"Are you certain about this?"

Silas's broad shoulders heaved in a sigh. He squinted at Dark over the saddle, telling him silently how little he appreciated being questioned on his decision for the umpteenth time.

"Yes, Dark, I am. Can we leave now?"

Dark frowned at his friend. "You've never even been outside of Ordon."

"All the more reason to go." Silas checked the knot securing his bedroll to the saddle.

"What if you hate it?" Dark pressed.

"Then I suppose I'll come home." Silas smirked. "You won't deter me, Dark. I can handle whatever Hyrule might throw at me."

Dark's concern for Silas wasn't misguided fear for a friend. Silas was a farmer, but he'd never given Dark reason to doubt his capability as a fighter. And the long journey on horseback wouldn't cause him to flinch. For some strange reason, Dark's worry lay in what Silas would think of his homeland, and therefore Dark himself. The homecoming felt like some kind of test of their friendship, and he wasn't sure he would pass muster.

Shoving aside inane and self-conscious thoughts, Dark finished his own packing and swung up into the saddle. They'd brought only what they would need for the journey, packing light so they could travel easier. It meant leaving the house in the care of the farmhands and Sebastian, but Dark trusted the latter to look after the former.

With a last look at the cozy farmhouse and snow-covered yard, Dark clucked his tongue and encouraged his horse into a walk. He and Silas reached the end of the lane and turned onto the only road for miles, taking it all the way to Taipa.

Outside the tiny inn, one of only a dozen buildings in the town, Link waited with half a dozen Hylian soldiers, all dressed in their simple uniforms of dark blue coats, black trousers and boots.

At their approach, Link paused his conversation with the dark-skinned, bearded man to greet them. Dark and Silas swung down from their mounts, the soldiers eyeing them curiously. Their gazes rested on him, Dark noticed, probably having heard of Link's brother but now seeing the resemblances—and the differences. Several of them pointedly avoided staring at his face too long. Used to their reaction, Dark turned his attention to Link, who introducing them.

"This is Lieutenant Kearns," Link gestured to the bearded man, who shook Dark's hand, then Silas's. "And these are Lacey, Sanderson, Ibrahim, Ceres and Landon."

The shorter blonde, Lacey, goggled at Dark. "You look so much like the captain!" she exclaimed. At least she hadn't commented on their notable differences. "I almost can't believe it!"

"I can't believe we're related either," he replied dryly, smirking at Link's eyeroll.

"We should leave as soon as possible," Kearns said to Link. "We'll make Faron by nightfall if our pace is good, and we can perhaps outrun the storm." Nodding towards the western sky, Kearns drew their attention to the mass of grey clouds rolling closer.

Finding a fellow appreciator of weather patterns, Silas agreed with the lieutenant. "The road leads northeast—we should bypass it."

Link gestured for everyone to mount up, and the others obeyed, seamlessly moving into formation so that Link and Kearns led the way and Dark and Silas were insulated in the middle of the group. As they rode, Link and Kearns talked quietly, and the others murmured behind them, but it was otherwise a peaceful ride through the winter morning.

Link's soldiers were a close unit, and clearly used to their leader's stoic ways, for they interpreted his occasional silent orders without incident. Silas was also happy riding in silence, watching the familiar scenery, habitually checking the sky.

Dark could hear the other soldiers behind them, felt their eyes pricking on his back, and focused resolutely ahead. One of the reasons he was against returning to Hyrule was the staring. The whispering.

When Time reversed, she apparently didn't feel the need to take back his curse. And the very visible evidence of it meant he stood out even more than usual. Unlike Link, Dark didn't look the part of a fair, blond and blue-eyed Hylian. He was Dark. Black hair, tan skin, eyes the unsettling colour of blood on snow. They may have shared parents, but Link had inherited their mother's noble looks, and Dark their father's unknown, mixed heritage.

"Hey," Silas said, nudging Dark with his elbow, probably sensing his foul mood.

"I'm fine," Dark muttered pre-emptively.

Unconvinced, Silas sought to change the subject of his thoughts and struck up a conversation about what Castle Town was like. Kearns barely said a few words before the younger soldiers jumped in with their own stories, each eager to share. For Silas's sake Dark tried to genuinely listen.

