Fire on the Plains
Link and Zelda passed the winter nights quietly in the monastery. When it was bitterly cold, they stayed inside the Sanctuary, huddled under blankets considerately left there by the abbot, and drinking hot soup and tea that Zelda brought from the castle kitchens. With Link's help, she learned to play (quietly) some tunes on the little flute he had given her, and she could do well enough to play simple things with him—her higher-pitched flute sounding sweet with his deeper-pitched one.
She certainly preferred Link's tutelage to Master Jehan's; Link was always quick to encourage her and praise her efforts. When he saw a problem, he showed her how to correct it, rather than just chastising her for it.
They also enjoyed playing chess—being evenly-matched in skill and intelligence—and Link taught Zelda some card and dice games that the common soldiers liked to play, but they bet tidbits of food instead of money; Link said it wasn't proper for a Princess to gamble, nor for him to take her money if she lost. He didn't seem to have the same compunctions about taking her sweets, though.
When the weather was more moderate, they wandered through the bare garden or sat under a tree in the corner of a courtyard and talked.
When the first snow of winter thickly blanketed the ground, they went outside the monastery's walls and played in the snow under the pale light of the stars. Zelda learned that she could throw a pretty mean snowball. Link wasn't quite as good, having to use his right hand, but he was better at ducking and dodging, so she really didn't end up hitting him anymore than he did her.
After the third such fight, she noticed that he always let her get in one final hit before he called the game for the evening.
The winter thus passed quietly. The two of them grew so close, Zelda couldn't imagine how she had made it through most of her life without Link. Even when they had to be apart because of his schedule or her schedule or events at the castle that made sneaking around impossible, they communicated telepathically, sharing bits of their day, making jokes—often at Master Jehan's expense—or commiserating (although Zelda noticed that Link rarely complained about anything; he was content to be her sympathetic ear).
A part of Zelda was aware of the fact that Link had feelings for her which ran deeper than friendship or duty. Sometimes he looked at her with burning eyes that dared her to deny she had feelings for him, too. She felt that just allowing him to look at her like that created an unspoken acknowledgment on her part.
But, in truth, she didn't know how she felt about Link. She certainly considered him her best friend, and she wanted him to always be that; she needed a real friend worse than she needed anything else in life. But at the same time, when he looked at her like that, she felt that old desire to kiss him. She spent many sleepless nights wondering what it would be like to kiss him.
Link's arm was healed and he had regained his strength and full range of motion in it by the time winter began to wane. One day, when it was unseasonably warm, Link and Zelda agreed to go out to "their tree" for the first time since the wolf had attacked them.
The night was cool, but not unbearably cold, by the time they hiked to the old oak tree. Zelda spread out their evening snack and they sat down together—Link with this sword across his lap and Zelda with her bow and arrows propped up against the tree next to her. Both of them kept a wary eye on the grassy plain while they ate, but nothing disturbed them.
As they relaxed against the tree's roots—neither of them wanting to test fate just yet and wander too far away from a defensible position—Zelda looked at Link.
"You know, I rather like your people's clothes, except for the hat. It is rather strange-looking."
Link chuckled. He reached up and plucked the long stocking cap from his head, shaking out his messy sandy-blond hair. Zelda tried not to stare at his ears; even though she knew he had them, she had only ever seen them once, and she found the ears of other Hylians fascinating. There was something comforting in being around someone so visibly similar to herself.
Link held the hat in his hands. "Everyone at the castle laughs at my cap, but it's really quite useful."
"Oh?" Zelda asked, leaning forward curiously.
"If you put it around you like this," Link illustrated, wrapping it around his back, just under his armpits, "and tie it," he tied a knot in the front, "then it can be used as a flotation device."
"What?" Zelda asked, not sure if she understood him.
"If you're in the water, it will keep you afloat."
"Really?" she said with surprise.
"Yes." He untied the knot and took the hat off, but he didn't put it back on his head. Instead, he ran his hand through his hair, making it even messier. "More than a few men's lives have been saved because they had their cap."
"Do the women in your village wear them, too?"
"Not usually. As soon as a child can be taught to tie a knot, boys and girls both wear them. But usually girls quit wearing them when they get older—around the time they get married. Although there are some women who fish, and they wear them—at least when they go out on the boats."
"I've never seen the ocean," Zelda said with a wistful sigh.
