of glowing green.
Languidly, he released the reigns and leaned back and stretched then placed his hands on the back of the saddle as he lazily took in the scenery. Epona knew the way, she didn't need to be steered. She threw her head and neighed with delight when she realized where they were headed. She then briskly cantered through the forest, eager to return home.
He closed his eyes and relaxed. He waved at Coro when they passed his house, and soon they had also passed Faron's spring. Moments later Epona's hooves were clopping along the wooden bridge spanning over the ravine that marked the separation between Faron and Ordon. After a few more yards they finally arrived.
Link stopped at his house and dismounted, patting Epona's flank then allowing her to go off and graze.
She flicked her ears and went straight for her favorite patch of grass.
Link observed her fondly and brushed a hand through her mane, but frowned when his fingers caught in a thick knot of hair. Ilia was not going to be happy about that.
His ears drooped at the thought of his childhood friend.
Impulsively he decided that he could take the time to give Epona a proper brush down. She had more than deserved it after their long trip away. And he silently added, letting Ilia wait a few moments more wouldn't harm her. Although inwardly he grudgingly admitted that he was stalling.
When he took his time in caring for Epona, and when he was finished he gathered up the packs and supplies he'd unloaded from her and put them away in his house.
At last he turned to the village.
Uli was the first to notice his return.
She closed the door after just visiting Sera's Sundries shop, basket dangling over one arm, the other curled around her young daughter. She froze when she spotted him then broke out in a broad smile.
Link grinned and jogged the last few steps to her when she waved him over.
"Link, I didn't know you'd be back so soon!" she exclaimed cheerfully, despite Ellory, her little girl, tugging insistently at her hair. It had grown since last he'd seen her, and she winced with every tug Ellory gave it.
Link eagerly freed her from the little bundle and Ellory's attention was immediately claimed by his shiny earrings. He plopped his hat over her face to detract her from her interest. He was not overly fond of the idea of having those earrings torn out.
"Wished I'd stayed away longer, do you?" he cajoled. "Two months away not good enough?"
Uli smiled and stuck a hand on her hip. "Try two months and seven days. Time means nothing when you're out adventuring does it."
Link had the sensibility to look contrite.
He took a brief sweep of the rest of the village, noting Jaggle from across the small creek waving at him. Link gave a quick wave back.
"Where are the kids?" he asked curiously. If not helping out their parents with chores or hanging around in front of his house swinging sticks they'd normally be conspiring around the village, cooking up another game for their amusement.
Ellory eventually managed to remove his hat from her face and was now drooling all over it. Link tried not to cringe. It would have to be given a thorough wash as soon as possible.
"At the ranch," Uli supplied, eyes giving a bright twinkle. She took Ellory from him, balancing her easily in one arm. "Bo has them milking the goats. Five have just calved. I'm certain they wouldn't mind a small distraction."
He grinned cheekily. Those kids would use any excuse to take a break. He might as well give them a good one.
Uli wrinkled her nose at the sight of his drool-sodden hat and gave him an apologetic smile. "I'll have this washed for you by evening."
"It would be appreciated," Link said gratefully, ruffling Ellory's hair. Ellory ignored him and continued chewing on his hat. "Thank you Uli."
He took off, starting up the slope toward the ranch. Wanting to see how long it'd take for them to notice him, he leaned against a post, observing them.
The kids were all helping Fado with the goats with Mayor Bo presiding over them, making sure that they actually did their work. Ilia and Colin were conversing amiably while brushing down the thick mats of fur of one of the beasts while Fado cleaned its hooves. A few feet away Talo and Beth were milking their separate goats. Suddenly Talo got a cheeky look in his eyes and sprayed a jet of mild straight at Beth, who shot to her feet shrieking and toppling over her stool.
Talo ducked his head and laughed when she chased him around the yard.
"You stupid idiot! You got milk on my shirt! Do you know how hard it's going to be to wash out!"
He ran backwards, taunting her by sticking out his tongue and jeering. Link decided this was a prime point to intercede. He stepped away from the gates and when Talo turned back around he careened right into him.
Talo staggered from the collision then blinked his eyes wide, looking up at him. A huge smile overtook his face and he whooped loudly, "Link! You're back!"
This grabbed the attention of the others and they all rushed over to clamber around him, Beth at once forgetting all about the milk stain.
"Link! You took forever. How'd it go this time? Did you catch him?" rambled a much taller and lankier Collin, with a swell of enthusiasm.