By nightfall they had indeed reached Faron province and set up camp for the night. The winter storm swept past them, dumping fresh snow on the ground but otherwise slipping away. After two more days of travel their party reached the edge of Faron and the landscape faded from the thick forests to the rolling plains. South of Lake Hylia was a town they would stop in for the night, before continuing the journey north. Past the great lake, the roads were well traveled and settlements were more plentiful, meaning they wouldn't need to sleep in tents on the cold ground or eat dinner around a campfire.

As they neared the village, the looks of anticipation on the soldiers' faces for a hot meal and warm bed were clear. They were ready to get out of the snow and bitter wind for a while.

Orange light was spilling from the distant Gerudo Ridge, melting into the indigo sky, changing the white of the snowy plains into shades of grey. Twilight's hush overtook all other sounds but the soft thumps of hooves in snow. From out of the stillness came a scream.

The nine riders stopped, the soldiers's hands immediately clutching at their sword belts. Dark scanned the horizon, searching for the source of the scream. Ahead of him, Link rested one hand on Epona's reins, the other on his sword hilt.

Silas hitched in a sharp breath. Dark whipped to the right, seeing a shadow coming towards them.

"Who's there?" Kearns called out in a stern voice.

Link dismounted, uncaring of potential danger. The figure reached them, crawling desperately in the snow.

"Please!" the man called out, stopping to catch his breath when Link met him. "Please, help! Our village has been attacked!"

Without saying anything, Link's demeanor changed. He stood straighter, unsheathing his sword in a practiced motion. Epona trotted to his side, letting him remount and taking off in the direction the man had come from.

"Ibrahim!" Kearns commanded, already steering his horse after Link's, "Stay with him!"

The others charged after their leader, leaving Dark and Silas to follow in their wake. Cresting the next hill, they were met with a sight that could only be described as a nightmare.

Wolfos and stalfos prowled the streets of the small village, their only goal the villagers running screaming for their lives. Link charged into their midst, cleaving the fleshless skull from a stalfos' shoulders in one swing. A wolfos, blood staining its muzzle, growled and leaped at Link, knocking him off Epona's back. She reared and whinnied, kicking at the other wolfos who surrounded her.

Dark urged his horse straight for Link, Silas close behind. The others corralled the fleeing villagers, forming a blockade between them and the threat.

Dark chased off the wolfos snapping at Epona, then jumped to the ground and drew his sword. Deraphine glinted with deadly purpose, flames erupting along its curving length as Dark's power surged forth. He sliced and hacked his way through the dark beasts, howling with pain and rage.

Silas swung his heavy blade one-handed, showing his impressive strength as he cleaved straight through a larger white wolfos. His friend's skill as a fighter had come as a surprise to Dark, but years of practice and sparring with Dark had made him ready for a challenge like this, and wolfos were a familiar foe.

While Link battled a team of stalfos, his effortless, simple blend of defense and offense as signatory to Dark as a fingerprint, he and Silas destroyed the last of the wolfos. Dark was a beacon of flame in the night, slashing from enemy to enemy. Silas was an axeblade felling a tree, stubborn and relentless.

Darting down the street, Dark turned at an alley and neatly avoided the blade headed for his throat by throwing himself backwards in the nick of time. He glared at the glowy-eyed stalfos sneering at him from the other end of the sword.

"Ass," Dark muttered. With a few hits, he dispatched the skeletal warrior.

Whirling around, he saw Silas running up behind him. Unfortunately, Silas hadn't heard the stalfos sneaking up on him.

"No!" Dark shouted.

Too late, he watched the stalfos jab Silas in the side, the wicked knife it clutched slicing into flesh. With a stunned look, Silas wavered, dropping to one knee. Dark lunged, stabbing at the stalfos over Silas's shoulder. The monster reared back with a gravelly chuckle, taunting him.

Silas's free hand gripped Dark's shoulder for support. He looked down at his friend's pale face, his stomach turning with fear. The cowardly stalfos backed up, calculating its next move. In the next moment, Link's blade sliced through it, sending the damned creature back to the hell it came from.

"Was he hit?" Link asked, taking one look at Silas and correctly guessing what had happened.