"Someday I'll take you," Link promised. "I'll take you out on one of my mother's boats until we're out of sight of land and there is nothing but the water below us and and the sky above. We can watch the sun set below the edge of the world and see the stars come out at night. There is nothing like an uninterrupted view of all of the stars—especially when you're alone on the ocean. It makes you feel like you're the only person in the world and everything the gods created is vast beyond imagining."
Zelda sighed again. "I'd love to see that."
He reached over and took her hand in his. "I promise I'll take you."
He was looking at her that way again. And his hand was warm around hers. He sometimes took her hand in his to help her or encourage her, but this was different. This was an affectionate touch.
Slowly, he reached up and touched her face with his other hand. She wasn't sure if he drew her closer, or if he leaned into her, but before she knew what was happening, his lips were softly brushing hers.
Her heart beat wildly and felt as if it was going to jump out of her chest. Her breath became ragged and irregular and her entire body trembled. But Link remained a quiet, steady presence as he pressed his lips more firmly to hers.
Zelda wasn't sure how much time passed before he finally, slowly, pulled away.
He rested his forehead against hers and looked into her eyes. "I have waited my entire life for that," he whispered.
Zelda didn't think she could trust herself to speak at that moment, but she knew exactly what Link meant. She had never really realized that was what she wanted from him, but now that they had kissed, it did feel like something she had been waiting forever for.
She wanted him to do it again—and was contemplating making the next move herself—when he suddenly pulled back and sniffed the air.
"Do you smell that?"
"What?" she asked, looking around in alarm and sniffing the air.
"It… smells like something burning."
The wind—which had been blowing steadily, and sometimes strongly, all evening—shifted slightly and then she smelled it too.
Link pushed himself to his feet and walked around the tree, looking for the source. Then he stopped in his tracks.
Zelda was on her feet in an instant and hurried to his side. He threw out his arm, keeping her safely behind him.
To the south, between them and the monastery, was a solid wall of flames that seemed to stretch forever in both directions across the prairie. Fanned by the wind and consuming the previous year's dead grass, it was moving their way. Rapidly.
"Run!" Link shouted.
They both turned around, taking only a second to snatch up their weapons and cloaks, then they began running on a northwest course, needing to stay ahead of the fire, but also needing to circle back around to the safety of the city.
The high grass slowed them down some—even as it fed the fire. Soon, Zelda and Link were both looking behind them as the wall of flame grew closer. It was moving twice as fast as they could run.
They needed to run faster.
Zelda transformed into a horse without conscious thought. Get on, she told Link.
He never broke his stride. He grabbed a handful of her white mane and launched himself onto her back.
She could feel the extra weight pressing down on her, but she was still faster on four feet than two, and she stretched her neck out, racing across the prairie as fast as her hooves would fly.
She was starting to become winded when Link pointed back to their left. "It's clear to the city," he shouted.
She turned and saw that the fire had not yet passed the city, so—if she hurried—they could make it to the western gate and get inside before the wall of flame moved through.
Even though her muscles were numb with fatigue, she pushed herself to keep up her speed.
Link jumped off her back as soon as they reached the gate and she immediately transformed and collapsed to the ground, exhausted and barely able to gasp enough air to keep herself conscious.
Link pulled her cloak hood up, hiding her face in the shadows, then lifted her in his arms and hurried inside the open gate with her. The fire was already so close, the smoke stung their eyes.
But just inside the gate, they were stopped by a wall of palace guards, arranged in a semi-circle across the thoroughfare. Zelda's heart still felt like it was going to pound out of her chest, but the rest of her insides felt frozen solid.
Link and Zelda both stared at the line of guards, no one moving or speaking for a long moment. Then a man in black robes slipped between two guards and stood looking at them. A slow smile broke across his face, but it was the sort of smile that made Zelda shudder. She never had liked Nagdii; there was something about him that she didn't trust.
We're in trouble, she told Link.
If you have any story to tell to get us out of this, I'm all ears, he replied.
She glanced up at him and gasped in shock.
You forgot your hat!
Zelda had never heard Link curse, much less show anything approaching the level of dismay currently on his face. She knew then that he—her rock, her anchor, her confidence in every storm—was just as lost and unsure as she was at that moment.
"Come with me," Nagdii said, gesturing to the two of them. He sounded terribly pleased with himself.
The guards parted, allowing him to walk through. Link followed quietly behind him, carrying Zelda—who was still panting heavily and trembling. The guards fell in behind them, marching them back to the castle.