"Who was it this time?" asked Talo eagerly, hands fisted in front of him.
"I bet it was a sorcerer," exclaimed Beth. "Come on Link, tell us about it."
They crowded close and Link fought off their enquiries as best he could, smiling all the while. "I'm afraid I'm not authorized to divulge such information," he said to their looks of dismay. "It's all confidential."
A long groan of disappointment sounded and Talo snapped his fingers. "Rats!"
Link took a surreptitious look around and angled them a secretive smile. "I'll tell you about it after dinner. Don't let anyone know," he whispered.
They whooped loudly then tensed at the booming voice that called over to them.
"Get back to your chores or you'll all get a walloping you'll be feeling five years from now!"
Link laughed as their faces all turned sheer white before they shot back to work, Beth and Talo squabbling while Collin grinned and listened with amusement.
Mayor Bo strode up, large and bald as ever. Even after Link's latest growth spurt he still had to look up to him. Ilia sauntered merrily beside him and graced him with a jubilant smile.
"Hello, Link," she said, brushing fur off her hands. "It's been a while."
"That's what everyone's been saying," he replied, shrugging then yelped when she pinched his ear tip and dragged him down.
"Three letters in almost two months! That's all I get!" she shrilled, her voice high and slaughtering his eardrums. "Were you dying or something? Not that any of us would have known! Did you forget how to write?!"
Both he and Bo winced at her tone. Link faltered under her reprimand. "It couldn't be helped. Ashei and I went all the way to Labrynna. The postman doesn't deliver outside of Hyrule."
He jolted back when she abruptly let go, and massaged his ear, striving not to pout. Ilia hadn't changed a bit. Bo only gave him a sympathetic shrug.
"Labrynna?" remarked Ilia, intrigued. She tapped her chin in thought. "It must have been a difficult journey."
"Tell you about it after dinner?" Link offered meekly as recompense for worrying her.
She pondered for a bit then nodded her assent, smiling. "Alright. But for now, father has something he has to tell you. In the meantime I'll go see to Epona."
Link's eyes rounded in alarm and he reached out an arm to stop her. "Er – Wait, Ilia-!"
But she had already left, sprinting down the path to the village.
He sighed, not at all anticipating the inevitable verbal assault he would soon receive. He hadn't yet tended to the various scrapes Epona had sustained. He was in for it now.
A large hand fell on his shoulder, offering him silent support. "I swear that girl purposefully finds reasons to be cross with us," said Bo in a voice of long accustomed resignation. "Endure it as best you can, lad."
If enduring it meant having his honor trampled all over…
He shook his head, deciding to fret about it later. Raising an eyebrow he turned to Bo. "So what's this you wanted to tell me?"
Bo instantly became uneasy, scratching the back of his neck and putting Link on the alert. The weight of his hand lifted from his shoulder as he motioned for Link to follow.
"Walk with me."
Link readily obliged. They headed back to the village at a leisurely pace. Link didn't have to wait long for Bo to begin talking.
"It appears someone has been looking for you. About two weeks ago a man in a cloak came to town late in the evening. He was... shifty and in a hurry. Acted like he was hiding something important. I don't know what to make of it."
Link's ears twitched but otherwise he didn't react. "Did he leave a name?"
Bo shook his head. "No. Said something about it being too risky. I couldn't even see his face beneath his hood. Odd if you ask me. He left not ten minutes later, and then just last week he appeared again, same time in the evening, asking if you'd been by."
This caused Link to frown as he pondered the information. He had many friends and acquaintances outside of Ordon, but none that would need to sneak in under guise to go snooping around the village in search of him. He also had many enemies...
"You think," he started, brows furrowed as they made their way over the bridge. "That this person will come again this week?"
The Mayor shrugged, tugging anxiously at his moustache. "Maybe. I told him to check Kakariko or drop in at Telma's in Castle Town. You usually visit those places. Don't know if he actually went to look there though."
They stopped at the lane leading to Link's house and stood facing one another. Link looked up at Bo and gave a reassuring smile.
"I'm sure it's nothing important," he said trivially, doubts festering in the back of his mind. "Thank you for telling me. I'll stick around for a bit and see if he comes back. If not I'll keep an ear out on my travels."
Strange men in cloaks were never the harbingers of anything good.