Silas slumped against the alley wall, his sword dropping from nerveless fingers. Temporary paralysis. Dark swore under his breath.

"Help me get him up," he said to Link.

Together, they hauled the bigger man to his feet, marching him out to the main street. While Link called for his soldiers, Dark spoke directly into Silas' ear, trying to keep him conscious as long as possible.

Lacey and Kearns reached them first. Kearns helped them set Silas down in the grass, while Lacey dug through the satchel on her hip.

"He should be fine," she said, her fingers shaking a bit. "He hasn't been exposed to the poison long."

Dark raked his fingers through his hair. Stalfos' poisoned blades were the true danger when facing the reanimated corpses. Even with the field medicine Lacey was administering now, Silas would need help as soon as possible. And they were miles away from Castle Town yet, where the best and most knowledgeable magical healers were.

Link grabbed him by the shoulders, shaking him from the stupor of staring at his friend's ashen appearance.

"He'll be alright, Dark."

Dark nodded, not really assured but not sure what else to do.

"We're not far from the river," Kearns remarked. "You could take the ferry and cut out part of the journey."

"That would leave the rest of you with the horses," Link said. "It would slow down your journey home significantly. And leave us without an escort."

Kearns waved off the concern. "Don't worry about the rest of us. And from what I just saw, I doubt you'll need our assistance fighting off any threats." The older man arched a brow and glanced between him and Dark.

Link chuckled. "Lacey, can we move him?"

Lacey checked Silas's pupils, held her fingers over the pulse in his wrist. "The potion I gave him is working," she said, causing Dark to breathe a sigh of relief. "But he'll need time to recover. The ferry is your best option. I'll send some medicine with you just in case."

The others joined them, and Link explained the situation. Ibrahim and Sanderson created a makeshift stretcher from one of their tents, and Lacey packed a medicinal bag for them to bring. They loaded the two fastest horses with the bare necessities.

Link turned to his lieutenant. "Stay here the night and make sure there are no further attacks. Help in any way we a full report of the wounded and dead for me. I want to know anything you can find." He frowned. "Attacks of this scale don't just happen. I want to know what caused it."

Kearns nodded and passed his orders on to the others. Lacey handed the bag of medicine to Dark.

"Give him a few drops every couple of hours," she instructed. "It's potent stuff; it should last until you get back."

"How far is the ferry station from here?"

She chewed her lip. "A few hours, if you ride fast."

Dark looked at Silas, sitting slumped in the saddle of his horse. "Then I'd better hurry." He swung up behind his friend, wrapping an arm around him to keep him from sliding off. "Hell of a way to start your first trip out of Ordon, huh?" he asked wryly.

"Ready, Dark?"

Already on Epona's back, Link locked eyes with him. Dark nudged his horse and snapped the reins. He and Link galloped off, following the invisible trail west to the shores of the Hylia River.

As they raced through the night, Dark clutched a weakened Silas to his chest, and prayed to any god that was listening that he was as strong as he looked.

~oOo~

Eastern Labrynna was largely forested. Clusters of population lived in the Forest of Time and along the Lanayru strait, the border between Labrynna and Hyrule.

Stories had long persisted that the forest was inhabited by spirits as well. If it was, Lymira didn't mind. She'd always found the woods to be soothing and peaceful, not ominous. She walked the path on foot, hauling her gear on her back. It was more than she usually carried, but Queen Anvi had lent her some fancier clothes, which she'd reluctantly packed with her things.

Lymira paused in her tracks—the usual forest sounds of birds and critters were suddenly silent.

"You may as well come on out," she called.

Four of the trees around her shifted. Four bandits in camouflaging tunics stepped onto the path, swords in hand. She dropped her rucksack and laid a hand on the hilt of her own weapon.

The head bandit grinned. "You really think you can take all of us, little girl?"

Lymira frowned at the 'girl' comment but didn't answer. The bandits closed in, planning to overwhelm her by numbers. She resisted the urge to yawn. Clearly, they were a ragtag group that preyed on defenseless merchants, with no real training.

As a member of the Talen clan, she'd been trained by the best.