Bo grimaced before returning his smile. "Well, if he's any trouble I'm sure you can handle him." He turned to leave, jabbing his thumb in the direction of the ranch. "Have to go back and make sure those miscreants aren't causing any trouble. Farore knows Fado can't deal with them on his own. Got no spine."
Link waved him off. "Get going. I'll be there at the communal dinner." He paused and looked lost for a minute. "It is Friday today, right?"
Bo chuckled and mused his hair as if he were still a youngling. Link gave him a bland look. "Yes, it's communal dinner night," said Bo. "You came back just on time."
"I suppose I did," replied Link, practically salivating at the thought of Uli's cooking.
"I'll be looking forward to hearing about this new adventure of yours. Good luck with Ilia," said Bo in parting, ambling back to the ranch.
Link visibly shuddered and steeled himself. Goddesses help the poor sod who ever ended up with Ilia. Link would forever admire such a man.
He felt a tug in his gut. Once again he'd have to water down many of the details of his hunt. The villagers of Ordon were by no means naïve, yet at the same time they were also unaware of many of the types of deranged atrocities that happened outside of Ordon. Murder for the sake of murder was unfathomable to them. Robbing someone of their hard earned goods was pointless. Why steal when you could just ask a neighbor to borrow something if you were going through hard times. Like any small village, Ordon was a tight-knit community and everyone supported each other. Why shouldn't it be the same everywhere else?
Evils were delegated to villains in the sagas, and their own experience during the time of the invasion reflected one of those fantasy tales.
But as Link had long learned, each place was vastly different, and not all of people were as amiable as the Ordonians.
With some hesitance, he headed for the enclosure to his house.
Link crouched close to the ground, harvesting a patch of wild truffles that were cluttered around the base of a giant deku tree. He straightened and eyed a broken branch a few feet away from the trail then shouldered his pack and started back to the village.
He'd been in Ordon for four days now and during that time he'd been at work assisting the villagers with whatever they needed, lazing in the pasture, and scouring the perimeter. It was a necessary period of calm in his life of action. Even Hyrule's hero needed a break once in a while.
The kids of Ordon – he really shouldn't call them 'kids' anymore, they were already in their teens – had gone off to play with the monkeys, leaving him to scavenge for herbs as a favor to Sera. It was only by chance that he'd come across the mushrooms. They'd fetch a pretty price at the market, and there was even enough for the villagers to keep for themselves.
The sound of a foot crunching against dirt alerted Link to someone skulking in the brush. He pretended not to notice and leisurely strolled out of the forest. Once the herbs and truffles were delivered to Sera, with the addition of a nice few rupees to show for it - despite his insistent refusal of the money - he made his way back home.
He scaled the ladder quickly and entered the house, closing the door firmly behind him. Then he immediately made his way across the room and swung out a window on the opposite side. He landed agilely at the base of his tree, form crouched and taut, sword already in hand. Stealthily he prowled around the trunk to peer out.
A cloaked figure had entered the enclosure. He hovered near the entrance and looked around before springing to the tree house.
It could have been anyone. He was covered head to foot. There was no way of identifying him. Without a doubt this was the mysterious stranger Bo had mentioned. He'd seen the man's tracks in the woods and knew he'd come knocking sooner or later. It was too bad that Link wasn't going to be answering the traditional way.
Diving in, Link bore down with his sword, the tip veering centimetres away from the cloaked figure's chest. The stranger gave out a deep cry of shock and tumbled back, landing hard on the ground, hood flying off.
Link froze and lowered his sword. He recognized that voice.
"Auru?" he asked with a small measure of uncertainty.
Auru groaned and hurriedly pulled his hood back on. Feeling awful about the scare he'd just given him, Link stretched out an arm to help him up and Auru hissed as his back creaked.
"Sorry," Link murmured, ears drooping bashfully.
Auru simply waved him off, massaging his shoulder with a gloved hand.
"You were being vigilant and you were not attacking with outright intent to kill. I can't fault you for that."
Link ducked his head. "I'm still sorry."
"No matter, no matter."
Link nodded. "What are you doing all the way in Ordon? And where's Rusl?"
Jumping all of a sudden, Auru once again looked around nervously.
"Not here. We're too out in the open," he hissed.
Link couldn't help but frown at his obscure remark.
He hesitated, before he decided to ask, "Were you the one who was looking for me? Is something wrong?"
Auru held out his arms and hushed him. "Yes yes, I asked the mayor for your whereabouts. Been wandering for weeks trying to locate you." He scanned the area and hastily motioned up to the house. "This would be better discussed in a private setting."
Bemused, Link nodded and started up the ladder before pausing and looking down. "Should I help you up?"
Auru huffed in affront. "I may be getting on in years, but I can still climb a ladder."
Link smiled, although because of the ambiguous circumstances it was only half-hearted. "Right, you still have a decade or so before your health will really start to decline."
Auru grumbled beneath his breath and hoisted himself up the ladder.
Once safely inside the abode, and only after shuttering the windows and making sure the door was locked, would Auru allow himself to relax. Link's eyebrows shot up at the extent of Auru's actions, but he made no comment of it. Although silently he was greatly concerned.
Link lit the fire in the hearth and prepared them tea. He handed a cup to Auru, who thanked him gruffly, then brought his own to his lips, opting to lean against the wall instead of taking a seat with Auru at the table.
Auru took a long sip of his drink and sighed, swiping a hand through his grey hair. He had discarded his cloak the moment he'd stepped into the house, unearthing the worn travelling clothes underneath.
He took another sip then placed the cup down on the table. "Have you been after the same man this entire time?"
"More or less," answered Link briskly, nibbling on a slice of pumpkin bread. He didn't like thinking about it.
"Ashei and I have been all through Hyrule and Labrynna looking for him. He had many connections to exploit, and favors to call in."
Auru nodded, face grim. "Right. That would be why I couldn't find you anywhere in Hyrule."
Link eyed him thoughtfully. "Why not send a hawk out? It would have been easier than looking for me yourself."
Auru picked up a slice of the pumpkin bread, his face one of consternation. "Pumpkin. It's always pumpkin here," he muttered.
"Pumpkins and goats are what Ordon is reputed for," said Link, shrugging.
The man grumbled then bit into it.
Rather impatient now, Link shifted and stared down at his drink, swirling his cup. "So what was so important that you had to personally come to me?"
All at once Auru's whole demeanor shifted, changing from something semi-uneasy to extremely ominous. "I feared any written messages would be intercepted," Auru replied in a quiet voice. "And the others' absence would have been noted so I was the one who had to be sent."
Link's ears perked, more baffled and unnerved than before.
He frowned, thoughts whirring with all sorts of foul imaginings. "Explain."
Auru sighed and rubbed his temples. After a few seconds he spoke, "It's her majesty."
His eyes flashed at the mention of the queen. If anything had happened to her...
"She's safe," Auru quickly inserted, catching the deadly glint Link held. "But I'm not certain for how much longer..."
Link's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
Auru inhaled deeply through his nose and released the breath in a long gust. "It began a few weeks ago." His eyes lowered to stare at his hands and the half eaten pumpkin bread. "She has been… behaving peculiarly."
"Peculiarly?" shot Link, brows pinched with worry. Peculiar was not a term normally associated with Zelda. "How so?"
Auru parted his mouth then shook his head. "It's difficult to describe."
"Give me some examples," said Link. "How has she been acting?"
He stroked his beard as he contemplated. "Well, she's become more... reticent is the best way to put it, I suppose. She's become hypervigilant and jumpy, and during meetings she gazes off lost in thought." He shook his head. "The queen takes her duties seriously, she'd never daydream. She's been locking herself away as well, sometimes for hours on end." He sighed. "I don't like to make assumptions, but from what I see..."
Links frown deepened a fraction. He knew where the older man was heading with this. These were all small things, trivial peculiarities to some, and yet they held more bearing than he was comfortable with. Together they were all signs of paranoia.
Slowly he set down his cup, staring thoughtfully into the fire. He then lifted his gaze to Auru.
"Have you spoken with her? Do you know what's wrong?"
"I haven't," said Auru. Then he inserted before Link could say anything, "I fear that if I so much as broach the subject she'd close up. Whenever anyone shows concern for her she insists that she's fine or simply has a light headache."
"Could it just be stress?" Her role as queen was the most daunting occupation in all of Hyrule. She must have overworked herself again. Queen Zelda never allowed herself any time for rest.
"No," said Auru grimly, eyes boring into the table. "I suspect it's far deeper than that..."
Link felt his pulse accelerate in fretful anticipation, a hundred foul scenarios plaguing his mind.
At length, Auru raised his eyes to meet Link's in a look that displayed utmost severity. "I…I think someone is threatening the queen…"