They struck in unison—or they tried to. Their timing was out of sync. Lymira crouched, snapping out a kick that crunched into one of the bandit's knees. The man collapsed with a howl of pain. Her sword blocked the others' strikes, and she swung her other fist into the stomach of the lead bandit.

When he lowered his guard, winded, Lymira kicked him aside. Turning, she locked swords with the remaining two. She smashed through their guards, flinging their weapons aside. Startled, the two tried to retrieve them, but Lymira stomped on the blades with her foot.

Wide-eyed, the two bandits grabbed their incapacitated friends and dragged them away into the woods. Lymira sheathed her sword.

It was a shame the bandits weren't more of a challenge. She hoped Hyrule's warriors were more skilled.

The Labrynna strait, which toured through the mountain ranges of Holodrum and Labrynna before curving eastward, then south along the Hyrulean border, was a major channel of trade between the three countries. It was also the quickest way across into Hyrule via ferry.

Lymira reached the ferry station, presenting her ticket courtesy of Queen Anvi. The attendant waved her through, and a porter took her gear to store it for the journey.

"You'll need to store your weapons as well," he said, eyeing the sharp blade sheathed on her hip.

She grimaced but handed over her weapon, watching the porter store it with her belongings in an onboard closet. Lymira found a spot near the front of the barge, where there cushioned benches beside the rail. Soon enough, the captain sounded the horn, and the barge pulled away from the shore. She relaxed on the bench, kicking her feet up, content to watch the scenery go by.

It would take a few days to reach Hyrule. The barge would travel north on the strait before hopping onto the west Hylia River, heading past Gerudo Valley and on into Hyrule, where they would disembark near Castle Town, the capital. A normal tourist would be excited for the cultural differences of visiting such a big city, but Lymira wasn't there to sightsee. She had a mission. Both Queen Anvi's and her own.

In Castle Town was Hyrule Castle. And in the castle was a library. As a guest of the Hyrulean royals, she was anticipating a tour. Inside that library was information on her quarry. Lymira smiled.

She stayed out until midday, deciding that lunch was in order. She stood, stretched and spun on her heel, taking her usual brisk pace. She crashed into another body.

"Oof!"

The man she'd run into grunted, rubbing the spot on his chest where her shoulder had slammed.

"Sorry."

He just smiled, tossing his blond hair out of his face. "Don't worry about it, I'm sure I'll survive."

He was a Hylian, with the telltale fair hair and blue eyes. She noticed the uniform he was wearing, emblazoned with the Hylian royal crest.

"You're a soldier?" she asked, seeing an opportunity to gather information.

"Yes and no," he replied cryptically, his mouth twisting. "I'm Link." He held out his hand.

"Lymira." She grabbed his forearm briefly, in customary greeting.

"You have the look of a soldier yourself," he remarked, smiling again. His mouth had a slight curve to it, as if he were permanently cheery. "Are you a Black knight?" he asked, referring to Labrynna's royal guard.

"No. And how do you know I'm from Labrynna?"

He shrugged. "Your accent. I made a guess."

"No need to tell me where you're from."

His grin widened. "You're on your way to Hyrule then?"

"Yes. I've never been," Lymira said. "I'm looking forward to seeing Castle Town."

"Castle Town is nice," Link said. "But if you want any recommendations, let me know. There are many incredible places to see."

"Well traveled, are you?"

The corner of his mouth curled up. "You could say that."

"Captain!"

One of the ferrymen ran over, expression anxious. "There's a message for you, in the ferry captain's office."

Link nodded at her. "Nice to meet you, Lymira. I hope we'll talk soon."

He walked off with the ferryman, leaving Lymira alone on the deck. Mentally, she formulated the best questions to ask for a little insight into the Hylian Royal Army. Whatever she could gather before entering the Hylian court, the better. Link seemed pretty trusting, but it wouldn't do to raise his suspicions.

As casually as possible, she strolled inside the ferry's interior cabins, passing by the captain's cabin. She couldn't hear whatever was being discussed inside, and there were too many other ferrymen around not to notice any eavesdropping.

When her stomach grumbled, reminding her she hadn't eaten today—thanks to bandit attacks—she decided food was next on her to do list.

Reconnaissance could wait for now.